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His extra yard might be a myth, but Craig Overton is still an Ashes contender

craig overton
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 2 minute read

Craig Overton played a quietly important role in England’s thrashing of India at Headingley. Yas Rana looks at what the future may hold for the Somerset man who dominates county cricket in a way very rarely seen.

Craig Overton’s surprise return to ODI cricket earlier this summer possibly did his Test prospects more harm than good. Not that he performed badly. He actually bowled well against a strong Pakistan top-order in a format that’s not his best without ever being handed the new ball.

The reason why it could have been detrimental to his Test prospects was that it put paid to the most prominent attempt to explain his dramatic improvement for Somerset – that Overton had ‘put on a yard’. CricViz ball-tracking data showed that his pace against Pakistan was identical to his average speed across his maiden ODI against Australia back in 2018.

It didn’t take an enormous leap to then conclude that after all, Overton might not be much more effective in 2021 than he was when he was last seen in Test cricket in 2019. In his four Test appearances – all England defeats – he’d bowled well without setting the world alight. Dependable, but arguably not penetrative enough against the highest calibre of Test batsmen – a decent back-up option when you’re a few players down, but little more.

But bowling isn’t that straightforward. Adding a couple of extra mph does not guarantee increased rewards and conversely, you can improve without getting quicker, which is exactly what Overton has done.

His recent numbers in first-class cricket are genuinely absurd. Since the start of last summer, Overton has 73 first-class wickets at 13.15. He’s been well and truly banging down the door and while his first four Test caps were earned through excellence in the County Championship, his recent form has been way beyond that.

He is a more probing bowler now, giving batsmen very little to work with – in 2021, his County Championship economy rate is just 2.19 runs per over. His performance at Headingley confirmed what his numbers suggested – he is a more threatening bowler now than he has ever been before. It was by some distance his best display for England and it was one that suggested that he can be more than a reserve who is only called upon in an injury crisis. At times this summer, the pressure valve has been released somewhat for the opposition when Ollie Robinson and James Anderson have been brought off. Overton ensured that there was no let up when the new-ball pairing tired.

His batting is also improving and with Sam Curran demonstrably the least threatening of England’s quicks this summer – and short on runs – you’d hope that Overton has nudged past him in the pecking order. In a less eye-catching way, Overton could perform the role it was hoped Curran could fulfil at home – a potent member of a four-person seam attack who also bats eight.

There is a hesitation around the likes of Robinson and Overton, bowlers around the 80mph mark whose greatest assets are consistency and subtle variation. Robinson has quickly established himself as a key figure in Joe Root’s side but he was around the England set-up for the best part of a year without getting a game. Overton, despite being a County Championship wrecking ball, has been behind Sam Curran for some time.

Part of that hesitation stems from England’s desire to field bowlers who have a ‘point of difference’. Someone slightly quicker or someone who bowls from a different angle. It’s a view that’s influenced by how ineffectual England’s army of right-arm medium-fast bowlers fared in Australia four years ago.

But it would be an error to disregard those kinds of bowlers in Australia. England’s struggles four years ago weren’t just down to a lack of speed, but a lack of quality. Tom Curran and Jake Ball both averaged over 100, Stuart Broad was going through one of the toughest spells in his career and Chris Woakes was still someone who struggled overseas. Overton was not the bowler he is today.

In the winter just gone, India overcame Australia with little express pace. Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur both played vital hands, neither of whom are in the Mark Wood/Jofra Archer/Olly Stone pace bracket. Both Robinson and Overton have had success in Australia, too – the pair shared 13 of the 20 Australia A wickets to fall in England Lions’ impressive victory at the MCG last year.

In any case, possible success in Australia shouldn’t be a prerequisite for inclusion elsewhere. There are 10 other Test nations and it’s not as if Australia is the only country England struggle in. While it was only one Test, Craig Overton showed that he can be much more than a respectable back-up.

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