“ Well, it was pretty fun doing it”.
This was Joe Root’s on-the-spot description of England’s remarkable pursuit of a target of 378 in the fifth Test against India at Edgbaston. They got there before lunch on the fifth day, winning by seven wickets having started the day on 259 for three. The overall run rate for the innings was an astonishing 4.93 per over.
One should put this in context just to show how England’s new red-ball management of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have changed things.
As everyone knows, before the regime change at the start of the summer, England had won one of their last 17 Tests. Now they had won four in a row. There were a number of common factors to each of these victories. Each involved chasing a target of at least 275, historically always a challenging task, although of course each game has its own peculiar circumstances. There were stages in each game when England seemed in almost perilous danger of losing. Each game was ultimately won with relative, what you might call scoreboard, ease, the first two by five wickets and the last two by seven. And the run rates were extraordinary.
The first game, the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, was the most challenging precisely because it came after such a lengthy unsuccessful run, ending in a profoundly negative and dispiriting series in the Caribbean. And when Stokes was apparently dismissed by Colin de Grandhomme with the score 54 for four, few people outside the home dressing room could have fancied England’s chances of winning. That they did so was due very largely to a magnificent Innings by Root, who made 115 not out off 17 balls. Right from the start the game had moved quickly – seventeen wickets fell on the first day. England won by five wickets on the afternoon of the fourth day scoring 279 for five at a more than respectable rate of 3.53.
It was at Trent Bridge in the second Test that England really let rip. The game was very different to Lord’s in that conditions were much more friendly for batting: each side made over 500 in the first innings. It was similar in that the two first innings were not far apart, which gave added significance to the third innings. This time England were set 299 and again they got there by five wickets. After three failures in the series Jonny Bairstow made a blistering 136 off 92 balls. The run rate was a historically sensational 5.98.
The third Test at Headingley was in some ways the most extraordinary of all. Again there was more or less first innings parity, but only after a remarkable seventh wicket partnership of 241 between the unstoppable Bairstow (162) and debutant Jamie Overton. This time England were set 296 and won by seven wickets. Root, again the mastermind, finished on 86 not out, while Bairstow made 71 not out off 44 balls. The overall run rate was 5.44.
Although New Zealand are the reigning World Test champions, there was a general feeling that they were below par. The batters certainly under performed apart from the exceptional Daryl Mitchell and his trusty sidekick Tom Blundell. When Kyle Jamieson was injured even their highly regarded bowling attack seemed a little underwhelming, and they usually seemed to pick the wrong side. India, back in England to complete the 2021 series rudely interrupted by their abandonment of the Manchester Test, were felt likely to provide a sterner challenge.
This did indeed seem to be the case when they made, batting first of course, 416 in their first innings at Edgbaston, with brilliant hundreds from Risharbh Pant and Ravi Jadeja. Jasprit Bumrah wrapped things up with a record 35 off an extended Stuart Broad over. It looked as if Bazball was catching on, although of course Pant’s unique style pre-dates that. England made a shaky start. Bairstow, coming in at 44 for three, and played what is probably his best innings of the summer (so far) making 106 off 140 balls. Nevertheless, India had a significant lead of 132 and at the end of the third day were effectively 257 for three.
Once again the third innings ultimately proved troubling for the batters. It has been a striking feature of this English summer that the home side’s bowlers took twenty wickets in each match, which their opponents obviously failed to do. Stokes bowled a fine spell on the fourth day to finish with four wickets.
Even for this new-look England a target of 378 looked a bit of a stretch. That was clearly not the view inside the camp, however. Stokes, apparently, was calculating how many an over they would need to go at to win the game on the fourth day – in fact they reached the target before lunch on the fifth.
The crucial development here was the start given by the openers, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley. Lees’ aggressive approach was a revelation, while Crawley, for the first time this summer, applied some common sense to his batting while still playing the odd glorious shot. They added over a hundred in no time at all. Then there was a stumble, with three wickets falling for two runs around tea. But Root and Bairstow were still there. And in the English summer of 2022, the words “Root and Bairstow are still there” mean, bowlers and captains, you are going to struggle.
In the end the seven wicket victory was almost absurdly easy. Both men, inevitably, made centuries. The overall run rate was a mind-boggling 4.93.
I said earlier that this all needs to be put in context. Maybe Bazball really is, if not rewriting the rules, at least forcing people to adjust expectations.
In the 140-plus year-old history of Test cricket there have been 57 instances of a fourth innings total of 350 or more. Of those 57, 13 have been successful run chases. England’s 378 for three is ninth in the list of successful run chases (32nd in the overall list) and their highest successful chase overtaking their 362 for nine in the Stokes miracle match against Australia at Headingley in 2019.
The striking thing though is the run rate. England’s 4.93 is the highest run rate of all the 57 instances. Indeed, there are only two other cases of a run rate of over four, both in a losing cause.
