Perhaps the two most important areas of a team’s game to win Test matches in Asia are scoring big top order runs and the spin bowlers bowling well. England won this Test despite doing neither of those things: their top order failed twice and their spin bowlers had a limited effect on the match.
That England managed to win despite these shortcomings can be seen as an example of their strength in depth, and that they were given a tough fight from start to finish by Bangladesh can be seen as a benefit for their preparation ahead of their series against India, but that the top order struggled so plainly against spin and that their own spinners could not cause similar discomfort should be cause for concern ahead of six more Tests in Asia this winter.
Admittedly, the combination of a fantastic Bangladesh performance, a dry, turning pitch and playing in searing heat was about as tough an introduction to cricket in Bangladesh as there can be and England deserve credit for winning not ridicule for how close it was. However, India will pose England a far tougher test than Bangladesh and although it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions they will need to improve on this performance if they are to stand any chance in India.
England’s top-order will be a primary area of concern after their first three wickets fell for under 30 in both innings for the first time in a Test match in Asia and thereafter they were 106 for 5 and 62 for 5. 19 of the 20 England wickets to fall did so to spin bowling as their top four batsmen, Joe Root’s first innings 40 aside, struggled to cope against Bangladesh’s three frontline spinners. The balls that took the wickets were, more often than not, excellent deliveries but Ben Duckett and Gary Ballance, both unproven in these conditions, need to find ways to rotate the strike and ensure they don’t allow spinners to settle into a rhythm against them. Duckett’s footwork was particularly stodgy in his second innings with him not committing either back or forward, instead stuck on the crease, to 31% of his 34 deliveries.
The performances of Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow with the bat were instructive. Although this was a match in which batting against spin appeared to get easier as the ball got older both Stokes and Bairstow batted excellently, succeeding where Duckett could not: playing with no or minimal footwork on only 1.98% and 2.38% of the time respectively – well below the match average and demonstrating clear committal to playing forward or back, allowing them to smother the spin or adjust their shot according to it. Moeen Ali’s first innings 68 also bore lessons of patience with him only scoring one run playing against the spin from the 54 deliveries bowled by left arm spinners. He was more clinical against the off spin of Mehedi Hasan, three times hitting brilliant boundaries against the spin. He was judicious in choosing the moments to attack however, recording the lowest attacking shot percentage, 41%, of any innings of more than 25 runs in the match.
England’s batting depth benefitted them notably, allowing them to capitalise on the passages of play when batting got easier against the older ball – Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid contributed 90 valuable runs.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this match was Alastair Cook’s hesitation to entrust his spinners with responsibility, instead turning to Stokes and Stuart Broad when the match reached its climax. Cook has been criticised for this and for his defensive field settings which did allow singles to be taken fairly easily, and while these may be fair claims it is important to remember that they are in part influenced by the inaccuracy of his spinners and Cook’s desire to cut off boundaries.
The trouble with England’s spinners is not that they can’t bowl wicket-taking balls—they took 11 of the 13 wickets of Bangladesh’s top seven batsmen—but rather that they struggle to maintain control – 12.32% of deliveries bowled by England’s spinners were over-pitched (fuller than three meters from the batsman) compared to 6.70% for Bangladesh’s – and against better batsmen the pressure they release will diminish their wicket-taking threat. In this match they still took 12 wickets between them but Moeen and Rashid in particular were expensive. England can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that their inaccuracy is largely a product of over-pitching rather than under-pitching suggesting they are trying to bowl an attacking length.
On the subcontinent pitches tend to give spinners plenty of assistance – the challenge therefore is exploiting that by bowling accurately – England will need to improve this – and at the right pace, which encouragingly England largely appeared to do. Batty could have perhaps bowled a touch quicker but the signs in terms of pace, are positive.
The success of Stokes and Broad in getting the ball to reverse swing was important because like the lower order batting it allowed England to dominate old-ball phases of the match. It does also throw up a tactical proposition that if it can be maintained then England could perhaps look at their seam bowlers as wicket-takers and their spin bowlers as containers. This will require the spinners to offer more control than they did in this Test however and is a high-risk strategy in that reverse swing requires careful management of ball shining and a greater emphasis on seam bowlers will exhaust the attack.