Monday, 27 February 2012
That All-Rounder Conundrum...Again.
Amongst an array of wishful bordering on unrealistic thoughts entering my mind when pondering the ideal England bowling attack ahead of the UAE Test matches against Pakistan last month, that aged obsession with genuine all-rounder’s positioned its particularly haggard head at the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a bothersome swine, and it wasn’t to be shaken off.
Talk of playing two spinners on the fast bowling graveyards (or so we thought beforehand, more on that later) of the UAE, twinned with England’s insistence on playing seven specialist batsmen, left the enduring concern that injury to one of the two front-line fast bowlers selected could see England quite literally cooked in the desert. If ever there was a need for a genuine all-rounder, equally adept with bat and ball, it was then.
The all-rounder is of pedigree cricketing breed. Throughout the history of the sport we have marvelled at destructive fast bowlers, cunning spinners and artisan batsmen plying their trade, but do any of those truly capture the hearts and minds to the same effect as the elusive all-rounder that combines such traits so seamlessly?
Many of the games deluxe moments have been fashioned by an all-rounder. Who can forget ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in ’81 or Sir Garfield Sobers’ annihilation of England in ’66? All-rounder’s possess the ability to influence the outcome in every aspect, to be the hero, and consequently have a propensity to be revered above all others.
In the aftermath of the talismanic Andrew Flintoff’s retirement, a man so often called upon to bowl those extra overs in search of an all important wicket that perhaps ultimately cost him his career, England have demonstrated that life without an all-rounder is more bearable than many first conceived. Indeed, those supposedly benign pitches of the UAE proved moderately responsive to the new ball, and encouraged plenty of assistance for spin. In hindsight, an all-rounder wasn’t a necessity after all.
That apparition of one of the two fast bowlers operating within a four man attack breaking down with injury and leaving England deep in the mire continues to nag, though. With tours to Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent looming on the horizon, locations where fast bowlers have historically toiled, the same question is soon to be resurrected. Of course, England's touring squad of Sri Lanka has already been announced, but with the next five years in mind it is a situation that will undoubtedly be revisited.
Two front-line spinners will likely be deployed on such tours, and with even less assistance offered to the quick’s than in the UAE can England really risk it all with a mere four man attack once more? More importantly, should they opt for a five pronged attack, who are the candidates in contention to assume the all important mantle of all-rounder?
Tim Bresnan is perhaps the name that will be at the forefront of minds. A burly, bustling fellow averaging 23.60 with the ball in Test cricket, Bresnan holds the distinction of England having won every single Test in which he has played. With the ability to bowl a ‘heavy ball’ and extract reverse swing as the ball ages, Bresnan may prove to be an attractive proposition in sub-continental conditions. In addition, an average of 45.42 with the bat adds significant credence to his claims.
Nottinghamshire all-rounder Samit Patel is another to have pressed his claims through a string of impressive recent performances in limited overs cricket for England. Boasting a healthy first class average of 41.11 with the bat, Patel offers England a further spin option in the form of his slow left arm bowling. Despite a third spin alternative perhaps being an attractive proposition to the England selectors on the dust bowls of Sri Lanka, it may well be that a rather mediocre first class bowling average of 37.77 proves too innocuous to thrust Patel to the vanguard of what is a competitive pack.
Every selection debate should contain a wildcard, however, and one genuine all-rounder with a noteworthy claim of his own is Warwickshire’s Chris Woakes. Fans have seen but glimpses of Woakes in an England shirt to date, but if last season’s returns are anything to go by, that could soon be set to change. Having recently turned 23, Woakes holds a significant age advantage over his aforementioned rivals. More importantly, the Birmingham born youngster is rapidly improving and yet to reach his peak.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Woakes prior to the 2012 County Championship kicking off, and the Warwickshire man made all the right noises when asked about the possibility of forcing his way in to England’s plans.
“2011 was an incredible year for me personally”, says Woakes when asked about his outstanding County Championship returns of 48.25 with the bat and 21.78 with the ball, “to better those in 2012 would be an amazing effort. I am hoping to be as good if not better with the bat in particular, and will hopefully continue my form with the ball. To better an average of 21.78 isn’t the easiest, is it?”
He has a point, of course. Further reducing an already remarkable bowling average will take considerable skill and probably an element of luck, too. To put Woakes’ achievement in perspective, the current number one ranked Test bowler in world cricket, Dale Steyn, averaged 25.86 with the ball when playing in seven County Championship matches for Warwickshire in 2007. Indeed, Woakes is of the belief that division one of the English County Championship isn’t too far adrift of the standard of Test cricket. “I do believe I would make runs at that level, but obviously the England Test team are the best in the world at the moment, which makes it difficult to force your way in”, muses Woakes. “I feel that my batting has the potential to become more effective and allow me to bat higher up the order than just seven or eight.”
Citing his recent tour of the sub-continent with the England Lions as a great learning curve in further developing his all-round game, Woakes adds “I want to improve as a bowler as well. I have worked on certain areas of my technique, and also my one day skills. Having spent a decent amount of time away in the sub-continent, working on facing spin with the bat and working on variations and reverse swing with the ball, I feel my game has progressed significantly since last summer.”
Ask any Warwickshire member whether Woakes’ bowling is of the required standard for Test cricket and you will be met with an unequivocal ‘yes’, and likely a look of disbelief that you dared let the thought enter your mind at all. Yet it would seem that this view isn’t quite shared by some outside of Shakespeare’s county, with a number questioning whether Woakes possesses the necessary pace. I put this question to him, only to be met with an answer as rock solid as his finest forward defensive. “Look, I believe I am a very skilful bowler who can work out a batsman’s weaknesses and find a way to get them out. I also feel it is difficult to bowl flat out for a whole county season with the very heavy schedule. I am working on a few things to try and unlock a little bit of additional pace so hopefully these minor changes will prove beneficial,” he retorts.
Another claim levelled at Woakes is that he is more suited to limited overs cricket; a statement rubbished by vastly superior statistics in the four day game. Woakes, though, feels that he can become an all-round all-rounder for England. “I think my statistics suggest that I am a very good four day player and enjoy that form of the game more, but my limited overs skills have definitely improved over the past twelve months. I think people feel my batting is more suited to the shorter form as I am capable of scoring runs quickly at any time during the innings” responds Woakes, “I feel I could offer more higher up the order, and hopefully that will happen.”
Woakes undoubtedly remains an outside bet to make his England Test bow in 2012, though a repeat of last year’s performances would convert the current selection headache to a rather severe migraine. Whilst loathe to utter those infamous words ‘the next Botham’, there is one thing eminently clear: in Chris Woakes England have a young, ambitious and immensely talented all-rounder, and 2012 might just see his knocking at the door of England HQ begin to wrench a few of those stubborn hinges.