England learn to resist the seduction of speed

Trent Bridge triumph shows that Test success requires controlled, accurate bowling - not an approach that values pace above all else
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The Independent Online

The use of speed guns may have made Britain's roads a safer place but the introduction of these devices at cricket grounds has had a detrimental effect on the art of fast bowling. Since they first became fashionable in England in the mid-1990s, selectors, coaches and players have become obsessed with the speed at which the ball travels down the wicket rather than the skill that is used by the bowler to get the batsman out.

Make no mistake, there is no better sight in cricket than a fast bowler in full flow and nothing empties bars quicker than when the man on the public-address system announces that Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee are coming on to bowl. But it is not this type of fast bowler, with a "speed is king" attitude, who dominates the game and constantly tops rankings.

During the last 15 years several tearaway fast bowlers have exploded on to the scene but, more often than not, they have disappeared as quickly as the ball when quality batsmen attack one of their deliveries. Among the quicker men it has been the likes of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shaun Pollock - fast-medium bowlers who have enough pace to keep the batsmen honest, combined with unerring skill and control - that consistently win Test matches.

England's obsession with finding bowlers who can bowl in excess of 90mph started when David Lloyd was the national coach. This attitude continues today among those in charge of the England team. At the conclusion of Monday's victory over South Africa, Nasser Hussain reiterated his view that England are a competitive side on pitches that offer assistance to bowlers but struggle to take 20 wickets when the surface is flat and ideal for batting.

There is an element of truth in Hussain's statement, but playing on good batting tracks in Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has not prevented Pollock or McGrath taking more than 700 Test wickets between them at an average of 21. Both these metronomic bowlers have taken wickets in all corners of the globe and the ball only leaves their hand at approximately 80mph.

The point is that England's bowlers, in an attempt to reach the speeds that will satisfy the likes of Lloyd, Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, are wrongly putting pace ahead of control, which is of paramount importance at this level of the game. Speed can win matches but, as Pollock and McGrath highlight, tight, accurate and disciplined bowling wins more no matter what the conditions. Batsmen may not enjoy facing fast bowling but the bowler they fear most is the one that gets them out.

It is bowlers of this style that England's young crop of talented fast bowlers should watch and learn from. The presence of Troy Cooley in the dressing-room for the first time during a Test match will have helped James Anderson, James Kirtley, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison because the England bowling coach would have reinforced the "be boring, hit the top of off-stump" attitude that proved successful at Trent Bridge.

The inconsistent bounce helped because it ultimately rewarded the bowler but such a simple approach to fast bowling should be used on the vast majority of occasions. Each of England's fast men in the Test took their foot slightly of the accelerator and look what happened. Harmison, because of his calf injury, ambled in and bowled as accurately as he ever has in an England shirt. Flintoff, Anderson and Kirtley went about their business in the same way and - surprise, surprise - not only did they put the batsmen under pressure by drying up their runs but each also managed to swing the ball away rather than bowl gun-barrel straight.

Knowing that the pace at which you bowled your last ball will flash up on the screen at the ground does not help, either, as it brings a bowler's ego into play. Competition among fast bowlers over who is the quickest is inevitable. Indeed, when Darren Gough was playing Test cricket for England he was at times guilty of competing harder against the opposition fast bowlers than their batsmen.

On one occasion at an England team meeting before a Test match in Australia, Gough stated that he would not be bowling many slower balls - a vital part of his armoury - in the coming Test match because his average speed throughout the series was not much higher than McGrath's. He did not want the Australian to be seen as the fastest bowler on show at the end of the series.

With the pitch at Headingley promising similar conditions for tomorrow's fourth Test, all England's bowlers need do is adopt the same approach as they used in Nottingham. Significantly, it is because these qualities appear back in fashion that the 34-year-old veteran Martin Bicknell has been invited up to Leeds.

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