Apparently Brendon McCullum hates the term “Bazball”. This is, of course, exactly as it should be. One of the cardinal rules of Bazball, perhaps even its defining motif, is that no established narrative must be allowed to stand unchallenged. Anything you think you know about Bazball is wrong.

Everything ever spoken about it has been wrong. Bazball is about making up your own rationale as you go, and so any attempt to pin it down, to define it or even name it, must necessarily be doomed to failure.

Certainly in the six weeks since England first unveiled their new approach to men’s Test cricket against New Zealand, Bazball has resisted all attempts to delimit it. Targets have been demolished: 277 at Lord’s, 299 at Trent Bridge, 296 at Headingley, 378 at Edgbaston against India. Crowds have been thrilled. Late-night kebabs have been eaten. Stuart Broad has been rechristened the “Nighthawk”. Countless words have been belched out and consequently re-eaten.

Is there any point in analysing any of this? Is it really worth delving into a phenomenon that seems to consist of nothing more than pure vibes? Statistics will tell you what England are doing differently – attacking earlier with the bat, bowling fuller with the ball – but won’t remotely tell you why. Interviews have long since degenerated into a sort of passive-aggressive nonsense verse, in which various players make various claims of courage and bravado and challenge us to publish them.

Baz thinks we can change the face of cricket. Stokesy wants us to chase down 600 in a day. Leachy punched a swan at drinks. Popey threw a shoe over a pub. It’s new, it’s nihilistic, it’s entertaining and it’s clearly working. But what is it exactly? Why this, why now and – crucially – why?

Perhaps the closest we have come to a clear motive for Bazball is from Jonny Bairstow. At Edgbaston first and then later again on the Tailenders podcast, he expressed the new “freedom” of this team not just in sporting but in physical terms. “Sometimes you look back over the last couple of years,” he said. “Everyone’s been through it with Covid, some pretty dark moments. Isolation, bubbles, being away from family. I know there will be people in this room who have lost loved ones. But hopefully we’re through the worst: putting smiles back on faces and bums on seats.”

England’s Jonny Bairstow during the Test against India at Edgbaston on 5 July, 2022.
Jonny Bairstow praised the new ‘freedom’ of England under Brendon McCullum, not just in sporting but in physical terms. Photograph: Ben Whitley/ProSports/Shutterstock

One of the most striking elements of this England team is how serenely they deal with the certainty of failure. And for all the talk of tactical innovation or 360-degree strokeplay, it strikes me that Bazball is basically an emotional reaction to our times, an approach that for all its hedonism is ultimately inseparable from the desolation and introspection and immense sadness that generated it. On some level this is something we are all experiencing in various ways. Collectively something has changed in us since the pandemic, a restlessness and trepidation that we can’t yet name or place. A sense of things changing, things that won’t come back, a future that offers only more uncertainty, more entropy, more hurt.

Stokes lost his father Ged in December 2020, in between the second and third national lockdowns. Last year his mental health declined and he was forced to take a break from the game. Like many of us he has been forced to contemplate real desolation in the past couple of years, and knows that losing a game of cricket on a flat deck doesn’t remotely touch the sides.

Perhaps this is why Stokes feels so personally invested in this style of play, his own way of honouring a man who when forced to choose between his rugby career and his middle finger chose to amputate the finger.

There is a generational element here, too. The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, in her essay collection Trick Mirror, examines the uniquely dark and nihilistic culture of young people on the internet: a world of memes and in-jokes where everything is transient and nothing is static, where absurdism feels like the only response to the precarity and pointlessness of our world. She describes the sensation of using social media as like “a rat pressing the lever, like a woman repeatedly hitting myself on the forehead with a hammer, masturbating through the nightmare, until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme”.

This is basically how England bat right now and, even if the current squad are spared the economic hopelessness that drives millennial culture, that innate nihilism remains, the sense of a future that has been mortgaged and built over. Bazball is the laughing crying emoji. Bazball is Amelia Dimoldenberg’s deadpan jokes on Chicken Shop Date. Bazball is a pink‑haired egirl selling you her own bath water for $30 a pot. Bazball ain’t reading all that, but is happy for u tho, or sorry that happened.

Bazball hears the phrases “building an innings” or “bowling dry” and hears a boomer columnist telling them they too could earn the deposit for a house by cutting out avocado on toast.

And so to describe Bazball as a philosophy or a blueprint, or speculate how it might fare against Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood or on a Kanpur turner, is really to miss its gist. Which is not to dismiss it as a fad or an empty gesture. Rather, it feels like an entirely natural response to a game drowning in decay and confusion, formats upon formats, judgments upon judgments, wailing upon wailing: a little kernel of meaning in a world where nothing seems to matter very much.