It has been a good year for bowlers. In Test cricket the fast men have been taking their wickets more cheaply than in the past few seasons, and despite the retirement of those two great wicket-thiefs of the last decade and a half – Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan – spinners have still featured strongly among the leading wicket-takers.
The quickies – led in 2011 by England’s Stuart Broad and James Anderson – have profited from both their own skill and also a refreshing inclination from groundsmen to heed captains’ requests and spice up the pitches. Raising the mowers’ blades a touch to leave more grass on Test pitches has made for more interesting cricket as slap-happy batsmen are forced to grapple with that hitherto rapidly declining phenomenon, The Moving Ball.
More life in the pitches has also caused an about turn in the attitude of teams at the toss. Led again by England, whose meticulous research replaying hundreds of Test matches on a computer simulator has revealed that the team batting second is generally in a sounder position to control a Test match, captains are increasingly prepared to put teams in rather than bat first themselves. Batting last seems to have become a favoured option except perhaps in the subcontinent where the surfaces do noticeably deteriorate.
For the second year running an off spinner has led the wicket-taking list. Saeed Ajmal has 46 victims in seven Tests, significantly less than Graeme Swann’s 64 wickets last year, though there are less Test matches played in a World Cup year. Technology has also played its part here. Thirty per cent of both Ajmal’s and Swann’s wickets have been lbw. That is a considerable increase on off spinners of the past. My fellow Cricketer.com columnist John Emburey, for instance, a very direct spinner who always bowled wicket to wicket, took only 11 per cent of his 147 Test wickets lbw.
The reason, of course, is Hawkeye and the Decision Review System. The former has persuaded umpires that more off spinners’ deliveries that a batsman blithely pads away are hitting the stumps than was once believed. And the DRS has allowed deprived offies to successfully overturn not out decisions. I can hear Embers’ imploring appeal now, and can see his pained expression at another plumb lbw denied. If he had played in this era he would surely have become the first England off spinner to take 200 Test wickets.
Going into 2012, England retain their No 1 status in Test cricket and I suspect that, against Pakistan on the bland pitches of the UAE and with the remorselessness of their leading batsmen and the skill and persistence of the bowlers, they will maintain that position into the summer.
The challenge now is to upgrade their 50-over performances to the same level. Their coaches and analysts are busy studying the form to try to come up with a more consistent strategy. Again, off spin may be the answer. Saeed Ajmal is also currently the No 1 ODI bowler in the world. He frequently bowls in the match-shaping overs, the powerplays. Swann, England’s best one-day bowler, doesn’t. Whatever he thinks about the future of the 50-over game, it is about time he did.