England lost the First Ashes Test against Australia last week but all the talk has been around their style of play in the last 12 months since the beginning of a new era under coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes.
England have won 10 out of their 13 Tests since their appointment and have instilled a new, hyper-aggressive brand of cricket. ‘Bazball’, as it has come to be known, revitalised a side that had only had one win from their previous 17 matches.
England bowler Stuart Broad said:
“[McCullum’s] whole mantra is about enjoyment and fun…he doesn’t seem to look too far ahead.”
The principles of this new style of play include a lack of any negative talk, no fear of failure and embracing fun and entertainment over results.
This new philosophy and style of play gives us much to think about as we reflect on sport as a whole and I’d want to argue, whilst certainty not a perfect example, it gives us some glimpses of how sport was made to be.
‘Bazball’ was born out of serious adversity. Both the poor results of the England team but also personal struggles experienced by both their coach and captain.
In 2013 New Zealand were struggling under their captain, McCullum. Bowled out for 45 in a Test against South Africa he reflected that his team had lost their love of the game. He called them to think back to their childhood and ask ‘Why did you play cricket in the first place? Because you loved it!’
Once his team was able to embrace this more childlike love for the game of cricket, untainted with fear of failure, they were able to relax and play with increased freedom, leading to stronger performances.
Stokes as captain has also been instrumental in this transformation. His story is also one of both weakness and strength as he has overcome well publicised personal and mental struggles, exacerbated by family deaths, injury and the bio-secure bubbles of the pandemic.
As Barney Ronay said in a fascinating article around the 'cult' of 'Bazball':
"Cricket is a cruel, isolating, capricious sport. Decades spent inside that machine have worn so many England players thin. At times Bazball just looks like a group of people just trying to make themselves feel better. There aren’t many things more relatable than that."
Stokes' response to this adversity, set within the wider context of the diminishing influence of Test match cricket on the wider game, is to embrace the joy found in playing sport again, even in the midst of the highly-pressurised environment of an Ashes series.
“We want everyone involved to enjoy themselves, players and fans. That is top of our ethos. Yes, cricket is a sport and it’s serious and there’s a lot of hard work and detail that goes into it, but it’s also entertainment.“
Ben's reflection ultimately says that even in the most competitive arena of professional sport there's a reason to play that's not purely based on the outcome of a match.
Have you ever thought about why God made sport? Or further back, why did God make anything?
Proverbs 8:30-31, which many commentators say are the words of Jesus, tell us he made the world and everything in it, because it gave him pleasure.
I was filled with delight day after day,
Rejoicing always in his presence
Rejoicing in his whole world
And delighting in the human race.
God delighted in creating the world and since humans are made in the image of God, we are wired to reflect his delight in developing the world.
Psalm 19:4-5 then recognises that sport is an activity which gives this enjoyment. It says:
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
As the Psalmist compares the feeling of a honeymoon to that of a victorious athlete – both total physical and emotional satisfaction – the Bible could not offer much higher praise for the joy to be found in sport. Competing in sport, a God-given gift, is an opportunity to continue to experience the joy that comes from doing something God designed every sportsperson to truly love.
It seems like the England cricket team have been able to recapture some of the joy in their sport that may have been lost.
How though, is it possible to have this enjoyment amidst the pressures of elite sport?
Stokes has said
“We want to create an environment where everyone has the freedom to try things without fear.”
This has been noted in their selection policies, trusting players to perform even when history indicates they would have previously been dropped after a series of poor performances.
Journalist Jonathan Lieuw has noted the change in this new team environment, saying:
“One of the most striking elements of this England team is how serenely they deal with the certainty of failure.”
This removal of much of the normal pressure found in professional sport and a clear trust in the players selected has resulted in improved performances. It’s not flawless and won’t lead to players being retained indefinitely, but it does offer us a glimpse of how we were made to be – secure in our status and position before God.
Christian athletes can often struggle to view God as he has been revealed in scripture, as a loving Father, offering us grace underserved and not asking us to perform for him. Their performance driven mindset can lead them to seeing God like a moody coach, watching with a stop-watch in hand, ready to chastise you for your failure. Instead, God offers us a completely secure identity, one as his adopted children, removing the fear we otherwise would live in (Romans 8:14-15).
Now it’s important to say that ‘Bazball’ is not a perfect encapsulation of how sport was meant to be – but it maybe offers us a fresh glimpse of how God designed both sport and his wider creation to be – full of joy and pleasure and with people secure in their identity, living fearlessly before their maker.
Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.
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