Sunday, 21 March 2021

Fighting fire with fire

Up front, a warning. This post is about cricket, and pretty much nothing else. And it's long. 

There's obviously a long way to go, given that we have no idea whether this summer will pan out anything like normal, but the cricket press and forums are starting to turn their attention to England's Ashes tour next winter, and to who might make up the team. In particular, large parts of the cricket press and public seem to have decided that the only way England are going to win is with out and out fast bowlers.

That always sets the alarm bells ringing for me. In my lifetime, England have won four Ashes series in Australia. They suggest that there are far more important things for England to concentrate on than "fighting fire with fire" by picking quicks. 

In 2010-11, Andrew Strauss's team won 3-1, with a four-man bowling attack. None of them were what I'd call fast – Chris Tremlett came closest, but his height and extra bounce were more important weapons. Jimmy Anderson and Tim Bresnan were good old-fashioned English seamers, and Graeme Swann played a big part with his off-spin. What was even more important was a batting line-up that, other than the first innings at Brisbane and most of the Perth match, coped superbly with the Aussies' pace and bounce.

In 1986-87, Graham Dilley was the closest England had to a genuine quick, but he was still more like fast-medium, as were Botham, Small and DeFreitas. Spin twins John Emburey and Phil Edmonds helped give Mike Gatting control in the field, but again the vital thing was a batting line-up that, Allan Lamb apart, dealt well with the Australian attack.

In 1978-79, the Aussies were weakened by the loss of their Packer players, and England beat them 5-1 (we'd lost a few too, but they were pretty much all players on the downhill slope). Now, Bob Willis played a significant role, and Big Bob was genuinely sharp. A young Ian Botham was quicker than he sometimes appeared, too, and he was among the wickets. But Mike Hendrick, a classic English seamer if ever there was one, was just as important, and off-spinners Geoff Miller and John Emburey were both highly successful.

Only in 1970-71, which I don't remember, did an English fast bowler genuinely dominate the series. John Snow was the quickest, the nastiest and the best on both sides, and the Aussies had no answer.

Looking back beyond that, it's fair to say that the two previous England wins in Australia could be put down to out and out fast bowling – 1954-55 ('Typhoon' Tyson blowing the Aussies away in two tests) and 1932-33 (Larwood, Voce and Bodyline).

What has always been important in Ashes wins in Australia has been the batting. Batting as long as possible, and wearing down the Aussie pace attack, which is rarely anything but impressive (OK, 1986-87 was an exception there). Boycott, Edrich, Luckhurst etc., in 70-71. Randall, Gower and an all-round performance in 78-79. Chris Broad, with help from Gower and Gatting in 86-87. And Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Bell in 10-11. When we've lost over there, it's generally been because we haven;t coped with their quick bowling. In the 90s, there was Shane Warne to cope with too. 

I have a horrible feeling the squad will be packed with Archer, Wood, Stone and maybe others only because they are fast. I'd rather it be packed with the best bowlers, regardless, and even more importantly the best batsmen, the ones who will fight it out and bat for days if necessary. 

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