December 31, 2011

The day-long menace of the relentless collective

The marvel of England's worldbeating fast bowling attack is how it transcends the sum of its parts

England's ascent to the top of the world Test rankings was marked by two contrasting but complementary features. On the one hand their batsmen moved collectively into the zone, and with seven double-centuries in the space of 15 months, they made it their duty to turn every start into a grandstand finish.

But those feats would have counted for little had England's bowlers not also raised their own games, and with a tally of eight innings victories in the space of 13 Tests, the net result has been one of the most impressive periods of dominance in the team's Test history. At the same time, England's one-day cricket has continued to flounder for a coherent strategy - which is proof, perhaps, of just how good those best efforts have turned out to be in the long-form game.

The real wonder of England's run of results has been the everyman nature of the contributions. Other sides can claim to possess more fearsome or inventive operators, with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and, when fit, Zaheer Khan among those who would give England's ensemble a run for their money. But when it comes to the relentless pursuit of breakthroughs - be it through hours of strangulation or flashes of inspiration - few can match the day-long menace that England currently provide.

England's statistics for 2011 are especially revealing. Four of the five bowlers vying for top billing in the year's averages are fast bowlers - James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan. Each claimed between 21 and 35 wickets, at sub-30 averages and with economy rates of no more than three an over, but not one of them was able to feature in each and every one of an unusually light workload of eight Tests.

Far from being a fatal flaw in England's bid for Test supremacy, that interchangeability turned out to be a serious strength. After the euphoria of the 2010-11 Ashes victory, it proved to be the team's first line of defence against fulfilment - one of the many factors that brought about England's demise after the 2005 triumph - while at the same time it broadened the squad's experience and so reduced the reliance on inspiration that has so often been the source of teams' downfalls.

In England's recent history there was a time when the performances with the biggest impact on team morale were those that had already been and gone. Steve Harmison, to name but one notable example, spent most of the final four years of his Test career failing to recapture the menace of his pomp, and succeeded only in muddying the waters on the infrequent occasions when his radar found its range - much as Mitchell Johnson's Perth rampage hoodwinked the Aussies into thinking they were back on an even keel during last winter's Ashes.

Then there was the thorny issue of Andrew Flintoff - England talisman and heartbeat of the dressing room during the 2004-05 zenith under Michael Vaughan, and seemingly indispensable right up until his final Test appearance, in the 2009 Ashes. That, however, ignored the fact that Flintoff had missed as many Tests as he had played in the preceding four-year cycle, and it wasn't until England were able to achieve closure on his career that plans for the future could be forged and players such as Anderson could emerge from his immense shadow.

The progress of England's attack in the past two years has been astonishing, and in 2011 a new candidate for attack leader presented himself for duty almost on a match-to-match basis. Anderson has consolidated his status as the Test team's first-pick bowler, but when he succumbed to a side strain in the first match of England's home series against Sri Lanka in May, it was the formidable Tremlett who took up the cudgels with a brace of irresistible spells in Cardiff and at the Rose Bowl - the first of which inspired England to an extraordinary innings victory in 24.4 overs of Sri Lanka's second dig.

No sooner had Tremlett laid bare his credentials, however, he too found himself on the outside looking in, as a back spasm paved the way for the unheralded Bresnan to take his personal Test record to ten wins out of ten with a series of performances that were belligerent and disciplined in equal measure, and included, at Edgbaston, one of the balls of the year to dislodge the otherwise imperturbable Rahul Dravid.

It was Broad, however, who ended up as Man of the Series against India with his own renaissance display, and by the end of England's international programme, on their otherwise ill-fated tour of India in October, the fastest and most accurate speedster on display was none other than Steven Finn. Ten months earlier in Australia, he had been England's leading wicket-taker after three Tests of the Ashes but had been discarded for his profligacy. MC Escher himself would be proud of such seamless overlaps.

The preferred method of England's bowlers has been Spartan in the extreme. No one exemplifies this better than Anderson, the reformed loose cannon whose finest displays these days are as remarkable for their economy as their impact. He conceded his runs at 2.93 an over in 2011, compared to the 3.81 he used to leak in his early days in the England set-up, prior to his recall against India in 2007 - the first series in which he hinted at the onset of maturity.

Under the tutelage of England's bowling coach David Saker, the former Victoria seamer who favours mindset over mechanics, Anderson has resolved to eliminate the four balls that used to litter his performances, and in so doing, he has made himself a threat at both ends of the wicket at once. If he's not claiming the breakthroughs himself, the chances are that his colleague at the other end is cashing in on his parsimony, given that many modern-day Test batsmen, schooled on the urgency of one-day cricket, break into a cold sweat when the scoreboard is too slow-moving.

In a man-for-man comparison, England's quicks of 2011 might struggle to outshine the legendary quartet of 2005 - Anderson might slot in for Matthew Hoggard, but Flintoff, Jones and Harmison in their pomp would be harder to displace. However, the squad mentality that has been cultivated in recent campaigns is something that few captains in Test history would be willing to trade for a better model

The method that England have employed is hardly groundbreaking. When the West Indians were at the height of their powers in the early to mid-1980s, their awesomeness stemmed as much from the expectation of excellence as from the pressure they exerted on their opponents. With just four precious berths in the attack, and a production line of replacements bubbling up from the islands, every spell was an event of multi-faceted importance - for the man with the ball in his hands as much as for the batsman getting ready to receive it. And yet, crucially, the bowlers in both instances recognised that the best response to that pressure was to put team glory ahead of personal gain.

England's attack wouldn't ever pretend to be cut from such ferocious cloth, but the similarity is telling - just as it was in 2005, when England last boasted a pace attack with the credentials to subdue the best. In a man-for-man comparison, the quicks of 2011 might struggle to outshine that legendary quartet - Anderson might slot in for Matthew Hoggard, but Flintoff, Jones and Harmison in their pomp would be harder to displace. However, the squad mentality that has been cultivated in recent campaigns is something that few captains in Test history would be willing to trade for a better model.

