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15th Jun 2023

Test cricket: Is this the year the phoenix rises from the Ashes?

Jack Peat

Swashbuckling cricket will have viewers glued to their screens to watch a format many thought was dead

The first ball of the Ashes is always a momentous occasion.

Spectators seated, commentator’s mics poised and a Barmy Army belted Jerusalem ringing in people’s ears, the roar that follows the bowler down to the stumps builds like an earthquake with trembling stands marking the start of one of the most historic and eagerly-anticipated contests in cricket.

But this year there is more than just an urn up for grabs. Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have the future of test cricket in their hands, and the opportunity to cement a long-overdue rebirth.

Ever since the pair took the reins of the men’s test cricket team they have sought to do things differently.

Coining a new style of cricket in Bazball, they have shunned the typically conservative aspects of cricket’s oldest format to inject new life into a game that has been failing to attract new audiences for some time.

In December, only 7,846 fans attended the 60,000-seat Optus Stadium in Perth to see Australia claim a 164-run win over the West Indies. A month later, fewer than 500 turned up in Karachi for day three of the second test between New Zealand and Pakistan – despite free entry being granted for the final test of the two-match series.

While mitigating circumstances can’t be discounted in both cases, they undoubtedly underscore a shift away from the five day game to the shorter one day matches and T-20 tournaments.

There is, after all, no shortage of interest in Karachi for the Pakistan Super League. Nor in Australia for the Big Bash, the IPL in India or the Vitality Blast in Blighty.

That sort of swashbuckling, no-nonsense cricket will get people packing out stadiums with ease. But tell people to part with their hard-earned cash for a five-day blockathon and you’ve got a problem.

Cue Stokes and McCullum.

The duo credited for ‘ripping up the textbook’ and changing cricket will take their new style of play into the biggest tournament there is to offer this summer, commencing at Edgbaston on Friday.

They have the opportunity to do for world test cricket what the 2005 Ashes did for English test cricket, which is to elevate it in people’s minds by making it sexy again.

We’ve already had the first glimpses of what that looks like on home turf with a dominating display against Ireland which produced a captivating 524-4 (dec) first innings batting display followed by a dazzling fifer from Josh Tongue.

The paltry target of 11 was taken care of by Zak Crawley in four balls, such is the ruthless nature of bazball.

It comes after England made the second earliest declaration in Test cricket history in New Zealand after cutting their first innings short after 59 overs in Mount Maunganui and then proceeded to take three wickets in game dubbed ‘Bazball on steroids’.

Ahead of the 2023 Ashes series, the message to the players has been; more of the same, please.

Stokes and McCullum have prioritised team culture of techniques, putting the emphasis of enjoyment and selflessness.

Rather than allowing players to fret about external voices and public opinion, the New Zealand-born pair emphasised the importance of batting with freedom and casting doubt from their minds. There should be no fear of failure; losing is not the end of the world.

This mentality sets the tone for what is likely to be a formidable summer of cricket. In Australia they face their toughest opponents yet, and could be relentlessly bullied back into shape by a ferocious bowling attack.

But should they prevail, they could reinvent test cricket not just in England but across the world, bringing a long-overdue revamp to a format that will be instantly more cherished if it is just 10 per cent more rock and roll.

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