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Match Analysis

England succeed with bouncer barrage - but at what cost?

Remarkable spectacle proved a winning tactic, though few at Lord's will want to see it reenacted

Travis Head copped a barrage of short balls, England vs Australia, 2nd Ashes Test, Lord's, 4th day, July 1, 2023

Travis Head copped a barrage of short balls  •  Getty Images

Having been undone by a desire to hook anything and everything in their first innings, England had a bright idea. Why not try and tempt Australia to be just as foolish?
On the face of it, the reasoning was deeply flawed. Australia arrived on day four with the match situation very much in their favour, resuming their second innings on 130 for 2, with an overnight lead of 221. They had no reason to play (short) ball, no obligation to do as England had in chaotically flailing with cross-batted shots to relinquish their strong position. They had already seen England jam their hands in the toaster - there was no need to burn themselves in similar fashion.
And yet, they did. Not straight away, mind. This was more a reluctant, slow-burn set of brain fades. All of their final eight batters succumbed to a nonstop, at times nonsensical, barrage of short-pitch bowling, seemingly out of boredom.
The results were broadly similar, and arguably more impactful from England's perspective as a usually unflappable Steven Smith swung Josh Tongue to Zak Crawley at backward square leg. A dismissal all the more surprising given Travis Head had been dropped the ball before. Even with the wake-up call to switch back on still ringing in his ears, the most switched-on batter in world cricket was dozy.
Australia's decision of when they might let England bat was taken out of their hands with mistimed pulls, the odd hook and a few pop-ups to close catchers. All for the addition of just 149 runs across 56.1 overs.
This was very different to Australia's more calculated approach with the ball. Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson and Tongue dealt almost exclusively in deliveries pitching on their side of the pitch (James Anderson only bowled two overs after his regulation opening foray). Pretty much every ball after lunch was banged in - 98% according to Sky's coverage - and it continued even when a lame Nathan Lyon hobbled out to the middle and was clearly going to struggle with anything aimed at his stumps.
In total, England bowled 302 "short" balls, including those adjudged no balls and wides. An entire ODI innings (and change) trying to strike oil through the very middle of Lord's. Absurd, frankly. By stumps, the gloss of that effort had been chipped by a fuller Australian approach which left England four down with 257 still to get.
Nevertheless, it was remarkable to see an English attack shedding a lifetime of fuller lengths, nip, swing, wobble for this modern Bodyline remake. The effort put in, particularly by Anderson, Broad and Robinson, suggests three days will not be a long enough turnaround to replenish their energy levels ahead of the third Test at Headingley which begins on Thursday. They will have gone to bed very sore.
None more than Ben Stokes. A 12-over spell after lunch was something of a throwback, albeit with the very new proposition of doing it on one knee. The discomfort ramped up with each over, and in turn the worry if such an approach was feasible considering he possesses the best bouncers of the group. But part of his captaincy has been about never asking his players to do something he wouldn't. So here he was, tearing in and, as a result, tearing himself apart. The wicket he pocketed of Josh Hazlewood was momentary relief.
It was sore on the eyes, too. There were large passages of impasse, particularly during a 20-over stand between Alex Carey and Cameron Green which produced just 42 runs. At times, as balls were either collected down the leg side by wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow or missed as they arrived to him on the bounce, you wondered if this was doing the image of Test cricket more harm than good.
"I don't know," answered an honest Marcus Trescothick, England's batting coach, when asked if he thought it was good viewing.
He observed both sides had taken different approaches to facing the barrage and it was hard to say at this juncture which way was best. Granted, England's errors were more high profile, with Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root and Harry Brook careless as they contributed to a nosedive from 188 for 1 to 325 all out. Could Australia have committed a bit more and in turn given England a stiffer chase than 371?
"When the ball gets old and the pitch gets so flat, you might see a lot more of it in future times to come. And how that will adapt Test cricket, I have no idea at this point"
Marcus Trescothick
"We lost wickets to the short ball, of course we did," Trescothick said. "But I think over the course of today, let's put that in context: when Australia were batting, they didn't take on the short ball as much but they still lost wickets and didn't score as many runs."
As Australia's second innings wound down, the conflicting emotions about whether any of this was good, interesting, helpful or even legal - given at times there were more than two shoulder-height balls per over - raged on. But one thing Trescothick was certain on was this was a tactic he expects to see more and more. England were able to control the run rate and make inroads on a surface seemingly conducive to neither, certainly not at the same time.
"It might change the way the game is played," Trescothick said. "When the ball gets old and the pitch gets so flat, you might see a lot more of it in future times to come. And how that will adapt Test cricket, I have no idea at this point. But it was very, very different in comparison to what we see. We could be seeing something that might need to be understood or adapted in the future. Because it was different, and not Test cricket as we generally know it."
It's worth pointing out that, well, bowling short on quiet decks has been a thing since forever. Neil Wagner has made an entire career out this, and it was only back in February that his pitch-pounding efforts inspired New Zealand to that famous one-run win in Wellington.
For those keeping track, add "bouncers" to "outswingers" and "scoring boundaries" as the latest things this England side are taking credit for. In all seriousness, there was something admirable about such back-breaking pragmatism from a group of bowlers who are not getting much help from their batters.
Trescothick anticipated Australia will move to the short ball at some point on day five, and he is not wrong about that. But they will do so with a bit more nuance, even if they know England are trigger-happy hookers. Their extra pace, as evidenced by a second bouncing out of Root - Cummins with successive rising bumpers that first shocked England's best batter before sending him back with one he was powerless to avoid - gives them a far greater edge. And, frankly, it is eminently more watchable.
Therein lies the main takeaway. England did what they had to do and did it well. But for all who were there watching the self-proclaimed entertainers hammer the middle of the pitch, the prevailing hope was for better pitches going forward so we never have to sit through this again.
Until Sunday, of course, when England will have to face down the short ball again. They will need to exercise more caution and suspicion, and Ben Duckett may consider himself lucky to still be there after his wayward swish to Mitchell Starc at deep third for a controversial end to one of the more surreal days of Test cricket. Otherwise, they will find themselves nursing a 2-0 deficit in an Ashes that may be remembered as a series in which they gave so much and achieved so little.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo