ENGLAND IN A SPIN

Much of the talk in the aftermath of England’s defeat to Pakistan in the first Test at Lord’s was on the contrast between Moeen Ali and his Pakistani counterpart Yasir Shah.

As Yasir sprung to the top of the ICC Test rankings for bowlers, Moeen now has his place under threat. While Yasir got more turn and had a had a higher chance of taking wickets according to nearest neighbour analysis, the difference in terms of pure data between the two bowlers was a slim one.

England v Pakistan 1st Test, Lord'sMoeen AliYasir Shah
Average degrees of turn3.223.86
Average length (metres from stumps)4.6m4.64m
Average weighted runs per ball0.430.43
Average wicket probability per ball (%)1.21.34

Moeen didn’t bowl badly. He performs at pretty close to his potential ability as possible, maintaining a consistent line and length and getting the ball to turn on a regular basis.

While he had the odd horror ball, like the ball in each innings that slipped out of his hand and got to the batsmen at head height, this was a steady performance by England’s spinner. He was just played very well by the Pakistan players, especially Misbah-ul-Haq in the first innings, who took him for 32 runs from just 23 balls, including seven fours. Misbah targeted him successfully in the first innings, but less so second time around.

This is not to say Moeen is as good a bowler as Yasir, who is clearly a world class performer streets ahead of the England off spinner, but the difference between the two is not as simple as saying Moeen bowled badly and Yasir bowled well.

The massive difference between these two bowlers is that Yasir has the ability to turn the ball both ways. Every single delivery that Moeen pitched in this Test turned from off to leg, so into the right hander and away from the left hander. There was a wide range of the degrees of turn, from 0.69 degrees to 7.9 degrees, but all of them went the same way. The batsmen knew what to expect and could adjust.

Yasir on the other hand got the ball to turn in both directions. His biggest leg break turned 11.16 degrees, his biggest turning googly moved 2.81 degrees the other way. A difference of 13.97 degrees – more than enough to keep a batsman guessing.

Batsmen can play with more confidence against off-spin than they can against high quality leg-spin. This difference in approach is very apparent in the context of these teams’ respective batting line-ups. England as a batting unit lack a plan against Yasir that the tourists have for Moeen.

The point here is that Moeen is not objectively bowling badly, he is just struggling to trouble Test class batsmen on a consistent basis. The question isn’t one of whether he is bowling well, it is whether he is good enough at this level. If it was a question of form rather than ability the fix would be an easier one, but throughout his career Moeen has made the absolute most of what he has got.

Adil Rashid has been brought into the squad for the Old Trafford Test. He has the advantage of possessing a googly that can turn the other way from his stock ball, something that Moeen has never mastered despite occasional talk of him working on a Doosra. That makes him a different challenge for the Pakistan batsmen, but history tells us that Rashid is more likely to bowl boundary balls than Moeen, not less.

With few other notable spin options in county cricket the selectors have a straight choice between premier off-spinner and leg-spinner. However, with a glut of all-rounders at their disposal they might choose both for the second Test.

Yasir, offering control and wicket-taking threat, is two bowlers in one. It is perhaps logical that England need to select two spinners to instil those characteristics in their spin attack.

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