In the wake of England’s Ashes failings, there’s been a lot of talk about how the County Championship is played on pitches that encourage medium-pacers. Pitches are not the big problem.
There was a good recent piece about county pitches by CricBuzz’s Rob Johnston. The overly-reduced version of that article is that actually county pitches are pretty good. Not perfect, but probably better than they were in the lead-up to England becoming the number one Test team in 2011.
So what’s the problem?
The simple truth is that county pitches are far less of an issue than the fact there are 46 million games a year. It is simply impossible to be a fast bowler across a county season. This is bad for bowling, but it also means that batters very rarely have to face that challenge – which is probably the bigger issue for the England Test team.
People have it all wrong. It’s not that there’s an incentive to bowl medium-pace. It’s that there’s a disincentive to try and bowl quickly.
Think of it like this. You’re a young seam bowler with the ability to top 90mph. You could deliver that in maybe half a dozen first-class matches a year – 10 tops – plus a handful of short format matches.
That’s pretty good for your county – but it’s probably not as valuable to them as a slower, more accurate seamer who can play in 14 matches and bags of one-dayers and who is far less likely to get injured.
You can’t really build a 14-match first-class campaign around a fast bowler. Certainly not if you also have designs on using them in limited-overs cricket.
So maybe you become that durable, bowls-within-himself, line-and-length bowler. Or maybe you stick with fast bowling and gear your game towards the shorter formats where you stand far more of a chance of being a central figure.
Picking a lane
It’s not a cut-and-dried, either/or situation. You can certainly try and be a fast bowler in the County Championship… if you want to…
But you can certainly forgive pace bowlers for choosing to approach their career differently.
There are at least 78 days of “top flight” domestic cricket in which a county player could feature each season (first-class, T20 and either 50-over or The Hundred).
That is not exactly an invitation to maintain a high intensity.
The human body doesn’t work like that. You can do low intensity things regularly, medium-intensity things less often and high intensity things only rarely. Furthermore, if you do a lot of fairly quick bowling, it will almost certainly hamper your ability to bowl really quickly.
A high moderately-quick workload will result in your becoming a more efficient moderately-quick bowler. But forever somewhat fatigued, you’ll lose that top end pace. You’ll basically become a diesel.
The upshot is that whatever the raw materials at the outset, there aren’t many fast bowlers plying their trade in the Championship.
A handful of fast bowlers plus a lot of matches equals very decent odds that any given fixture will lack high pace as a result of injury, rest or England duty.
How much fast bowling do County Championship batters face?
According to CricViz’s Freddie Wilde, between the start of 2015 and now, 0.6% of deliveries from pace bowlers in the County Championship topped 140km/h.
Just to be doubly clear – that’s with spin bowlers’ deliveries stripped out. If you watch Test cricket, 140km/h is not especially remarkable and yet County Championship batters are experiencing bowling of this speed almost never.
That ‘balls above 140km/h’ percentage jumps to 16% for Test matches as a whole and to 35% for Test matches in Australia.
If you’re a top-order county batter called up for the Ashes, you’re going from barely seeing a ball exceed 140km/h to facing deliveries of that speed (and faster) over a third of the time.
You’re playing a different game.