England's pace aces to struggle Down Under? That's a load of balls
Whether trio of quicks are using the Duke or Kookaburra, bowling coach Saker backs them to take wickets if they put it in the right place
Sunday 08 August 2010
The answer will become apparent soon enough. But while the rest of us are free to speculate and pontificate about how England's fast-bowling attack may fare in Australia this winter, the three men at the sharp end can do no more than fill their boots against Pakistan.
It is, perhaps, a typically British habit to find a negative or two when we might be seeing only positive signs. Thus Jimmy Anderson's career-best 11-wicket haul at Trent Bridge a week or so ago was accompanied by warnings from just about all and sundry that it will be a different ball game – literally – in Brisbane this November. And when Pakistan were rolled over again at Edgbaston on Friday, routed for 72 by Messrs Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, some observers wondered whether this was altogether good for Test cricket.
To take the second point first, one cannot recall either West Indies (during much of the Seventies and Eighties) or the Australians (in the Nineties and a bit beyond) wringing their hands in dismay over the failure of opponents to get the better of them from time to time. But win one Test and dominate the early stages of another and suddenly it is not so much "glory, glory England" as "woe, woe Pakistan" – at least in some quarters.
Fair enough, maybe, because, as a nation, we have generally felt sympathy for the underdog. But when it comes to the Ashes, Andrew Strauss's team will be second favourites themselves before a ball is bowled in Brisbane – even though they hold the urn – for the simple reason that the Aussies still take a hell of a lot of beating on their own turf. And it may need an Australian to convince some of us that an away victory is possible.
Assuming injuries do not cloud the issue and form remains much as it is, Anderson, Broad and Finn will lead England's attack this winter, and hope to make significant inroads which Graeme Swann – the player of the year and currently almost redundant off-spinner – can exploit. But that aforementioned pace trio has little in the way of achievement Down Under to write home about.
Neither Broad nor Finn has played a Test in Australia. And as for Anderson, the leader of the gang in terms of appearances and experience, his away form in general (52 wickets at a shade under 44 runs apiece) and track record in Australia in particular (five at a sky-high average of 82.60) is more the stuff of nightmares than dreams.
All of which brings us back to the ball. It is fine and dandy for England's pacemen to make our good old Duke ball swing around corners or jag left and right off the pitch, but when they get an Aussie Kookaburra – with its less-pronounced seam and reluctance to swing for anything like as long – in their hands, then the fun swiftly stops. And it has been stopping pretty much ever since Mike Gatting's team won the Ashes series of 1986-87.
Balls. Well, yes and no, according to England's still new bowling coach, David Saker, who replaced Ottis Gibson earlier this year. "Because England haven't had much success in Australia in recent times, questions are always being asked about what the problem is," said Saker during an interview aired on BBC Radio's Test Match Special.
"It's definitely not the cricket ball, I can assure you of that. It goes way deeper. No matter what sort of ball, if you bowl it in the right area, you are still going to get the right results. Yes, the Dukes may swing a bit more, but I think that's more the [overhead] conditions in England. At the end of the day it [the Kookaburra] is just a cricket ball. Bowl it in the perfect area and then see what happens from there."
The Melbourne-born Saker should know. He represented Victoria and Tasmania as a fast bowler and also coached both states with considerable success before being recruited by England four months ago. And, having been well-served by technique specialists such as Troy Cooley and Gibson in recent times, Anderson and Co may find Saker's somewhat different approach is just what they need as they prepare for the huge challenge of trying to win an Ashes series in Australia.
Saker, 43, believes his biggest asset as a coach is an ability to "read" batsmen, work out their strengths and weaknesses and then put the information across to bowlers in a way that will help them achieve success. And it seems to be working with Anderson, Broad and Finn so far this summer, even though conditions have clearly made life easier for pacemen.
Yes, the ball has swung and seamed. But, as happened on Friday when at least some of Pakistan's top order attempted to dig in, England's fast bowlers have been prepared to show patience when, in the past, they might have strived too hard to send down a "magic" delivery and, instead, released the pressure with a leg-stump half-volley or a long-hop outside off stump.
"We don't assume the ball will swing when we start an innings," said Anderson after his terrific work at Trent Bridge. "If it does, we can attack accordingly, but we do not rely on it happening."
Being prepared to nag away for over after over, and hour after hour, if necessary – without wilting – has proved to be a challenge too tough for many an England attack overseas. And it is a challenge which Anderson and Co will need to meet this winter. But don't begrudge them a bit of confidence-boosting glory this summer if it is there to be had.
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