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Finn’s Economy Rate Masks Broader Issues

June 12, 2011

Jimmy Anderson looks set to return to the England side for the Third Test against Sri Lanka next week. The general consensus is that it will be at the expense of Steven Finn, so SportingBlogs dives a little deeper…

It is a simple enough concept to grasp: Steven Finn takes wickets, but is expensive in doing so. It cost him his place in the side during the Ashes tour last winter (despite him being the then leading wicket-taker), and it looks like doing the same here. In between errant leg-side long-hops at Lords, Finn comfortably looked the most threatening of England’s seam attack, yet the general consensus is that if (as is expected) Jimmy Anderson returns from injury for the third Test next week, Finn will be the one to miss out. Harsh maybe, but that is how it looks.

Alternatively England could consider dropping Stuart Broad. The Nottinghamshire seamer looks likely to keep his place in the side despite his rather mediocre bowling statistics and, perhaps more importantly, mediocre form with the ball for his country. Of the twenty-three England bowlers to have taken 100 Test wickets, only Devon Malcolm has done so at a worse average than Broad, and only three (Trevor Bailey, Phil DeFreitas and Tony Greig) have reached the landmark with a worse strike-rate.

Broad’s figures may not be on his side, but as the Guardian’s Mike Selvey points out, ‘the most worrying thing about Broad is that both his average and his strike rate have been climbing steadily in his past five Tests.’ This much was in evidence at Lords in the second Test, where Broad was consistently a yard short in his length, rarely pitching the ball up and consequently troubling the Sri Lankan batsmen with a worrying lack of frequency; innings figures of 32.0-5-125-1 and 9.0-2-29-1 testify to as much.

In Broad’s favour however, is his canny knack for chipping in with occasional match-winning performances with the ball, much like Andrew Flintoff – himself a fine bowler, albeit one who enjoyed a statistically modest career. Perhaps most memorable for English fans is Broad’s breathtaking five-wicket burst at the Oval in 2009, when Broad helped take Australia from 61-0 to 133-8 in one barmy afternoon session. England (332-ao) duly earned a first-innings lead of 172 (Aus 160-ao) and never looked back, winning the match by 197 runs and regaining the Ashes.

Furthermore, Broad offers that sought-after commodity amongst bowlers – the ability to bat. Certainly more elegant than Flintoff, if not as brutal, Broad has contributed his fair share of runs to his country’s cause, be it his 54 in the first innings at Lords last week or his maiden Test century against Pakistan last summer, where he scored 169 having come to the crease with England 102-7. Such talents do not go unnoticed.

However, it is up for debate whether his batting talents are needed whilst England persist with their policy of selecting six batsmen (and the more-than-capable Matt Prior as a wicketkeeper-batsman) and just four bowlers – assuming the batsmen do their job properly of course. This is especially the case currently given the fine form Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell are in (Matt Prior too seemingly), and the argument gathers weight when one considers that the Rose Bowl’s pitch for the third Test is expected to be batsman-friendly; conventional wisdom and commercial necessities dictate that for Hampshire’s debut hosting Test cricket, a pitch that lasts for five days is near mandatory.

Furthermore, with such a run-orientated wicket anticipated, it becomes increasingly important to select a wicket-taking bowler (à la Finn) for the Rose Bowl, regardless of his comparative batting deficiencies and bowling in-economy. In theory the good batting wicket will mean England’s batsmen find runs easier to come by, thereby negating the need for Broad’s batting. Consequently, with Sri Lankan wickets also likely to be a far scarcer commodity, Finn’s comparative knack for taking wickets could prove a most valuable trait.

The drawback is that this would mean dropping the current Twenty20 skipper and a key member of the team as far as unity and team spirit is concerned. Admittedly England survived, arguably flourished, in Broad’s absence through injury in the Ashes last winter, but it would still be a bold move for the selectors to make. Added to this, it has been questioned whether Finn has done enough to warrant essentially replacing Broad in the side, seeing as Finn only played in the second Test as Anderson was injured – an eminently debateable and salient point, the answer on the Lords Test alone probably being no.

However, whilst Finn’s right to a place in the England team is far from set in stone, there is little credence to the argument that Broad’s place somehow should be. A modest bowling record and the ability to bat in a team that already features six batsmen and Matt Prior is hardly a compelling argument, especially with the wickets-at-a-premium Rose Bowl next up. Luckily for Broad, the desire from both public and the selectors to see him grow into becoming the next Flintoff (and by virtue of that, the next Ian Botham) is almost certainly great enough to prevent such deliberations over his place in the XI. Although our preference would be for Finn to play at Broad’s expense this coming week, it appears very unlikely to happen and the man ‘now installed in [England’s] executive hierarchy’ will keep his place at Finn’s cost.

