When England bowler James Anderson took a swipe at Australia’s “lack of depth” earlier this month, one had to wonder if he was being deliberately antagonistic or childishly facetious.
In an Ashes that’s had its fair share of spiky confrontations and curt exchanges between the two sides, it is hopefully the latter. Anderson, England’s leading Test wicket-taker, quipped that Australia “would have problems” without the pace of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.
Starc, who has taken the most wickets in this series, hit back almost immediately, saying the tourists had “bigger things to worry about than the depth of Australia’s fast bowlers.”
But Anderson, behind all the bombast, was no doubt hiding his frustration at his own side’s lack of depth in this series. The tourists have not managed to take a full 20 wickets in any of the first three Tests so far. And in truth, the worrying thing for English cricket is that it isn’t just Down Under that England have struggled to win a series abroad in recent times — in large part due to a dearth of genuine pace bowlers in the English game, not to mention the absence of a bona fide spin bowler.
Much has been made of the distinct advantage Australia have had in this Ashes, albeit on home pitches, due to the blistering pace of the three players Anderson mentioned who regularly put in gruelling spells of 90mph deliveries over a prolonged period. For all their technical ability and cricketing nous, the likes of Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes have not. That they can’t is the bigger issue for England. It took Starc just two balls to bowl a faster delivery than any that England did in 149 overs in the second Test in Adelaide.
Meanwhile, Nathan Lyon’s spinning superiority over the part-time offbreak of Mooen Ali was also highlighted in the build-up as a crucial determiner of where the Ashes would end up. Lyon took 14 wickets in the first three Tests, Ali a measly three.
Not since the 2010/2011 Ashes series in Australia, when Anderson was the embodiment of controlled pace bowling with unplayable spells and was ably backed up by Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett, have England had bowlers who could be relied upon to reach 90mph consistently over a day’s play. And it was no coincidence that England notched a first series win on Indian soil back in 2012 for nearly thirty years thanks to the 20-wicket haul of England’s last great spin bowler Graeme Swann.
Questions have to be asked as to why England now find themselves without these weapons in their bowling attack when playing away from home conditions. Perhaps it is those very conditions, which have bred a crop of perfectly adequate medium-to-quick bowlers, that are most to blame. England coach Trevor Bayliss has previously bemoaned English domestic pitches for being far more conducive to a nagging seam rather than truly express bowling. When playing at home, this has served England well— Anderson and Broad have been handsomely rewarded and Ali’s inadequacies are much better hidden on English shores. But on bouncy Australian tracks or the dust bowls of traditional sub-continent pitches, recent England sides have struggled.
Or maybe it is a cultural thing. According to bowling coach Ian Pont, academies up and down England encourage a culture of career prolongation for their bowlers rather than out-and-out attacking pace that can cause premature injuries; in stark contrast to Australia or India. This conservative approach has given rise to a swathe of young English cricketers growing up and rising through the ranks on routine seam bowling on pitches sympathetic to their lack of pace. It’s perfect for breaking into the England side in home series, but very little help in preparing them for the intensity of a tour in India or the brutal onslaught of an Ashes series.
Whatever the cause, English cricket must quickly find a solution. With the old-guard of swing-king Anderson and green-top maestro Broad likely to call time on their careers in the near future, those governing the English game must better use their extensive resources to mine young talent and equip a generation of up-and-coming cricketers for the harsh realities of playing abroad. They must also change the culture of conservatism and breed a crop of aggressive pacers and lethal spinners capable of taking on the likes of Australia, India and Pakistan. Otherwise, rare series victories outside of England — like the surprising 2016 win in South Africa, their first since that famous 2-1 win in India — could become rarer still in the years ahead.