Just how good is England's bowling attack?
As I write this, Kevin Pietersen is smashing the Sri Lankan bowling to all parts, building on a typically solid platform established by Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott. Depressingly, considering the winter endured by England’s top order, they all made it look frustratingly easy. Perhaps even more depressingly, if England win the Test, as they really should, Pietersen’s return to spectacular form will overshadow another superhuman effort from England’s bowling attack, who managed to limit the Sri Lankans to 275 in their first innings on a slow, unhelpful pitch.
It has become clear, over England’s disastrous winter of Test cricket, that it is this bowling attack which has been responsible for England's recent dominance in the longer form of the game. The likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad have consistently been carving out chances for England to win games that the top-order batsmen have been determinedly throwing away, bowling with tremendous courage and skill in unfamiliar and generally unhelpful conditions.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise; throughout the past 18 months, England’s attack has been quietly excelling, with the batting line up greedily cashing in on the bowlers’ efforts. Consider last winter’s crushing Ashes victory, where Alastair Cook grabbed the headlines with (an admittedly astounding) 766 runs. Yet the exploits of Cook and the other free scoring batsmen were performed on superb pitches, against an at best mediocre Australian attack; on these same pitches, the England’s bowlers dismissed Australia for under 300 in the first innings of four of the five Tests, including skittling their opponents for just 98 on a dramatic first day in Melbourne. It was a similar story against India in the summer; the tourists were dreadful in all departments, but their bowling was particularly abject, allowing the English top order to gleefully rack up huge scores. Again, the bowlers had a more difficult task, yet successfully dominated the much vaunted Indian batting line up, with Broad in particularly inspired form. It should therefore not necessarily come as a surprise that England’s batsmen have failed so terribly in the subcontinent; it is the first time in countless series that they have really been tested.
The bowlers’ performances this winter, however, have strengthened further their claim to be the best Test attack in the world, with the only realistic competition coming from South Africa, who tour England this summer. In Dale Steyn, they have the only fast bowler who can convincingly challenge James Anderson’s status as the best quick in the world, whilst Morne Morkel is a similar bowler to Stuart Broad, and is similarly effective when on form. Vernon Philander is to some extent an unknown quantity, yet should prosper in English conditions; however, there is no indication that he is any more talented than Tim Bresnan, and he is certainly less so than the ever improving Steven Finn, who in the probable absence of Chris Tremlett should become a fixture in the Test side this year. In Imran Tahir, South Africa finally have a Test-quality spin bowler, for so long the only weakness in their attack. However, despite some doubts over his winter form, Graeme Swann remains with Saeed Ajmal the best spin bowler in world cricket, whilst Monty Panesar’s resurgence has highlighted England’s depth in the spin department.
England can therefore say with some confidence that they possess the best attack in world cricket. However, the current crop probably doesn’t represent the best English attack of the past decade, a label which must surely be attributed to the inspired 2005 Ashes winning side. In Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison and the brilliant Simon Jones, the England seam attack of that summer ranks amongst the greatest of all time, and more than made up for the handicap of having the committed, but very limited Ashley Giles as the frontline spinner. Flintoff and Jones were at the very peak of their form, and the series represented the undoubted high point of their Test careers; Jones, who was for a brief period during that series probably the best fast bowler in world cricket, would never again play for England after limping out of the 4th Test at Trent Bridge.
The 2005 attack was a freakish one-off, and was quickly dissolved in a frustrating blur of injuries and poor form. The strength of today’s attack is in their consistency and their depth; whenever the likes of Stuart Broad or Chris Tremlett are injured, Tim Bresnan or Steven Finn can take their place. It was the bowlers who cemented England’s status as the top Test side in the world, and it is on them that England’s shaky batting line up must rely in order to maintain their precarious position.