England's Stuart Broad evokes the ghost of Neil Mallender past | Mike Selvey

Old-fashioned virtues of line and length rewarded in top-drawer spell of new-ball seam bowling against Australia in fourth Test

As the cloud hovered low over the Riverside and Stuart Broad ghosted in with almost hypnotic rhythm to make the new ball dart spitefully from the pitch, it was possible for those of a certain age to sit back, shut their eyes and imagine they were at Headingley on an overcast day three decades back. At times, until the ball became soft and less malevolent, batting became as much a game of chance as of skill.

Batting is rarely ever impossible. A way can usually be found, but when the ball pitches and then deviates sharply, and at random either way at that, it requires diligence and fortitude of a kind demonstrated by Chris Rogers, who played a brave innings. If he played and missed at Broad more times than he could shake a stick at, then there is, as MJ Smith, a right-handed predecessor of Rogers as opening bat for Middlesex, would say, an art to it. Smith's idiosyncratic method was to treat each delivery as an off-break, from pace and spin alike, so that often he played inside the line. Once, in a televised match at Lord's, he pushed at and missed an entire over of away swing from Ian Botham, and after the last ball had whistled by, flung his bat to the turf, followed by both gloves and finally his cap. But, as with Rogers, he stuck to the line, not tempted to follow the movement of the ball with the bat away from his body. Unless it is past the inside edge, or a Jimmy Anderson superball, playing and missing rarely takes a wicket.

This is not a good Test match pitch, a world away from the belter at Old Trafford. County scores here this summer give some indication, and, in mitigation, the preparation would have been hampered by the deluge that flooded the ground at the start of the week. If speculation before the game suggested it might have been a good toss to lose, those who had the chance to inspect it closely saw things that others could not: cracks galore and platelets that moved when pushed. On top it was hard, but soft beneath. So that a ball that pitched and moved off the ground fractionally would deviate sharply as if from the old-fashioned slip-catching cradle.

For different reasons, perhaps, this is how Headingley used to play when many years of top dressing had made the subsurface like a series of laminates that were starting to come loose from one another. Then, as now, it required a particular kind of bowler, not necessarily of a sort that England tended to pick. They always seemed to view it as a ground for the swing bowler, so that is what they chose: think of Phil Newport, a terrific manipulator of the ball for Worcestershire, who was brought in against the 1989 Australians there and took two for 153 in the first innings; or Gloucestershire's left-armer Mike Smith, who played against them eight years later and managed none for 89 in his only match. Against that, though, there were the successes. Steve Watkin, Glamorgan's reliable metronome, had match figures of five for 93 against West Indies in 1991; and, most celebrated of the horses‑for‑courses picks, Neil Mallender, who produced match figures of eight for 122 against Pakistan a year later. Imagine Shane Watson against someone whose nickname was Ghost.

The common element with Watkin and Mallender is that essentially they were seam bowlers, who could be relied upon to maintain a line and then allow the ball to do the work. For the real key on a flirty pitch is not to try to force the ball to do acrobatics, but actually to stop its excesses by using seam rather than swing. Place the ball often enough in what, reluctantly, we must call "the right area" and it will do all that is necessary, misbehaving on its own. The ball will do sufficient when you try to make it go straight. Forcing the pace or chasing the game is not the way to go. Patience is paramount.

Which brings us back to Broad. For someone with more than 200 Test match wickets he seems to be much maligned as a bowler, but he has a remarkable capacity to produce bursts of wicket-taking that almost seem to gain an uncontrollable momentum of their own, occasionally when not at his best. There is, at times, no rhyme nor reason for it: it is just something that happens. But what he produced here was from the top drawer of new ball use, for there was scarcely a delivery that was not on line or on a length. No width was allowed or any crossbat shots. Repeatedly the ball pitched and jagged.

Time and again Rogers pushed and missed as if trying to catch the wind. David Warner, who might have come out and blazed Australia on the way to England's first innings target, had no answer, late on a delivery that he thought about leaving and then, when he realised the low bounce, was unable to get bat on in time, a real bail‑trimmer. Usman Khawaja, too, tried to do the right thing, but in withdrawing his bat just got the faintest touch through to Matt Prior. Michael Clarke then squirted one perilously close to his leg stump to get off the mark but, having decided to have a go at anything remotely off line, up or short, launched an attempted drive so that Alastair Cook was able to cling on at first slip by his very fingertips. It was reward for quality bowling.


Mike Selvey at the Riverside

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