HYDERABAD — Simon Kerrigan was one of the first to congratulate Tom Hartley on X/Twitter, “Cheers (beer emoji). Unreal”. Kerrigan, like Hartley, a Lancashire spinner of little renown when called into the England squad in 2013, never recovered from his exposure to the Test arena.
His first two overs against Australia at The Oval went for 28. He bowled a wicketless eight in total in the first innings for 53 runs, and was not used again in the match.
Imagine if that had been Hartley’s fate in the first Test against India at Hyderabad. England would not be celebrating a historic victory but trying to put back together the broken pieces before the second Test, which starts in Visakhapatnam on Friday.
Hartley’s first ball in Test cricket cleared the ropes without bouncing. His first nine overs went for 63. Though he recovered in that first innings to take two wickets, there was no sense then that Hartley would be the match-winner in the second, still less with figures of seven for 62.
That Hartley did not recoil during that difficult first day gets to the heart of this thing we call Bazball. The concept is less a doctrine on how to play rather than how to feel, something we are coming to understand more with each remarkable victory posted. A decade ago, Kerrigan was operating in a barren emotional landscape, a period before mental health was a thing that athletes talked about.
In an interview with The Times last October, Kerrigan spoke for the first time of his Ashes trauma. He admitted to “panic” and “freezing” and said a part of him wished they could take his one cap away.
He wonders now how different his career might have been had Alastair Cook thrown him the ball in the second innings as Ben Stokes did Hartley. “It was quite a dusty pitch. I know now that you’re only one ball away from turning things around,” Kerrigan said.
Faced with a comparable scenario, Stokes backed his man unconditionally, bringing him on first change if not opening as he did in the first innings. The result was transformational for team and player.
“After that first innings, it was real tough for us, and personally I didn’t bowl the way I really wanted to,” Hartley said. “They came after me, which is fine.
“On debut, that’s what you expect. But the confidence that he (Stokes) has, the way he just builds you up, there’s no negative thoughts. It’s all positive. If you’ve not bowled great it’s, ‘Right, what can we do better in the second innings.’”
Hartley also acknowledged the support and advice of spin coach Jeetan Patel. “He gave me a couple of things from the first innings and they really paid off. It was more just the run-up speed.
“When you’re playing for the first time you just run up that bit quick and you think, well, just slow things down, let your action do the work. When you run in quick, I just tend to lose my action a bit. I just slowed it down and kept it simple, and it seemed to work.”
Kerrigan was in tears on the second morning at The Oval and struggled to leave his hotel room after a panic attack. He sought the help of a sports psychologist in the immediacy of the trauma and subsequently, after taking a break from the game, used a clinical psychologist as he slowly rebuilt his career.
In contrast, Hartley was draped in laurels and would have been the man of the match had it not been for Ollie Pope’s magical second-innings 196 that gave the bowlers the scope to operate.
He could even laugh about the ball whacked for six by Yashasvi Jaiswal. “He’s not the first and won’t be the last,” he said. “As a spinner people are going to come after you. I’m fine with it. I sort of have to go into a different mindset. You look back at the ball and you think it wasn’t bad. If that’s the way they want to play, you’ve just got to play with it.”
All of this is made possible by the captaincy of Stokes, from whom all take their performance cues. Neither Stokes, nor coach Brendon McCullum, have much time for the catchall Bazball phrase, but it remains a powerful idea, whatever they choose to call it.
In an excellent treatment of Bazball in a book of the same name, Fleet Street cricket correspondents, Nick Hoult of The Telegraph and Lawrence Booth of The Mail, invited the England players to give their takes on what the term means to them.
A definitive answer remains elusive but Jimmy Anderson’s understanding of it is perhaps as good as any. He likens it to the feeling of playing sport as a nipper, charging in without fear or compromise, trying things, having a laugh, developing key skills informally without the scrutiny of a third eye pulling your efforts apart.
“It is a mentality to get the most freedom and attacking style of play out of you, while loving cricket as much as you can,” Anderson said. “It is trying to remember why you started playing the game. As a kid, you went down to your local club and wanted to hit fours and sixes and knock the stumps out of the ground. You wanted to take the diving catch.
“When you play international cricket there is pressure, and that can be stifling. Bazball is trying to encourage people to get back to that kid in you, and imagine back to when you started watching cricket and what you wanted to see. How you imagined the game would be played: exciting, fast and fun. That is what Bazball is to me.”
Hartley admitted to apprehension on that opening morning, just as Kerrigan had. The difference was he also felt valued. It was the permission to fail that Stokes granted that ultimately allowed him to succeed.
“I was so nervous,” Hartley added. “It was frustration that I was the bowler getting picked on. I was thinking, if this was going to be the story for the whole series? To come and out in the fourth innings and do what I did, hopefully they can put a bit more respect on my name and go forward from there.”