CricViz Analysts Freddie Wilde and Ben Jones profile England’s pace attack.
A great of the game, James Anderson is the third highest wicket-taker among pace bowlers and England’s leading wicket-taker. Anderson functions as both strike bowler and stock bowler, averaging more swing (1.18°) and more seam (0.60°) than anyone on either side, yet he allies this with persistent accuracy, pitching a higher proportion of his deliveries on a good line and length than any other England pace bowler (36.40%).
In the first half of his career Anderson operated at speeds above 135 kph but in recent years he hovers around 130 kph and it is testament to his fitness & England’s careful management that he has maintained that average speed for several years now.
Anderson’s skill and versatility is well illustrated by his near-identical records against right-handers and left-handers and against left-handers bowling from over and round the wicket.
Outside England where Anderson finds less lateral movement in the air and off the pitch he has adapted his method by bowling a tighter line to right-handers and left-handers and he can be expected to employ this tactic in the coming series.
Stuart Broad is England’s second leading wicket-taker behind his long-term new ball partner Anderson and is now a vastly experienced bowler. Broad is 1.96 metres tall, with a strong action capable of delivering sharp pace and lateral movement, flexibility is a key part of Broad’s game and he has been able to perform a variety of roles within England’s bowling unit.
At the start of his career he was a more attacking tearaway but as Anderson’s workload has reduced he has increasingly become more of a typical line and length bowler. It is illustrative of Broad’s evolution that his percentage of short balls has fallen steadily year-on-year while his percentage of balls pitched on a good line and length is now higher than ever before. In the lead-up to this series Broad has evoked Glenn McGrath’s nagging accuracy as inspiration for a series where bowlers typically find very little lateral movement.
Like Anderson, Broad relies heavily on his experience and that has been clearly in evidence since the start of 2016 as he has altered his line of attack to left-handers by bowling 81% of his deliveries to them from round the wicket compared to 33% before reducing his average from a poor 38.15 to 27.57 since then.
The third prong of England’s pace attack is Chris Woakes who established himself in England’s team in 2016 with a superb year, taking 41 wickets at an average of 25.41. Since then Woakes has been unable to build upon his success after sustaining an intercostal injury that prevented him playing in all but one of England’s seven Tests in 2017. 11 of Woakes’ 18 Tests have been played in England, where he averages 24.28 but he averages 63.75 in matches away from home, although five of those Tests were played in difficult conditions on the subcontinent.
Woakes is a similar kind of bowler to Anderson and Broad, looking to bowl a consistent line and length and challenge the batsmen with lateral movement. However, Woakes’ average length of 7.59 metres from the batsmen’s stumps is 30cm shorter than Anderson’s and Broad’s and he bowls 42.1% of his deliveries in the short range – around 10% more than his pace partners. At 28 years-old Woakes is considerably younger than Anderson and Broad and that is reflected in his slightly higher average speed of 134.77 kph.
Woakes’ record against left-handers should concern England: at Test level he averages 42.11 against them and concedes runs at 3.63 runs per over.
With good pace, decent bounce and control it is expected that Woakes will improve on his poor away record in this series which offers him a great opportunity to take his career to the next level. However, while Woakes may possess a similar strategy to Anderson and Broad he is considerably less experienced and proven. After an injury plagued 2017 this Test series comes at a critical juncture in his career.
England’s pace options have been severely depleted by the Ben Stokes controversy and injuries to Toby Roland-Jones, Mark Wood, Steve Finn, and fringe players such as Jamie Porter. The additional pace bowlers in the squad are Jake Ball, Craig Overton, Tom Curran and George Garton. Of those four only Ball has played a Test (three) and it is likely that either he or Overton will play in Brisbane. Of England’s reserve quartet it is in fact the youngest two, Curran and Garton, who offer England the most variety. Ball and Overton are bowlers who bowl back of a length while Curran is a skiddy right-armer and Garton a slingy left-armer.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that England’s likely attack is worryingly one-dimensional. Australia have a 10 kph difference between their fastest and slowest bowler, while England have only a 1 kph difference – a basic measurement, but one which that signifies a lack of variety that applies to style, line, length and strategy as much as it does pace. Stokes’ absence as a strike bowler capable of match-changing spells leaves a chasm in England’s attack.
In the build-up to the series Broad has spoken of “swarming” Australia’s batsmen, by employing tight and aggressive fields when a new batsmen comes to the crease – a commendable strategy in a country where wickets are hard to come by. However, generally it is likely that England’s core three bowlers of Anderson, Broad and Woakes will look to “bowl dry” – a tactic that involves maintaining tight, disciplined lines to slow the scoring and posting a deep point to protect wider balls from punishment. It is a tactic that worked for England in the 2010/11 Ashes, but then their attack was more varied than this and Anderson and Broad were considerably younger and more durable. Given the similarities of England’s core three pacers the role of the fourth – whoever it may be – should be to offer something different.