Australia's captain Steven Smith has rebuffed the suggestion of the former England captain Mike Atherton that the umpires in the Ashes series need to be more proactive in protecting the visiting tail-enders from the bouncer barrage they have faced at the hands of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
There has been nothing subtle about the way Australia have targeted England's bowlers when they bat, sending down repeated short-pitched deliveries, though adhering to the umpires' definition of only delivering two balls over shoulder height per over. It is within the power of the umpires to warn and even ban a bowler for "dangerous and unfair" short-pitched deliveries by taking into consideration the "skill of the striker", and Atherton has written that the umpires in this series should use the laws at their disposal.
However Smith, who has marshalled his bowlers most effectively in securing an unbeatable 3-0 Ashes lead after three Tests, was dismissive of the notion that Australia had overused the short ball against the England tail. The tourists had complained to the umpires about the proliferation of bouncers during the Gabba Test, and James Anderson was struck a sickening blow on the side of the helmet during the closing stages of the Perth match.
"It's a bit over the top," Smith said at a New Balance event in Melbourne. "We obviously had a plan from the start of the series that we were going to bowl a lot of short stuff to those guys, much like we did back in 2013. No doubt if they had the kind of pace that our bowlers can generate, they'd probably do the same thing. So I think it's a bit over the top."
"You have the unusual situation where someone who is totally useless in one area, can face a world-class performer in another -- with potentially harmful consequences" Mike Atherton in The Times
Writing in The Times, Atherton used ESPNcricinfo ball-by-ball commentary to highlight the repeated used of the short ball to Jake Ball in Brisbane, and observed that all bowlers have varying degrees of skill that should be taken into account by the umpires. "I did wonder aloud at the time why the umpires were so reluctant to act to protect Ball," Atherton wrote. "Test cricket or not, the Law and the playing conditions are there to protect batsmen incapable of protecting themselves.
"Cricket is an odd game in that it has three distinct disciplines and, within that, you have the unusual situation where someone who is totally useless in one area, can face a world-class performer in another -- with potentially harmful consequences.
"Batsmen who cannot bowl are not required to bowl to great players, but the opposite is obviously the case -- precisely why the Law is framed as it is, as built-in protection for the incompetent. No one wants to see the game sanitised, but the Law is there for a reason. The umpires should make use of it."
Atherton's words also caught the attention of Mitchell Johnson, spearhead of Australia's similarly brutal pace assault on England in the corresponding series four years ago. Johnson said it was a case of the visitors needing to become more capable batsmen, much as Australia's bowlers had done.
"I don't think it's a fair comment [from Atherton]," Johnson told Fox Sports. "Isn't it two short balls in an over? That's the rule. If it's not over their heads or the shoulder restriction, how is it dangerous? I'd be very disappointed if it [the law] got changed. Because wickets are flat in general, and the bowlers need some sort of assistance. If they take everything away from the bowlers we're just going to see bowling machines. I wouldn't go into a game and be told 'well you can't bowl two bouncers now, it's one'. And if they change it to that, then what? You can't bowl above waist-height? How far do you go?"
"I don't see the issue with it -- yeah, some guys struggle to hold the bat. But whose fault is that? That's not the fault of the Australian quicks. They should be working on their batting. They've all got the opportunity to. Our quicks have learned how to bat. We grow up on bouncy wickets. We're taught how to bat all the way down the order.
"How I see it is if the ball is not over the shoulders, why is it dangerous? You can still play a shot or move out of the way. It is pretty aggressive if you look at it from the outside point of view and it's obviously something that's affected England."
Smith was appearing at Melbourne Park alongside the world's No. 24 ranked tennis player Milos Raonic and, when facing some 180kph serves from the tall Canadian, quipped "now I know how James Anderson feels". Looking across at the England camp, Smith said he was sympathetic to the visitors' coach Trevor Bayliss, who has previously coached New South Wales and been the lightning rod for much of the criticism directed at the touring team.
"It's always tough for an opposing coach or captain when you're away and you're 3-0 down and having lost the series already with two games to play," Smith said. "No doubt he'll be disappointed but knowing Trevor he's a terrific guy and a very good coach. I enjoyed working with him at NSW and the Sydney Sixers a couple of years back, he's a great fellow.
"Sometimes it's a bit harsh to lay a lot of the blame on the coach. In the end they're not the ones out there playing, it's the players and they have to take some responsibility as well."