We’ve heard a lot in the last couple of weeks about how England’s bowlers will struggle in Australia, how they might not have the firepower to take the 20 wickets needed to win a match, how they won’t be used to the Kookaburra ball. Australia on the other hand, have the faster, more aggressive, more destructive bowlers who will be more effective in their own conditions.
But is that fair? I’ve got a feeling that England’s bowlers are being underestimated slightly.
Firstly, let’s look at ‘The Mystery of the Kookaburra Ball’. As everyone who’s ever been to a game of cricket has so knowingly pointed out, they don’t use Dukes balls in Australia. They use the Kookaburra ball. And it’s so vastly different that the England bowlers won’t know what to do with it. It won’t swing, it won’t seam, and it goes soft so there will be no bounce.
Of course, that only applies to any England bowlers who have never played a test in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or Pakistan before, where they also use the Kookaburra balls.
It’s just unlucky that none of England’s bowlers have played test series in any of those places. Oh…hang on. They have. Remember when Graeme Swann got four 5 wicket hauls last winter against South Africa and Bangladesh? How about Jimmy Anderson taking 5 for 73 in Wellington when England were 1-0 down in the series? What about Stuart Broad’s match-winning demolition of South Africa’s top order in Durban? That’s right. All of those performances were with the unfathomable Kookaburra ball. Even Steven Finn, England’s newest fast bowler, made his test debut with the Kookaburra ball in Bangladesh. Far too much has been made of this. England’s bowlers are skilful enough and clever enough to know how to use the Kookaburra ball to good effect.
So what about Australian conditions? From what I’ve heard, they’re so unlike anything else that you have to access them through a door at the back of a wardrobe and contend with a disgruntled lion. Are they really that different? Admittedly, they’re usually less green than pitches in England or New Zealand, although Australia’s unseasonably wet summer might prove even that generalisation to be false. But, in the modern game, where pitches are almost uniformly flat and lifeless, it’s hardly something England’s bowlers won’t be used to. And, with the possible exception of Adelaide, they will have a great deal more pace and bounce than the featherbeds played on in Sri Lanka, India and the West Indies these days. With the height of Finn and Broad, England won’t be too worried. They certainly won’t mind having some bouncy decks to attack Ponting and Clarke, given their recent troubles against the short ball.
Furthermore, unlike years gone by, where reverse swing was seen as some sort of unmasterable, sub-continental sorcery, it is now part and parcel of England’s fast bowling armoury. Jimmy Anderson demonstrated his ability to reverse the ball both ways in the West Indies a couple of years ago, and should have the chance to exploit this skill again this winter. Broad and Finn can also reverse the ball when conditions suit, certainly more consistently than Mitchell Johnson with his renegade wrist. While England’s bowlers may not be quite as effective as at home, they will certainly still pose a threat.
Having said all that, until a few days ago, I probably would have agreed with the growing consensus that Australia’s bowlers have a slight advantage, mainly due to experience in their home conditions. But that was a few days ago. Since then, Australia’s bet-hedging has turned into spectacular knee-jerking, and they have jettisoned their occasionally innocuous but often effective off-spinner, Nathan Hauritz, in favour of Xavier Doherty, who is untried, unproven and lots of other words beginning with ‘un-‘. One must question the wisdom (and fairness) of dropping a bowler who has taken a five wicket haul as recently as two tests ago, while retaining a batsman who has scored one test hundred in 14 months, seems strange to me. Now we hear that they plan on leaving out Doug Bollinger, arguably their best bowler in the last year, in favour of Peter Siddle, who hasn’t played a test match in the best part of the year and is recovering from a stress fracture to his back and getting used to a remodelled action.
Without Hauritz and Bollinger in the side, the Australian bowling unit looks fragile, in more ways than one. When Johnson gets it right, he is dangerous, but those days seem to be getting fewer and further between. Doherty is a unknown quantity in a way, but you have to assume England aren’t too worried about a man who has got a grand total of 84 first class wickets in 9 years at an average of 48 and a strike rate of 84. Siddle is admirable bowler who has done well for Australia, but rushing him back after such a long lay-off could leave the Eeyore like Ben Hilfenhaus shouldering a heavy burden. If Siddle and Hilfenhaus fail to break through England’s top order before the fabled Kookaburra stops swinging, I can see it getting very difficult for Ricky Ponting to contain England’s batsmen.
Finally, the question of firepower. Stats don’t lie. On the face of it, there’s not a huge amount between the two bowling attacks. England’s attack boasts a combined bowling average of 30.33, while Australia’s is 29.95. England’s strike rate is 56.63, compared to Australia’s 56.46. Barely a hair’s breadth between them. However, England’s attack are far more experienced and have taken far more wickets – 430 to Australia’s 274. They also have the best bowler on either side by far in Graeme Swann.
Perhaps most importantly, England’s bowlers are all match winners. While the batting benchmark is the century, for bowlers, it’s the five wicket haul. Five-fors win games, and in this measure, England are streets ahead. Between them, England’s bowlers have amassed 24 five wicket hauls, compared to Australia’s eight. Anderson has ten on his own, at a rate of one every five games, and Swann nine, at an incredible rate of 1 every 2.67 games. Broad, statistically the weak link in England’s unit, but a bowler who is improving rapidly, only has three five-fors to his name in his 32 games. Even Steven Finn has picked up two in his short eight game career (admittedly against Bangladesh). In comparison, only Mitchell Johnson can compare with England’s bowlers, having taken 6 in 38 games. Between them, Australia’s other bowlers have two five wicket hauls, both of them taken by Siddle at a rate of eight and a bit games. It’s a far cry from four years ago that’s for sure and, I think that this time, England have the edge.