I got a little teary the other night. It’s a really stupid story. You know that famous scene in Coronation Street when Hilda Ogden comes home from the funeral and there’s a parcel of Stan’s belongings on the table, and she opens Stan’s glasses case and suddenly, despite herself, she starts to weep uncontrollably? Well, it was like that, except rather than a dead husband I was mourning an era of English Test cricket. And instead of a pair of glasses, it was an interview with Graeme Swann on the Rig Biz sports comedy podcast.
The bulk of Swann’s interview is not, admittedly, an abundant source of pathos. But among the many anecdotes on Andrew Flintoff’s drinking and Paul Collingwood’s sexual prowess is a segment where Swann recounts his time playing with Kevin Pietersen for England. And for all they achieved together, there is not a great deal of residual affection there. “Me and Kev always hated each other,” Swann remembers. Pietersen is described as “a bit of a dickhead”. This is good content, no notes.
But then Swann starts talking about the 2012 text-message scandal involving Pietersen and Andrew Strauss, and that got me. I can’t explain it. “A bit of a soap opera,” is how Swann described it, and with the benefit of distance it is weirdly poignant to recall how big this silly little tiff seemed at the time. For a week the front pages were consumed with tales of slurs, rumours, crisis summits, YouTube disses. It mattered. I mean, it didn’t matter. But it felt like it did. And to hear it being repackaged as bog-brush banter on a second-rate podcast: on some level, something important has been lost here.
The sacking of Pietersen in 2014 was a genuine national news story. By way of tangent, I tried to recall if the England men’s Test team had generated a single nationally resonant story since. Headingley 2019, maybe. Certainly not the 2015 Ashes. More often than not, when English cricket has punctured the broader consciousness, it has been through controversy: the Yorkshire racism scandal, the Ben Stokes trial (at which we all learned that nobody really knew who Ben Stokes was). A national sport essentially reduced to a fleeting curiosity in the space of a decade. What happened? And as the English summer of 2023 clanks sleepily into gear, what are we all still doing here?
At which point: enter Bazball. I want to believe in this thing, I really do. I want to believe in the noble mission of Stokes and Brendon McCullum to save Test cricket by scoring at 5.5 runs per over. I love the way this team play and the memories they have already created. I like Harry Brook’s little face. I want to believe that English red‑ball cricket can somehow reinflate itself to the size it was before it needed to be saved, a time when it simply was.
But let’s face it: I’m not the target market here. Last week I read an interview with Sri Lanka’s Kusal Mendis, who is playing in the Test series against Ireland: Ireland’s first two-Test series, a landmark occasion that has attracted barely a word of mention. Mendis smashed a brisk 140 in the first Test and afterwards explained how he thought Test batting was evolving. “The future of Test cricket is not to play out so many dot balls,” Mendis told Cricinfo. “Apart from the start, I don’t see a big difference in the ODI and Test formats.”
This is an increasingly prevalent view: that the evolution of Test cricket, driven by Stokes’s England, is taking it firmly in the direction of white-ball cricket, with higher scoring rates, instinctive aggression, and the effective elimination of the draw. Indeed, listen to a proselytiser such as McCullum or Eoin Morgan and you will hear that this is the only viable future for the longest format: quicker games, bigger thrills, more interest. Sounds great. One question: how’s ODI cricket doing these days?
Because it turns out there already is a format with no draws where teams score at 5.5 runs an over, and people don’t really like it very much. Over the past few years there is a growing consensus that ODIs are nearing the end of their useful creative lifespan, that they have become staid and formulaic. Two-innings Test cricket with a swinging, spinning red ball will always be a richer product. But let’s roll the Bazball tape through to its logical conclusion: not a few months or a few years, but five or 20 years. At what point does cheery novelty begin to crystallise into routine?
There is of course so much to admire in this brilliant England team and the way they play the game. But it is no more a magic formula or survival manual than any other style to have emerged in Test cricket’s 150 years. This is a game whose glory lies in its texture, its contrast of tones and shades and paces and approaches, not just the fast but the slow, not just the instinctive but the regimented, not just the instant gratification but the delayed, too.
For lovers of the long game there will always be a seductive appeal in the idea of the quick fix, the one giant heave that will put the vase back on its pedestal. But in sport, as in marketing or politics, there is always a danger in modelling yourself on your biggest rival: there’s a reason they’re your rival in the first place.