England v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Old Trafford, 2nd day May 24, 2008

England missing the killer touch

England's bowlers are struggling to take advantage of decent positions after once again letting New Zealand off the hook at Old Trafford

England struggled to get past Kyle Mills as another chance to take control slipped away © Getty Images
Bowlers moan that it's a batsman's game - and when Ross Taylor is swatting good length balls into the stands the argument looks stronger - but it's undoubtedly bowlers who win Test matches. In domestic cricket sides can sometimes get away with weaker attacks by setting up run chases. That doesn't happen at the highest level, so it's about finding ways to grasp the key moments and take 20 wickets. It's a skill are England struggling to develop.

Michael Vaughan says he is "excited" by his young attack but exasperated must come pretty close at times, too. England's first three bowling innings of this series have been characterised by three missed opportunities to make a mark on the New Zealand batting line-up. Twice at Lord's they were on top before, firstly Brendon McCullum and then Jacob Oram levelled the scales.

At Old Trafford, the bowlers had two more chances in one innings to stamp their authority. When McCullum was caught at slip off Monty Panesar, New Zealand were 123 for 4 (and effectively 136 for 5 when Daniel Flynn retired hurt), but they couldn't ram home the advantage. Oram and Taylor adding 113 is one thing - they are both quality batsmen - the stand of 89 between Taylor and Kyle Mills was the one that raised more questions.

England's bowlers had been given a helping hand from the fielders, with Alastair Cook and Monty Panesar producing good throws, and at 250 for 6 the innings could have been wrapped up for around 300. Mills is better than a No. 9, he often bats five or six in club and state cricket, but England's bowlers should still have been able to find an answer.

This is not a new problem for England's attack. Since the four-pronged pace line-up of 2005 started to break up immediately after the Ashes, they have found it increasingly hard to knock teams over in anything but the most favourable of conditions. This is their 33rd Test since The Oval in September 2005 (when they only took 10 wickets, but there were extenuating circumstances) and in that time they have bowled a team out twice on just 11 occasions up to the current match. They have won nine of those matches, rain denied them another win at Lord's against India, and it just goes to prove it really is the bowlers that are the key.

It may be slightly harsh to single out the current attack; Stuart Broad is in just his fifth Test and they are still learning to work as a unit. Yet, Vaughan himself believes the team is more advanced than the 2005 side were at a similar stage of their development. It is hard to find evidence to back-up the theory, and it is difficult to believe that the England's best 2004 attack - Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles would have performed like the current generation.

A look at the latest set of bowling figures highlights the issue. Two of the four, the ever-dependable and increasingly outstanding Ryan Sidebottom and the hardworking Broad, are respectable but the others, James Anderson and Panesar, cost 219 runs in 43 overs. Anderson was doing a job for his captain, instructed to bang the ball in which will bring its share of loose offerings, but it was a bad innings for Panesar to be off-colour.

Maybe it was the pressure of expectation, coming back to a ground where he'd previously collected 18 wickets in two Tests, but he was treated harshly by Taylor and Mills. His economy rate of 4.59 is the second highest in an innings for his career, only a fraction behind the 4.62 he conceded against Australia in Sydney in January 2006. Without Panesar to at least offer Vaughan some control runs flowed quickly for New Zealand. A four-pronged bowling attack doesn't leave much room for wayward displays, especially from the spinner. Daniel Vettori, on the other hand, again caused England no end of problems on just a second-day pitch. Panesar will have to bounce back if England are to claim 10 more wickets in this match.

Peter Moores has admitted that Andrew Flintoff would have been back in the side at Lord's, if his side strain hadn't emerged, as part of a four-man attack. Vaughan is eager to have a bowler he can rely on to keep the pressure on and also act as a strike weapon. There is a feeling that Flintoff's latest injury prevented a hasty decision, but on the evidence of the past week you can see why they are so keen to have him back.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo