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Best Attack In The World - A Debate Settled?

Ryan Harris appeals
Ryan Harris - neck and neck with Dale Steyn?
©REUTERS / Action Images
Dale Steyn
Dale Steyn - the world's best when the ball is reversing?
©REUTERS / Action Images
Mitchell Johnson
Mitchell Johnson - variety, pace and now consistency
©REUTERS / Action Images

In the build up to the recent South Africa-Australia Test series, there was a question which put even the greats like Barry Richards and Michael Holding on the spot.

Yes, your guess is right. The question is "Which side fields the best bowling attack in the world?" 

Aptly the series was described and advertised as ‘The Battle of Bowling Attacks’. Indeed it was, albeit on tracks that were more conducive to batting except for the first Test at Centurion, where there was significant lateral movement coupled with bounce.

Now that the series is over, one could easily go by the statistics and say  "what was all the fuss about?" and rate Australia as the best bowling unit in the world. But it was, and is, never that easy. There is always more to it.

Certainly, stats show how successful a bowling attack is. But they can often be misleading. Before rating an attack as the best one should consider how  potent that particular attack is in different conditions.

The Proteas, led by Dale Steyn have been quite successful over a period of time in varying conditions, but when it comes to applying pressure regularly and forcing the opposition batsmen to make mistakes, their Australian counterparts, with their relentless disciplined bowling, hold the edge. 

The main limitation of this Aussie pace attack which stops us from comparing it to their attack of the golden era is reverse swing. A well-directed reverse swinger at pace is the hardest delivery a batsman can expect from a pacer. The thing that makes this kind of delivery harder to face is that the ball travels two thirds of its trajectory without indicating which way it is going to go.

It is not that these Australian pacers can not get reverse, but they are not as consistent as they would like to be. The legendary Aussie pace attack contained the likes of Michael Kasprowicz, Jason Gillespie who were prodigious at this art. It was actually this trait of their game that helped them to their much-awaited series win in India in 2004.

Among the current crop of pacers in the world only James Anderson and Dale Steyn are notable reversers of the ball. To an extent Ryan Harris also does it very well, but Anderson and Steyn are definitely a class apart. This gives their particular attacks significant edge in dry and abrasive conditions.

Variety is an important ingredient of a good bowling attack. The presence of a world-class left-armer
in Mitchell Johnson changes the entire dynamics of the game for the Aussies, whether it be creating awkward angles for batsmen to face or creating enough rough for Nathan Lyon to exploit.

All the South African bowlers are also different to each other, Dale Steyn with his swing, Vernon Philander with his nibble and Morne Morkel with his towering height, but it is no equivalent to having a left-armer in your attack.

Dale Steyn vs Ryan Harris

There was a lot of pre-series talk about Johnson as a direct opponent to Steyn. I don’t agree with
this. If there is a bowler who could go head to head with Steyn, that has to be Ryan Harris.

Steyn: 362 wickets @ 23.01, best of 7-51
Harris: 103 wickets @ 22.56, best of 7-117

As we all know the stock ball of Steyn is an out-swinger to a right-hander. Steyn doesn’t quite have the skill to move the ball away from left-handers, which is a serious limitation with the new ball.

Now, Ryan Harris can take the new cherry both ways at pace. Those immaculate out-swingers to Alastair Cook in the Ashes prove it. But when the ball is old, Steyn leads the race by quite a distance.

Harris can reverse the ball but is no match to Steyn. This makes Steyn a far more attacking weapon on abrasive surfaces. Steyn indeed has the capacity to bowl a magic ball but in that process he might dish up some easy scoring opportunities. This eases the pressure on the batsman.

If you are a batsman you feel that Harris is unrelentingly coming at you, but the same can’t be said of  Steyn. We could discuss this all day long without arriving at a conclusion - such is the nature of a tussle between these pace spearheads. It is pretty much neck and neck.

Vernon Philander vs Peter Siddle

112 wickets, one every seven overs at an astonishing average of 20.11 runs per wicket. These stats
show more than a detailed picture of Philander’s ability. But this is just one side to the coin. As David
Warner said during a pre-series press conference, he is a bowler who thrives on helpful conditions.

Philander: 112 wickets @ 20.11, best of 6-44
188 wickets @ 29.37, best of 6-54

Philander ran through the Australian batting lineup in favourable conditions in his debut series. This was reflected in his series figures of 14 wickets at 13.92. In the next series against Australia  
away from home he was nowhere near as effective as he was at home.

He managed just four wickets at a staggering 50 runs apiece. The recent Test series further highlighted his inability in unfavourable conditions, as he looked out of sorts as reflected in his series figures of seven wickets at 52 apiece.