The first occurred in an extraordinary game at Christchurch in 2001-02, when New Zealand, chasing a notional 550 in the first Test against England, made 451, the second highest score ever made in the fourth innings of a Test. Nathan Astle, going in at 119 for three, made 222, with eleven sixes and 28 fours, moving from 101 to 200 in 39 deliveries. England’s attack wasn’t too shabby either: Andrew Caddick, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles. And, of course, England won. The innings run rate was 4.82.
The second instance was of a different order. It occurred in the fourth Test between Australia and West Indies at Sydney in 1968-69. West Indies made 352 at a run rate of 4.1, but their “target” was 735.
The successful run chase with the next highest run rate after England’s at Edgbaston came in a truly memorable match, India’s victory over England in the first Test at Chennai in 2008-09. The tour had been interrupted when Kevin Pietersen’s team flew home after the Mumbai terror attacks. They flew back, of course, and in their second innings of that first Test India scored 387 for four at a run rate of 3.92 to win the match by six wickets. Sachin Tendulkar made a masterly not out century – his first Test hundred in a successful run-chase, but arguably the real match winner was opener Virender Sehwag, who set the stage with a pulverising 83 off 68 balls.
If you were looking for the reverse of Bazball you need look no further than the highest score ever made in the fourth innings of a Test, England’s 645 for six in the fifth Test against South Africa at Durban in 1938-39. This was the so-called timeless Test, which came to an enforced halt after ten days’ play (there were two rest days) because the England team had to go home.
To a modern observer the curious thing is that the target was “only” 696. This suggests that had England got a bit of a move on in that second innings they might have won quite easily in the ultimately allotted time. But that was not the way. In fairness to England they suffered a first innings deficit of over 200 and may have been content with a draw. (They won the series one-nil.) Ronald Mason, in his biography of Walter Hammond, England’s captain, described the match as “intolerable”.
England’s run rate in that massive fourth innings was 2.24. In all the 57 instances of a side scoring 350 or more in the fourth innings of a Test there is only one case of a lower run rate. Oddly enough this was also an England innings in a match against South Africa, this time the second Test In Johannesburg in 1995-96. This was the game where England captain Mike Atherton batted for 643 minutes to score 185 not out and earn a draw. England finished on 351 for five, still 128 behind. The run rate was 2.12.
The timeless Test is not an example of the reverse of Bazball just because of the slow run rate. Like everything else that is critical in elite sport, it’s all in the mind. McCullum and Stokes have both made this very clear. Apparently McCullum’s instructions at Headingley were that he really didn’t care if England lost the match – as long as they did everything in their power to try to win it. It is difficult to imagine telling Len Hutton and Bill Edrich at Johannesburg “Go out and give it a thrash. Who cares if we lose, we’ve got more important things to worry about” – though the latter point was certainly true: Hitler annexed Prague the day after the Test ended.
Although there has been something especially brutal and precise about Bairstow’s batting this year, there have obviously always been batsmen literally capable of tearing an attack apart: Astle and Sehwag are just two examples. Bairstow’s 77-ball century at Trent Bridge was not the fastest by an England player. That accolade still belongs to Gilbert Jessop who made a hundred off 76 balls against Australia at The Oval in 1902. And in this England side it’s not just Bairstow and Stokes. Everybody is up for it, from Lees to Overton, down to the “nighthawk” Broad. And we – the spectators, as well as the team, the management, the sponsors – are so lucky that Root and Bairstow are in such rare form at precisely the same time. They run between the wickets together superlatively and it is impossible to keep them quiet. Because they have such different styles it is like having to deal with a left hander and a right hander.
So it is not really the batting that has changed over the years, though obviously for a variety of reasons batters have gained some advantages over bowlers – though openers playing in “typical” English conditions would not necessarily agree with this. There is one thing that really has changed over the years, and this is clear both from scorecards and even more so from actual attendance. That is the bowlers’ over rate.
Again there are all sorts of reasons for this. Quite often nothing seems to be happening at all, for minutes on end (of course some people would say that is the whole point about cricket). Despite all their triumphs this summer, England have had World Test Championship points deducted for a slow over rate.
Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles were the first to break the 400 barrier in the fourth innings of a Test, chasing down 404 for the loss of three wickets in the fourth Test at Headingley. To say that Bradman himself liked Headingley is a bit like saying Henry VIII liked getting married: The Don had already made two triple centuries there, and now he made 187 not out.
England were still batting on the fifth morning so Australia made those runs in less than a full day’s play. The run rate was 3.53: exactly the same as England’s in Root’s great chase at Lord’s. The difference was that England’s bowlers in 1948 bowled 114.3 overs. Nothing like that will ever happen again.
Times are very different of course. Health and Safety would doubtless get involved if something similar happened today. But there is a point to be made here. Stokes has emphasised the point that cricketers are entertainers, which is great (I am sure Richie Benaud said something similar in the 1960s). And quality, of course is more important than quantity (try telling that to a modern cricket administrator.) But there are limits. A ticket to the opening day of the Lord ‘s Test against South Africa in August will set you back between 90 and 180 pounds. Paying spectators are entitled to a full day’s play.
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