Sport

Test of Brendon McCullum’s coaching mettle starts now with shaky England

Bazbackability! What is it? And does this current England Test team have any? The answers to these questions are of course: 1) It’s not anything at all, just a made-up word; and 2) No, they don’t, because, again, it’s just a meaningless made-up word. But the fact remains, even buzzwords exist for a reason. Perhaps defeat by South Africa in the first Test might be even quite useful in helping to clarify a few things.

None of the assembled media were foolish enough to ask England’s head coach about the B-word during his debrief at Lords. Brendon McCullum has been scornful of the Bazball stuff from the start, rightly so given it was only ever intended as a throwaway jape, invented off the cuff by ESPNcricinfo’s Andrew Miller.

In reality teams are complex, precarious things; a matter of details, luck, insight, planning. Frankly, there is enough in the way of actual problem-solving in McCullum’s in-tray after a devastating England Test defeat: bowled out in 82.4 overs, behind in every session, one half century in two innings and folding at the end like a budget flatpack wardrobe hurled over the rails of a seventh-floor fire escape.

And yet this is where the Baz-stuff actually touches on something interesting. Why did the term arise? Because journalism abhors a vacuum and for all the wonderful fourth-innings batting in June nobody knows much about the hard details of what McCullum actually hopes to do with this England Test team.

Feelings, principles, general intentions. We know this stuff. There will be a vibe on a balcony. There will be no fear, and indeed no socks. Great guys shall be great unto other great guys. But Bazball became popular because of a lack of specifics, a vague word for a vague approach. It isn’t unrealistic to expect more of a picture to emerge before the end of the current series, starting in Manchester this week.

This is not an attempt to chop McCullum down from his current status as motivational unicorn god, or to blame him, absurdly, for all those deeper structural problems. England looked a familiarly underpowered team at Lord’s: brittle top order, long tail, samey bowling attack. This has little to do with the new head coach. But he is being handsomely paid to work on the fine details, the match-readiness; to have, at least, some kind of plan. Perhaps we will soon find out what it is.

Whatever the wider chat, McCullum’s brief comes in two parts this summer. First to make the players he has better. And second to identify other players who might improve the team. The first of these tasks has seen some spectacular early success among players who are already very good at Test cricket. It makes a lot of sense that the idea of freeing up the mind, going hard and all the rest should have its most profound effect on experienced players whose greatest weakness is needing a bit of a jolly-up.

England's Zak Crawley is bowled out by South Africa at Lord's
England’s Zak Crawley may require technical help to improve after his struggles against South Africa at Lord’s. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Action Images/Reuters

Intentionally or not, McCullum embodies the modern school of player-led coaching, the idea that the gold is essentially inside, and the journey to find it can be one of shared discovery. Perhaps the statements McCullum makes in public have a clearer meaning at that level of achievement.

“One message will be ‘can we go a little harder?’” he said in reply to a question about changes for Old Trafford. “Did we go hard enough with our approach? Could we maybe go a little harder and try to turn some pressure back on the opposition as well?” To a hammer everything looks like a nail: of course McCullum wants to go harder. But what does this mean to a player who averages 26 with the bat and whose technique is failing. OK, I’ll go harder. But how do I go harder?

Is going hard swinging harder? Is going harder batting for a session and making the ball go soft? Ben Stokes has batted like a man standing on a mound of fire ants all summer. Does he need to go harder? Perhaps he could do this by refusing to throw his wicket away, because that is generally a bit of a downer for the opposition? Stokes is good enough to find his own balance. The real issue is whether McCullum can improve players who have yet to make that step, because this is where his impact is most required. Does he have an actual method for improving Zak Crawley’s batting? If so, he’s keeping it close to his chest right now.

“I look at a guy like Zak and his skillset is not to be a consistent cricketer,” McCullum said at Lord’s. “He has a game which means, when he gets going, he can win matches for England.” Woah. Put aside the David Brent-as-third-XI-club-cricketer aspect (and to be fair “his skillset is not to be consistent” will draw many nods of recognition). There is almost no actual evidence that Crawley is currently equipped to pluck winning performances out of the air.

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That brilliant double century against a fine Pakistan attack sits alongside 24 single-figure scores in 48 innings, and little evidence in county cricket of going out and winning games for Kent. This view of him is pure feelings, voodoo, know-the-game stuff, based on the purity of his basic talent and some (no doubt great) conversations.

A more persuasive argument is that Crawley keeps getting out the same way and needs someone to help him with that. Even in a time of feelings, it is surely possible to acknowledge the need for hard technical help. Duncan Fletcher literally told England’s batsmen how to play spin. For a free thinker, a maverick, it seems like pretty conservative thinking to keep shoving him out in front of the new ball and hoping for different results.

By the same token it will also be necessary to find something else in England’s bowling attack this summer. There is no disgrace in being outclassed by the current South Africa pace quartet. But there is room here for some of that going-hard when it comes to selection.

Matt Potts was selected to fill an injury hole and has showed real spirit and skill. He seems biddable, fit and safe. But he has also found things tougher against India and South Africa and might need some time. The real Baz move here, the out-there, maverick choice, would be to get the best out of Ollie Robinson, who is far from prefect material, but averages 21 in Tests against some very good opponents.

Feelings, vibes, energy, going hard, trusting the talent. This is so much easier when that talent has 10 Test hundreds, and has been inside the machine for the last decade. McCullum has promised changes in Manchester. This already sounds intriguing. The lesson of England’s return to the mean at Lord’s is that feelings, faith, and balcony-charisma will not be enough on their own.

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