He is as good as any bowler in world cricket in helpful conditions. But he definitely hits a wall if there is no help on offer.

Siddle on the other hand may not have daunting career statistics to show, but he is a warhorse. He found his mojo under the tutoring of Craig McDermott. As advised by him, he always bowls a fuller
length on the fourth stump taking it both ways and continuously probes the technique of the batsman.

He also uses the width of crease to good effect. Another thing that makes him an invaluable member of any attack is the number of overs he bowls. He will run for you all day long and always gives 100
per cent. 

Renowned cricket commentator Ravi Shastri described him as the 100 per cent man. Australian
national selector John Inverarity calls him 'Lion-Hearted Warrior'. However, in terms of getting the ball to move he can’t be deemed equal to Philander - but he negates the difference with his effort.

Philander edges this battle on seaming decks, but on unresponsive tracks there is no match for Siddle.

Mitchell Johnson vs Morne Morkel

Johnson: 264 wickets @ 27.42, best of 8-61
Morkel: 189 wickets @ 30.07, best of 6-23

Mitchell Johnson was described by many around the world as an enigma. But this was prior to the second phase of the Ashes. Since then he has been a revelation.

He has been absolutely phenomenal. His last eight tests yielded 59 wickets at 15.24. Such has been his impact that he rose to fourth spot in the world rankings out of nowhere. What we have been seeing for the past six months is not Johnson. He is JOHNSON 2.0.

There is no bowler who could match him in this form. He made changes to his action under the tutelage of Dennis Lillee which significantly lessens the probability of the old wayward monster coming back.

On his day, Morne Morkel can be unstoppable. He doesn’t quite have the returns to back up his
bowling credentials.

Generally it is his spell that ignites a spark in the Proteas on docile surfaces. He continuously ruffles up few feathers in opposition batting lineup. The other bowlers in the group are ultimately the ones who get the benefit as the batsman attempts a false stroke.

This is because the batsman feels a sigh of relief after facing 'The Mornzilla'. But one aspect of his bowling where he continuously errs is not backing the short pitched ones with enough full deliveries.

Mitchell Johnson  does it very well. He often backs his thunderbolts with a wide full delivery. The immediate effect is the feet of the batsman go nowhere and he ends up merely pushing his bat and edging it. This brings the keeper and slips in to play.

With his action, Johnson is skiddy when compared to Morkel. He is also a bit quicker. Pace causes indecision Pace can get you to play balls which you normally don’t.

The other factors which add to the strength of this Australian attack are Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon.

Watson: 69 wickets @ 31.95, best of 6-33
112 wickets @ 32.99, best of 7-94
7 wickets @ 36.85, best of 2-17
3 wickets @ 54, best of 2-72
38 wickets @ 37.26, best of 5-33

Lyon is no Shane Warne, but he has improved a lot. He is as good as any orthodox off-spinner around at the moment. No disrespect to Robin Peterson, but the Proteas do not have a spinner of Test quality at their disposal. Playing just 15 matches in a career spread across 11 years is simply not good enough at this level.

Watson does hold the aces on Wayne Parnell and Ryan Mclaren in the category of all-rounders. He is far better with the bat. With the ball he can hold up an end with out leaking runs. If he is fit and if the conditions are favourable, he is a proper Test bowler. 

Watson also possesses the ability to extract reverse swing. Indeed, he does reverse the ball a lot more than many frontline bowlers in the world. This makes him more than useful in the sub-continent.

McLaren is consistent with his line and length, but he doesn’t have the skill to be a good Test match   
bowler. This was evident in the first Test at Centurion where he hardly had any impact on a pitch offering assistance.

Meanwhile, Parnell has the pace and swing and can be very good on his day. Yet he is not consistent, especially if there is no help from deck, when he finds it very difficult to stem the run flow. He needs to be more consistent if he wants to be a successful Test match bowler.

At just 24, he has age on his side, and he can improve.

Bench Strength

If we obseve the fringe bowlers on both sides, Australia has a distinct advantage. Australia have a
plethora of young quicks in James Pattinson, Patrick Cummins, Jackson Bird, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. 

South Africa are limited in this aspect with only Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange in reserve. De Lange is an exciting prospect, but given his history of injuries, he needs to be managed well.

In the slow-bowling department, young James Muirhead is rapidly rising through the ranks in Australia. South Africa do not look like producing a talented tweaker in the near future.

The Australian attack certainly has more variety. Under McDermott's tutorship, they are continuously probing with that nagging fuller length mixed with odd skull-frightener. Not to mention they also have a very attacking captain in Michael Clarke who enhances the chances of picking up wickets with his imaginative field placings.
© Cricket World 2014