Perhaps therefore, the answer is to examine the structure of England’s Test team for the third Test. Yes, the four-man bowling attack – with Anderson and Graeme Swann our own marginally-more-modest version of the Glenn McGrath-Shane Warne double-act – has had its successes in recent years (most notably in the Ashes of course), but no longer is there a Paul Collingwood to turn to for those important workload-relieving overs. Despite a wicket at Lords, Jonathan Trott doesn’t quite compare.

More importantly however, the four-man attack struggled for large parts of the second Test, frequently dropping too short in length and with a tendency to drop leg-side to boot. Graeme Swann understatedly remarked that England ‘didn’t bowl particularly well,’ whilst fast bowling coach David Saker admitted he and his charges were ‘disappointed’ not to have reached the high standards set over the preceding year-and-a-half. The same can be said with regards to Sri Lanka’s first innings in Cardiff, although the visitors’ bizarre second innings capitulation somewhat papered over any perceived deficiencies there. In a proverbial nutshell, England have looked short of ideas with the ball and therefore, arguably, in need of a fifth bowler.

With an extremely batting friendly wicket expected at the Rose Bowl, a five-man bowling attack would go along way to helping secure a series victory. Ideally this would be by a 2-0 margin, which would further benefit England’s ICC Test ranking, important given their long-term ‘ambition is to become the best Test nation in the world.’

With Anderson’s swing returning, the five-man attack would offer England much needed variety, and – most importantly – an air of relentlessness, with the Sri Lankan batsmen rarely afforded pressure-relieving spells against the likes of Trott. It is of note that back in the 2005 Ashes, Australians remarked how England’s five-man attack featuring Flintoff, Simon Jones, Steven Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, were always at them, never offering any respite. And we all remember how that series finished, don’t we…

As an added benefit, a five-man attack of Anderson, Tremlett, Swann, Broad and Finn would reduce the workload on the returning Anderson, as well as relieving the pressure on the also recently returned Stuart Broad.

Although five bowlers necessitates five batsmen, any concerns held over this are transcended by the combination of the expected fine batting wicket, the top form of Bell, Cook and Trott, Matt Prior’s undoubted capacity to bat at six, and Broad (and Swann’s) ability to offer decent runs from the lower order. Which batsman misses out would provoke a further debate, with Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan the prime candidates, although ultimately justifiable through form or standing respectively either way.

When England replaced an injured Simon Jones (a bowler) with Paul Collingwood (a batsman who could bowl a bit) for the final test of the ’05 Ashes, it was a defensive move. Leading the series 2-1, it smacked of we’re not going to be beaten, rather that we’re going to beat you. Arguably pragmatic, but certainly far from aggressive, it could easily have backfired, and were it not for the rain and Pietersen’s majestic 158 it probably would have. For the modern-day England to achieve their aim of being the world’s #1 side they need to beat teams comprehensively and without remorse, which is achieved through measure cricketing aggression, and starts from the selection process.

The aggressive move for the third Test against Sri Lanka is to play five bowlers, to offer unwavering pressure with the ball through the various combinations of wicket-taking, relentlessness and economy that Swann, Finn, Broad, Anderson and Tremlett have to offer; on a flat Rose Bowl pitch, the bowlers will need all the help they can get. Should the five remaining batsmen, Prior and the two all-rounders fail to produce a competitive score against a modestly talented Sri Lankan attack on the Rose Bowl road, then England can only be seen as victims of their own inadequacies, and blame consequently should not be attributed to the selection of one bowler over a batsman.

The most aggressive move for England – and therefore most likely to be match-winning – is to pick the five-man bowling attack for the third Test, although the chances of this happening appear slim. The next most aggressive move is to recall Anderson at Broad’s expense, and not Finn’s; on the flat Rose Bowl pitch, Finn’s wickets will be more important than Stuart Broad’s better economy of ability with the bat. Again, however, such a selection looks unlikely. In all probability it will be a straight swap, Anderson for Finn; no change there.

There is nothing to say that a four-man attack of Tremlett, Swann, Anderson and Broad won’t be successful this week – in fact, a victory would not come as a surprise. However, leaving Finn out on account of his economy rate is the easy move; the soft option. It masks wider issues, not just Stuart Broad’s increasing struggles with the ball, but more importantly masks an undercurrent of negativity given the alternatives available.

With designs on being the world’s #1 ranked Test side, surely positive and aggressive moves should be the modus operandi – it certainly worked for the dominant Australian sides of the 90s and 00s. With a flat deck expected in Hampshire this week, if England are serious about going for the 2-0 series victory and making an aggressive statement to the cricketing world in the process, then the selection of Finn in a five-man attack will go a long way to helping them achieve this. Time will tell, but hopefully this will not prove a lost opportunity…

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