July 19, 2014

The decline of the specialist attacking bowler

Why do teams pick a fourth bowler who is practically incapable of taking five wickets in a Test innings simply because he can score a fighting 40?

Stuart Binny's selection shows India's preference for bits-and-pieces cricketers over specialist bowlers © Getty Images

In the first England-India Test at Trent Bridge, England took 19 wickets in 284 overs. India took ten wickets in 145 overs. Nos. 9, 10 and 11 in the batting line-ups made four half-centuries and a 47, and were dismissed only six times. They faced 625 deliveries.

The Trent Bridge wicket turned out flatter and slower than the groundsman expected. After dismal early signs on the first day, the groundsman expressed hope that the pitch would quicken up on the second and third days. No such luck. As Rahul Dravid put it, it was a pitch that helped neither batsmen nor bowlers.

And yet I think England could have won at Trent Bridge. India could have won too. India were 346 for 9 in the first innings. England were 202 for 7 in just over 70 overs in the second. In the third innings, England had India at (effectively) 145 for 6 with about 60 overs to be played. Neither side had the ability to finish the other off, to drive home an advantage when they had it.

One way to explain this would be to see the pitch as the central culprit. This doesn't add up, though. Why did a wicket that produced two centuries and five half-centuries in 21 innings from the top seven, produce a further five half-centuries in 12 innings from the last four?

The draw at Trent Bridge was the result of a trend in team selection that has crept into Test cricket in recent years. Much has been made of the influence of limited-overs cricket on Tests. More batsmen can now play attacking shots all round the wicket, the ground fielding is better, scoring rates are higher, and there are more results in Tests today than there were in the halcyon days of great fast bowlers in the 1970s and '80s. All of this is arguably true.

Equally true, in my view, is the decline of the specialist attacking bowler. Test teams these days seem to loathe picking a player who is a bowler if he cannot hold a bat. England currently have James Anderson and Stuart Broad as their settled new-ball pair. Broad has made a Test hundred and Anderson is no Chris Martin with a bat in hand. Yet Anderson is strictly a No. 11, and Broad has rarely batted higher than No. 9 recently.

When Anderson batted at No. 10, we heard about England's "long tail". Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Tim Bresnan, Chris Jordan or Scott Borthwick have made up the bowling attack alongside Broad, Anderson (and Swann when he was playing). Any team that was serious about winning Test matches, and had Broad and Anderson as certainties in the line-up, would scour the country for the two best wicket-taking bowlers they could find, regardless of their ability with the bat, and put them at No. 10 and No. 11 in the batting order. Yet, England have picked Liam Plunkett, a good bowler, who, not coincidentally, has a first-class batting average of 24.

Would you try to be a specialist wicket-taking bowler in first-class cricket if you knew that you were basically competing for no more than two spots in the Test XI?

India do the same thing. Instead of picking the best available spinner, regardless of batting ability, they have compromises built into their squad selection. Ravindra Jadeja or R Ashwin are not going to scare any specialist batsman on anything but a rank turner. Under Duncan Fletcher, England signalled a similar attitude by preferring players with "two skills". Now that Fletcher has come to India, it has meant the selection of players like Ashwin, Jadeja and Binny over those like Umesh Yadav or Varun Aaron. Yes, the latter two are raw, but they are not going to mature unless they get picked to bowl.

If Fletcher was West Indies' coach in the 1980s, he would probably have played Malcolm Marshall at No. 10 or 11, and insisted on picking two other bowlers who could also bat a bit at Nos. 7, 8 and 9. Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Patrick Patterson might never have played in the same Test match, let alone the four-man pace battery.

You might argue that Marshall was special - that he averaged 19 with the bat in Tests. The key statistic about Marshall was not that he averaged 19, or that he made ten half-centuries. He batted at No. 7 or 8 in 89 out of 107 Test innings, with a career average in the mid-teens. He made nine of his ten half-centuries at No. 7 and 8. Can you imagine Fletcher playing a bowler who averages 14 or 15 at No. 7 (or even 8) in a Test team?

Can you imagine England playing Broad at No. 7 or 8? Or India playing Bhuvneshwar Kumar at No. 7 or 8? It would be unthinkable in this day and age. Broad has played as often at No. 8 as he has at 9. And yet it makes complete sense mathematically and tactically to play someone like Marshall at No. 7 or 8 and play specialist bowlers who aren't as good with the bat at Nos. 9, 10 and 11. Marshall played only 107 innings in 81 Tests out of a possible 162. That's not because he made enough runs at No. 7 or 8. It's because West Indies picked enough bowlers to not require runs from No. 7 or 8 most of the time.

Teams and fans seem to dread losing their last four wickets for about 20 runs. They seem to dread conceding 100 runs for those last four wickets. The latter hurts a team far more than the former. A fourth bowler who is practically incapable of taking five wickets in a Test innings but can score a fighting 40 is a significantly worse addition to a Test team than an eighth batsman who averages 13 to 15 with the bat but can dismiss specialist batsmen on good wickets.

These tactics in elite Test cricket trickle down into the more formative levels. Would you try to be a specialist wicket-taking bowler in first-class cricket if you knew that you were basically competing for no more than two spots in the Test XI? Or would you try to be a bits-and-pieces man knowing that you could compete for any spot out of Nos. 6, 7, 8 or 9 (or higher up the order in the slog version of the game) depending on which part of your game was better?

This preference for caution at Nos. 7, 8 and 9 contributes to another tactical choice that makes things worse. This is the tendency of many captains to stop trying to take wickets at one end once they get the tail batting with a specialist batsman or even a well-set wicketkeeper. Joe Root made most of his 154 at Trent Bridge while India were not particularly interested in getting him out. So not only do teams play bowlers for their batting, captains then try to take wickets only off two balls in an over. Root scored an entire century at Trent Bridge while refusing singles to deep-set fields.

Perhaps some of these wickets look so flat because teams don't have enough quality in their bowling line-ups and are therefore unable to realistically challenge batsmen consistently over 80 overs. England and India have retained the same XIs at Lord's. Binny, Stokes, Moeen, Jadeja and Plunkett are playing. The Lord's pitch has been designed in reaction to the Trent Bridge pitch. One or two of these players may well go on to become top-quality bowlers. But this doesn't explain Broad's position in England's batting order, or Kumar's in India's.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here