Bowlers win Test matches. Teams with better bowling attacks tend to win more matches. Even in the face of adversity, good attacks always manage to find a way to dismiss the batsmen. They always have someone who rises to the occasion, and out of nowhere, things start to happen.
Much like Stuart Broad made it happen for England in the fourth Ashes Test at Chester-le-Street. Australia, after a century opening stand, looked well on their way to overhaul the target of 299 before England sealed the deal in an extended final session that saw the tourists lose 9 wickets with Broad leading the way with six wickets during the course of an incisive spell.
The English batsmen, apart from Ian Bell, have been well below their best in the ongoing Ashes series but still the hosts, on the back of some brilliant efforts by their bowling unit, find themselves 3-0 up.
Apart from Broad, England have found heroes in the spearhead James Anderson who produced an inspired effort to eke out a narrow win at Trent Bridge and Graeme Swann who, after a sedate start, turned his magic on to pick up five wicket hauls at Lord’s and Old Trafford.
So, is the current English attack the best in the world?
Their current opponents, Australia have produced a slew of fast bowlers in recent times, but they have struggled to make a mark due to lack of fitness and consistency.
Mitchell Starc broke down in the last series against India, James Pattinson followed suit in England, for the first time in his career Ryan Harris has played 3 consecutive Tests without breaking down, an international comeback seems unlikely for the injury prone Pat Cummins and its hard to remember when Mitchell Johnson was last ‘in-form’ in international cricket.
Compared to the Aussie unit, the English pace attack is much more settled and varied.
In Anderson, they have a leader who is at the height of his prowess, a master at being able to generate swing – both conventional and reverse – he, after an indifferent start to his career, has developed himself into a complete entity.
His new ball partner is an enigma. During his off days, Broad looks insipid and laboured in his approach. Too often the length is dragged short. But at his best, he is devastating and almost single-handedly wins games for England.
On his day, he suddenly transforms into a world-class performer, bowling consistently at over 90 mph along with prodigious sideways movement. A series deciding spell against Australia at The Oval in 2009, the demolition job against India at Trent Bridge in 2011 and his recent show at Chester-le-Street testify his match winning ability.
The third seamer, Tim Bresnan, is the workhorse of the attack. One of the better exponents of the reverse swing, Bresnan tirelessly wears a batsman down and forces an error by sticking to a tight line.
The only team that can claim to have a higher pedigree in the pace department is South Africa. The trio of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel have shown great consistency over a period of time to take the Proteas to the top slot in the Test rankings. Not only have they won matches for their team on a regular basis, they have demolished the opposition while doing so.
But there’s one factor which tilts the scales heavily in England’s favour.
That factor the spin department for England. While in recent times South Africa have had to grapple with the likes of Paul Harris, Robin Peterson and Johan Botha, who are more suited for the restrictive kind of job, the English attack consists of a spinner as good as Graeme Swann.
Swann doesn’t have a doosra or a carom ball as most modern spinners do. His method of operation is the old fashioned one. He relies on the pivot rotation of his body and a whirlwind action to give the ball enough air and get the drift on it.
The strong fingers give the ball a hard tweak to impart a huge amount of spin on the ball. He is also endowed with a sound cricketing brain which he uses abundantly to outfox the batsman with subtle variations.
With the amount of cricket being played these days, injuries go hand in hand with fast bowling and having a set of good battle-ready backup seamers is a luxury few teams can afford.
In this aspect too, the English steal a march over the other Test teams as with Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett and Graham Onions waiting in the wings, they are probably the only team whose second line of pace attack has a combined experience of 43 Tests.
In the spin department too, there is Monty Panesar, a veteran of 48 Tests, who, with his left arm orthodox, compliments Swann brilliantly.
The English attack further established their credentials in the recent series win against India which saw an outstanding display by both seamers and spinners on the slow sub-continental tracks.
On the other hand, the Australian bowlers were dealt with ease during the whitewash in India this year and save the odd Test, the South African bowlers have never been able to impose themselves in the subcontinent. In fact, it has been quite a while since the Proteas last registered an away series win against either India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan.
The only thing that can be pointed out against the current English attack is the absence of a decent fifth bowler. They don’t have someone who can do what Jacques Kallis does for South Africa, Shane Watson does for Australia or even Ravindra Jadeja does for India.
In a sense, it is tragic that a side which had its previous great squads built around the match winning all-rounders like Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff now have to depend on the part time bowlers like Joe Root and Jonathan Trott to do the fifth bowler’s job.
This predicament means often their bowling plans have to be centered around the four bowlers, and it doesn’t allow them to be flexible with their strategy.
This probably explains why the English bowlers seem clueless, almost shell shocked, the moment they are faced with anything out of the ordinary. Also, on unresponsive wickets, when pushed beyond a certain point, the shoulders tend to drop and they are unable to force the issue.
Case in point being the first Test at The Oval last year against South Africa, where on a flat pitch, which offered no help, the English bowlers were ground to the dust by an unbeaten 377-run association between Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis.
Similarly, in the current Ashes series, the under-performing Australian batting line-up raked up more than 500 runs when they batted in favourable conditions in the third Test.
In the first Test too, a similar story unfolded as the little known Ashton Agar smashed a belligerent 98, adding 163 runs for the last wicket with Phil Hughes, both world records, as England waited for him to make a mistake rather than plan his dismissal.
The current series is secured, and by the looks of it, England are all set to begin a long reign of domination over the Ashes.
But the team director Andy Flower has time and again made it clear that the ultimate goal for them is to have a sustained run as the world number one team in Tests and whether they are able to achieve the goal or not will depend on how the bowlers fare over the next few seasons.
At the moment, the English attack, though clinical and efficient in their methods, with the safety-first approach, run the risk of falling short of their potential.