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7 min read

Can Bazball teach us something about freedom?

In the wake of England's remarkable victory over India in Hyderabad, Cameron Wiltshire-Plant explores the unlikely links between Bazball and the spiritual life.
A gaggle of cricket players, dressed in whites, stand on the field. One raises there arm
The England team.

Back in May 2022, the way England played cricket got a new nickname - bazball. Coined by a journalist, it reflected the name and attitude of the pair who lead the team - .Brendon 'Baz' McCullum and captain Ben Stokes. Both had reputations as attacking players. That nickname has proven to be extremely prescient. 

The name has accompanied England in the eighteen months since, describing their transformation from a side languishing with a record of one win in seventeen, to perhaps the most feared side in the world because of their aggressive style of play, winning twelve of their first thirteen tests with Stokes in full-time charge. This England team are currently testing their newfound confidence on an away trip to India where no side has won for eleven years, travelling with more optimism than at any point in the last decade, having whitewashed Pakistan last winter 3-0.  

Bazball, at its core, is about freedom to fail. Stokes and McCullum realised that fear of failure was suppressing performances, so they took the burden from the players. 

What is ‘Bazball’? It’s even made it into the dictionary, with its definition being ‘a style of test cricket in which the batting side attempts to gain the initiative by playing in a highly aggressive manner.’ This doesn’t go far enough.  

The approach is not merely about batting but aggression in bowling, fielding, and team selection, encompassing almost a way of life. Recently retired fast bowler Stuart Broad summarising it as choosing ‘running towards the danger.’ Perhaps cricket journalist Ali Martin sums it up best;  ‘to soak up pressure when required but also be brave enough to put it back on opponents at the earliest opportunity; to make taking wickets the sole aim in the field; and to strive chiefly for victory across the five days without considering the draw.’  

All of this seems a little bit corporate-speak. Bazball has been accused of this fragility often; that it consists merely of good vibes and brash talk, and that the steam will soon run out of this new approach once some better teams are faced. But dig a little deeper and one principle stands out above the rest: freedom. Cricket can be a suffocating sport to play, even on a village green on a Saturday- a team sport, but one in which the bowler and batsman compete alone in a gladiatorial contest repeatedly. Scale this up to test level, with bowlers throwing them down at 90mph, thousands of spectators, the pressure of performing for your country, and the fight to keep your place in the team, and you can soon see how the pressure can become a burden.  

Bazball, at its core, is about freedom to fail. Stokes and McCullum realised that fear of failure was suppressing performances, so they took the burden from the players- the talk of aggression, of running to danger, of attacking, is the permission to fail. By being prepared to lose, if the loss is a result of a determination to win, the fear of defeat is removed. Of course, without the intense pressure of defeat looming over them, players revel in this freedom and performances and results have dramatically improved. Almost all the batsmen have improved their average runs per innings and the bowlers have taken every wicket available except in one instance. Stokes has explained the freedom given in this way to the media: 

‘[Bazball] has taken away all the external pressures of playing international sport. There's enough on individuals and as a team as it is but taking all the other stuff away is why everything is so relaxed, calm and enjoyable at the moment.’

Despite Bazball’s wider impact, with England football, rugby, and hockey all admitting to being inspired, does Bazball have anything to say to us outside of elite sport? It could be perceived as simply a method of getting performances out of cossetted professionals weighed down by expectation through a bit of team building and positive messaging. Instead of practicing cricket Stokes’ team practice golf. Players can now set their own bedtimes. How does this relate? However, it’s the stories of McCullum and Stokes that give bedrock to the ethereality of the Bazball concept. 

Perhaps this is all Bazball is: cricket-with-context. It’s easy to give freedom from fear of failure when you’ve come close to losing everything. 

In November 2014, promising Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes was killed by a bouncer in an Australian domestic game, shocking the cricketing world. Brendon McCullum at the time captained New Zealand’s test team, and Hughes’ death awoke something in him; a realisation that cricket didn’t matter all that much, and was best enjoyed as entertainment, both for the players and spectators. Already an aggressive player and captain, McCullum went into overdrive, playing aggressive but joyful cricket all over the world, freed from consequences and simply enjoying playing. His New Zealand team reached the World Cup final the following year and McCullum signed off with the fastest Test hundred of all time- 54 balls(!)- in his final test.  

Stokes himself has walked in his own darkness; arrested in 2017 just as his performances were rocketing for England for violently defending a gay couple on a night out after a win in Bristol, he lost the vice-captaincy and a place on an away Ashes tour despite eventually being acquitted. In 2021, after sustaining an injury to his finger that would not heal, and amidst the death of his father, he wrestled with panic attacks and anxiety, ultimately taking a six-month break from the sport completely. It’s easy to see because of these stories why losing a game of cricket has come to matter less than enjoyment of the sport and playing in an entertaining and relaxed style. Perhaps this is all Bazball is: cricket-with-context. It’s easy to give freedom from fear of failure when you’ve come close to losing everything. 

This is something Christians have known for centuries. The knowledge that your darkest sins and most crass mistakes aren’t fatal, but can be forgiven and wiped clean can give a freedom that transforms life. Rather than the anxious striving for perfection that can come in both religious and in secular forms, there is freedom to fail. After all, performance anxiety is a problem for social media influencers, hedge fund traders and teachers as well as cricketers.

Of course forgiveness can be abused as a kind of license to do what you want, knowing you'll get pardoned in the end anyway. But that only reveals a heart that acts out of self-interest, not love. Just as Bazball arises out of a sheer love for the game, as even more important than winning, so Christian behaviour arises, not from a desire to get away with as much as you can can, but out of love for God and your neighbour. And paradoxically - both approaches end up 'winning' more often than not - either successful cricket, or a healthy spiritual and moral life. 

This is the graced existence: knowing that we are all free to fail because of the love of God who forgives. In an infinitely truer way than that Bazball is context-making for cricket, so this grace is context-making for life; held by this God in friendship, despite our petty sins and moral confusion. Just as Bazball allows cricketers to play with freedom, ignoring the pressure of expectation and simply enjoying the game, so humans can live with freedom, winning the battle against the limitations and pressure we put on ourselves, and simply enjoy being alive.  

After all, if we offend, make awkward, or receive rejection, grace holds us. And if these things go well, our lives will be much richer. 

The freedom to fail has released these cricketers to play the most exciting, aggressive, entertaining cricket they can. They have used their self-made context for good. How can we use our God-given context for good? In the same way: remembering that we are held by grace and able to live without fear, able to conquer our own pressures and expectations, the narratives of self-criticism that restrain us in our same old ways. If our actions had no consequences, what risks might we take? Perhaps we would tend towards the destructive like the scenes played out in The Purge. Or perhaps, held by grace, we could tend towards the constructive. Breaking the habits we know have held us back. Conversing with people outside of our comfort zone, seeking out their stories. Phoning the friend or family member with whom our relationship has broken down. After all, if we offend, make awkward, or receive rejection, grace holds us. And if these things go well, our lives will be much richer. 

Sometimes Bazball is revered as a novel method to relieve pressure and extract performances from tense athletes, but the Christian faith demonstrates this is nothing new. Bazball might have revolutionised Test cricket, but Stokes and McCullum have simply rediscovered the freedom that comes from God’s gift of grace. 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.