Sam Collins: England must get the balance right in South Africa

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For a while I’ve had serious doubts about the balance of this England team without Andrew Flintoff. Before I could put them to paper, Shane Warne beat me to it this morning.

Warney was in typically uncompromising form as he laid into England’s plans to bat Stuart Broad at No.7 against South Africa this winter. Broad is, for Warne, “a decent bowler and a reasonable batsman, just not an international allrounder”. Often caricatured as a provocative Aussie in his Times column, Warne is as adept at pinpointing English weakness in print as he was from 22 yards.

But while Warne focuses on the potential impact that batting at No.7 might have on Broad’s future, in the immediate term the damage is to our chances in South Africa. The Flintoff era may be over, but his legacy – Ashes wins in 2005 and 2009 with a five-man attack – remains. Without Flintoff, England have no credible Test allrounder. Yet Luke Wright’s selection in the squad would imply that, wherever Broad bats, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss are determined to stick to their formula of five batsman, Matt Prior and five bowlers.

An extra bowler gives Strauss more options but at what cost? We saw the dangers at Headingley – England all out for 102 in the first innings, defeat by an innings and 80 runs. Batting at No.7,  Broad’s swashbuckling second innings 61 didn’t hide his 13-ball three when it mattered. If his lack of a first-class century and first-class average of 26.59 do little to inspire your confidence, then don’t look at his last 11 innings in ODIs – 0, 0*, 8, 3, 0, 6*, 2, 2, 22, 0, 1. For now Broad is a bowler who bats – Warne remarks that he doesn’t relish the fast, short ball, while Brett Lee would testify that he’s not too hot against the quick yorker either. With Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and possibly Wayne Parnell waiting in South Africa there may not be much in between.

“The only time a team should go with five bowlers is when one of them is a genuine allrounder”, says Warne. For him, Adil Rashid is now England’s only genuine allround option, but with Graeme Swann virtually nailed in and England not picking two spinners in South Africa since 1965, that appears far-fetched. Wright is the other bowling option at No.7, but despite a decent season with Sussex it would surprise many if he were to make an impact at Test level at this stage in his career.

Without a reliable runscorer at No.7, there is increased pressure on a top six that has not looked convincing for a while. England’s current top order contains just one established player fit and in form – Andrew Strauss. With five batsman – Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Trott and Collingwood – theoretically to fill the remaining four places the selectors have a tough decision to make. Paul Collingwood has looked brittle and his recent return to ODI form confuses matters, while if Ian Bell is dropped then someone must move up to bat at No.3. As for Matt Prior, while he has proved himself with the bat at Test level he averaged just 32.62 against Australia and his overall average off 44 compares unfavourably with the No.6 of South Africa (JP Duminy – 48.62) and Australia (Marcus North – 47.90). To follow him with a flimsy lower-middle order is a big risk.

Yet play all six batsmen and Prior at seven, with a four-man attack and Collingwood as a bowling option, and suddenly the team looks a lot more solid. At home you can afford to take chances, but in South Africa England must focus on making themselves difficult to beat. Five bowlers should be a luxury anyway – but worryingly Broad, Swann and James Anderson showed over the summer that they are as capable of going missing as they are of match-winning spells. Now, away from home, they must prove that they have the discipline to win games as part of a four-man attack. If they can’t, are they good enough?

It should not have escaped England’s notice that both Tests that Australia won in South Africa earlier this year they entered with six batsman and four bowlers. For the other one, they pushed Brad Haddin up to No.6 to include Bryce McGain, and got stuffed. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Sam Collins is website editor of thewisdencricketer.com

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8 Responses to Sam Collins: England must get the balance right in South Africa

  1. I argued this on my blog immediately after the Ashes. It is just too soon for Broad to move up – we have seen it before with other players, and suddenly a breezy 30 or 40 isn’t enough any more.

    Five bowlers is a sound plan as long as you have a world class allrounder to execute it. England do not, and South Africa will exploit that fact.

  2. Winsome says:

    What I don’t understand is, if they must play a bowler at 7, why not stick Swann ahead of Broad?

    He’s better with the bat. I would have thought that was obvious by now.

    Strauss lurves Broad as did MV before him, but they should love him as a developing bowler and protect him, I really agree with Warne there.

    Morne bowled like a freakin’ drain against the Aussies. He might not be the threat you think. Loads of talent, but not sure if the lights are on at home.

  3. King Cricket says:

    Australia didn’t use four bowlers when they beat South Africa – incredibly, they used three.

    And Andrew McDonald.

  4. Jon Hungin says:

    Cracking blog Sambo, so so true.

    All this “we don’t need Flintoff, we haven’t for years rubbish” being pedaled by the press and Ed Craig is such as load of nonesense. All of a sudden our team looks weak, lacking balance and cruicially, lacking any real Test achievement.

    And as you say, have Anderson and Broad really convinced enough for us to think that as part of a 4 man attack they can bowl England to Test wins? Er no, they haven’t

  5. Think Warne not far off the mark, at least he is constructive when he criticizes England.

    Can’t see it myself either, for me Prior isn’t a No.6 and Broad isn’t a No.7. Prior may have a test hundred but he isn’t going to bat for a day to save a test match, your top six should have the ability to adapt to a match situation and Prior is just a stroke player who is more suited to No.7.

    I’d imagine a lot of Broad’s higher test scores have come in losing situations as well, he got a half century that counted against Australia in the 3rd test at Edgbaston, his 2nd innings 61 at Headingley was when the game was over. There is a big difference in batting properly and throwing the bat in a lost cause.

    Apart from that he does chip in with good lower order runs (similar to Swann), which I believe he is good at doing. Let him carry on doing that while concentrating on his bowling, he dosen’t need the extra burden of trying to be England’s genuine allrounder at this stage of his career.

  6. Stuart H. Aggsy says:

    Sam, I think it’s nothing but churlish of you to do down young Stuart Broad, England’s best promising-young-all rounder-with-a-great-mental-game.

    Have some largely unfounded respect for the lad.

  7. Paddy Briggs says:

    The player that England has most missed, and failed to replace, over the last five years? Graham Thorpe. Just think how different the England side would be with a Thorpe at Number five. That’s why Trott is important.

    If Trott can become another Thorpe anchoring the last half of the England innings then the debate about 7,8,9 becomes one about who is best equipped to stay with Trott and push the score along rather than who might be a borderline allrounder. A bowler who bats quite well (Broad, Swann) or who can hold an end up (Anderson, Sidebottom) are almost equally valuable if there is a Trott nurdling his way to a hundred from Number 5.

    Incidently there is one bowler who if he was willing to could take Broad up to another level. It’s not Shane Warne but his old mucker Glen McGrath. If I was Andy Flower I’d be begging Pidgeon to spend some quality time in the nets with Broad. Very tall, right arm, deadly accurate, inspired and ambitious – that was McGrath. Let some of that rub off on Broad and he can bat at No.11 for all I care and sell his bats in an auction!

  8. Jackie says:

    There are too many ifs. Trott has only played one Test. Is KP back to full fitness? Cook and Colly had a poor showing in their last three Tests. Bell only just back in the side. Strauss has to realise he is not Captain Marvel. We need six batsmen in SA. They like to bat down the order. We have to match that. All the major teams field six batsmen. We can’t protect our bowlers without Flintoff.