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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Malik Ouzia

‘Bazball’ brilliance lifts England’s Ashes hopes after remarkable transformation complete

Less than a year ago, Joe Root stood on the edge of an Australian outfield, that all-too familiar look of exhaustion on the face of an England captain Down Under, and insisted that the beaten players in his squad who had just been hammered to the brink of another Ashes whitewash were the best this country could muster.

It was a troubling assessment for all sorts of reasons: chiefly, the fact that he was probably right.

Fast-forward to Christmas 2022 and the case has been proven, except with cause for celebration more than alarm; largely the same crop of players having produced the most remarkable transformation, not merely of their results but of their brand of Test cricket, too.

Beginning against New Zealand and India, in those days of heatwave summer, Jonny Bairstow brilliance and run-chasing paradigm shift, rolling right on through South Africa and into an historic whitewash in Pakistan, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have won nine of their first 10 Tests in charge.

Ollie Pope, elevated to No3 in an early flagship move by the new leadership, has come good on his promise as the much-maligned county structure's best product in years. Harry Brook (who might already have nabbed that mantle) and Bairstow have been ships in the night but are now surely both undroppable. Ben Foakes, who has done little wrong and plenty right, may be the unlucky something that has to give.

Brendon McCullum has won nine of his first 10 Tests in charge of the England team (PA)

In the bowling ranks, simplicity in selection and funk in the field have been the key. James Anderson remains England's best bowler, so he plays. Jack Leach is still England's best spinner, so he does, too.

But the long, flat afternoons of containment and spread fields have all-but disappeared, and with Stokes as conductor-in-chief, an attack not long ago derided as a one-trick, one-paced cavalcade of right-arm medium pacers has found a way to take 20 wickets in all but one of the matches they have played this year, including on the most flavourless of decks in Rawalpindi.

For all the brash and bat of 'Bazball', it is that endless aggression and invention with the ball that offers most reason for optimism, with a view to dismissing Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne 10 times apiece next summer.

For the Ashes will, of course, be the cliched acid test, in the eyes of many (probably, wrongly) the whole point of this free-wheeling venture.

England play just one more home Test, a four-dayer against Ireland, before the first ball of a series now as eagerly anticipated as it was dreaded only months ago is due to be bowled at Edgbaston on June 16.

For all the brash and bat of ‘Bazball’, it is that endless aggression and invention with the ball that offers most reason for optimism

The question of England's opening batters may not quite yet be definitively resolved, nor the middle-order and wicketkeeping question, though that is a luxury. The possible returns of Jofra Archer, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes could turn seam ranks that have run perilously close to depletion at times this year the same way.

Save the unlikely scenario of playing tandem spinners at home, Rehan Ahmed may have to bide his time in red-ball cricket despite a five-for on debut, but a tour to India is little more than a year away, and should Australia target Leach as they have in the past, it would be on-brand for this England to throw the fearless teenager in.

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