Learning to lead through sports coaching
Ben Stokes, “Bazball” and focusing on the right problems

Ben Stokes, “Bazball” and focusing on the right problems

Ben Stokes was widely criticised after England’s first Ashes test defeat at Edgbaston for his early first-innings declaration. But those gifted with 20-20 hindsight are missing a wider point. Strategic decisions – in cricket, other sports and life in general – are made to solve problems. And they should only be judged in relation to their success at solving them.

What is Bazball?

“Bazball” is a catch-all term for a cricketing strategy favoured by England captain Stokes and head coach Brendan McCullum. Its most distinctive feature is a desire to score runs quickly. England batsmen back themselves to get runs on the board. They also back their colleagues to get runs if they don’t. This approach can see England score runs at 5 an over. The usual Test cricket run rate is more like 3.

A Yorkshire County Cricket Club slip cordon fielding in a 2nd XI match at York

But there is a logic behind this style of cricket. It is not just risky attacking for risky attacking’s sake. To win Test matches you must bowl the opposition out twice. Racking up runs quickly gives your bowlers more time to take the required number of wickets.

There is therefore a logical corollary to England’s batting approach. It is an unorthodox one, however, viewed through the received wisdom about how the game should be played.

England want their bowlers to have as much time as possible to attack the opposition batsmen.

Giving the bowlers a cushion

Stuart Broad has said England would rather bowl a team out in 85 overs at 3.3 an over rather than in 120 overs at 2.5. He’s being slightly disingenuous. The speeds that England score at do not require the opposition to be bowled out quickly – quite the opposite.

Young cricketer going out to bat

England surely bat to get runs on the board as fast as possible to give the bowlers a cushion exactly so they don’t need to bowl them out quickly. Otherwise, every England Test match would finish within three days.

(England seem frequently to win Tests with a day or two to spare. But the point is that under Stokes and McCullum they have extra time in the bank to bowl the opposition out if needed.)

Early declarations a solution

Viewed in this light, Stokes’ early declaration makes sense. Extra runs on the scoreboard matter little in Test cricket if you can’t take 20 wickets.

Junior cricket bats leant against a tree

As it was, England took only 18 wickets and did have a little time left on day 5 to have picked up the final two – had they just had a few extra runs to keep the Australians batting longer. But here we’re into hindsight judgements again. We’ll never know exactly how many extra runs England would have needed. 5? 25? 100?

The point remains that an early declaration gave England time to bowl Australia out twice. It solved that problem. That Australia stopped them doing so was then dependent on a range of other factors as well as the declaration’s timing.

What are the problems you need to solve?

Reflecting on this need for strategy and tactics to solve specific problems reminded me of a situation my Under 13 cricket team had last season.

Batting with three overs to go in a Cup semi-final, perhaps 4 or 5 wickets down, my team needed around 6 runs to win. It seemed a foregone conclusion.

The guys had two good performers at the crease. One a technically fluent all-rounder with a penchant for flowing cover drives. Anything wide of off stump was going for runs.

The other was more of a slogger but a big lad with quick feet and good hand-eye coordination. Anything in his arc was going for runs or for a catch. No problem, the team had wickets in hand and balls to spare.

The problem was that the bowlers they were up against. At one end, a county age-group quick who pinned my cover-driver in his crease, bowling everything on his middle stump. 

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Meanwhile, at the other end was a less accurate and slower bowler who was offering plenty of width – but to the batter who wanted stuff he could whack through midwicket.

There is a variety of solutions to these problems; I won’t go through them here. The point is that my batsmen couldn’t find those solutions. And that is my fault as their cricket coach, not theirs.

As coaches, parents, managers and leaders, we need to develop people able to solve those problems. We need to develop creative problem solvers. Developing technically correct players won’t always be enough.

So we should applaud Ben Stokes for thinking of ways to break down the problems he perceived his side to be facing. And we should encourage our players to think like that, too.

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