How England's bowlers executed their astute plans while batters stole the show

On every major metric they outperformed the New Zealand and India attacks, including the short-ball strategy

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Stuart Broad has picked up many wickets off the short ball this summer  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Stuart Broad has picked up many wickets off the short ball this summer  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

This has been the summer of England's batting. It's impossible to not come to that conclusion. Not only have they performed record-breaking feats, they have done so in an ultra-aggressive, impossible-to-ignore style. But this is Test cricket and as much as England have tried to bring one-day clarity to the batting side of things, one truism hasn't changed: you don't win Tests without taking 20 wickets. Across four Tests this summer, England have taken all 80 wickets.
It was a point not lost on Ben Stokes or Joe Root after Edgbaston. "We've taken 80 wickets in the last four weeks and that's not something we've always been able to do," Root said, wondering perhaps why, when he was captain, they were struggling to do precisely this.
"A lot of credit has to go to the bowling group, four back-to-back games. Seeing Jimmy Anderson bowling bouncers at 7 o'clock at night the other day was pretty impressive, and it shows the total commitment and belief in what we're trying to do and how we're trying to go about bowling sides out. That's a big improvement for us as a group, to be able to do that and set up the opportunity for us to go and chase these totals down."
The first bit of surprise is perhaps that England have outperformed with the ball two sides who made the WTC final last year, two sides currently in possession of the greatest attacks their countries have ever had (though New Zealand were ultimately hampered by the injury to Kyle Jamieson and arguably got the Neil Wagner non-selection wrong). On paper, England's bowling attack was widely thought to be the weakest of the three, not least because of the extensive pace bowling injury list they were having to work around. As many as eight fast bowlers who might have been picked ahead of Matthew Potts are out with injuries.
Yet on every major metric, they have been better than their opponents.
James Anderson is, remarkably still, pure and unadulterated James Anderson, Potts has been the season's breakout star, Stuart Broad has had… moments, Jack Leach will always have Headingley and Stokes has mopped up behind them, hovering somewhere between and under-utilised swing bowler and an enforcer. Had it not been for Leach's concussion at Lord's or Anderson's ankle niggle after Trent Bridge, England would've played the same attack all four Tests. No rotation, no rest, no messing around. The best attack plays, every game.
Where England's attack has really made a difference is when the ball has become older and softer. With the new ball, England's figures are more or less identical to New Zealand's: 16 wickets for both sides, average around 27. England have been nearly a run more economical, which in a summer about run rates, has been important. But performances with an older ball became even more significant, given that the Dukes ball has been a problem all summer, losing shape or going soft so often as to require regular change. The final day's play at Edgbaston lasted 90 minutes, but within it the ball was changed twice.
That probably affects this data in ways that are not clear. But the gulf in averages and economy rate from overs 30-80 between England and their opponents is so vast that it is clear England did something much more right than the others. Being able to call upon Potts, Stokes and Leach (and Broad when needed) has highlighted a depth that New Zealand, for example, couldn't match. Not bowling to their own batters has helped that economy rate - strike rates are similarly poor (83.1 for England and 85.6 for New Zealand and India combined). But for all the problems Stokes has had with no-balls, he has the best strike rate and average (44.72 and 33 respectively) during that phase of the innings.
The plan with that older, softer ball has been simple: go short. Overall, England's fast bowlers have bowled a short ball, on average, every 12 balls this series; New Zealand one every 19 balls and India one every 18.
But the majority of the short-pitched bowling has come when the ball has become old. Maybe it's because the ball hasn't reversed or that the pitches, like a bouncier Trent Bridge, have encouraged it. England have not been reckless with it either, specifically targeting the lower order with it. The top-of-mind Jasprit Bumrah assault on Broad (and memories of the hour of bouncers at Lord's last summer) mean the strategy might be recalled as a dud. Why not just bowl a good length and hit the top of off?
Except that bumping the lower order has proved very successful. England have picked up 15 wickets off short-pitched deliveries this summer (of which Broad, the one-time enforcer, has nearly half); 12 of the 15 have been batters at No. 8 or below and 12 of 15 have come post the 50th over.
That includes the swift wrapping up of New Zealand lower order (5 for 57) in the first innings at Trent Bridge (when they looked on course to get 600-plus); more crucially, it includes the three wickets in the second innings when New Zealand were hustled out on a blameless surface to leave an imposing, rather than impossible, target. Even in what now feels like the only normal Test of the summer, the first at Lord's, Anderson was bouncing out Jamieson and Tim Southee in the first innings.
At Edgbaston, that Bumrah over apart, it worked beautifully. Three wickets in the first innings and four in the second, hurrying out India in a collapse of 7 for 92. That was the difference between a target of 450-plus and 378. The batting has still literally had to operate at an all-time level to get to those targets, but it wouldn't have been possible in the first place without the bowling.
England averaged just under 15 with the short ball, New Zealand nearly 49 and India 61. New Zealand's strike rate with the short ball was nearly double that of England; India's was double. Broad, Stokes and Potts were England's main men for this plan, their short balls not only likelier to get a wicket, but as the run rate suggests, more difficult to score off.
As much as the batting had that ODI feel to it, there's been times when England were switching to this plan that it appeared as if they were bowling the grunt overs of an ODI, just more attacking with the fields. It wasn't the kind of late-innings Test match bowling you necessarily expect in England - as Root said, even Anderson. It didn't look especially attractive or even - at times - well-thought out. Make no mistake though: It was. It got the job done and how.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo