Saturday, 8 August 2009

England fail intelligence test

Angus Fraser:

Fast bowlers have the somewhat unfair reputation of being big, thick, dopey so and sos, incapable of thinking for themselves.

The stigma is historical, arising from the fact that previous generations of batsmen tended to be privately educated chaps that had picked up a degree at some flash university. The roots of a fast bowler tend to be far more working-class, as England's northern-based bowling attack highlights.

Australia's fast bowlers made a mockery of the generalisation yesterday morning as they intelligently adapted their game to capitalise on helpful bowling conditions to dismantle England's batting line-up for a paltry 102. With the stock of fast bowlers at a high England's bowlers then let the fraternity down with a thoughtless display during the afternoon. Only when Australia had passed England's total did Andrew Strauss's attack begin to follow the example set by their opponents.

The modern game is obsessed by pace, with many selectors and pundits believing that 85mph is the minimum speed a bowler needs to reach to be effective on the International stage. It is absolute tosh, as many of cricket's greatest bowlers have and continue to prove.

Yes, pace is important, but the one proviso is that the ball is pitched on the correct spot – a length that makes life for a batsman uncomfortable and difficult for him to complete the task he is paid to do – score runs. If the ball is released at speed but comes out like the spray from an aerosol can, it only disappears to the boundary quicker. Much of the blame for the obsession can be laid at the feet of the speed gun at grounds and the egos of He-man bowlers.

James Anderson, Stephen Harmison, Graeme Onions and Stuart Broad could not blame their shortcomings on the fact they needed time to acclimatise – Australia's bowlers had already shown them how to bowl at Headingley earlier in the day. With the ball swinging Australia's bowlers largely pitched the ball up, drawing England's top order in to apprehensive prods and pushes that fed the hands of an expectant slip cordon. On watching this England's bowlers then opted to test the middle of the pitch, a transgression that kept the crowd rather than the slips busy.

The early dismissal of Simon Katich, who gloved a lifter from Stephen Harmison to leg gully, may have encouraged England's attack to bang the ball in. But with Australia's score rattling along at six runs an over it should not have taken long to work out this was not the correct tactic. The three lbws that followed highlighted the error.

Peter Siddle will grab the headlines for his second five-wicket haul in Test cricket, but it was Stuart Clark who set the tone for Australia with three pre-lunch wickets in a beautiful seven-over spell of bowling that conceded only seven runs. Clark is a bowler from the old school, a seamer who takes great pride in bowling a consistent line and length.

Clark is not fast, bowling generally between 78 and 82mph, and like many traditional seamers he struggles to comprehend the trends and attitudes of modern bowlers. Half-volleys and long hops are not part of his game plan, not at any cost. In Clark's world batsmen have to work for their runs.

In Glenn McGrath, Clark had a great tutor, possibly the best line and length bowler the game has seen. Like Clark, McGrath cannot understand why so many young bowlers continually press the gamble button as they desperately search for wickets. In many ways their attitude mirrors that of the world outside. Instant gratification rather than patient reward is what they want.

"Work on the ego of the batsman," was one of McGrath's mottos. Basically he was saying that batsmen want to be in control and score freely when they bat, and when they are not they are likely to make mistakes attempting to gain it.

It therefore makes sense for bowlers to follow the logic of McGrath and the example set by Clark, especially at a venue like Headingley. Batsmen will make mistakes so be patient, wait for the errors to come along and grasp the chance when it arises. Bowlers may have the reputation of being a bit thick but it is batsmen who are really the dopey, impatient so and sos.

Spicy pitch makes life more fun

England may have been second best yesterday but the play highlighted how much more enjoyable Test cricket is when wickets are falling regularly.

A pitch used to be described as good if it was nice to bat on. If Test cricket is to remain attractive that must change, and groundsmen need to be encouraged to produce pitches that offer bowlers assistance.

Test cricket should not be played on minefields that offer inconsistent bounce and generous lateral movement, but scores of 450-plus should be a rarity not the norm.

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