The Ashes series of Test cricket matches (played by England and Australia) are a sporting fixture like no other and serve up a scintillating summer of high quality Test match cricket. It is one of the leading biannual international Test cricket series in the world.
This year’s series has added intrigue, as England head coach Brendon McCullum’s “Bazball” style of play pits itself against the old foe for the first time.
England were humiliatingly outplayed when losing the most recent series 4-0 in 2021-22, capitulating with Australia retaining the Ashes in just 12 days of cricket. This represented a cricketing nadir for the men’s Test side.
Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting added salt to the wound claiming he “hadn’t ever seen a worse-performing team in Australia” and asserted that several England players “were just simply not good enough”.
Coupled with a dismal performance came several unwanted records, such as, the most ducks (a batter’s dismissal for zero runs) for a national team in a calendar year. The former English coach, Chris Silverwood, claimed the team “have to find a way to compete”.
The emergence of ‘Bazball’
The appointment of former Kent and England player Rob Key as managing director was the first step in reestablishing the team’s competitiveness. His approach was influenced by members of the great Australian team of the 1990s and early 2000s, who were relentlessly positive.
He also drew inspiration from the success of the Michael Vaughan-led England side, which regained the Ashes in 2005 by aggressively taking on the opposition. Key recognised a similar philosophy in McCullum, who he appointed as England coach, despite it being his first Test coaching position, and in Ben Stokes, who he appointed as captain even though he was a fiery, controversial figure.
As a cricketer, McCullum was a maverick attacking player with disregard for convention. His perspective on the game was shaped by one critical incident. In 2014 while New Zealand were trailing to a dominant Pakistan side, the news came through that cricketer Phil Hughes had passed away from injuries sustained while playing in a Sheffield Shield match for New South Wales against South Australia.
As captain, McCullum did not want his emotionally shattered team (many of whom had played with or against Hughes) to play on. He sought advice from a mental skills coach who encouraged him to abandon all their previous ideas on how to play or prepare. There would be no harsh judgement of performance, no negative consequences for failure.
Players were liberated from psychological determinants of poor performance. They were released from a fear of failure, which is often associated with less risk-taking behaviour, increased worry, cognitive and somatic anxiety and tension, ultimately leading to poor performance.
They played instinctively with flow, a state where attention may be improved and movements are automatic yielding functional states such as confidence and increased focus of attention. Flow state may facilitate superior performance. Players were encouraged to embrace the challenge, a state commonly attributed to exciting performance outcomes.
What ensued was the highest batting total ever achieved by a New Zealand team, at an astounding run rate. They hit a world record number of sixes in a Test innings, to square the series.
The psychology underpinning Bazball
Bazball is a term used to describe the revitalised playing style of the England Test team under McCullum. It is aggressively attacking, highly entertaining and piles pressure on opponents particularly by scoring runs quickly.
McCullum feels the term downplays the amount of thought that goes into the Bazball approach to play. Seven key characteristics and values underpin Bazball and may explain its success (thus far). These characteristics are rooted in psychological principles.
A shared collective mindset.
No negative chat.
Embracing mental freedom and fun.
A win-at-all costs mentality.
Praise – even for the little things.
Simplicity of message.
No fear of failure.
A collective mindset where each member of the group displays conformity to the group’s norms and where each group member understands and accepts their role is likely to lead to high levels of group cohesion. This leads to team satisfaction, group members remain motivated and display adherence and superior team performance.
In addition, avoiding negative chat is fundamentally rooted in positive self-talk and positive reinforcement. It develops confidence to allow freedom of expression which is so fundamental in Bazball, guides attention and concentration and facilitates motivation.
Bazball offers group members psychological safety. An agreed environment where it is safe to take a risk, mistakes are not held against you and each individual team member’s skills are valued and used. And, as we have seen with Bazball so far, exciting, high-level performances.
In two senses England have already been victorious, in bringing excitement and uncertainty back to Test cricket and in resurrecting themselves as a competitive force.
Nonetheless, the Ashes represents Bazball’s biggest challenge, with Australia the top ranked international Test side who recently won the World Test Championship, beating a strong Indian team convincingly in June. And with England already 1-0 down in the series following a nailbiting defeat by Australia in the first Test match at Edgbaston, it will be interesting to see if England’s Bazball approach can overcome this deficit.
One thing is sure – against high-quality opposition, batsmen will lose their wickets, bowlers will concede runs and test teams will be defeated. So even if the odds are stacked, they might as well go out swinging.