Australia vs England: The Pace Attack

9th January 2018

Australia Vs England

Pace Attack – the Physical Comparison


We’ve heard much on bowling tactics this Ashes summer and about bowling "air speed”, which seems to be the phrase du jour, but what of the preparation and ability to bowl fast for extended periods?

It’s clear the 3 Aussie quick’s were able to hold their faster pace for longer periods throughout the entire series, more so than their English counterparts. Is this due to natural ability, commitment, training techniques or mastering that mysterious bowling workload?

First, let’s explore the infamous bowling workload restrictions and what these are based on and then you’ll understand the workload restrictions and performance paradox. The concept of bowling workload restrictions is based on injury prevention and doesn’t take into account performance, which as we all know is a key ingredient for international cricketers.

Bowling workload: the amount of balls bowled, per session, day, week, month and year. It’s the measure of total balls bowled and frequency of bowling days. The obtuse thing about this measure is that it doesn’t take into account bowling intensity. Warm-up balls, ¾ pace balls and full pace balls are all considered the same.

Bowling workload restrictions: these were, up until very recently, based on small amounts of research that showed if you regularly over-bowled or under-bowled, both in frequency and volume, the risks of injury increases.  These are measured over the short term and over long periods. Roughly speaking, bowling more than 180 balls per week, spread over not less than one session per week, but over no more than 3 ½  sessions per week. From this research, little was considered from other areas of physical preparation, nor previous bowling training volumes and intensities. Confused? Well you should be.

The Paradox: Bowlers are restricted in volumes of bowling, which is not preparing them to bowl fast for the amount of overs they will bowl during 4 and 5-day cricket.  This leads to an inability to maintain top speed for the entire match. As a clear example in this recent Ashes Series, Anderson bowled 59 overs in the Boxing Day Test match, add on a training day or two leading into the match, plus warm up balls, he’d be well over 70 (420 balls) overs for the week.  You can see how only bowling 180 balls per week (30 overs) or restricting volumes doesn’t prepare bowlers for the duration of battle adequately.

How did the bowlers fare physically?

From the variation and drop off in bowling speeds alone, both within spells, sessions and days play, we see that England got it wrong with their preparation. Anderson and Broad were clearly underdone coming into the series. At times both could bowl up towards 140kph, but often throughout the series they both would drop to the 120’s. This may be a self-preservation technique that has allowed them to last so long in test cricket and in England they often get conditions that favour their skills and they pick it up in those times. But in Australia, on flat wickets that offer little swing or seem, the way to get wickets in these times is to continuously hit the wicket hard and make things happen.  They were unable or unwilling to do this.

Clearly there weren’t enough tough 4-day tour matches in Australia in the lead-in where the bowlers could have built up their speed and endurance, and clearly not enough foundation bowling training in the lead in to the tour. Curran was another that has really suffered from not bowling enough. When he arrived in his first test he was hitting the mid 130’s, but quickly decreased in pace through that test and dropped off to the low to mid 120’s consistently in the Sydney test. That’s not going to get you consistent wickets in Australia.  So who’s to blame?  I’ll let the English support staff, administration and players fight amongst each other for that award, but generally at that level, I’ve found no one tends to take the blame.

On the Australian side of things they got it right. The bowlers came in strong, fit, well conditioned for all the physical demands required and particularly with their bowling condition. In recent times they haven’t always got it right, but this time “hats off” to them. Pat Cummins finally was able to get through a full test series, served up with flat conditions, and apart from his pace dropping slightly when he was sick in Melbourne and during the odd spell in the heat of Sydney, his speed remained high and dangerous. All of Australia is so pleased for him given the amount of cricket he has missed.  To be able to bowl 40 overs at 140+kph in the last test, in searing heat and on a very flat wicket, is testament to how well prepared he was. Likewise with Hazelwood, who I thought may have been slightly underdone leading into the series having played only 1 shield match in the lead in, but by the second innings of the First Test he was up to good speed and maintained that right throughout the series. As for Starc, he was just fantastic.

It’s testament to the Australian bowling attack’s ability and professionalism to be up to full pace within the first couple of balls of each spell. This was at total contrast with the English seamers who usually took a good over to warm into their spells. A classic example of this was Broad on the 4th morning of the Sydney Test in his first over bowling 128-130kph for the over, giving the Aussie batsmen an over of ‘sighters’. Woakes did a similar thing first over after a lunch interval in Melbourne. At the start of a session, or the start of the days play, there is no reason you can’t be fully warmed up and ready to let rip from over 1. Professional bowlers can be out on the ground bowling a number of warm-up balls before the start of the session and be ready for full pace ball 1 or 2 and threaten to get a wicket. The Aussies did it. There’s no excuse for these slips in professionalism and match awareness.

I’ve heard over and over again throughout the series if Ben Stokes was here it would be different. Well guess what? He wasn’t here. And that’s no one’s fault but his own. So if England believes having him would have made all the difference, then Ben Stokes owes all his teammates and the whole of England for the rest of his playing days. Yes he would have taken a great deal of pressure off the other fast bowlers, but preparing for an Ashes Series, or indeed for ANY professional sport, involves hard work, professionalism, respect and human decency on and off the field.

In good news, Cricket Australia, where much of world bowling volume recommendations come from, have changed their recommendations aiming to gradually build young fast bowlers workloads and allow time between each bowling day for the bones to repair and adapt, much like muscles require. Finally cricket is being seen as a physical sport that requires adaptation to improve. My view and training techniques for fast bowlers is always to build bowlers volume and intensity gradually through a periodised program (I’ll explain this another day) to allow them to be bowling-fit and strong enough for the requirements of the matches, without any large jumps in volume or intensity.  I’ve heard often that Hazelwood and Starc are chronic over bowlers as though this was a bad thing. I was also told this about Justin Langer when I first started working with him. Well Starc, Hazelwood and Langer before them, seem to be reaching their potential, bowling exceptionally fast and well for sustained times and have helped dominate the Ashes.

What we always have to remember is that to be the best you have to push boundaries, train physically to be able to maintain the highest performance for the full match and be always looking to improve. Workloads are a relatively new concept. Restrictions are a guide and based on relatively shallow research and are all in place for injury prevention, not performance enhancement. To undertrain for Test matches would be like a 100m sprinter only training to be fast through 70 metres or a footballer only training and preparing to be fit enough to last 30 minutes each half.  You might stay injury free, but not an ideal prepartation for winning.

Great work Australia on your bowling attack performance, maintaining pace through the five tests and particularly through the extreme heat of the Sydney Test. England should learn from this, but an Ashes Series is not where you want to be learning such a difficult lesson.

Jock Campbell is a Jock is an expert on cricket high performance, a Level 4 IAAF Athletics Coach, the current Surf Life Saving Australia Coach of the Year,  and the Co-Founder of BOWLFIT, an fitness training app for Fast Bowlers.