Five bowlers

I have said for some time that I think England should play five bowlers. At first glance, it looks a bit ridiculous. England have not consistently played five bowlers since the retirement of Freddie Flintoff. Since then, England have gone from being the fifth ranked Test team in the world to the first and have lost only one series, the recent one in the UAE. So why should we change a winning formula?

My answer is basically that it is inefficient. We have done very well with four bowlers, but a lot of that has been down to outstanding performances from our main players. Our batsmen have put up huge totals much more often than not and we have seldom been short a bowler. But not all of the batsmen have contributed. Specifically, we have not got a consistent contribution from the batsman at five or six since Collingwood and Bell were both in form against South Africa in 2009/10. This is something on which I touched during the last Test, but there is some important detail. First off is the definition of the ‘sixth batsman’. For a variety of reasons this need not be the person actually at six; the definition I am using is ‘the player most likely to have been dropped if a fifth full time bowler had been played’. I realise this is a subjective definition, but the numbers are actually so strong that the specifics hardly matter. For the avoidance of doubt I have used Morgan in England v Pakistan, Collingwood in the Ashes, Morgan in England v Sri Lanka and the first two England v India Tests, Bopara for the third and fourth England v India Tests, Morgan for Pakistan v England, Patel for Sri Lanka v England and Bairstow for the first two West Indies v England Tests.

This gives us 23 Tests (omitting those against Bangladesh) in which England have won 14 and lost six. In these Tests, the sixth batsmen have contributed 708 runs at an average of 22.84 and one century in 34 innings. The other ten players combine to average 39.66 with almost a century every ten innings and that is including the bowlers! The contrast is more drastic when one looks at the rest of the top six, plus Prior: they have an average of 43.23 with a century every 9.7 innings. In fact, the contribution of the sixth batsmen has been much more comparable to that of the bowlers. Since mid 2010, England’s seam trio plus Swann have combined to average 17.86 with one century, that of Stuart Broad in 2010. In other words, we have had a win/loss ratio over two despite consistently having a batsman who contributes only half of what his top-order colleagues do and only five runs more than the bowlers!

England are clearly not gaining anything by playing a sixth batsman and looking at the actual results of matches backs this up. Of the fourteen matches that England have won in the timeframe I am using, the closest was the five wicket victory in the most recent Lord’s Test. None of the run chases have involved the sixth batsman and when England have successfully defended a total it has never been by fewer than 196 runs (the margin of victory at Lord’s last year). The contribution of the sixth batsman has not only been statistically insignificant, the individual performances have not shifted any result into England’s favour.

The counter argument would point out that England not getting contributions from the sixth batsman in the past does not preclude them from doing so in the future and in any case, the four bowlers have been just as successful. That is all true, but whilst England have not been needing their sixth batsman, there have been times when they have appeared to need another bowling option. The first innings of the most recent Trent Bridge Test was one example: England were on the verge of effectively knocking the West Indies out of the Test, but with the ball going soft they were suddenly without wicket taking options. Bresnan was being hit around the ground, Swann was not getting appreciable turn on a first day pitch and Jimmy and Broad could only bowl short spells as they had to be held back for the new ball. Strauss was reduced to bowling Trott to get the overs in before the new ball was taken. Having a fifth bowler prevents this from happening. Not only are part-timers not needed, but there is variation to suit the conditions. Bresnan bowled very well in the second innings of that Test, but the conditions did not suit him as well in the first innings and England had no alternatives available.

England have nothing, or at lease very little, to lose by playing a fifth bowler. The main batsmen are capable of putting up a large score without further help and adding another world-class bowler to the attack can only help. The time has come to do so.

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