January 22, 2014

How good is Australia's pace trio?

Johnson was often unplayable but Australia's support bowlers were equally important to their victorious campaign

Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle (along with Ryan Harris) blew England away with high-quality pace © PA Photos

The misery in England about the 5-0 Ashes defeat is made worse by the perception that this Australian side isn't that good. At least, the argument goes, in the past when England were wiped out 5-0 it happened against sides that were considered great. Ponting's Australians of 2006-07, Richards' West Indians of 1985-86, and Lloyd's West Indians of 1984 inflicted total defeat on England, but in two of those series England had their moments.

I will add to these the Ashes series when England refused to play for the urn, in 1979-80, when they were up against a full-strength Australia led by Greg Chappell. Captained by the shrewd Mike Brearley, England were at full strength, and lost 3-0. They managed to score 228, 215, 123, 237, 306 and 273 against Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Geoff Dymock, Len Pascoe, Ashley Mallett and Ken Higgs. But England had their moments in that series too. Botham took 19 wickets and scored a century coming in at 88 for 5 in Melbourne. There were two scores of 98 not out by Gower and Greg Chappell, a 99 not out by Boycott, and a 99 run out by Gooch. Lillee took 23 wickets.

However, just as the Gauls never speak of Alesia, the English never speak of that series.

The reaction to the 5-0 outcome especially underestimates the achievement of one player - Mitchell Johnson. Johnson produced one of the great individual bowling performances of all time in a full Test series. He was genuinely quick throughout the series and bowled more overs than any other Australian bowler, including the offspinner Nathan Lyon. Not only did Johnson take 37 wickets, he created wickets at the other end by putting batsmen under unrelenting pressure to defend and protect their physical well-being. He was supported brilliantly by Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, two bowlers who could have competently led very good Test attacks on their own.

If you look at all bowlers in Test history who have bowled at least a fifth of their team's overs in a five-Test series, Johnson achieved the best strike rate of all in the 2013-14 Ashes. No other bowler has been as lethal over five Tests. In all of Test history, there are 433 instances of a bowler delivering at least a fifth of his team's overs in a five-Test series.

In the table below, I show all bowlers who have bowled at least a fourth of their team's overs in a five-Test series and taken wickets up to a strike rate of 50 balls per wicket. I have made the standard stricter because it is common for a specialist bowler to deliver a fifth of his team's overs. Johnson tops the table even if we include bowlers who bowled between 20 and 25% of their team's overs.

The list, as you can see, is an illustrious one. I've added the result for the bowler's team in each case and the batting average achieved by the losing team. What is most interesting about that list is, it accounts for nearly all the one-sided five-Test series I can think of. Having a bowler or a pair of bowlers in top form is the surest way of producing a series win, more often than no, by a large margin. Trueman and Statham against South Africa in 1960, McGrath and Warne against England in 2001, Gough and Caddick against West Indies in 2000, Wasim and Waqar against England in 1992 are some examples.

Johnson has done better than all of them. That he has done so against an excellent England line-up that batted deep - Graeme Swann has five Test half-centuries, while Stuart Broad has 11, including one century - makes his achievement all the more creditable. Since the days of Duncan Fletcher, England have had a philosophy of picking players not solely on the basis of their primary competencies. Their selection of Borthwick, Bresnan and Stokes in this series betrayed this bias as well. It is an idea designed precisely to produce lower-order runs, if not quite in the volume that the specialist batsmen might provide, at a significant rate.

The Australian attack led by Johnson never allowed England's lower order to take root. England made an average of 78 runs after the fall of the fifth wicket. From since the start of the 2010-11 Ashes to the start of the 2013-14 Ashes, England made an average of 132 runs after the fall of the fifth wicket.

How a team bowls and how much it can attack in the second innings is often dictated by the size of the lead or deficit and the amount of time remaining in the game. Let's look at the first innings of the five Tests. It is here that Australia won the Ashes, in my view. And it is here that the superb support provided by Harris and Siddle comes to the fore. The table below shows the first-innings bowling in the series in England and Australia.

