Cricket teams are always searching for balance. It is an interesting word for we seek it in so much more than cricket; in the media, in politics, in life itself! And here in England, two fairly good teams are discovering that without the right balance, they are being made to look lesser teams.
So what is this ideal balance really? The dream combination would be six batsmen, one of whom can bowl fairly well, a wicketkeeper who can bat and four bowlers one of whom can bat pretty well and another who can hang in there. Inevitably, one of the four should be a spinner, but that hasn’t been mandatory.
The West Indies used four fast bowlers and fear took care of the rest!
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The West Indies were an extraordinary side and they got away without a spinner because they hardly ever had to bowl more than a hundred overs. Admittedly they had Viv Richards who bowled fast off breaks and had 223 first-class wickets though he contributed a mere 32 in Tests. But if your fast bowlers aren’t Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall, then you need a fifth to help out when the pitches are like those in Nottingham or Nagpur.
Australia played through their prime with four bowlers too, but that too was an extraordinary collection of talent. And they had Shane Warne. Neither India nor England have an equivalent and so they must search for help. And just as bowlers must chip in to score runs, the batsmen must be able to help out with overs.
It is worth a thought though that while the batting skills of bowlers are much commented on, the bowling skills of batsmen tend to be rather more leniently discussed!
Four bowlers on dead pitches can hurt teams. Often by the time they get through the lead batsmen they are spent and hence, the sight of the tail wagging. It wasn’t a coincidence that the last few batsmen on both sides scored runs in Nottingham, one of the poorest Test pitches in recent memory. It was to counter the pitch, and the fact that the third and fourth bowlers on either side weren’t causing fear in the opposition, that the need for a fifth bowler was felt. Neither side, to be fair, possessed that rare creature; the batsman who bowls well enough to earn the label of an all-rounder, even by rather diluted modern definitions.
India’s choice of Stuart Binny and England’s decision to play Moeen Ali in that role were not just indicative of the drought of all-rounders in the modern game, they also pointed to deeper concerns in each country’s cricket. India’s last batsman capable of a bit of seam and swing was Sourav Ganguly.
Irfan Pathan briefly threatened to play that role but by the time you could have confidence to bat him at No.7 consistently in a Test match, his bowling deserted him. And for some reason, India never used the considerable bowling skills of Virender Sehwag to provide the right balance. And none of the bowlers in Indian cricket today, maybe Ashwin is an exception, can aspire to bat at No.7.
So balance will remain an issue for India when they play away from home. With two spinners in home conditions, India can get by with four bowlers but away, here in England and later in Australia, it will be a concern. The problem is, if anything, more pronounced for England whose choice of Moeen Ali is an illustration of the poverty in their cricket.
Moeen Ali can probably play for England as a batsman in the top six and help out as a second spinner, but the fact that there isn’t another anywhere in sight means England will have to play four seamers, and that makes them a one-surface team.
If Moeen Ali, or for that matter, Stuart Binny, could bowl 12 overs a day for 30 runs, they might still play a role, but that seems inconceivable, and that means the rest of this series will continue to be played between two teams with insufficient fire power.
Hopefully, the pitches will give the bowlers something.