Will ‘Bazball’ bubble burst for good in Manchester?

“Not much will change. It’s about committing to how we want to go about things, and having full trust in it.” – Joe Root bats for ‘Bazball’.

Telford Vice / Manchester

YOU can take the New Zealander out of New Zealand, but good luck getting New Zealand out of the New Zealander. So there was no surprise that Brendon McCullum, as he strode to the middle at Old Trafford on Tuesday to have a look at the pitch under preparation for Thursday’s second Test, wore head-to-toe black.

McCullum spent 14 years playing for New Zealand. Or, as he might say, the Black Caps. There are more where they came from, including the All Blacks — New Zealand’s iconic rugby union team — and the Tall Blacks, their less successful basketball team.

Moreover, the streets of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin are strewn with more than enough black-clad ordinary citizens to make the unknowing wonder whether the country is in a permanent state of mourning. You can have any kind of Kiwi you want as long, it can seem, as they’re wearing black.

England’s coach stuck out against the grey of a drizzly day as he walked purposefully — strutted, some would say — towards the uncovered pitch. He did not look like a man whose team had been thrashed inside two days of actual playing time at Lord’s last week trying to deliver a brand of cricket he had masterminded. A brand that he has since not only defended but urged his charges to play with even more conviction. Far from telling his players to ease off the gas, he appears bent on filling the team bus with jet fuel. 

“Over the next while you’ll probably get used to my optimism as well,” McCullum told reporters on Friday after the visitors had clinched their crushing victory. “I don’t tend to overreact about anything.” Not even, apparently, South Africa taking all 20 of his team’s wickets in 82.4 overs to win by an innings and 12 runs. “I guess one of the messages we will talk about is, ‘Did we go hard enough with our approach? Could we maybe go a little harder and try turn some pressure back on the opposition as well?’”

Maybe it helps that McCullum isn’t English, and thus is not weighed down by misplaced notions of national pride: his team lost a cricket match, not an election or a war. Besides, England have proved — in four successful home Tests against India and New Zealand this summer — that his way is often the right way. The man in black is just doing his job. Nothing less, nothing more.

Joe Root is as English as it gets and a Yorkshireman to boot, although a long way removed from the “no fours before lunch” variety. Maybe that’s why he sighed before he gave his first answer at a press conference on Tuesday: “Even though the result didn’t go how we wanted it to and we didn’t play as well as we could do, it doesn’t change anything. That’s been made very clear to the group. If anything, it’s an opportunity for us to come out and play with more intent; more in the way that we have done at the start of the year. It’s another opportunity to get back to how well we were playing in those first four Test matches.

“I try and look at things for what they are. You’re going to make mistakes on occasion; you’re going to play a bad shot. Things aren’t always going to go in your favour. You go into the game trusting all the work that you’ve done leading up to it. Not much will change. More than anything it’s about committing to how we want to go about things, and having full trust and belief in it.”

The South Africans burst the ‘Bazball’ bubble partly by refusing to acknowledge its existence. They didn’t bowl as if they were combatting their opponents’ gameplan. They bowled as if their less radical, more disciplined gameplan was better than their opponents’. They didn’t react. They acted. And they were proved correct. Right now, the English have the wriggle room to argue that what happened at Lord’s was an aberration; nothing but a speedbump in the fast lane of the superhighway to the future of Test cricket. But, should something similar unfold at Old Trafford, the speedbump will be recast as a red light.

South Africa’s attack, a contrasting cauldron of toil and trouble spitting with the fire of Kagiso Rabada’s sheer quality, Lungi Ngidi’s discipline, Marco Jansen’s left-arm lashing from on high, Anrich Nortjé’s blistering pace, and Keshav Maharaj’s competitive spirit are well-placed to turn that red light to its brightest setting.

But fine players like Root, only the second Englishman after Alastair Cook to score 10,000 Test runs, don’t see things like that: “It’s one of the fun bits about Test cricket as a batter — figuring out how you want to score your runs, and then being good enough to execute. It’s a very good, very well-balanced attack. That makes it even more enjoyable when you have success [against them].”

His faith in England’s approach is, at this stage, firm: “One of the great things about playing the way that we do is that there are occasions where teams stop trying to get you out and start trying to create pressure and squeeze the game. When you feel that shift in pressure out there, it makes life a lot easier. That’s almost what you’re searching for all the time — can you get to that period and can you recognise the right moments when you can start to get on top and force the game. For four games we did that brilliantly well.”

