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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cric on July 22, 2014, 22:13 GMT

    India are one batsman short as Dhoni is a walking wicket at no. 6 which is a specialist batting position for batting stalwarts like VVS Laxman. India already have an allrounder in Bhuvi and he should be promoted to no. 7. India would need 5 bowlers to take 20 wickets on an overseas tour but if Dhoni is not going to bowl binny at all, his place in the side as an all-rounder is inexplicable. Even Rohit Sharma with his part time spin can do a better job. Jadeja can only contain from one end as he neither has the revs nor variation to prise out a wicket. Either get Ashwin in and hope that he bats well or get another genuine fast bowler in the squad.

  • Rahul on July 21, 2014, 17:53 GMT

    If India have genuine pace bowlers in Yadav and Aaron, then they should be picked. Sure they will go for runs, but it is extra pace that beats quality batsman. It was Mitchell Johnson's sheer pace that won Australia the Ashes. India have two promising quicks and they're not being picked. In fact, NZ series would have been a good time to pick Aaron and Yadav (were they in the squad for that series? I can't remember).

    I understand Aaron coming back from an injury, but that in my opinion is the nature of fast bowling. It is then up to the fitness staff to find a way to look after him. Yadav has actually kept more or less injury free and his performances in Australia (5-92 I believe) are an indication why he needs to be picked.

    There's no point in picking bits and pieces cricketers. For India to succeed they should play Yadav, Aaron, Shami, Pandey/Pankaj Singh/Ishant and Jaddu/Ashwin. Obviously on turning tracks have two spinners and 3 quicks.

  • Cricinfouser on July 21, 2014, 13:22 GMT

    India should have played aaron and Ashwin in first test because aaron is fastest at present and because England have six left handers in their team also Ashwin is a genuine allrounder and natural leader and ideal team man and currently in good form.

  • Dummy4 on July 21, 2014, 9:59 GMT

    Interesting point, though I think the improvement in tail end batting also relates to better protection for batsmen. Tail enders facing the likes of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft in the mid 1970's without so much as a helmet were unlikely to be too keen to get into line.

  • Richard on July 21, 2014, 9:28 GMT

    This is where England made a monumental error with Steve Finn from 2011 forward, as a specialist attacking bowler he had a better strike rate and indeed a better bowling average than most other England bowlers yet he was discarded because of a worse economy rate - i.e. he didn't fit into a very narrow and blinkered vision of what the bowling attack is there to do. Australia did not make the same mistake with the rehabilitated Mitchell Johnson recently - although he'll always fire a few terrible deliveries way down the leg side he's capable of blowing away top batsmen with sheer pace.

  • Dirk on July 21, 2014, 7:36 GMT

    @CalvinHobbes_123: Deuce03 and I understand your point, but do not think it is better made than Kartikeya's persuasive article. Let me have another go at putting our point: teams that have really good allrounders can afford to pick one specialist bowler than those who do not. Whether those are "batting" allrounders like Kallis and Sobers or "bowling" allrounders like Hadlee and Imran Khan does not matter. That is why having Duminy, Philander and Steyn, Harris and Johnson, Southee and Craig, give extra freedom to the SA, Aus, NZ selectors that England and India don't have. Their selectors cope with it by picking people like Stokes, Moeen, Jadeja, Binny etc in the hope that they may with experience become good allrounders; Kartikeya thinks that is bad strategy and they should first make sure that they have enough bowlers to bowl the other side out.

  • Vaughan on July 21, 2014, 7:29 GMT

    Nice article, but I think it forgets the fact that generally tail end batsmen have better techniques and abilities. If any particular team had a better bowler than the current ones playing, I'm sure they would pick them - batting ability or not.

    The example of Liam Plunkett is seized upon here - but he is the bravest selection England have made in ages, as he is a genuine attacking pace bowler - this should be applauded! Also, Sri Lanka are playing Herath at 8 who I think has a pretty similar average to Malcom Marshall (with bat in hand anyway)

  • Steve on July 20, 2014, 11:44 GMT

    Completely agree with this, 10 and 11 do not have to be batsmen! Even 9 need not be any better than a good defender. 8 does need to be handy, I guess, but certainly your 3 best bowlers to suit conditions need to be selected. That said, the Binny issue is more about the type of bowler he is, as a slow medium swing bowler he has to bowl when the ball is swinging! If he is too far down the team pecking order to be given the ball when it is moving, he becomes useless.

  • Balaji on July 20, 2014, 10:01 GMT

    The point the author is making is that in Tests, bowlers should be picked on their bowling ability; any runs they score is a bonus. This was what the West Indies of the 80's did. This is what Australia has been doing. This is possibly we haven't had too many all rounders in Australia in the last few decades. The two exceptions in recent times I can think of are Watson and Steve Smith; but Smith is now being picked only for his batting; his bowling is a bonus. An all-rounder is someone who is automatically picked for one skill, the other is a bonus.

  • Xiong on July 20, 2014, 9:44 GMT

    Australia has a glass cannon batting lineup but the bowling attack is still selected first and foremost for wicket taking ability or to keep it tight and nip the odd wicket, the batting is just a happy coincidence and a lot of hard work in the nets.

    It makes no sense for India to select so many bits and pieces players to make the batting more sturdy when they have guys like Vijay, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. As an Australian fan I wish our batting was anywhere near as solid as those 4 names are together, and still India won't select their 4 or 5 best specialist bowlers. I just can't make sense of it.

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