Alastair Cook holds the key to success for the tourists as the South Africa v England Test series reaches its halfway point. Joe Root, Ben Stokes and James Anderson are notable match-winners for the away side, but the Proteas know that a recovery is very achievable if Cook continues his run of low scores.
The away captain currently averages 10.5 in the series, his lowest average in any of the 37 Test series he has played in. An upturn in form would not be a surprise considering Cook’s pedigree and record-breaking efforts against Pakistan before Christmas, but South Africa have found the right tactics to give the best chance of restraining the opposition batting anchor.
Cook has only twice had a lower batting strike rate than the 36.8 he currently has in this series. How have South Africa restricted Cook?
The durable left-hander often wins a battle of wills when opposition bowling attacks starve him of scoring opportunities. When in form Cook invites bowlers to try a straighter line after getting frustrated with an off stump channel approach. Death by a thousand nudges to leg ensues.
However, South Africa have retained their discipline so far against Cook. BatViz analysis of ball tracking data shows that just six of the 114 balls he has faced in this series would have hit the stumps, 5.3%. For comparison, 13.6% of those faced by opening partner Alex Hales would have struck the timber.
This is partly explained by Hales’ greater exposure to spinners, who generally bowl a higher proportion of balls that would hit the stumps. Nonetheless, Cook has certainly received a lower proportion of full and straight deliveries from the fast men: the team percentage for balls hitting the stumps in all four of England’s innings range between 11% and 18%.
Cook has been unable to rotate the strike, failing to score off 95 of the 114 balls he has faced. 24 of his 42 runs have come in boundaries. Those relief shots into the legside have not been available – 44 of the 52 balls he has faced against the first choice seam line-up of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott have been dots.
Whether Cook can find a way to frustrate the South African pacemen is a key factor in the two remaining Tests. If the skipper has tired the home attack out, the prospects of a sparkling contribution from the middle order is increased.