Can a bowling attack bowl as a unit?

New Zealand's Wagner celebrates with team mates after dismissing England's Pietersen for a duck during the second day of the first test at the University Oval in DunedinI was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.

For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?

I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.

To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.

In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.

I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.

I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.

These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.

If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:

The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.

I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”

But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.


Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack,  which I recommend.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

11 responses to “Can a bowling attack bowl as a unit?”

  1. Alex Braae says :

    Well I’m not disappointed, you make a lot of good points. Especially the Ed Smith theory about post-event rationalisation. I’ll have my response up by the end of the day.

  2. Gareth says :

    I understand the post hoc ergo propter hoc line of reasoning you cite and it can be a subtle thing to understand how a team can bowl as a unit.

    A simple example might be that your fast and nasty bowler will deliberately bowl short and at the body to put batsmen on the back foot which allows the swing bowler at the other end to benefit.

    I am certain that particular bowlers work well in tandem but I completely accept the logic that it isn’t as straightforward and interaction as the example you list from other sports.

    • chrisps says :

      Gareth, that’s a persuasive example – the synergy is clear. Reading around a bit, I think part of the ‘bowling unit’ construct is psychological, to make each bowler feel supported by the others. That makes good sense to me too. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Dave says :

    What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball?

    Memorable exchange between deep backward square and bowler :

    “Lot of fours in that over, Alistair.”

    “Yeah, most of them through your ****ing legs”

    • chrisps says :

      Dave, you were ahead of your time. Bowlers giving grief to clumsy fielders is very England 2012/13. It’s also a sign of a resilient bowling personality – externalising responsibility for boundaries conceded. I just knew I bowled filth and it was somewhat of a relief to have my charmed slow-bowling career brought to a close.

  4. backwatersman says :

    You may be right that’s it not a concept that stands up to very much rational scrutiny, but I suppose what it means is a group of bowlers (without any obvious weak links) who bowl in a concerted, complementary and co-ordinated way to give them collectively the best chance of removing the batsmen.

    I’m not sure it is possible for a group of bowlers to add up to more than the sum of their parts, but there are various ways in which they can add up to less.

    The effect is partly psychological. What the bowlers need to be thinking is that there are four or five of them and only one batsman and that they can afford to bowl a few loose balls but if he makes one mistake he’s finished. What they don’t want to be thinking is that they’re primarily in competition with each other.

    One problem is that there’s often a pecking order among bowlers. The classic dysfunctional syndrome is that the senior bowlers (or the fast men) always claim the new ball and then toss the ball to the juniors (or the good honest seamers) when the shine’s off and the dew’s gone and the batsmen are set. They then return when there’s a second new ball and/or the tailenders are in. On the other hand, there’s the man who’s got four wickets and insists on carrying on bowling until he gets five, even though he’s tiring and leaking runs.

    I suppose a good example of bowlers ‘bowling as a unit’ would be Harmison/Hoggard/Flintoff/Jones from a few years back. Although Hoggard was the slowest he often took the new ball because it helped his conventional swing – and their styles complemented each other.

    I don’t know whether you’ve ever read Jon Agnew’s ‘8 Days a Week’, but that’s quite a good example of bowlers not bowling as a unit. It’s a diary of a season when Leicestershire had 4 international bowlers (Ferris, JA, Daffy and Les Taylor, plus a young Chris Lewis). Unfortunately JA and De Freitas didn’t get on and, to make matters worse, were competing for an England place. They were constantly arguing about who got the new ball, accusing the other of wasting it or not trying, sulking etc.. It didn’t help that the coach was Ken Higgs, whose idea of motivation was to tell them that ‘if the lads in the seconds were any use that’s where you lot would be.’

    I’m not a great fan of modern coaching jargon, but encouraging the bowlers to think they’re ‘bowling as a unit’ is probably an improvement on that (even if it doesn’t have any very precise meaning).

    • chrisps says :

      Thank you for a very considered reply. The Leicestershire example is excellent (I was only aware of incidents such as salt being poured on someone’s food and Daffy’s bag being chucked off the pavilion balcony). It very well illustrates the ‘adding up to less than the sum of its parts’ contrast, which could just about happen with all bowlers bowling well. The psychological aspect is key and perhaps the phrase is associated with behavioural traits – supportive, enjoying others’ success – as much as it is with the outcome. Looking forward to seeing Buck, Freckingham and Hoggard in co-ordinated action.

  5. Russ says :

    As a matter of course, I’ve never met a batsmen who didn’t prefer to be scoring runs from over to over – both individually and as a partnership. As a bowler, being able to churn out maidens from both ends invariably led to poor decision making; and the converse, it is much harder to induce a poor shot if the batsman can wait (and tire) you out.

    In many situations one bowler has an advantage over his partner, whereby they might average 20 if allowed to bowl on that pitch forever, while their partner could only average 30 from the opposite end. Keeping things tight matters a lot in that situation (consider Warne’s bowling opposites in 2005, and compare to Adelaide ’07).

    My personal favourite bowling as a unit was McGrath’s 8/38 at Lord’s in 1997. Paul Reiffel – incidentally, the player with the best differential in team-mates averages with him in the side, versus without, though I never published that list, so no link – at one point bowled 10 overs for 1 run; finishing with 2/17 off 15 overs.

    In a practical terms it means playing percentages as a bowler, bowling outside off rather than searching for the perfect ball. It is much harder to follow a patient strategy when a batsman is content to wait you out – and if the fielders offer scant support. Whether it is actually a winning strategy is an interesting question. As England showed last summer, sometimes you need an injection of more than percentage play to make break-throughs. But I always prefer to see a side in control than one chasing a miracle (possession versus long-ball, you might say).

  6. Brian Carpenter says :


    I’ve been meaning to comment on this for weeks but life’s been busy.

    As a rugby union devotee I’d say that game is a better example than football of individual players working together to exert an influence and become more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, a pack of forwards spends a lot of time literally bound together. In scrum, maul and line-out they operate as a unit, with individual players’ skills and identities almost entirely subsumed to the collective.

    Members of bowling attacks do work together, and, while players will take some pleasure in the success of their partners and their contributions to it, you can bet your life that deep down they wish the wickets were theirs. At the level of cricket we’re talking about, their livelihoods can depend on it.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Hunting as a Pack | Lines on Grass - May 20, 2013
  2. Broad appeal | Declaration Game cricket blog - July 16, 2013

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