Thursday, August 16, 2007

The future of English bowling

When Ryan Sidebottom was selected to play in the test series against the West Indies, I wasn’t too impressed with the selectors. Having seen him debut against Pakistan a good 6 years back, I remember him being nothing more than ordinary. But his performances throughout the summer have been quite brilliant. Swinging the ball both ways is one thing, to make sure that you pitch it in the right areas is another. To get both things right makes you somewhere near unplayable. If I may even go on to say that I don’t remember watching such accurate swing bowling since the days of Wasim and Waqar may not be a complete exaggeration.

Then came the Oval test against India. The wicket was as flat as you can possibly get in English conditions. As you would normally expect of a typical English swing bowler, the conditions made his bowling as blunt as a butter knife. Trying to imagine how he’d fare in the subcontinent made me even more doubtful of his ability to adapt to non-swinging conditions. It’s the same with good old Hoggard. Hoggard’s a decent swing bowler but pretty much ineffective when there’s no movement on offer.

No wonder England’s record over the past 6 years has been rather up and down. They haven’t lost anything at home (before this Indian series) but on the other hand, they haven’t won anything substantial abroad, save for a test series in South Africa where the conditions suited their bowlers. And I’m afraid this trend seems likely to continue with their new crop of bowlers being more swing dependent such as James Anderson and Liam Plunket.

The thing about the 2005 Ashes winning line up was the incredible variety it had. There was Hoggard with his swing, Harmisson with pace and bounce, Simon Jones with reverse swing, Flintoff with seam, swing and reverse, and Ashley Giles with some orthodox spin.

I remember watching Simon Jones and Freddy Flintoff bowl incredibly with the old ball during that Ashes series. Reverse swing was something that the English were usually at the receiving end of, until Darren Gough successfully emulated Wasim and Waqar. It seemed that the torch had passed on to Jones and Flintoff. But after 2 series in the subcontinent and an Ashes series in Australia, reverse swing appears to be something that requires some level of assistance from conditions as well, at least for the English. So it would appear to me that England has a very condition dependent pace attack.

I believe Harmisson had brought the x factor to England’s bowling. With pitches such as those in Australia, even with very little sideways movement on offer, there is plenty of good bounce that allows Harmisson to be very awkward to play. Even on ordinary wickets, Harmisson is able to extract that bit of extra bounce that can trouble most batsmen. But then Harmisson’s extended run of bad form puts a number of question marks on his attitude and the technical soundness of his action.

Does this really explain the ineffectiveness of England’s bowling outside of England? I would believe it gives more than half of the picture. However, with the emergence of Monty Panesar over the last year or so, England should be able to win more matches abroad. I don’t remember an English spinner with so much zip and such an incredible fan following. To be able to take 5 wickets in an innings at pace friendly Perth says a lot about his ability to adapt to difficult conditions, especially since Warne has never achieved this feat in all these years.

And the 6 foot 7 Chris Tremlett should be able to make things even better. If he can use his height in the same manner that Harmission so effectively did, things should improve. There is definitely potential, but so far that is all there is.

Pakistani bowlers have generally fared well on English soil. This may be because of the fact that they are more acclimatized to English conditions as most of them do play county cricket on a regular basis. For the England team to be more prepared on subcontinent type wickets, it wouldn’t be such a terrible idea to arrange for more overseas tours, both for the national side and the ‘A’ and Under 19 squads. Suddenly the Indian Cricket League (ICL) appears to be a more appealing concept than first perceived. I just hope the ECB doesn’t ban their players from participating in the league, as the PCB has done with its players, since the benefits of participating in such an event clearly outweigh the negatives.