Post-mortem (2): England’s bowling
The unrelenting threat of England’s four-pronged seam attack in 2005 was probably the decisive factor in their series win; indeed, Australia never passed 400. This time, however, they have pulverised the English attack in four of their five innings, averaging almost 60 runs per wicket.
It all started so ominously with Steve Harmison’s horrendous opening ball landing at the feet of his skipper. Like Phil Defreitas’ opening delivery in the ‘94/95 series, it revealed much about English anxiety. Harmison finally came good, bowling with hostility and consistency, at Perth; but, by then, England were 2-0 down and defeat was inevitable. Harmison, who has now retired from ODIs, is remarkably unpredictable and mentally frail for one who was once ranked the world’s finest fast bowler. If he fares poorly in the next two Tests, then his place will come under enormous scrutiny, especially if Simon Jones returns.
The most damning indictment of Harmison came when Andrew Flintoff opted to give the new-ball to the out-of-form James Anderson ahead of him. Anderson’s selection for the first two games was largely down to his terrific bowling during England’s Test win in India last March, but he was never able to bowl accurately, let alone penetratingly. One of the reasons for his initial selection ahead of Sajid Mahmood was seen as being his superior consistency, yet his economy rate is an appalling 4.78 an over. Once the golden boy of English cricket, Anderson has to develop consistency of line and length and threat on docile services.
There is no man better for him to ask advice on improving these facets of his game than Matthew Hoggard, who suffered a miserable time down under four years ago but has responded with greater discipline and new tricks – such as, crucially, being able to swing the ball both ways. His 7-109 at Adelaide was testament to his improvement over this period, and surely proves he is currently England’s finest seamer.
A year ago, that title was Andrew Flintoff’s. He has been hampered by an ankle injury, it would appear, yet has still bowled almost as much as is normally the case. Although wholehearted, he has lacked a certain threat. If 2005 was Flintoff’s crowing glory, 2006, in spite – or maybe because of – him being made captain, has been a disaster. He averages just under 30 with the bat but, more alarmingly, 37 with the ball, figures that barely justify his place in the side.
His Lancashire colleague Mahmood has understandably let his frustration at being continually over-looked in the last Test be known. Is his skipper’s lack of faith such that he could justify giving him just two overs from the first 73 in Australia’s innings? If so, why was he playing? Mahmood has the raw attributes necessary to be a superb bowler, but, while his Test economy rate stands at 3.79 an over, he is too much of a gamble.
Monty Panesar, apparently, was too much of a gamble too, which is why Ashley Giles appeared in the first two Tests. Predictably ineffectual, he also failed with the bat on the sole occasion his contribution was significant and dropped Ricky Ponting en route to a match-turning century, before learning of his wife’s illness. It’s all gone horribly wrong for Giles, a fighter and genuinely amiable team man. If truth be known, it is unlikely he will play Test cricket again.
But Monty Panesar will, thankfully, play both Tests and ODIs, such is the impression he made at Perth, where he took five wickets in the first innings and bowled better than figures of 3-145 in the second suggest. His loop, turn and calm when being attacked mean his place in the side is now beyond doubt. England’s seam attack was never going to be as effective as in 2005 but, had they selected Panesar form the start, they would at least have offered a genuine wicket-taking threat with spin.