OPINION: England must find some balance as entertainment is never a substitute for winning

OPINION: England must find some balance as entertainment is never a substitute for winning
Stokes' men lost a thriller in the first Ashes test
Stokes' men lost a thriller in the first Ashes test
First things first: England should be lauded for 'Bazball'. Their aggressive, front-footed, firecracker brand of test cricket has breathed new life into a format that has found itself under fierce pressure from franchise cricket. Ben Stokes' men have provided great entertainment over the last 12 months. But after their loss in the first Ashes test to Australia, they must remember that there is no substitute for winning.

Since Brendon McCullum and Stokes combined to inculcate their beliefs and ideas into England's test team, they have won a home series against New Zealand and South Africa, won a one-off test match against India by chasing 378 for the loss of just three wickets in the fourth innings, whitewashed Pakistan on their turf which included them scoring a historic 508 runs on the first day of a test match, and drawn a series in New Zealand.

There is no doubt that it has been a superb 12 months for English test cricket, and they have gone about it in historic style. In the matches that they played in 2022 under the leadership of Stokes, they scored at 4.77 runs per over, the fastest by far by any team in a ten-test period in test history. 

But all roads led to this summer. Australia were coming to town for the Ashes. Questions were being asked about whether Bazball would work against Pat Cummins and the best bowling unit in the world.

And after five riveting days of high-class, high-octane cricket nearer to the Gods, Australia stole a march on their eternal rivals to go one up thanks to Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon and an ice-cold innings from captain Cummins.

Cummins celebrates scoring the winning runs in the first test

It was a brilliant contest between two sides who are the antithesis of one another. England's ultra-attacking approach aimed to put Australia on the back foot, but the Aussies were happy to do just that and stick to a more traditional, patient style.

Despite suffering a two-wicket defeat, there was a lot of positivity coming from England players and their social media team for sticking to their guns and continuing to defy logic with their 'brave' decisions.

England do merit praise, but losing in entertaining fashion is never a substitute for winning an Ashes test, and some of their Bazball-orientated decisions need questioning. 

Nothing will convince me that declaring on the first day of a test match at 393-8 with Joe Root 118 not out was the correct decision. Had England not declared, there was a chance they could have pushed on to a score of around 450 on a really flat surface.

They had just taken 20 off a Lyon over too, so it's not like he'd have taken long to get to 450. And if they instead got dismissed trying to slog a few extra runs, then Stokes would have got what he wished anyway. 

When asked whether he would have declared in the same situation, Cummins replied: "Probably not". 

"I'm not overly surprised (that Stokes did) but the wicket felt pretty good so I thought every run was pretty much needed in that first innings."

Naturally, Stokes said he had no regrets.

I saw (the declaration) as an opportunity to pounce on Australia. No one likes to go out for 20 minutes at the back end of a day,“ he said.

"Scoring 390 and then being able to declare sends a message to Australia about how we want to take them on.

If we didn’t declare, would we have got that excitement like we did at the end? I’m not 100% sure but I’m not going to be looking back at this game as what ifs. We just didn’t manage to get over the line.”

There lies the issue. A somewhat exciting climax to the match but going into the second test still at 0-0 is better than a really, really exciting climax to the match but going into the second test 1-0 down.

Many will rightly point to the fine margins in the match. Had Jonny Bairstow not dropped so many catches from behind the stumps, and had Moeen Ali not hurt his finger, then England probably would have come on top.

Sure, but it once again comes back around to their decision-making to allow them to play the way they want. 

England look forlorn after losing the first test

Ben Foakes - who is England's best wicketkeeper - was left out of the side to make way for some extra firepower. Foakes' more measured batting style certainly didn't help his case either, even though he has shown he can bat at test level.

Moeen Ali hadn't played a first-class game in 21 months, but because they didn't trust any other spinner and wanted his batting prowess at number eight, he was recalled to the side ahead of someone like Liam Dawson. Surprise, surprise, calling up a retired 36-year-old didn't pay off. 

I haven't yet mentioned the shot selection in the second innings. Root getting stumped after charging up the pitch to Lyon and Harry Brook pulling the same bowler straight to midwicket when they were in cruise control is amateurish. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess.

Even Aussie opener David Warner acknowledged that 'some guys in that England team are throwing their wickets away'.

Bazball or not, getting out in that fashion is criminal.

Rewind back to February: England were 1-0 up against New Zealand in a two-match series. In the second test, the Black Caps had been bowled out for 209, 226 runs behind their opponents.

Victory was in sight for England. It would have been a statement victory - their first series win in New Zealand since 2008. The right thing to do next was pile on the runs in the second innings, set an unchasable total and win the test match.

England didn't do that. They instead enforced the follow on on a flat pitch so that they could have a chase in the final innings - something they had been so good at in the last year.

New Zealand then made 483 and eventually won a nail-biting match by just the one run.

A scintillating test match never bereft of ridiculous emotion. A brilliant occasion for everyone watching with memories made for fans everywhere. And it only happened because of England and Ben Stokes, and they deserve all sorts of praise for that.

But ultimately, they lost. As they did in the first test against Australia.

I don't know about you, but losing isn't fun.

Australia haven't won an Ashes series in England since 2001. England didn't need Bazball to win against the Aussies at home, even when they weren't that great of a test team.

So what happens if they lose the Ashes this time around? Is it okay because they've been entertaining?

Stokes watches on

Maybe others see it differently. Maybe all that matters is a good time.

To be clear, I'm not saying England must make radical changes. Play a blockbuster brand of cricket, but perhaps don't always go overboard.

Learn to tone it down just a little bit. Don't declare on a flat wicket at 393-8 when your best batsman is in. Don't play rash shots when you're ahead of the game.

Stop giving away a clear advantage for the sake of putting a smile on fans' faces. I guarantee you, fans will be smiling even more after you have sealed victory instead.

By the way, England could very well still win this series playing in this exact same unabating fashion. But all they're doing is making it far harder for themselves.

They can continue to pursue their aspirations of captivating audiences by going at 4.50 runs an over and transcend the way test matches are played. Everyone in the world of cricket is engaged in an Ashes series like never before. But they must remember that in sport, being entertaining should never be an acceptable substitute for winning. 


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