December 31, 2011

The day-long menace of the relentless collective

The marvel of England's worldbeating fast bowling attack is how it transcends the sum of its parts

England's ascent to the top of the world Test rankings was marked by two contrasting but complementary features. On the one hand their batsmen moved collectively into the zone, and with seven double-centuries in the space of 15 months, they made it their duty to turn every start into a grandstand finish.

But those feats would have counted for little had England's bowlers not also raised their own games, and with a tally of eight innings victories in the space of 13 Tests, the net result has been one of the most impressive periods of dominance in the team's Test history. At the same time, England's one-day cricket has continued to flounder for a coherent strategy - which is proof, perhaps, of just how good those best efforts have turned out to be in the long-form game.

The real wonder of England's run of results has been the everyman nature of the contributions. Other sides can claim to possess more fearsome or inventive operators, with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and, when fit, Zaheer Khan among those who would give England's ensemble a run for their money. But when it comes to the relentless pursuit of breakthroughs - be it through hours of strangulation or flashes of inspiration - few can match the day-long menace that England currently provide.

England's statistics for 2011 are especially revealing. Four of the five bowlers vying for top billing in the year's averages are fast bowlers - James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan. Each claimed between 21 and 35 wickets, at sub-30 averages and with economy rates of no more than three an over, but not one of them was able to feature in each and every one of an unusually light workload of eight Tests.

Far from being a fatal flaw in England's bid for Test supremacy, that interchangeability turned out to be a serious strength. After the euphoria of the 2010-11 Ashes victory, it proved to be the team's first line of defence against fulfilment - one of the many factors that brought about England's demise after the 2005 triumph - while at the same time it broadened the squad's experience and so reduced the reliance on inspiration that has so often been the source of teams' downfalls.

In England's recent history there was a time when the performances with the biggest impact on team morale were those that had already been and gone. Steve Harmison, to name but one notable example, spent most of the final four years of his Test career failing to recapture the menace of his pomp, and succeeded only in muddying the waters on the infrequent occasions when his radar found its range - much as Mitchell Johnson's Perth rampage hoodwinked the Aussies into thinking they were back on an even keel during last winter's Ashes.

Then there was the thorny issue of Andrew Flintoff - England talisman and heartbeat of the dressing room during the 2004-05 zenith under Michael Vaughan, and seemingly indispensable right up until his final Test appearance, in the 2009 Ashes. That, however, ignored the fact that Flintoff had missed as many Tests as he had played in the preceding four-year cycle, and it wasn't until England were able to achieve closure on his career that plans for the future could be forged and players such as Anderson could emerge from his immense shadow.

The progress of England's attack in the past two years has been astonishing, and in 2011 a new candidate for attack leader presented himself for duty almost on a match-to-match basis. Anderson has consolidated his status as the Test team's first-pick bowler, but when he succumbed to a side strain in the first match of England's home series against Sri Lanka in May, it was the formidable Tremlett who took up the cudgels with a brace of irresistible spells in Cardiff and at the Rose Bowl - the first of which inspired England to an extraordinary innings victory in 24.4 overs of Sri Lanka's second dig.

No sooner had Tremlett laid bare his credentials, however, he too found himself on the outside looking in, as a back spasm paved the way for the unheralded Bresnan to take his personal Test record to ten wins out of ten with a series of performances that were belligerent and disciplined in equal measure, and included, at Edgbaston, one of the balls of the year to dislodge the otherwise imperturbable Rahul Dravid.

It was Broad, however, who ended up as Man of the Series against India with his own renaissance display, and by the end of England's international programme, on their otherwise ill-fated tour of India in October, the fastest and most accurate speedster on display was none other than Steven Finn. Ten months earlier in Australia, he had been England's leading wicket-taker after three Tests of the Ashes but had been discarded for his profligacy. MC Escher himself would be proud of such seamless overlaps.

The preferred method of England's bowlers has been Spartan in the extreme. No one exemplifies this better than Anderson, the reformed loose cannon whose finest displays these days are as remarkable for their economy as their impact. He conceded his runs at 2.93 an over in 2011, compared to the 3.81 he used to leak in his early days in the England set-up, prior to his recall against India in 2007 - the first series in which he hinted at the onset of maturity.

Under the tutelage of England's bowling coach David Saker, the former Victoria seamer who favours mindset over mechanics, Anderson has resolved to eliminate the four balls that used to litter his performances, and in so doing, he has made himself a threat at both ends of the wicket at once. If he's not claiming the breakthroughs himself, the chances are that his colleague at the other end is cashing in on his parsimony, given that many modern-day Test batsmen, schooled on the urgency of one-day cricket, break into a cold sweat when the scoreboard is too slow-moving.

In a man-for-man comparison, England's quicks of 2011 might struggle to outshine the legendary quartet of 2005 - Anderson might slot in for Matthew Hoggard, but Flintoff, Jones and Harmison in their pomp would be harder to displace. However, the squad mentality that has been cultivated in recent campaigns is something that few captains in Test history would be willing to trade for a better model

The method that England have employed is hardly groundbreaking. When the West Indians were at the height of their powers in the early to mid-1980s, their awesomeness stemmed as much from the expectation of excellence as from the pressure they exerted on their opponents. With just four precious berths in the attack, and a production line of replacements bubbling up from the islands, every spell was an event of multi-faceted importance - for the man with the ball in his hands as much as for the batsman getting ready to receive it. And yet, crucially, the bowlers in both instances recognised that the best response to that pressure was to put team glory ahead of personal gain.

England's attack wouldn't ever pretend to be cut from such ferocious cloth, but the similarity is telling - just as it was in 2005, when England last boasted a pace attack with the credentials to subdue the best. In a man-for-man comparison, the quicks of 2011 might struggle to outshine that legendary quartet - Anderson might slot in for Matthew Hoggard, but Flintoff, Jones and Harmison in their pomp would be harder to displace. However, the squad mentality that has been cultivated in recent campaigns is something that few captains in Test history would be willing to trade for a better model.

"The great thing about our bowling unit is that we genuinely take as much pleasure in each other's successes as our own," said Broad during the summer. "It doesn't matter who takes the ten wickets. When I was a kid and a fan, I got the impression at times that Darren Gough and Andy Caddick were almost competing against each other to take wickets. We put pressure on together and squeeze the opposition as a pack."

The evolution of England's attack has undergone four distinct phases since the days of Gough and Caddick. First there was the scattergun selection of the early Vaughan years, when James Kirtley, Richard Johnson and Anderson Mk 1 were all tried, tested and found wanting. Then there was the brief but glorious alchemy of the 2005 attack, which in turn gave way to an era of round pegs in square holes, as England attempted to replace the irreplaceable with tyros such as Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett, neither of whom was really given a chance to be his own man.

The catalyst for England's new approach came arguably in the spring of 2007, when Peter Moores - a man whose brief tenure is starting to be seen in a more favourable light - dispensed with Duncan Fletcher's obsession with 90mph bowlers, and turned to the yeoman service of Ryan Sidebottom and his left-arm swing. At the time it seemed something of a novelty to pick such an unglamorous player and trust him to do what he had done for years on the county circuit, but it was the beginning of a new era of laissez faire from the management.

For two unstinting seasons Sidebottom shouldered the mantle of attack leader, to provide England with an alternative to the men whose best years were behind them, and to show the younger men alongside him, most notably Anderson and Broad, that whatever special skill or speed you may be able to impart on the ball, there's no mode of delivery quite as effective as the timeless virtues of line and length. When every candidate for selection buys into that single truth, it becomes quite a recipe for success.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo