The battle of lengths

England's seamers have been more effective than Australia's when bowling a good length, but Australia's pace attack has been more lethal off other lengths ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The MCG pitch has been roundly criticised after the first day of the Boxing Day Test, and rightly so. The lack of pace and bounce on the track has resulted in an attritional battle, with most of the batsmen struggling to time their strokes and score quickly, and equally, the bowlers struggling to extract much from the pitch to get wickets. Apart from David Warner, none of the batsmen managed a strike-rate of 50 on the opening day (though Steven Smith, the man who can do almost anything, is nearly there).

On such a surface, the key attributes for both batsmen and bowlers are patience and discipline, virtues that are more English than Australian. When England's seamers bowled on a good length on the first day, Australia hardly managed anything apart from a defensive bat: off 221 such balls, only 39 runs were scored and three wickets lost - that is a scoring rate of 1.05 runs per over. Shaun Marsh scored a solitary run off 37 good-length balls during his unbeaten 31.

However, against all other lengths from the seamers, they scored 148 from 236 balls without losing a wicket, which is a rate of 3.76 runs per over. In the first session, when Warner was blazing away, the rate was 5.54 (73 from 79 balls). That England's seamers gave away these runs would disappoint them, while Australia would be pleased they lost only three wickets in conditions that are atypical for their batsmen.

James Anderson was vocal in his criticism of the pitch after the first day, but these conditions should suit England more than the conditions in the three earlier Tests. For one, pitching it on a good length seems to be more profitable for the seamers here than in the first three Tests: as the table below shows, scoring off the length ball wasn't as tough in the three previous Tests.

Second, keeping it on a good length and inducing errors from the batsmen is a more English way of taking wickets than an Australian way. In this series itself, there is hardly any aspect in which Australia haven't bossed England, but the good-length ball has been more profitable for England: their fast bowlers have averaged 30.94 runs per wicket when bowling that length, compared to 41 for Australia. The hosts' preferred method has been to blast batsmen out with back of a length, short or full balls, which is borne out by their stats when bowling any length other than the good length: they have averaged 19.3 compared to England's woeful 60.66.

These numbers also explain why England have been so lethal in home conditions, where the good length fetches them far greater rewards by way of seam movement and wickets. The relative lack of pace in England also makes the short ball - and hence the full delivery - less effective than in Australia.

In this series so far, all the Australian quick bowlers have averaged more than 33 when bowling the good-length ball - Mitchell Starc has averaged 33.6 (five wickets), Josh Hazlewood 36.25 (four wickets) and Pat Cummins 55 (three wickets). On this surface, Jackson Bird's bowling style might be more suited to the conditions than Starc's, but England's batsmen should still fancy themselves to put up more runs on the board than they did in the first three Tests. For Australia, it will be a test of whether to stick their trusted method in the belief that it will work here as well, or whether to adapt and prove to England that they can beat them at the good-length game too.