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Jon Hotten

England's unheralded bowlers are their silent heroes

On paper, they are an unassuming, unlikely bunch, but with unspectacular labour, they have been delivering results

Jon Hotten
Wood and Plunkett: adept at extracting advantage out of home conditions  •  Lindsey Parnaby/AFP

Wood and Plunkett: adept at extracting advantage out of home conditions  •  Lindsey Parnaby/AFP

Seven, 16, 20, 32, 36, 53, 54, 74, 78.
These were the ICC ODI bowling rankings for, respectively, Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Steve Finn, Moeen Ali, David Willey, Ben Stokes, Mark Wood and Jake Ball as the Champions Trophy opened. Woakes, ranked highest, lasted for two overs of the opening game before exiting the tournament with the dreaded side strain. Rashid, the third-best-ranked was - in true England pre-tournament tradition - dropped at the last minute. Finn, the fourth-ranked, hadn't yet been added to the squad to replace Woakes. After 44 overs of that opener at The Oval, with Bangladesh at 247 for 2, nerves were twanging, if, as ever with Eoin Morgan, constrained behind that implacable Steve Waugh squint.
Because England, under Andrew Strauss, have done something very un-English - they have bet the house on the Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup. It is bold and very slightly thrilling to have ambition so nakedly declared.
Their batting may have undergone the greatest transformation of reputation since John McVicar went straight, but it is their bowling that faces perhaps the bigger test, not just of the bowlers but of the philosophy of producing them. It's an attack born of the age of talent pathways and development camps, of Under-19s and Lions and Loughborough and sports science: the diets, the analysis, the focused drills and the periods of rest. England have perhaps the most invested in and best-financed cricketers around. Now it is time, Strauss has said, to find out if that investment has paid off. That's pressure, right there, and not just on the players but on the system itself.
They are, as their rankings suggest, an unlikely bunch, a Dirty Dozen-type arrangement. Woakes is the icon of a contemporary English player, a man eking every ounce of self-improvement - and a crucial extra few mph - from a finely tuned physique. Hard work and professionalism drip from him.
Wood, so often compared to Simon Jones, has Jones' X-factor along with the injuries (the ball he bowled to dismiss Kane Williamson, as a single act, may prove pivotal to this entire endeavour).
Faced with the slim-stitched Kookaburra that rarely swings, they bang out heavy length with a variety of seam positions, coax unexpected responses from the wicket. It is designed to squeeze and stifle
The better Stokes bats, the more terrifying it becomes every time he runs in to bowl and then waves at the dressing room with the latest tweak or spasm.
Plunkett began with England as a whippet-thin medium-fast man in November 2005 (he replaced Simon Jones) and is living an effective second life, reborn as a mid-innings wrangler with the build of a flanker and a phlegmatism untouched by any kind of quick-bowler's ego. There's something ageless about him, and something ageless about Ball too, the puppy-ish winner of a race with Finn. Ball, despite his air of a boy wonder, is now 26, five years older than Mustafizur Rahman and four years older than Kagiso Rabada.
They are, as Simon Hughes wrote in the Times on the eve of the game against Australia, "unheralded", a feeling shared by Steven Smith, who called them predictable and went on: "[It's] just their plans, the way they structure their innings and the way their bowlers are used and what the bowlers do. The bowlers have a set of skills that we know quite well and we know what they are going to do. So you're halfway through the battle, if that makes sense."
You can insert your own cheap shot at Smith right here (he can read it on the plane home), but it was in part a comment about the predictability of the game itself. Since the 2015 World Cup, it operates a new paradigm for batting teams: a start that preserves wickets (the group stage of this tournament has produced an average score after the first ten overs of 47 for 1), a middle period built around a big innings of run-a-ball accumulation (Root, Williamson, Kohli et al) before an assault that begins around 12 overs out and gathers a scary momentum inspired by what's achievable in T20 cricket (India, for example, took 72 in the last four overs of their innings against Pakistan).
It is this new method of assault that bowling must combat. England may be unheralded, but it's here that they are succeeding in their own conditions. Faced with the slim-stitched Kookaburra that rarely swings, they bang out heavy length with a variety of seam positions - Wood and especially Plunkett are adept at cross- and wobble-seam deliveries that coax unexpected responses from the wicket. It is unspectacular labour, designed to squeeze and stifle. As recently as January and the difficult tour of India, Nasser Hussain was describing the very same bowling as "one-dimensional and one-paced", and in those circumstances, it was. It is a home-banker attack.
Morgan's prevailing philosophy is one of fearlessness. When it was suggested to him that a struggling Jason Roy might take some time to play himself in, he replied, "We just don't talk like that." The response to early wickets going down is simply to attack harder. It's a philosophy that wobbled only once, when Rashid was pulled from the side for the Bangladesh game. Strauss has made consistency of selection a keystone, which made it feel like even more of a spasm back to the bad old days, the kind of overthinking that betrayed a lack of confidence in simply putting your 11 best men on the field and letting them get on with it.
As Shane Warne's dictum goes, "if it seams, it spins" and Rashid has gone on to prove it. Like Imran Tahir - and like almost every other legspinner except Warne - he will offer boundary balls, but he changes the dynamic of England's bowling by simply being there. In including him, England fights its natural, national caution, but he is a game-breaker.
England have been engaged in a great struggle with tournament cricket since it began in 1975. It does not fit well with the national psyche (the football team suffers too). Tournament play has a rhythm of its own and it requires an acceptance that for all of the planning and all of the stats, the gods of chance can speak, a Carlos Brathwaite can descend from the heavens to pull years of preparation apart in an instant. It resists analysis, it negates the Loughborough mentality. It thrives instead on trust. England's batsmen have it in spades. The bowling group may not have turned out as its coaches would have designed it, but England are learning to trust it too. Perhaps the gods will smile on them if they continue to.

Jon Hotten blogs at The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman