Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Fatal Four-way?

By picking two spinners in a squad of seventeen, Australia has shown its hand: they're going to play a tweaker in the first Ashes Test next week. Hardly startling news, but it leaves the question: why not play four fast bowlers? The 'Gabba traditionally takes pace very well and there is a convincing argument that the best four bowlers in the country (perhaps even the best seven) are speedsters.

Of course there are plenty of very good arguments against fronting up with a four-pronged pace attack: a team needs variety, a team needs a stock bowler unlikely to break down, the 'Gabba was Shane Warne's most preferred ground to bowl at outside the MCG ... wasn't it also one of the harbingers of the apocalypse? In fact, the arguments for it are probably 90% convincing: There's no question that a variety of arrows in the quiver of Ricky Ponting makes for a more balanced team and that Australia's best four quicks are remarkably injury prone. What's curious is that no-one's talking about it even as an option. There are reasons as to why it isn't a good idea so why not start looking for reasons as to why it has merit?

It comes down to only one reason. The first involves the now-obligatory mention of the West Indian sides of the 1970s and 1980s. The dominant Windies of that era played a pace quartet because it was their best way of taking twenty wickets whether they were at home, in Australia or in spin-friendly India. Their best seven or eight bowlers were fast men, so they played the top four. It was only when that top four included Cameron Cuffy and Kenny Benjamin that their reign ended - in order to work, this lineup needs four pacemen of absolute quality.

As Australia's pace stocks appear healthy with at least six fast men of International quality, why not try it? The best four would comprise Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger and Peter Siddle, giving you one swing bowler, two honest triers and Johnson's loose cannon. It may or may not work, but it is at least worth evaluating.

Most cricket boffins would probably opt for the variety that a spinner brings to an XI and that's probably for the best. For the four-pronged pace attack to work, the bowlers involved have to be a class above the spinners they keep out of the side and with Australia that probably isn't the case. Succinctly, the increase in class has to be more than the decrease in variation. That said, the idea shouldn't be forever consigned to the scrapheap as the Baggy Green continues its search for A-list bowlers. Perhaps it's time for Australia, suddenly spoil'd for choice with speed-merchants, to at least consider the idea that they aren't forced by law to play a spinner.

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