It’s no longer some crazy bat shit looney tunes idea to suggest that English locations may be at a crossroads. Every Solomon with access to a keyboard says so. This article will instead tell you why it’s not a completely crazy idea after all.
There are three reasons to think English conditions could be about to change. First, the enormity of it. James Anderson is the god of swing bowling, the Duke of Dukes. Anderson’s plans to scalp the wickets of Devon Conway and Tom Latham on day one with a fresh ball were to use short midwicket and short extra coverage respectively. Ten years of exile over, Stuart Broad is back as an enforcer. Of the five wickets he won against New Zealand in the Nottingham Test, two has come from balls thrown 11m or more from the stumps, a feat he last achieved in 2012. Never has an England Test team offensive as many balls as the Stokes savages since 2006, ranging from the rags of Hobart to the riches of Nottingham. It was generally abnormal. Possibly abnormal levels that could herald something bigger than itself.
Jonny Bairstow attacked 62% of deliveries en route to his century. Only three tons of tests since 2006 (when the records started) have seen more assaults in a century: Adam Gilchrist vs Eng 2006, Colin de Granhomme vs WI 2017 and Misbah ul Haq vs Aus 2014. #ENGvNZ
— The CricViz analyst (@cricvizanalyst) June 14, 2022
Then there were the means. It is not uncommon for England to produce batting strips for non-Asian tourists and reserve the grass for sub-continental teams (consider, for example, that England batting averages 0.4 points more per wicket against NZ, Aus, SA and WI since 2018 only for Asian home teams). And it makes sense because it helps gather spinning attacks from Asian teams. But this is usually done by making interventions on the pitch, not on the ball. Yet this strip of Trent Bridge was so green before the start of the second test that speculations were plagued by a Craig Overton recall. It wasn’t the pitch, was it the ball?
When Stuart Broad tore open the plastic case containing the Dukes made for county championship balls and buried his nose in his chest to ingest its heavenly scent, he wrote that it looked like a “rolled up piece of plasticine”. The ball was softer than normal. Now it was nothing more than a daily mistake by the best manufacturers in the world – until the same kind of bullet showed up in the newly purchased case for the tests. A negative antigen test means you may still be carrying the virus. Two negative tests, and you’re bellowing at the bar with colleagues about some gossip you missed while on vacation. While the means used to produce batting-friendly strips against non-Asian teams have changed, the predictive power of data that this is a classic England is also receding.
Finally, there is the very important pattern indicator. When England returned the Ashes to Australia, the three the loudest cries were for the following: regime change, test prioritization and batter-friendly conditions. Here is the insight of Michael Vaughan: “When you are on flat wickets in Test cricket, a lost chance can cost you the game. If you drop someone they could get 150. At the moment we are miles away from replicating that in county cricket. The first two have been achieved, the third not so much yet. But it makes for a tantalizing analysis. In an academic discussion this “evidence” would not hold water, but in a courtroom it will blind the jury against England. If English conditions are indeed doomed to favor batsmen in the years to come, what will change?
Batting averages and inflated run rates stand out, but so do more ties and more fourth-inning chases. Spin kicks in more often, earlier.
But the most fundamental effect might be on length. England cue ball analyst Nathan Leamon gives rare insight into his brain in this The cricket monthly article where he discerns the ideal length for pace bowlers depending on conditions and specialization. He concludes: “If the ball swings big – throw it… But if the pitch is likely to offer help all the way through the innings, then you better be patient and stick to that good length.”
In a nutshell, this is based on two data-supported premises. At longer lengths, the ball wobbles more, forcing batters to attack more and score at high speed, but also regularly losing wickets. On the contrary, on the right length, the ball wobbles less, which makes cricket overall slower. On swinging decks with no confirmation of an eternal sideways move, it makes sense to chase wickets early and pay the price for runs, before retreating to a defensive mindset. But if you know in advance that this movement will last throughout the rounds, why bother to pay the price of an openly substitutable good? The English conditions were of the first variety in the great era of bowling from 2018 to 2021, they could soon be heading towards the first.
What does that mean? James Anderson’s average ball in home testing from summer 2014 to 2019 spear 7.20m from the stumps, but he may need to throw the new ball harder at the top of the innings.
At the same time, the value of the executor will peak. The last time a team on tour scored over 600 points in England was South Africa in 2012. Towards the end of this round, Stuart Broad was fighting a losing battle against Hashim Amla to knock out Amla’s header. In Nottingham, Broad was again the enforcer. Maybe not for the last time. With the ball not doing enough in the air conventionally, hitting it into the pitch at high speed not only keeps the batter guessing, but also scuffs one side of the ball to bring the reverse swing into the contest sooner.
So yes, the reverse swing will also end up on a raised pedestal. For the majority of the pace bowling pandemic, the conventional swing was so pervasive that the Dukes rarely got soft enough for the backing to come up their head. It could be due to the change. But think also: the Covid-era saliva ban work under distinctly bowler-friendly conditions where the interaction between the air and the ball was sufficient to make the ball hoop. But that’s largely England: more than a fifth of the total number of balls played in Test cricket at that time were in the UK. Other pitches less favorable to hitters have complained. Who says that it is not the same in the destiny of the English? Broad and Anderson are grumpy old people who regularly write articles in the daily newspapers about that missing pair of glasses. We may soon find out.
But other job opportunities may also play spoilsport, as, like downtrodden housewives seeking solace in an extramarital affair, Broad and Anderson could be pressured to step away from cricket. Cricket itself provides them with reasons to do so. Like Tim Wigmore of The telegraph reports, an essential cause of Anderson’s longevity is the care with which his body was treated and the assiduity with which his schedule was managed. Between 2018 and 2022, the teams’ top four bowlers bowled 18 overs per inning. For Anderson, the number was one out of minus. That’s two overs per Test match out of the hopper, as England Tests finished seven overs behind the world average in that period. Deprived of this stamp, can Batman and Robin of cricket keep an eye on Gotham? It’s debatable.
Heraclitus of Ephesus said in the 6th century BC. J.-C. that “everything flows”. The bowling era of cricket was also to pass. Like all chaotic breakups that leave you wishing you had cherished that last night together more, we won’t know until it’s completely over. But when his flags are uprooted in favor of the azures of batting ascendancy, it will spawn more than young English batters, that’s for sure. Among these will be the performers, the reverse swing, two new English commentators and the counter productive result of senile viewers.