"The great thing about our bowling unit is that we genuinely take as much pleasure in each other's successes as our own," said Broad during the summer. "It doesn't matter who takes the ten wickets. When I was a kid and a fan, I got the impression at times that Darren Gough and Andy Caddick were almost competing against each other to take wickets. We put pressure on together and squeeze the opposition as a pack."

The evolution of England's attack has undergone four distinct phases since the days of Gough and Caddick. First there was the scattergun selection of the early Vaughan years, when James Kirtley, Richard Johnson and Anderson Mk 1 were all tried, tested and found wanting. Then there was the brief but glorious alchemy of the 2005 attack, which in turn gave way to an era of round pegs in square holes, as England attempted to replace the irreplaceable with tyros such as Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett, neither of whom was really given a chance to be his own man.

The catalyst for England's new approach came arguably in the spring of 2007, when Peter Moores - a man whose brief tenure is starting to be seen in a more favourable light - dispensed with Duncan Fletcher's obsession with 90mph bowlers, and turned to the yeoman service of Ryan Sidebottom and his left-arm swing. At the time it seemed something of a novelty to pick such an unglamorous player and trust him to do what he had done for years on the county circuit, but it was the beginning of a new era of laissez faire from the management.

For two unstinting seasons Sidebottom shouldered the mantle of attack leader, to provide England with an alternative to the men whose best years were behind them, and to show the younger men alongside him, most notably Anderson and Broad, that whatever special skill or speed you may be able to impart on the ball, there's no mode of delivery quite as effective as the timeless virtues of line and length. When every candidate for selection buys into that single truth, it becomes quite a recipe for success.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Paul on January 3, 2012, 19:34 GMT

    The England & Wales test cricket team needs to win abroad in India, Sri Lanka and against Pakistan and to beat South Africa over a test series to be truly considered the best in the world. So far the test side has beaten or drawn with the teams they have come up against for the last few years. We will see if they can keep it going. given the age of the England side they have a couple more years before any changes will be expected (expect for injury or serious loss of form) so they have a chance to cement their No1 ranking. It won't be easy though. Pakistan will be a really tough challenge and the series with South Africa in England will be very closely contested. The biggest test of all will be the tour of India though. England have a terrible record in India and will need to consistently post large batting totals to have a chance there.

  • Paul on January 3, 2012, 19:22 GMT

    I think most people in England would agree with the sentiment of the article - that the England & Wales cricket team doesn't contain any stand-out superstars but have found a way to perform far above expectations. England are ranked as the No1 test side because they have consistently won series over the last 2 years. Only time will tell if that success continues. Pakistan will be a tough challenge for England that all cricket fans will enjoy watching. Personally, I can't wait.

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2012, 14:36 GMT

    shan thats wat m saying austlia are a great teamindia won series in england and drew in 2007 even came close ro winning in 2011 in sa but just one odd test in aussies and this year england beat injured indian side and there record in india everyoneknows

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2012, 14:33 GMT

    but mate now they have won nows its term to prove that they can winoutside england

  • Rohan on January 3, 2012, 11:47 GMT

    The Poms are the best team in tests and have the best attack without a doubt, despite the parochial calls of other countries fans. However to the smarmy Pommy supporters who think they'll dominate for years to come, while your bowlers are good, your batters, despite career best years from Cook, Bell and Trotts, is unlikely to be the same for long or as good. You only have to see the laughable state of your limited overs game to see that England's depth is still rather shallow.

  • Randolph on January 2, 2012, 6:11 GMT

    @Jose Puliampatta - very well put. When you see Trott and KP winning matches, you can't really call it an English win.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2012, 1:46 GMT

    lol@Jonesy2, RandyOZ & the usual subcontinental suspects pretending to rate England's attack as the 4th or 5th best in the world. Do you guys need reminding that we didn't just *beat* Australia & India: we ANNIHILATED you; we ground you into the dirt. The young Aussie pacers are certainly showing a lot of promise - as are Yadav & Aaron for India - but with neither Australia's nor India's batsmen having a clue how to counter-attack against the pace, bounce & swing of Tremlett, Anderson, Broad, Finn & Bresnan, we'll be dominating the Aussies & Indians for years to come - starting with the Indian tour in 2012.

  • Gez on January 2, 2012, 0:40 GMT

    Nice article Andrew. It's the strength of their 2nd attack that tells the full story. At first I couldn't believe that Onions wasn't chosen for the Australia tour, but after the series i could see why! Anderson has received much praise over the last few years, but I believe Tremlett is their best. He was absolutely outstanding in Australia. Good lord, I really can't believe these Indian fans. What is wrong with them? They always talk about performing on Indian pitches, but I've always maintained that Indian wickets make for soft cricket where less than courageous batsmen can plant the front foot forward and hit through the line. Real cricket is played on grassy wickets, for real men.

  • Phil on January 1, 2012, 23:03 GMT

    @apoorv: and they hadn't won in Oz for ages either, so what's that prove. (BTW India hadn't won in England for 21 years prior to 2007).

  • Dummy4 on January 1, 2012, 18:43 GMT

    Broad, fin and swann are the only ones that can perform well in the subcontinent. As far as anderson is concerned , we'll just have to wait and see. He has alot to prove this year. I think that Pakistan has the best bowling attack in the world atm simply because our bowlers have the ability to 20 wickets regularly in asia something that SA couldn't against us. Then comes australia's which is then followed by england's bowling attack. But i see broad and fin having a good decent year. Swann might do well against us and the sri lankans but against india in india he is definately going to struggle.

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