July 20, 2009

Mike Holmans

Who is the weakest link?

Mike Holmans


Mitchell Johnson had a match to forget © Getty Images
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Are Test matches won or lost? The immediate reaction to a match usually focuses on the outstanding performances which can be said to have won it, but I often find it instructive to look at the weakest links which might be said to have lost it. Specifically, I have a hypothesis that you learn most about the difference between two sides by looking at their fourth-best bowlers.

Few substantial Test innings involve less than four bowlers. If you like, they form the four walls surrounding your castle. If the fourth wall is a rickety wooden fence rather than solid brick or concrete, then the cavalry can plunder through and run riot, negating the sturdy resistance being mounted around the rest of the compound. A fourth bowler who restrains batsmen as well as a colander holds soup allows the batting side the luxury of blunting the edge of your best bowlers and just waiting until the runs flow again, whereas a fourth bowler who manages to contain and even take important wickets allows no let-up – which means the batsmen have to take risks against the top men, thus increasing their chances of getting out to them.

At Lord's these last five days, Stuart Broad was England's fourth bowler and Mitchell Johnson Australia's. Broad's match figures were 34-4-127-3 and Johnson's 38.4-4-200-3. Broad's performance was of the not-too-bad variety while Johnson's was somewhere between poor and awful. Since England won, this is an observation of data which confirms the Fourth Bowler Hypothesis (or, to be more rigorous, does not disprove it).

At 23, Broad is still young enough to be classed as a promising up-and-coming player who has not yet mastered his trade, whereas Johnson is 27 and should be approaching his best. Broad's imperfections are therefore more to be expected and offer less cause for major concern than weaknesses in Johnson's game.

England have given try-outs to several young or youngish pace bowlers in recent years: what makes Stuart Broad stand out ahead of most of them is his steady absorption of lessons. On Saturday morning, he ran in and bowled bouncer after bouncer at Nathan Hauritz and Peter Siddle and was treated with as little respect as his poor execution deserved. It was nothing like the chin music with which Fred Flintoff has been serenading Phil Hughes – it was short-pitched dross. Even so, there was a big difference between that spell and the kind of tripe which was served up by the likes of Liam Plunkett, Saj Mahmood and Chris Tremlett: it was deliberate. It may not have been the best of plans and it may not have worked, but at least he was bowling to one. What a captain wants most from any bowler is that he should bowl to the field which has been set, and the best thing about Broad right now is that he is obviously doing his utmost to fulfil that requirement.

Mitchell Johnson, on the other hand, was clearly driving his captain to distraction at Lord's. He was nothing like the electrifying destroyer who had taken South Africa's batsmen apart over the winter. He had no control of length or direction, so his opening spells against Strauss and Cook on Thursday opened the gates of the Australian castle, let down the drawbridge and said “Come on in and pillage our gold.” He it was who allowed England to carry on building momentum after the great Cardiff escape, a momentum which carried England through to victory despite the lack of self-belief which saw them surrender the initiative on Sunday to such an extent that it was easy to imagine Australia setting a record for chasing which would be likely to stand for decades.

This is not an attempt to write Johnson off. Whereas the drop-off in Phil Hughes's performances since South Africa is owing to a weakness being identified and ruthlessly exploited, Johnson's deterioration is purely a loss of form. If or, more likely, when he recovers his composure and control, he will once again be a formidable bowler, but he needs to do so fast if he is not to be dead weight taking up space in the team which could be used far better by someone else in this series.

If the hypothesis is correct, then a comparison of fourth bowlers ought to shine a spotlight on how difficult the respective selectors' jobs are. Broad's problems are not so serious that they cannot be accommodated with the expectation that the experience he gains today will serve him well in years to come, whereas if Johnson continues in this vein he could lose the series for Australia.

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Posted by yadav on (July 25, 2009, 4:25 GMT)

OK article !!!!

@Oblomov > you just spoke my mind. Johnson's action reminds me of Ashish Nehra. Hay Australians, just hope he won't fade away as Nehra did. But it would be great for cricket if he doesn't.

Just as australians thinking of putting Clark in, english selectors must keep in mind that Flintoff can break down any time and bring Harmison in for Broad so that australians get no respite in the field. I realise that he hasn't got great record against Australia but he is in good form at the moment and he can be devastating when on song. And what about bringing in Chris tremlett for Graham onions? That guy doesn't look like taking test wickets against australia. This could be a devastating bowling attack and not the current one @ Freddie flintoff

Posted by Patrick on (July 24, 2009, 5:17 GMT)

Johnson has bowled poorly and has been disappointing but the criticism of him has been hysterical. For the series, his bowling average is better than most of the other specialist bowlers: Anderson, Broad and Swann for England and Siddle for Australia. His batting average is also better than some of the batters: Hughes and Hussey for Australia and Flintoff, Bopra and Broad for England.

