Overton the scrapper called to the front line for character as much as skill
Bowler has shown he is not a player to shirk a challenge, writes Tim Wigmore at Old Trafford
For an England cricketer, there is nowhere more brutal to make a Test debut than an away Ashes series with your team already trailing. The tenacity that Craig Overton showed when thrust into this situation two years ago – effectively replacing Ben Stokes – made a greater impression than the six wickets he took in two Tests before succumbing to a rib injury.
And so, with the 2019 Ashes locked at 1-1, England have turned to Overton once again, even though he has not played a Test since his third in New Zealand 18 months ago.
Overton has been selected on character as much as cricket. While England were thrashed in all three of his Tests, this is no comment on the obduracy or combativeness he showed. Indeed, twice in six Test innings Overton has top scored from No 9 – 41 not out on debut in Adelaide, when he came in at 142 for seven; and 33 not out in Auckland, when he arrived at 23 for seven, which soon became 27 for nine. And his first Test wicket was Steve Smith, playing on
to a delivery bowled from wide of the crease.
Overton’s gifts on the field are less seductive than those of his twin brother, Jamie, who bowls faster and hits the ball further. Yet Craig’s strength of character should not obscure the cricketing skills that explain a first-class bowling average of 25, and which stands at just 21 in Division One of the County Championship this year. While he is far from express, delivering at a little over 80mph, he generates awkward bounce from his 6ft 5in frame. His wide trajectory, too, can create difficult angles, and he generates consistent swing with the new ball.
These qualities are being married to ever-greater reliability. In championship cricket this summer, Overton is yielding runs at only 2.79 an over; such parsimony will be essential in a low-scoring series. Overton has the stamina of a cricketer forged bowling uphill and into the wind, for West Buckland School and North Devon: on Test debut, he delivered 33 overs in the first innings, more than any other member of England’s attack.
Crucially, Overton can also generate reverse swing. Old Trafford is renowned for taking reverse swing – even if it is seldom as prodigious as when Simon Jones tore open Australia’s batting here in 2005 – and, with his bounce and angle from wide of the crease, even a little reverse swing can make Overton potent. This, combined with Old Trafford’s bounce, explains why he has leapfrogged Sam Curran as Chris Woakes’s replacement.
Just like his bowling, the worth of Overton’s batting is most likely to be found in supporting his team-mates. A first-class average of 22 is 13 less than that of Woakes, the man he will replace at No8. But the way that Overton played the short ball from Pat Cummins and company in Adelaide, when he survived undefeated for 79 balls, suggested a technique that can withstand bouncers.
Add these qualities together and Overton may just spy a chance to establish himself as the Liam Plunkett of the Test side. Both are easily underestimated. Like Plunkett in one-day cricket, Overton is a bowler who will never shirk a challenge.
In American sports, they are called “role players”: those who, with their dependability, selflessness and adaptability, provide glue between the other talents and, in doing so, make their team stronger. As England attempt to lessen the gap between their worst days and best, they need more players of this ilk. Overton can mark himself out as England’s role player at Old Trafford – and, he will hope, far beyond.
Taking one for the team: Craig Overton after being felled at Adelaide in 2017