But not at Lord’s, where England were not only, as Ben Stokes admitted, “outplayed”, but also outthought. That was clear in the first session of what became the last day’s play when Dean Elgar deployed Maharaj as early as the eighth over of England’s second innings, with openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley still at the wicket. Maharaj, who did not bowl in the first innings, trapped a sweeping Crawley in front with his third delivery and ended the session five overs later by removing Ollie Pope, also lbw. It was a magical moment of unconventional confidence.

“[Jack Leach] turned it with the old ball, so we thought with the newer, harder ball it might bounce a little more,” Maharaj told a press conference on Tuesday. “Full credit to Dean for implementing the plan. He did have a chat to me in the changeroom — ‘Just be ready, the opportunity might come to bowl with the newer ball.’ It paid dividends.”

There was more evidence of South Africa’s uncluttered thinking in Jansen’s explanation of his sniping inswinger that dismissed Root for eight in the first innings — the only one of his 32 wickets he has taken leg-before. “I didn’t expect the ball to swing that much, but the plan was to try stick around that fourth stump and off-stump area,” Jansen told reporters on Tuesday. “If it nips back it brings all modes of dismissal into play, and if it goes straight you could nick him off. I wouldn’t say the plan was to go for an lbw, but it just worked out like that because of the general idea of sticking to the off-stump line.”

The English on the players’ balcony and in the stands were visibly and audibly deflated whenever they lost big players like Root cheaply, which was often — Pope’s 73 in the first innings was their only score in the match of more than 35. The South Africans, by contrast, batted not flashily but grittily and deep. Their top three partnerships contributed less than half their runs, and Jansen and Maharaj put on 75 for the seventh wicket. For that their supporters can thank, among others, Mark Boucher.

“When ‘Bouch’ took over he wanted to really work on our middle to lower order to contribute runs,” Maharaj said. “We know how vital those 50, 60 runs can be from numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. In the nets our bowlers spend a lot of time facing the other bowlers and getting throw-downs. The guys are putting in the hours and the effort.

“A lot of it is due to the hard work that ‘Bouch’ has done, as well as ‘Sammo’ [batting consultant Justin Sammons], who has been exceptional for our batting unit as whole but also in encouraging our lower order to make sure we top up on our skill and make sure we take care of the nitty gritty aspects.”

Boucher spoke before the first Test of the awe he saw among the younger players in South Africa’s squad simply because they were at the most storied ground in all the game: “There are memories to be created at this venue, and they would like to be part of creating them.”

That they did, in the happiest way. It helped, perhaps, that Elgar, Rabada and Maharaj are the only members of the 16 who had played Tests in England before this series. “There’s not many of us who have played a Test at Old Trafford, which is a good thing — to have that youth and energy, and people coming with a clean state,” Maharaj said. “It was a similar situation at Lord’s. We had the youngsters motivating us because they were not carrying any baggage.”

Youngsters like Jansen, just 22, who played only his sixth Test at Lord’s. “I saw ‘KG’ [Kagiso Rabada] running in and I am thinking, ‘I’ve seen this guy bowl on TV. Now I’m standing in the slips. And if the batter nicks it I have to catch that ball!’ It’s a different perspective.

“That motivates me not to let the team down. When I give my best, it lifts them up as well. We put in the hard yards and we don’t take anything for granted because we know, when we do that, mother cricket is going to kick you up the backside.”

Along with his team, Jansen is also playing for his parents, Koos and Erna, and brother, Duan, also a left-arm fast bowler, who has 14 first-class caps for North West. Asked about his father’s influence on his career, Jansen smiled broadly and said: “There have been times when my dad was very tough on us. There was no sugarcoating. He spoke to us, back then, the same way he speaks to us now. Nothing has changed. That enabled us to grow and mature quicker than other kids. Whenever I think about that, I just smile, because my dad played a big part in our careers. He has been the tough guy, and whenever we needed a bit of love, a bit of softness, he was there.”

All of which has made South Africa a better team than they were when they toured England in 2017, and lost the Test series 2-1. “We’re more sound as a unit,” Maharaj said when asked to compare the two ventures. “We know what to do and how to go about our business a lot better. There’s more clarity and role definition within the team. That’s been Dean’s mantra. He’s a driven and straightforward character, and that’s what the guys needed.”

No man in black required.

First published by Cricbuzz.

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Will ‘Bazball’ bubble burst for good in Manchester?