During India’s tour of Australia in 2018-19, when Cheteshwar Pujara had faced 1,258 balls for his 521 runs in four Tests to become the cornerstone of India’s first-ever series win Down Under, he made even a new-age cricketer like Shubman Gill fall in love with obdurate batting.
Rishabh Pant, who is already quite successful in Test cricket, offers the other extreme, through the irreverence of youth that at times makes him audacious enough to reverse-lap even James Anderson. Test cricket has always revelled in the juxtaposition of obduracy and flair. But maybe, in its next phase of evolution, Bazball-induced, a new template is appearing.
Eoin Morgan’s England gave world cricket a new template in white-ball cricket, as relentless aggression replaced the old order – keeping wickets in hand before upping the ante in the slog overs. If Brendon McCullum’s first three Tests as England’s red-ball coach offer a glimpse into the future, the days of obdurate Test batsmen could be over.
‘Baz’ McCullum was asked about this, as he interacted with reporters after England’s 3-0 clean-sweep of New Zealand. “I haven’t really thought too much about that. I just look at the players we have got and I think they fit the bill for what we are trying to achieve and the style we want to play. It’s probably not what we are after. I’m happy with what we have got at the moment anyway,” McCullum said.
Here are some hard numbers… Over the three Tests, England scored at 4.5 runs per over. In the final Test at Leeds, New Zealand scored 655 runs in 222.5 overs over both innings, which was 2.94 runs per over and perfectly acceptable in the longest format. The hosts, who won the game by seven wickets, responded with 656 runs in 121.2 overs and a run rate of 5.41 – borderline insane by conventional standards. Not a single frontline batsman who played all three Tests had a sub-50 strike rate. Joe Root scored 396 runs at a strike rate of 74.15. Jonny Bairstow hammered 394 runs at a staggering strike rate of 120.12.
“If I was a young player around county cricket and I saw what our No. 5 for England (Bairstow) is currently doing and the role and how he is encouraged to play that way, then I would probably look at trying to play like that myself to ensure that I would get noticed as well, in case something was to happen to that person,” McCullum said.
A team philosophy has been set under him and captain Ben Stokes, and players with the right profile will be part of the project. But is there a limit to aggression? How much is too much? McCullum has urged his troops to push the envelope. “I hope we take it too far because then we will know exactly where that line is. Until you do that, you aren’t really sure. We have seen it with the England white-ball stuff; there have been times where they have probably pushed too hard, and then they know. I think it will be the same with us, and we have got to keep exploring what that line is.”
There would be ups and downs going ahead, but as McCullum said, it would be imperative to stay strong in the team’s belief. That is what Morgan’s white-ball side did as well. As former England captain Nasser Hussain wrote in his Daily Mail column, Morgan didn’t change the approach even after being bowled out in 45 overs in an ODI against New Zealand at the Ageas Bowl, even as pundits like Michael Holding and Ian Smith observed that not batting out your overs was a “cardinal sin”.
“But Morgan was adamant that he wanted his guys to go out and bat the same way in the next game. The message that sent not just to his dressing room, but to the prospective England players in county cricket, was crucial. Keep going. Don’t doubt yourself. It was infectious,” Hussain wrote.
Coming back to the Test side, England’s 3-0 series win against the Kiwis wasn’t solely down to their batting aggression. Bowlers bowled to take wickets in the face of big partnerships as well, as Stokes refused to go on the defensive. The first session on the fourth day of the third Test was a case in point. Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell remained unseparated in the morning session, but England kept attacking. Once the partnership was broken, the hosts ran through the Kiwi lower order.
“Even yesterday (fourth day) when there was a partnership establishing between Mitchell and Blundell, maybe in the past at times there might have been a slight unease about the total that was building up. But we kept attacking, the fields were very attacking right throughout, the bowlers kept trying to bowl towards modes of dismissal and to me that’s just part and parcel with how this team wants to play,” McCullum said.
India are expected to ask tougher questions at Edgbaston. To start with, they have a more well-rounded bowling attack. But England will stick to their aggression. “Trust me when I say this. We will be coming out with exactly the same (aggressive) mindset, even though it’s a different opposition,” Stokes said at the post-match presentation on Monday.