Thursday, 24 July 2014

The 'Enforcer' Trap

Thursday, 24 July 2014
A thought that has been on my mind for a while now is about why it is that England's bowlers consistently bowl short when it doesn't appear the best option nor suited to conditions; about why they like to have someone labelled as their 'enforcer' when in reality by bowling at their natural length they would be able to do much better and 'enforce' an advantage further.

It seemed to begin with Stuart Broad, around 2011. He's tall with natural pace and bounce, plus a combative attitude, so on they slapped that 'enforcer' label and made him the aggressor. The idea was that with teams such as Sri Lanka and India touring that summer, he would be the one to expose their shortcomings against the short-pitched delivery. In the process they seemed to forget what is usually the secret to success with such a tactic - make it the shock ball, not the stock ball; put the threat of the bouncer into the batsman's mind to make him hesitant to come forward, rather than knowing what to expect and so able to stay back and attack, duck or sway. England won the series, but Broad averaged 48.75 with the ball and by the final innings of the series had lost his position as new ball bowler to Chris Tremlett. Also tellingly, when England lined up with three beanpole fast bowlers in the second test - Broad, Tremlett, and Finn - Sri Lanka racked up 479 with the bat, further showing how variety is often the key. Heading into the India series, on the verge of being dropped, Broad then went back to his more natural, fuller length and it paid off - topping the bowling averages with 25 wickets at 13.84 as England recorded one of their most emphatic series wins and duly went to the top of the test rankings. Quite a contrast.

The role of the enforcer hasn't been seen as much since - though England are still keen on using bouncers and targeting certain players, there hasn't been the talk of one player with that out and out role. But once more with Sri Lanka and India touring - teams from the subcontinent after all not well known for their strengths against the short ball - England seem to be falling into the trap again. This time Liam Plunkett seems to have been picked as the man - he has the natural pace and showed against Sri Lanka how well directed his bouncers can be, and it did bring him some success as he took nine at Headingley. But the secret here was again that it wasn't overused - he threatened with his pace and some close fielders, but his most memorable wickets were when he was threatening (and demolishing) the stumps. The worry is that England are using him in a way where he is repeatedly bowling bouncers even when the pitch doesn't suit - be it a slow low deck like Trent Bridge or a green one like at Lord's - rather than letting him do what got him back in the side. His pace also seems to have dropped, nullifying the threat of the 'enforcer' to some degree anyway, be it from the amount of the workload or other reasons. He hasn't stopped picking up wickets for the team, but there is a feeling that he is being wasted to an extent, his talents not utilised in the right way. Given that he's already on his second spell in the side, it would be a shame to see him not given the chance to reach his best.

But why is it that England seem to persist with this tactic? Is it part of the plans of the bowling coach, David Saker? There was a moment in a recent interview with Steven Finn where he described him as being more of a tactical than a technical coach, something that - though we have always known it - didn't make him look good in a summer where the bowlers have struggled to dismiss the batsmen on several occasions and often looked without answers, the team's tactics often blamed. There have been several changes in the coaching staff recently, with Saker one of the few to remain from the old Flower regime, and with the bowlers' struggles this year there have been suggestions that he should go too. But part of it must be the captain and the bowlers as well - surely they aren't just trained robots without a say in the game they are playing and no ideas of their own. Why not back the bowlers' strengths and just use the short ball as a shock delivery, as an alternative tactic perhaps like used by Sharma on day five? It's something that looks like common sense to those of us watching the game, pundits and fans alike, yet those in and around the England team see it differently.

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