Team Series Wickets Economy Rate Strike Rate Average
England 2013 45 3.41 64.4 36.6
Australia 2013 50 2.78 64.2 29.8
England 2013-14 47 3.36 66.0 37.0
Australia 2013-14 50 2.51 44.1 18.5

It shows that England's troubles in Australia were already foreshadowed by their performance at home. In England, Australia struggled to find a settled bowling attack due to form and injury. They picked James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc as their strike weapons. Pattinson, in particular, could not control the scoring. In Johnson, Australia found a different quality of bowler.

England should have been worried by the fact that Swann was their most prolific wicket-taker in the first innings of the Tests in England. If we look within the summaries in the table above, in the Ashes in Australia, Siddle and Harris conceded 2.1 runs per over between them in England's first innings - the kind of support bowlers a captain would dream of.

In contrast, England's support seamers for Stuart Broad conceded 3.1 runs per over. The demise of Swann's offspin didn't help England. Swann's career was marked by the fact that he was able to bowl as an attacking offspinner behind a pace attack that was invariably challenging for opposition batsmen.

In the second innings in Brisbane, on a pitch that was unforgiving for spinners, Swann had to bowl against the weight of a large English deficit in the first innings. David Warner (53 in 59 balls off Swann) and Michael Clarke (40 in 40 balls) took him apart and he never recovered. Swann conceded five an over in that innings. He managed 2 for 215 in 53 overs in Brisbane, 2 for 182 in 45 overs in Adelaide, and 3 for 163 in 44 overs in Perth. The majority of his seven wickets were batsmen trying to slog him to the boundary. Australia's support bowlers stayed fit throughout the series and were miserly. Clarke's run-saving fields must get some credit for this.

Harris has the accuracy and seam movement of Vernon Philander with an additional yard of pace. He has not bowled in the subcontinent yet, but 93 wickets at 21.56 in 21 Tests speak for themselves. England must count their blessings that Harris is already 34 years old.

Siddle has had a peculiarly understated Test career. He has never been regarded as a top-line fast bowler because he doesn't seem to have any particular stand-out weapon. Dale Steyn has pace and outswing, James Anderson the ability to move the ball late both ways, Morkel steepling bounce, and Broad the ability to produce unplayable spells that combine steep lift and late movement. Siddle, as one close observer put it, is an "up-and-down man".

Yet, since his Test debut, he has produced a record that is at least as good, if not better than Anderson's during this same period. Anderson has been called the best seam and swing bowler in the world for a part of this period since October 2008, which also represents the mature phase of Anderson's career, while for Siddle it represents his first 51 Tests. Over his first 51 Tests, dating to August 2010, Anderson produced 185 wickets at 32.02, at a strike rate of 57.50. He was 28 years old when he played his 51st Test. Siddle was 29.

England's No. 1 fast bowler over the past five years or so (a man talked up as Steyn's rival for the title of best in the world during this time) has built the same record as Australia's first-change seamer. That is a measure of the quality of Australia's pace trio in this series.

Perhaps England ought to concede that they ran into a high-quality pace trio in Australia in 2013-14, around the same time that their own pace attack (and indeed spin attack) was falling apart. This in my view explains the 5-0 result. High-quality seam and swing bowling at high pace is the one unanswerable weapon in Test cricket. Mystery spinners can be found out eventually (ask Ajantha Mendis), but there is no mystery about high-quality pace bowling. The only way to counter it in a Test series is to have high-quality pace of one's own. Without that, defeat is assured. What does it matter if it's 5-0 or 3-0?

If England want to find a place to pin responsibility for their Test result, then logic suggests that this be directed at Anderson and the part of England's massive management team that selected, prepared and fielded bowling attacks for each of the five Tests. As for Australia, if Johnson, Harris and Siddle can stay fit, it will be a match up for the ages against Steyn, Philander and Morkel in March.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here