Ashes 2013-14: Was Australia's Test bowling unit the best?

Alastair Cook said this Australian Test bowling unit was the finest he’d faced but surely South Africa’s are better? And what about Warne and McGrath? Our expert compares the three

Having seen his side dismissed/humbled for fewer than 200 on six occasions during England’s ill-fated defence of the Ashes, it is hardly surprising that Alastair Cook rates Australia’s bowling attack as the best he has played against. For a man who has pitted his wits and technique against the finest bowlers in the world on more than 100 occasions during the past eight years it is quite a statement.

Cook’s view will have undoubtedly been influenced by the fact Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon have dismissed the England captain on 26 occasions.

But what is it that makes a bowling attack stand out? The best contain variety, with bowlers offering different speeds, angles and degrees of bounce to challenge the technique and mindset of a batsman continually. Australia’s 2013-14 attack has offered such variety and is now being claimed by some pundits as the best in the world.

But are Cook and the other pundits correct? Cook played in the 2006-07 series that England lost 5-0 and South Africa’s attack, prior to the retirement of Jacques Kallis, was something to behold. Here is my assessment of these three bowling attacks. For what it is worth, I believe England’s best bowling attack of recent times came together in 2005, containing Stephen Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles.

The Spearhead

Every captain loves to have a genuinely fast and hostile bowler in his team, an enforcer who is capable of unsettling and intimidating an opponent. They get batsmen worrying about their personal welfare as much as scoring runs or occupying the crease.

Mitchell Johnson performed this role magnificently during this winter’s Ashes and his hostility visibly worried England’s batsmen. Johnson was brilliantly managed by Michael Clarke, who used him in short, sharp spells. Everyone knew Johnson could bowl fast but his accuracy had previously let him down. In this series he was accurate and consistently fast. Johnson’s rehabilitation from a fragile passenger to fearsome terminator is one of the greatest sporting comebacks of modern times.

In 2006-07 Brett Lee performed this role. On his day Lee was as quick as Johnson. Despite possessing raw pace he never really had the X-factor, though. Lee’s Test career started with a bang but his bowling became far too inconsistent. But the 37-year-old has shaken up better players than Piers Morgan (in an exhibition net recently) – ask Alex Tudor, the former England fast bowler whom he poleaxed with a vicious bouncer at Perth in 2002-03.

Cook played against South Africa’s Dale Steyn in 2011. Steyn is a truly magnificent fast bowler and will rightly go down as an all-time great. He is hostile, extremely skilful and capable of being destructive on placid pitches. Steyn has huge heart and is ultra-competitive. Cook, however, has played him well, being dismissed by the 30-year-old on only three occasions in 11 Test matches.

That Johnson is a left-arm bowler is a huge bonus. There are very few like him in the world and therefore the challenges they pose are hard to prepare for. Yet even despite Johnson’s magnificent bowling in the past six weeks, I believe Steyn to be the best of the three.

Steyn’s consistency is the principal reason. Johnson’s bowling average has generally fluctuated between 28 and 34, while Steyn’s has glided between 21 and 24 in his last 50 Test appearances. Steyn has also taken 22 five-wicket hauls in 69 Tests against Johnson’s 10 in 56.

Points:

D Steyn 3

M Johnson 2

B Lee 1

The Class Act

This role is not as glamorous as the spearhead but is equally important. Their game relies on being unerringly accurate and giving the batsman very few scoring opportunities. If there is any assistance in the pitch, whether it is lateral movement or inconsistent bounce, these bowlers are deadly. They are often described as a captain’s dream because they offer control and the ability to win matches.

Ryan Harris has performed this role superbly in the last two Ashes series and it is a wonder Australia waited so long to get him involved. He is deceptively fast and combines skiddy pace with the skill to swing and seam the ball around. In the recent series he was a magnificent foil for Johnson as his consistency allowed his opening partner to bowl fast and not worry about run rates.

Harris is unfortunate in that his contemporary in 2006-07 was the great Glenn McGrath, one of the finest fast bowlers to have played the game. McGrath’s control was second to none and his high action allowed him to extract alarming bounce out of any surface. McGrath was not particularly fast and he did not swing the ball prodigiously but he did so many things right. If there was any seam movement available in the pitch he found it, and when he did he was unplayable. No pace bowler in the history of the game has bowled more balls on a good length than McGrath.

South Africa’s Vernon Philander is a relative newcomer to Test cricket but he has made an immediate impact. He is the closest thing I have seen to Richard Hadlee, the New Zealand great. Philander is not quick but fast enough for no batsman to take liberties. He bowls a heavy ball, which means it hits the bat harder than you think. Facing the 28-year-old is the ultimate test of a batsman’s technique. Very few balls are wasted and on a surface that offers assistance he is as dangerous as anyone in the world. His record of 105 wickets in his first 20 Tests at an average of 18 is no fluke.