Summing up most of the coverage from the tests so far is a lilting coverage: first test Australia are unbeatable and England should give up; second test Australia are weak and fatally flaw and England are unstoppable. I suspect that much rests on a knee and whether a left hand can lift higher at the crease.

Posted by shirish nanavati on (July 24, 2009, 3:17 GMT)

I have read tons of material on the second test. While there are many reasons for England to win, including terrific performance from Flintoff, the key player were the umpires. How so? How can any team produce runs when three key guys are incorrectly given out at the most crucial stage of the match! Funnily no one mentions this key point. I rest my case. Shirish Nanavati.

Posted by Walter on (July 23, 2009, 20:22 GMT)

@ Freddie_Flintoff at July 22, 2009 8:48 AM

Do you suffer from short term memory loss? I reacall the aussies posting 675/6 against your devastating attack.

As for the article at hand, I think there is some merrit in this comparison. Even though Broad had the 4th best figures his return was much better than Johnsons. The fact that Mitch is the spearhead of the aussie attack is reason for some concern. I believe if Mitch goes back to basics..and stops trying to sling the ball as hard as he possible can he'll click back into form and then the English will have thier work cut out for them.

I personally think that the English should be really careful from now on..as the aussies bite back hard..as the showed in SA not so long ago..

Posted by Samjay on (July 23, 2009, 20:04 GMT)

I wonder if cricket analysts have a metric for poor captaincy. Ponting has been pretty unimaginative for most of his career; it is just that great players had made Australia the No. 1 team despite of that. This factor is more dominant than anything else, in my opinion.

Posted by oblomov on (July 23, 2009, 14:44 GMT)

just have to say that i never rated Johnson and it has come as no surprise to me at all to see him fall apart. His action is terrible and he gets most of his wickets with rubbish balls that make the batsmen's eyes light up. He is quick and strong but cannot move the ball in to the right. He will never be remembered as a 'great'.

Posted by Jeff on (July 23, 2009, 12:50 GMT)

Isn't there a case to say that the "4th bowler" should actually be the sum of all bowlers other than the top 3?

In this case, Australia's "4th bowler" was Johnson/North/Clarke who took 4 for 286 in in the match vs England's "4th" of Broad/Onions/Collingwood who took 6 for 247.

Clearly the Aussie "4th bowler" performed worse than Englands but i'm not sure this was the case of the defeat.

If you take the opposite view and look at the performance of the "top 3" bowlers for each team then the results are just as striking.

The Aussie top3 took 11 for 408 and Englands took 14 for 351

This gives the following figures:

Strike Rates Aussie 4th = 94.8 England 4th = 60 Aussie Top 3 = 59.9 England Top 3 = 47.1

Economy Rates Aussie 4th = 4.5 England 4th = 4.1 Aussie Top 3 = 3.7 England Top 3 = 3.2

Looking at this, you could argue that the reason England won was because the top 3 Aussie bowlers actually bowled like a number 4 bowler...

Posted by WinniePooh on (July 23, 2009, 12:37 GMT)

I mentioned the most prominent in my post, but perhaps you don't care for Atherton's opinion.

Posted by anil on (July 23, 2009, 12:35 GMT)

its strange. suddenly your premier bowler looks like weakest link even he has taken 8 wickets in ten math. from my point if view, openers from australia should be called weakest link as they fail to deliver as unit. if batting clicks you can win matches or draw them, but you cant loose a game like this australian team

Posted by WinniePooh on (July 23, 2009, 11:15 GMT)

Andy Cronk, having read an AWFUL lot of the press as mentioned in my article previously, your fourth bowler theory still looks like distinct shoe-horning to me considering that it is a five bowler attack and basically the press has so much form on trying to compare Broad and Johnson you are just adding to a very, very long list of shoehorns

[Mike: It's not Cronk's theory, but mine, and it's not a new theory: I first started comparing the fourth-best bowlers on each side during the 2005 Ashes.

If you want to maintain that Johnson and Broad were not their respective sides fourth-best bowlers in terms of actual performance (Onions was better than Broad in I1 and Swann in I2), then you have interesting criteria. As it happens, I cannot recall a single article comparing Broad with Johnson. Still, I'm sure you'll be happy with your rant.]

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