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Imagine the Future, and It will be Yours - How Bazball is demonstrating the Power of Imaginative Leadership

April 18, 2008. Bangalore. Day 1 of the Indian Premier League. Brendon McCullum strides out to the middle alongside Sourav Ganguly to open the batting for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), a franchise bizarrely named after a 1980's fantasy crime fighter television character. 90-minutes later, what McCullum has done, seems no less fantastic than the exploits of Michael Knight and his incredibly advanced car. McCullum scores 158 not out from a mere 73 deliveries faced, and the KKR finish at 222 for 3 in the allotted 20-overs. It will take five years and hundreds of T20 matches before McCullum's individual score in the format is overhauled. 

Fast forward 14-years. The venue is Rawalpindi in Pakistan. It is the first England-Pakistan Test match in twelve years on Pakistani soil. England win the toss and choose to bat. 

In a recent article, The Economist describes the first day of Test cricket as it has been played for almost 150-years: 'The team batting first will start cautiously while the ball is new and thus more likely to swing through the air (because of the shine) and bounce more steeply (because of the hardness of both the ball and the pristine pitch). By the end of the first day, having faced perhaps 90 overs, or sets of six balls, they will have done well to score 300 runs.'

What ensues (on an admittedly flat batting track) however, is nothing short of remarkable. England score 506 runs at over 6 runs per over, on a winter's day shortened by fog so the full quota of 90-overs cannot be bowled. It is not only the most runs scored by a single team in a day but also the first occasion when four batsmen score centuries, all at a strike rate over 100. England eventually win the match after a sporting declaration that initially appears to leave the probability of a win tilted in Pakistan's favour, until the hosts crumble under the relentless pressure. 

It is Test cricket as has never been played before. Until that is, England Cricket's new Managing Director, Rob Keys, brought in Brendon McCullum as the new Head Coach of England's Test team this summer. The former Kiwi captain, came with a strategy that was quickly labeled Bazball

McCullum, in his tenure as captain, had, for a time, reinvented the way the Kiwis played as a team. This was his chance as a first time coach, to demonstrate that his approach could become a sustainable framework. But his task was far from being an easy one. He was undertaking to turn around the fortunes of a team that had won just once in 17 previous outings. Its confidence was at an all-time low. 

Like any good leader in his first meeting with the team, McCullum laid out his strategy clearly and unequivocally. Attack would be their best form of defence. In addition, there were 7 pillars of success that his team needed to buy into, if they wanted to be a world beating team:

  • An environment that breeds forward thinkingwithout focusing on the past

  • NO Negative Talk

  • Winning Mentality

  • NO fear of failure

  • Plenty of Praise – even for the little things

  • Simplicity of messaging

  • Embracing Mental Freedom and Having Fun 

It was music to new captain Ben Stokes' ears - exactly the brand of cricket he wanted to play. It was Stokes' grit, determination, fearlessness that had won England the 2019 World Cup and Ashes series in a single summer. Now he had the license to allow his whole team to play the same way. The buy in from the team was swift. The details, McCullum and Stokes knew, would lie in the execution. 

And, in the tradition go the most successful examples from the world of sports and business, England's execution has been immaculate. Since June 2022, England has played 8 Test matches against four of the top teams in the world and won 7 of them in emphatic, and sometimes thrilling fashion. There have been no boring draws, no stone left unturned in going for a win. Chances have been taken, players have been given the freedom to go out and play fearlessly even when things don't go their way. Most importantly, it is visible even from the stands and the television screens, that this team is enjoying the journey. 

In elite sport as in business, when leaders are stuck in a vicious cycle of poor team performance while employing winning strategies that have stood the test of time, it is time to recognise that the journey has hit a dead end. It is time to begin another. And that journey does not begin with a strategy. It begins with a leader, and her or his imagination. 

Magical things happen when a leader imagines an alternative future. Steve Jobs changed how we live, work and interact, when he built Apple. Jeff Bezos with Amazon broke all our mental barriers about how we thought about a marketplace. Larry Page and Sergey Brin reimagined how knowledge and information could be imbibed and to what extent. They taught us that there is actually no limit to the information you can seek and consume. And with that, they fundamentally changed our future as thinking human beings.

Jobs, Bezos, Page and Brin did not start with a strategy. They started with a newly imagined future. The strategy followed. And it worked. In his own small way, Brendon McCullum has done the same. He has imagined a future and employed #Bazball as the strategy that delivers the future. It is early days yet, but it seems safe to conclude from the evidence thus far that #BazBall is on its way to perhaps fundamentally changing the way that Test cricket is played. It has been reimagined, and in all likelihood, found a new lease of life. 

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