Towards the end of the 1960s, US president Richard Nixon’s foreign policy invoked the ‘madman theory’, a ruse aimed at convincing Communist leaders of his irrationality. With America a nuclear power, the idea was that China might tread more warily, for fear of provoking a lunatic.
Harry Brook’s 68mph wobblers are no one’s idea of a weapon of mass destruction. But as Steve Smith – arguably the best since Don Bradman – tentatively played out Brook’s first over in Ashes cricket, it felt as if Ben Stokes was pushing the logic of Bazball to breaking point.
After all, if he was mad enough to bowl Brook at Smith, what did Stokes know that Australia didn’t? Apparently unsure, Smith opted for the safety of five dot balls and a single.
And so it has been over the first two days of these Ashes – not so much a cricket series as a clash of sporting cultures. Whoever wins, it promises to be a discombobulating summer.
Australian captain Pat Cummins had suggested before the World Test Championship final against India that Australia would limit their accommodation of Bazball to minor tweaks in the field. Yet on Friday morning he began with a deep point for Zak Crawley – and spent the day dispatching his men to Edgbaston’s remotest corners.
Ben Stokes has almost pushed the logic of Bazball to breaking point in the first Ashes Test
Steve Smith was made to tentatively see out an over from Harry Brook before being dismissed
Brook was given his first over in Ashes cricket, with Smith opting for five dot balls and a single
At stumps, with England’s 393 for eight their second-fastest day in Ashes history, Australian seamer Josh Hazlewood said his team had done well to limit them to five an over, and not leak seven or eight.
It was a startling admission from a player whose nation has long been a byword for hard, unstinting cricket – ‘the Australian way’, they call it. And it underlined a basic misunderstanding about England’s approach.
Brendon McCullum and Stokes have said it until they’re blue in the face, though it will suit them if opponents refuse to listen. Rather than encourage their players to slog, as many seem to imagine, they ask them to think on their feet. Absorb pressure when you must, but recognise the moment to reapply it. Above all, have a clear mind. And have fun.
So when Australia limited their boundary options on the first morning, England ran singles instead – 54 before lunch, as well as 11 twos. There was not one maiden. By the break, they were scoring at 4.65 an over, a fraction behind their overall rate in 13 previous Bazball Tests.
It was a compelling riposte to former Australian captain Steve Waugh’s claim that they lacked a Plan B, and a message to Cummins and Co: if you plug one gap, we’ll probably find another.
Then there was the matter of Stokes’s declaration at 6.04pm, with Joe Root unbeaten on 118 and his stand with Ollie Robinson already worth 43. Here, it seemed, you did not have to be Australian to raise an eyebrow.
Stokes encourages England to think on their feet and recognise moments to apply pressure
The priority is to entertain and Stuart Broad taking David Warner’s wicket felt like vindication
Again, though, criticism of Stokes – heightened by the Australian openers’ survival until the close – missed the point. He has said all along his priority is to entertain. The buzz around Edgbaston as spectators awaited the renewal of Stuart Broad’s battle with David Warner felt like vindication.
Of course, entertainment and success need not be mutually exclusive – witness Bazball England’s 11 wins out of 13. Stokes also wanted two cracks with the new ball. The events of Saturday morning, when Broad removed Warner and Marnus Labuschagne in two deliveries, backed him up.
And as Australia scrapped their way to 78 for three by lunch, they were scoring at two and a half an over on a surface where they had been happy to limit England to a rate of five.
Up in Sky’s commentary box, Sri Lankan legend Kumar Sangakkara was unimpressed. ‘It’s been un-Australian, the way they spread the fields and their inability to build pressure,’ he said. ‘They just waited and waited. It’s the same with the batting as well. It’s not been the pack mentality you’d normally see from an Australian side.’
Stokes, though, said before the series that the batsman he feared most was Travis Head, who warmed up for this game with a superb 163 against India at The Oval, and now tucked into Moeen Ali en route to a 60-ball fifty. Some have been trying to make ‘Travball’ stick, by way of retaliation.
Usman Khawaja completed his superb century and received classy support at Edgbaston
England grew ragged and Jonny Bairstow missed a stumping, with Australia fighting back
Despite Head’s adrenaline boost, Australia’s score after 78 overs – the point at which England declared – was 260 for five, a full 133 behind their opponents.
But whether or not the Australians fully grasp what England are up to, and however Nixon-esque some of Stokes’s decisions may appear, Cummins’s team are not world champions by accident.
Usman Khawaja completed a superb century, his first in a country where he had previously averaged 17, and received classy support from Cameron Green and Alex Carey.
England, meanwhile, grew ragged. Bairstow missed a stumping before Green had scored, and dropped Carey on 26. Moments later, Broad bowled Khawaja with a no-ball – a costly mistake twice over, since it deprived England of the chance to attack Australia’s long tail with the second new ball.
Then again, no one has said McCullum and Stokes have come up with a guaranteed path to victory. And, at this rate, no one will be able to safely predict the outcome of an already fascinating series.