July 8th, 2022: The English cricket team under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes with their new-found term, Bazball, has changed the very essence of the game, ‘Test Cricket’. One was relatively sceptical as to whether such an aggressive and positive outlook could sustain enough to be successful on a consistent basis in Test cricket. Well, England have proved it through four wins on the trot and hence any apprehensions one may have had, must be put to rest.
A cricketer’s attitude has changed drastically over time. There seems to be an air of self-belief and confidence in their approach that makes them take risks and not worry about the past.
It takes one back to the famous fairy-tale which was later made into a movie called, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, where there was the famous mad-hatter’s tea party. The words of the mad hatter asking Alice, “Have I gone mad” and Alice’s reply, is so appropriate to the innings recently played by Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja and even Jasprit Bumrah. She said, “I’m afraid so. You are entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
Cricket has always had such characters. India’s Virender Sehwag, Kris Srikkanth, Kapil Dev, Ramnath Parkar, Sandeep Patil and domestic batters such as Jaswant Bakrania, Vijay Telang, Kiran Asher and many others have played these uncharacteristic innings, which were at that time looked upon as, “this is not cricket”. Each one of them was exciting to watch. However, the experts and viewers looked at their performances as a one-off wonder.
The British were the thought leaders where cricket opinion was concerned and they had established the fact that for a batter to be successful in cricket, one required technique, good ground strokes and an umpteen amount of patience.
The flamboyant types were not graded highly. Bowlers too had to adhere to certain norms and that was to bowl on a good length and line consistently in order to reap the maximum benefits from it. The bowlers changed, as the same good-length deliveries that one had appreciated, were now being hit straight back over their head. Similar to the batters, the bowlers also needed to have the mad-hatter’s approach to bowling. This has compelled them to bring in a variety and variation to it.
A good example of a modern-day duel in cricket was visible in the recent Test match in Birmingham between India’s No. 10 batsman Jasprit Bumrah, and England’s old and trusted pace bowler, Stuart Broad. The former was adamant to hit every delivery that he faced into the stand, whereas the obstinate bowler was determined to bowl short deliveries even though he was being hit. Both, to those watching, seemed to have gone bonkers.
Bumrah, came out victorious by achieving a record of making the most number of runs in an over in Test cricket. A bowler, with 550 wickets under his belt, was made to look like a fool by a batsman, who pats himself on his back, every time he gets his bat to the ball.
This is now the new-found approach to batting and the attitude towards bowling. The only wonderful fallout from such an aggressive play is that it has brought spectators and viewers to follow Test cricket once again. Encounters such as these have become the drama that the new sports viewers seem to love. How else can one explain the cheers that the unsporting behaviour of Nick Kyrgios got while playing Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Wimbledon singles match recently. One is equally amused to see a Virat Kohli making a song and a dance every time a wicket falls, in which he has played no hand.
This brings one to the recent defeat that India faced against England in the Birmingham Test. I did write that India’s major concern was to have Jasprit Bumrah as captain. This is where selecting an appropriate vice-captain is so important. Bumrah has never-ever led a side before and for him to do so at the highest level is asking a lot out of him. Similarly, one does not feel that either Rishabh Pant or Hardik Pandya is ready to lead India in Test cricket. The T20 format does not require a great amount of thinking from a captain. The field and bowling restrictions have made it impossible for one to study and plan a batter’s demise in the shorter format of the game.
Test cricket, on the other hand, requires a captain to outsmart and outthink his opponent. Bumrah went through the motions of captaincy, which was quite understandable for one who has not been put into that spot before. Ben Stokes too made many errors in his captaincy. However, the English batters in the fourth innings diffused his mistakes by batting well.
One cannot understand as to how India could go into a Test match without their best spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin. The Edgbaston wicket is known to get dry, and a good spinner is important in the latter part of the match. India missed Ashwin as they needed a bowler who could extract turn through flighting the ball. India missed a trick by not including Ashwin, as chasing a target of 378 runs with such ease would have been difficult with him around.
The limited-overs version of the game and especially the T20 should be complimented on the way a cricketer is now adapting to play aggressively. Cricket began with batters playing shots only in front of the wicket. Ranjitsinhji brought in the very first change by inventing the leg glance. This was followed by the late cut on the off side. Modern cricket has brought in the reverse sweep and strokes being played 360 degrees across the ground. One wonders what maddening stroke-play will come into effect next.
Cricket too has become a mad-hatter’s party.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)