But though Harris and Philander are both class acts, it has to be McGrath.

Points:

G McGrath 3

R Harris and

V Philander 1½ each

The Support Seamer

Again, this is often a slightly unglamorous role as this bowler sends down the tough overs from the end that the Spearhead and Class Act do not fancy bowling at. Often he has to run uphill or into the wind. He also bowls a lot of overs with the old ball and because of this he is more likely to chip in with two or three wickets here or there.

Peter Siddle selflessly performs this role for Australia and he does it extremely well. Siddle knows what is required and gets on with his job. The 29-year-old is a wholehearted team player who is deceptively fast – mid to high eighties – and can swing the ball skilfully when conditions suit.

In 2006-07, Stuart Clark performed this role for Australia and he did so exceptionally well, taking 26 wickets in the series. Clark was slightly taller and had a higher action than Siddle, which enabled him to extract more bounce out of pitches. Clark’s Test career lasted only three years but he crammed a lot into 24 Tests, taking 94 wickets at an average of 23.86.

Morne Morkel is not a typical support seamer, in that he would be the Spearhead of most sides. The fact that he doesn’t occupy that position for South Africa – Steyn does – highlights the strength of the Proteas’ bowling. But Morkel is a brute of a bowler. He is 6ft 8in and is capable of sending down 90mph-plus thunderbolts. With what he has to call on, his record should be better than it is.

Although his Test career was short, Clark gets the nod for me. His record is significantly better than Siddle and Morkel, whose performances are almost identical.

Points:

S Clark 3

M Morkel and

P Siddle 1½ points each

The Spinner

The role of spinners is two-fold: to keep things tight in the first innings of Test matches and then to come into their own as the pitch wears and becomes conducive to their skill. The best spinners offer a wicket-taking threat in both innings and they also allow a team to play one fewer bowlers if a true all-rounder is not available. Graeme Swann has afforded England this luxury in recent times.

Bowling in the shadow of the great Shane Warne was never going to be easy and, until now, Nathan Lyon has been an extremely underrated bowler. Being an orthodox finger-spinner, Lyon is never likely to have the impact of the wrist-spinner Warne but he bowled with skill and thought this winter. England’s right-handed batsmen failed to come to terms with him bowling round the wicket.

There has been no better exponent of the art of spin bowling than Warne. The charismatic leg-break bowler threatened whenever he bowled and possessed the control to tie up an end while the seamers rested. The fact he was effective in the first innings of matches meant the great Australia side of the Nineties and early Noughties could play four specialist bowlers and have their wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist batting at seven.

Spin is South Africa’s only weakness and the fact they needed to recruit a bowler from overseas to fill the void highlights this. Imran Tahir has promised much but is yet to deliver. His strike and economy rates are far too high.

Not a difficult decision to make: Warne.

Points:

S Warne 3

N Lyon 2

Imran Tahir 1

All-rounders

True all-rounders are a godsend to any side. They allow a team to play with the equivalent of 12 players. Differentiating between genuine all-rounders and bits-and-pieces cricketers can be difficult. The best way of identifying the true quality of an all-rounder is their batting average being higher than their bowling average. If their averages are the other way round, they are heading towards being bits-and-pieces cricketers.

Like many all-rounders Shane Watson seems a reluctant bowler. The havoc caused by Johnson, Harris, Siddle and Lyon meant that he had few overs to bowl during this winter’s Ashes. A fragile body means that he no longer runs in and bowls with hostility. Watson’s new role is to produce occasional skilful and miserly five- or six-over spells. Watson’s batting average is currently 4.5 runs higher than his bowling average.

The fact that Andrew Symonds could bowl was an added bonus for Australia in 2006-07. Symonds could deliver hustling medium pace or occasional off-spin. Despite his batting average being three runs higher than his bowling, he would admit to being a batsman who bowled a bit rather than an all-rounder.

Jacques Kallis is arguably the greatest cricketer the game has seen – and statistically he is. Even though he is a reluctant bowler, he could perform any task the captain wanted. Kallis could bowl extremely quickly if the mood or match situation was right, and in a less able attack would have taken far more than 292 wickets. His batting/bowling differential is almost plus 23, which is remarkable.

Another simple one: Kallis.

Points:

J Kallis 3

S Watson 2

A Symonds 1

In the final analysis: Team total

Australia 2006-07: 11 points

South Africa 2013-14:  10 points

Australia 2013-14: 9 points

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