Why County Championship wickets aren’t enough for England

Just like one wouldn’t anticipate an Adam Sandler movie receiving an Oscar, it would be foolish to expect many changes when it comes to the England test team these days.

This is especially true in the seam bowling department. In the 2010’s thus far, only Jake Ball received a test cap without first playing for the one-day international team. This sort of circumspection was not always the case. Indeed, several great bowlers who debuted in the 2000’s (such as Mathew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Graham Onions) began their England careers in the test team. In addition, the sheer number of seam bowling debutants in the 2010’s so far (7) is considerably lower than the same period in the 2000’s (13) or the 1990’s (18).

This also highlights a negative trend in the number of new fast bowlers given the chance to represent England at test level. In this occasion, the word negative is only used in the scientific sense. The management of the England team, in many ways, has advanced. The advent of central contracts and improved medical/conditioning facilities has ensured England bowlers are integrated and stay in the set up.

Continuity in selection is certainly preferable to the uncertain times of the 1990’s. But is this policy neglecting good Championship bowlers? For instance, between 2013 and 2016 no one took more Division One wickets than Jack Brooks (227 wickets at 25.31) or Chris Rushworth (233 wickets at 23.78). However, neither have played for England.

For some, this is a reflection on how poorly the England selectors perceive the County Championship. This perception is compounded by the fact that Trevor Bayliss, the England Head Coach, has never played, coached or seemingly watched County Championship cricket. Perhaps, therefore, the selection panel is missing a large talent pool by focusing predominantly on players who play for England in other formats.

But there are other reasons why the England selectors have persistently overlooked these fine players.

One reason is that these two opening bowlers exist in an era when England possesses arguably their best new ball partnership ever. In addition to being remarkably good, Broad and Anderson are also tremendously fit, rarely missing test matches.

That’s not to say there have not been moments when England could have turned to either. However, the England selectors have often looked to youth in their process. During their formidable County Championship years, both Rushworth (27 in 2013) and Brooks (29 in 2013) may have been perceived as too old. In fact in the 2010’s, England have only handed one test cap to a seam bowler over the age of 25 (Boyd Rankin, 29). It was only last year that the 25-year-old Jake Ball leap frogged both to make his England debut against Sri Lanka. There must’ve been a collective sigh in Yorkshire and Durham when they turned to a bowler who’d taken 39 Championship wickets the previous year. In the same season, Brooks had taken 65, and Rushworth a whopping 83 wickets.

But it’s not all about age. It’s perhaps more crucial that bowlers have alternative skills on their CV. Brooks and Rushworth both lack express pace and exceptional height. If you are 6 foot and bowl in the 75 – 85 mph range, you are at a considerable disadvantage today. Giants such as Chris Tremlett, Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin and Jake Ball are much more favorable. Similarly, England were quick to incorporate Mark Wood, who is capable of bowling above 90 mph.

You could make the argument that average height medium-fast bowlers do prosper in test cricket, however. Ryan Sidebottom and Matthew Hoggard, who sometimes bowled with the keeper standing up, were both successful England bowlers. Strikingly, Matthew Hoggard’s record is  identical when playing home and away, contradicting the notion that his lack of pace is useless outside England. Vernon Philander, who also doesn’t bowl with extreme pace, is considered one of the worlds best. However, since Anderson and Broad both now bowl in the 80-85 mph range, the selectors are on the look out for something different. It may be extremely harsh, but it appears the selectors view Brooks and Rushworth as Anderson-Lite rather than Anderson 2.0.

England’s recent history would also suggest that they prefer bowlers who can bat. In Ben Stokes, England have found the rarest of treasures, a number 6 batsman who can bowl at 90 mph. Further, both Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes have scored first class centuries. Whilst Jack Brooks has scored 3 half centuries in first class cricket, their records do not suggest they could bat higher than 10 in test match cricket. Therefore, it is Woakes who has emerged as the third choice seamer. It is important to note that Woakes also went back to Warwickshire and worked hard on bowling quicker. To play at the highest level, one needs to constantly improve their skills.

This has become even more evident with the advent of reverse swing. Mark Wood and Ben Stokes are both proponents of this mystical art. It seems this is a skill that eludes Rushworth. Although it has been noted that Brooks can reverse the ball, it seems like this skill needs to be honed from a very young age.

This point was excellently highlighted in Vithushan Ehantharajah’s Cricket Monthly Article ‘Reverse Swing: An English Tale’. Simon Jones, the ‘Gold Standard’ of a reverse swing bowler, didn’t have a very impressive first class record, but Duncan Fletcher saw the potential. Crucially, the coaching staff and Jones knew very early on that he wouldn’t open the bowling for England. Therefore, the England coaching staff worked with Jones to help him master the art of reverse swing with the older ball. This demonstrates that to become an England bowler, some need to almost re-brand themselves from new ball to old ball specialists.

Of course, both Rushworth and Brooks have had very fulfilling careers. Rushworth took 53 wickets in 2013, when Durham won the County Championship. Brooks on the other hand, took 133 wickets in Yorkshire’s back-to-back Championship wins in 2014 and 2015. In that respect, it’s hard not to feel some regret that they haven’t represented England. But to quote the movie ‘Taken’, the England selectors are looking for a “very specific set of skills” in seam bowlers. It turns out wicket-taking is only one of them.