Pick five bowlers or Ashes number's up

Balanced attack key to England's hopes
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The Independent Online

On the subject of whether they should have four or five bowlers, England are at sixes and sevens. The feeling has intensified during the final Test of the summer that they have to get the maths right quickly. Exam time looms.

Throughout most of the match at The Oval, England's bowling has been so ordinary that the issue should barely warrant serious attention. Perform as England have in Pakistan's first innings and a team of 11 bowlers would not be enough.

Thus, in demonstrating that a barn door would not be sufficient for hitting purposes and that his action is a delicate creature that can go haywire at the least interference, Stephen Harmison might have had a huge influence on the argument. Not that the others have been much better, as Matthew Hoggard recognised.

"We've won the series with four bowlers," Hoggard said. "Obviously we haven't bowled well here but I don't think we can blame the four-man attack. Each individual has to look at himself and put it right."

But it is an issue and the clearest minds in English cricket - and maybe some of the cloudiest - are trying to resolve it. The Ashes depend on it. On the one hand, the argument runs that strategy has changed because personnel have changed.

Instrumental in all this is the return of Andrew Flintoff and the advent of Monty Panesar - his ability as both an attacking spin bowler and a parsimonious one, and the fact that his presence lengthens the tail. After all, you might need to bowl the Aussies out twice to win a couple of Test matches but you also need runs to squeeze them.

The argument for five bowlers is valid because that strategy has helped to make England a force in this decade. Nor, pertinently, have they won in Australia with only four bowlers. Or at least, they have always had more than fill-in all-rounders.

Some 36 years ago, John Snow was the spearhead of an attack which secured a momentous Ashes victory. He bowled like the wind and took 31 wickets. But he had manifold support. There were usually two other pacemen, a key spinner in Derek Underwood and two all-rounders in Basil D'Oliveira and captain Ray Illingworth.

"The more you can spread the load around the easier it is," said Snow. "You need to share the burden of taking wickets, otherwise your strike bowlers get overbowled. Of course, it helped that we had two people who could do both things pretty well. With four bowlers you reduce the options. But I can see that England might have another problem. There is no point in having bowlers who can't do the job."

Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's cricket correspondent and a speed merchant himself who recognises the rhythms of bowlers, had another point.

"The bowlers themselves can relax more when there are five," he said. "That's not to say they are not taking responsibility but somehow they find it easier to take responsibility. Five bowlers is what has helped England to achieve what they have. It is almost perverse that if Flintoff weren't fit the case for four bowlers would be strengthened."

So there are several possible team permutations for the match at Brisbane in late November when England begin their defence of the Ashes. If Flintoff is fit, the selectors' strong temptation will be to revert to what worked for so long.

The weakness of this is that it entails dropping one of the present top-six batsmen and starting the tail at eight with a bowler who may not be up to it yet (Sajid Mahmood or Liam Plunkett).

Another option is to play Flintoff as part of a four-man bowling attack with the batting going down to eight. Paul Collingwood would also be the fifth fill-in bowler, a role in which he has given his all this summer without looking the part.

The worst-case scenario is that Flintoff does not make it. If that happens, it is possible England may seek to call off the tour on the grounds that Australia is much too far away. Realistically, there is no other all-rounder in the country worth the candle and the selectors would have to stick by the present policy.

Despite Panesar's credentials, the door is open to Ashley Giles as a more rounded cricketer. This sort of talk is highly unfashionable but fashion is not going to help England retain the Ashes. They need five bowlers. Otherwise their number might be up.