Cricket: Bowlers looking for respite from 15-over battering

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HOW do you stop a forest fire with a water pistol, or fell modern-day Goliaths with nothing more modern than a pea-shooter? Metaphorically at least, these are questions asked of England's one-day opening bowlers every time they step up to bowl the first 15 overs, a time when whirring bats are the norm, dot balls are a major triumph and anyone managing more than one maiden, is an immediate contender for the man of the match award.

Since the last World Cup, the one-day game has been turned on its head. Although some teams had previously dabbled in trying to maximise the fielding restrictions in place during the opening 15 overs, it was Sri Lanka who showed just what was possible with relentless hitting.

During that World Cup, Bob Woolmer, the South African coach, and a progressive, reckoned that his side aimed to score between 60 and 65 runs during the first 15 overs. Sri Lanka then raised that by 30 runs, a ceiling now further extended by the West Indies, with 15-over scores of 111 for 2 and 106 for 3 in the two recent one-day games against England in Barbados.

The bowlers almost exclusively used to try and stem this run haemorrhage have been Dougie Brown and Dean Headley, the latter's inclusion mainly due to him being a quicker variation on an otherwise medium-paced theme.

On the evidence so far, the extra pace appears to have been a burden, and while Brown averages an acceptable 5.2 runs an over, Headley is going for a confidence-sapping 7.7 runs per over. A figure not helped by the bowler's sundry no-balls.

Shell shock is not the sole domain of fighting men and Headley has been completely bewildered by the savagery meted out on him. The power hitting of Philo Wallace and Clayton Lambert followed by the sophisticated strokeplay of Brian Lara has disorientated him, and he should now hand over to gunner Angus Fraser before his sanity is impaired.

Brown, a level-headed Scot, said that despite the carnage, England had in fact been bowling to a plan. However, given that the best laid plans get rapidly reconfigured when under heavy barrage, this one has clearly not been a success. After all, runaway trains do not obey signals at junctions.

Unless you have the pace to get the ball chest high and cramp the batsman (a tactic that Nick Knight has in any case countered pretty well by hooking Curtly Ambrose for several sixes), or you open with spin, there are really only two options available. Either you try and bowl straight and short of a length, in the hope that the batsman will mis-hit, or you keep him guessing by mixing up line and length with slower balls and yorkers.

Often you can start with one and end up following the other. As Brown said before the next two day's back to back one-dayers in St Vincent: "You are constantly reassessing the situation. With only two men allowed outside the circle, new gaps appear which you have to try and plug. Really, it just boils down to an exercise in damage limitation.''

The West Indies have never lost a one-day match here at Arnos Vale, a small fast-scoring ground squashed between the airport and the sea. Against England four years ago, they scored over 300. But if that sounds fairly tame by today's standards, it was achieved before the pyrotechnics at the beginning of the innings were considered standard.

It is a problem that even taking wickets, often the best way to halt a run spree, has not quite solved. Yet whichever team finds a consistent way of coping will probably win the next World Cup, though the conditions in England during May, may not be as conducive to fast scoring as they have been so far in the Caribbean.

With Mark Ealham and Robert Croft, able to tie up the middle overs and with Matthew Fleming and Adam Hollioake to bamboozle at the death, it is only the start that needs to be rethought. Unless the current profligacy is stemmed, the England Cricket Board may have to set up a home for battered bowlers.

Northamptonshire have signed the West Indies fast bowler Franklyn Rose as their overseas player for this summer. The 26-year-old Jamaican replaces Australia's Paul Reiffel, who backed out of his contract with the county last month because of a shoulder injury.