Are England getting better at bowling on flat tracks?


Posted August 25, 2020 by topcrickets

Funky fields, different strategies - England have thrown everything they have at Pakistan as they try to bag the third Test.

 
At the conclusion of the second Test, a Pakistani journalist asked Joe Root in the post-match press conference whether he would be willing to tour Pakistan in the future. England are set to visit in 2022. Root's answer was simple: yes, he would love to. Not least because he fancies a few runs. "The wickets look nice and flat which will be a nice change to what we have just played on here," England's captain joked.

The surface for the second Test was certainly no picnic for batsmen. That's nothing new. For the last four seasons, batting in England has been terribly difficult. Sir Alastair Cook said his last two summers of Test cricket were the most difficult he had encountered. Much of the struggle has stemmed from the pitches, which have offered prodigious movement to the fast-bowlers in particular, and also to the weather which has tended to offer atmospheric assistance to help the ball swing. A double whammy of batting kryptonite.

Of the 76 players to have batted in the top six in at least two Test matches in England since the start of 2017, only 12 average more than 40. The only players to average more than 50? The very best of the current Test match batsmen. Steve Smith, who averages a ridiculous 110.57, Virat Kohli, Babar Azam and Marnus Labuschagne. After his double hundred in this game, Zak Crawley is averaging 69.50 in England. Remarkably, no opening partnership has averaged more than 35 in that time.

The conditions have provided for some enthralling, see-sawing cricket. The game is always at its most entertaining when ball slightly dominates bat. Who really wants to watch first innings scores of 600 play 600? But perhaps England could do with playing on a few more pitches at home like this one for the third Test at the Ageas Bowl? After all, if they want to improve away from home, these are the sort of batting-friendly surfaces they are going to encounter. These are the sort of surfaces they need to find a cutting edge for.

As this game has wore on, the pitch has got easier and easier to survive on. It has been slow and low. There has been precious little variable bounce so far. Neither, aside from the odd delivery from Dom Bess on the fourth evening, has there been extravagant turn. In many ways, it has been an atypical English pitch. Chris Silverwood, England's head coach, summed up the challenge of playing on such pitches succinctly at the end of play. "It was good practise for going abroad. How do we get the ball off the straight?" he said.

Once the new ball burst was done, England didn't get many balls to move off the straight at all. There was a hint of reverse swing late in the day from Stuart Broad. The odd cutter here and there from the seamers might have moved a touch but barely noticeably. Bess got a few to turn, including one that nearly snuck through Azhar Ali's gate, but even then, the majority of his deliveries went on with the arm. Other than those isolated instances, the ball proved frustratingly reluctant to move.

The accuracy was certainly there from England's bowlers. Only Stuart Broad conceded more than two runs an over. They tried a number of different plans, too. Broad came round the wicket and bowled a few overs of short stuff. Archer had a spell of targeting the stumps. Root adopted some funky fields, with a number of straight catchers in place for the bowling of James Anderson. Bess started off bowling straight and then bowled wider of off-stump, trying to tempt the Pakistani batsmen to play loosely. A number of England's players could be seen working feverishly on the ball, trying to shine it up. They even tried to get the ball changed a few times, not that the umpires were having any of it.

"I thought we were good," Silverwood said. "We stuck to our plans, our discipline was there. We asked good questions with the ball. But it shows you the importance of the new ball, once the hardness goes off it. An impact with that new ball is important. Went through various plans. Tried to get it reversing. Got a bit of tail on there."

The bare facts don't lie, however. England only managed two wickets in 56 overs of play. They have often displayed plenty of control and effort when battling on flat pitches. Think of Mount Maunganui and Hamilton during the winter. It has rarely been accuracy or perspiration that England have lacked overseas. Instead, it has been a cutting edge and they lacked that today too. There were a few half shouts for LBW and the occasional play and miss but Pakistan's batsmen hardly looked like they were about to be dismissed any minute. Indeed, it was a surprise when Abid Ali eventually did get out.

Archer is the one of the bowlers that England have earmarked to provide that cutting edge on flat pitches. With his pace and skills, he would seem to be ideally suited to getting something out of pitches than offer him little in the way of seam movement. He has, however, failed to take a wicket in this game so far. While Pakistan's batsmen didn't look totally comfortable against him today, particularly in his second spell, neither did he seem particularly threatening. Although he bowled very quickly at stages in the first innings, he rarely touched 90mph today.

"I think we've seen pace from him this time," Silverwood said. "We made it clear before this Test; we sat down with him and talked through his role in the team and I think we've seen him do what we've asked him to do this time. We've seen him bowl 90mph and with good skill as well. From my point of view I'm very pleased with how Jofra has conducted himself."

When the chances are few and far between, there is a premium on taking them. England dropped three catches in ten Anderson deliveries last night, which might have meant Pakistan began their second innings in the gloom of last night instead of the better conditions this morning. Then Jos Buttler failed to get a glove on a nick from Shan Masood this morning, again off Anderson. That was in the fifth over of Pakistan's second innings and would have exposed Azhar to the new ball. Instead, he came to the crease in the 24th over, a far easier time to begin an innings.

"Last night was gloomy but it's still not an excuse," Silverwood said. "And Jos' wobbled horribly off him. We're out there every morning. So it's not like they're not working on it. So we'll work even harder and try to put that right. I thought Jimmy handled himself very well, to be honest. You've got to accept these things do happen and as frustrating as they are, you've got to get on with the next ball and try to create the next opportunity."

There is, of course, one day left in this Test to create more opportunities although the weather forecast for the morning looks horrendous. In the short term, England require eight wickets to seal a two-nil series win and claim more World Test Championship points. In the longer-term, though, they might want to consider whether playing on the odd pitch like this at home will help them develop the sort of skills they need to improve overseas. Skills they will need in Pakistan in two years' time, for instance.

The news is transferred from Topcrickets.
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Last Updated August 25, 2020