Brendon McCullum’s impact on England and Test cricket as a whole in the past year can’t be overstated – but as the Ashes begins, Rishi Persad is determined to try…
I normally take a considered view on the result of the Ashes, primarily for the purpose of a punt on the outcome of the series, but not this summer. This summer I simply want England to win.
As a fan of the West Indies since birth, I have always been impartial enough when it came to assessing the relative merits of England and Australia and did so without sentiment. But this year there is something bigger at stake than making a few quid on the correct result.
A relentless monsoon of short-format cricket continues to flood the international calendar, and as a die-hard fan of Test cricket I find it both frustrating and depressing that the most enthralling form of the game is being sidelined more and more each year. Perhaps it is inevitable that Test cricket will one day be consigned to history, but while Brendon McCullum is at the helm of this England team, there is still hope.
It may be a tough burden to bear, but the responsibility for a brighter future for the longest version of the great game seemingly rests on the shoulders of McCullum, Ben Stokes and their men as they prepare for the toughest challenge they have faced since the former New Zealand captain took charge of England in May 2022.
Since then England have played 16 Tests, home and away, winning 11, losing four, with the other match drawn, and have compiled that terrific record with a brand of cricket that has been unlike anything we have seen. It is worth remembering that prior to the start of the Baz and Ben bromance, England’s previous 17 Tests had yielded just one win.
‘If anyone is able to reinvigorate Test cricket and make it popular again, then it’s England.’
‘Bazball’, as coined by Cricinfo’s Andrew Miller, has revitalised interest in Test cricket once again, with McCullum encouraging his players to ‘rediscover the joy of playing sport that they had when growing up’, and it appears that every player in the dressing room is fully invested in his philosophy.
Reading that last paragraph again, it is conceivable that I have copied and pasted the script of Ted Lasso, or perhaps from the cheesiest of cheesy Hollywood hero sports stories. Yet, the reality is McCullum’s England have repeatedly produced feats during the past year that have stunned the watching world and left us wanting more, doing it all with a carefree abandon that is inspiring to watch.
In just his second match in charge, England were up against his old team, New Zealand, at Lord’s, but Bazball gave Jonny Bairstow the freedom to bash 136 runs off 92 balls and chase down a last-day target of 299 in just 50 overs.
On the first day of the Rawalpindi Test against Pakistan, Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope and Harry Brook smashed a scarcely believable 506 for 4 in 75 overs. Against India at Edgbaston, England watched Rishabh Pant cart their bowling for 146 runs in 111 balls and conceded a 132-run first-innings lead, but produced a blistering chase of 378 in 76 overs to win against all the odds. Well, that was the old definition of against the odds, because this team have changed how those odds are now calculated.
The list of incredible feats McCullum’s men have produced have made it crystal clear that anyone playing a Test match for England now walks on to the field of play believing they can win any match from any position, no matter how desperate or unlikely it may seem. And pivotal to their success is that they take on those challenges without fear of failure.
The congruence of McCullum’s approach is that it appears to be deep within his DNA and one that he has cultivated his entire life. One of his rugby coaches at college, Darryl Paterson, told The Guardian’s Ali Martin: “He had incredible self-belief. He would take risks. Some days they came off, some days they didn’t, but that was fine.”
Fast forward to the spring of 2022 and these were the observations of England’s strategic adviser, Sir Andrew Strauss, after McCullum’s interview for the role as coach of the Test team: “He’s got such clarity of thought and approach. He used to run down the wicket to the fastest bowlers; he always took the positive option. He wasn’t afraid of failing; he isn’t scared of making mistakes.”
Ahead of the series against Pakistan late last year, McCullum told the assembled media: “We’ll certainly be pushing for results, it’s our obligation to ensure that people walk away entertained. If we get outplayed, that’s OK.”
And the man who scored New Zealand’s only triple hundred in Test cricket is acutely aware of the importance of his and England’s role in rescuing the longest version of the game from obscurity. “Test cricket is on a downward trend but Test cricket is my real love. If anyone is able to reinvigorate Test cricket and make it popular again, then it’s England. If you can be at the forefront of that by playing an attractive brand of cricket with a smile on your face and try to entertain, then Test cricket has a chance.”
Even as a proud West Indian supporter, hearing those words from McCullum and observing what England have done this past year, I can honestly say I haven’t felt more inspired by a cricketer since Brian Charles Lara pulled Chris Lewis to the boundary to break Sir Garfield Sobers’ Test record in 1994.
‘Above all else, I think England will win the Ashes because Australia cannot play like England.’
Approaching any Ashes series, there is always a great deal of speculation about the composition of the teams ahead of the summer, but it appears more of a concern for Australian supporters than it is for England’s. It doesn’t seem to matter who plays for England. Yes, there are niggles bothering 40-year-old Jimmy Anderson – plus ça change. Ollie Robinson has also been an injury worry and there have been rumblings of discontent about the returning Bairstow replacing Ben Foakes behind the stumps. To counter those issues, fast bowler Mark Wood is available again and Worcestershire’s Josh Tongue has been added to the mix.
The Aussies have injury worries of their own. One of their premier fast bowlers, Josh Hazlewood, has been plagued by a side strain for the past few years and the same niggle brought a premature end to his 2023 IPL stint.
No one underestimates how good the best players in this Australian side are. Captain Pat Cummins is a terrific leader and bowler; Steve Smith is still in the argument for the best batsman in the world; and there are one or two young stars such as all-rounder Cameron Green to enjoy. But the support cast for those Baggy Green stars possesses no fear factor. David Warner has scored just one century in his last 32 Test innings, while his opening partner Usman Khawaja has a Test average under 20 in England. And if Hazlewood does succumb to injury, there are no back-up pace bowlers that English batsmen need to worry about.
Above all else, I think England will win the Ashes because Australia cannot play like England. No other team can play like England, because no other team is lucky enough to have Brendon McCullum in charge.
Maybe I have gone over the top in my appreciation for what McCullum has done for England and for Test cricket. But he has dragged the game I love back from the brink with a refreshing simplicity of style that I would have yearned to replicate if I still played cricket today. I hope youngsters the world over will watch this Ashes series and be inspired to play cricket the way this England Test team plays, and it secures the future of the version of the sport that is most under threat.
And if all the virtues of McCullum, Stokes, Bazball and England’s Test team do not get you cheering for them, then remember that McCullum is also a huge horse racing fan. On England’s tour of New Zealand last winter, McCullum cancelled a scheduled practice match to take the team to watch his horse, Defibrillate, run and win the Group 1 Zabeel Classic at Pukekohe racecourse. The gee-gees and cricket. How can you not cheer for him?
So yes, I want England to win the Ashes, but most importantly I want Bazball to win and Test cricket to thrive. I believe in Brendon McCullum.
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