TROUBLE AT THE TOP: ENGLAND’S BATTING UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

“There were not magic balls. Maybe Jonny Bairstow was the only one that was a good piece of bowling, but apart from that there wasn’t a huge amount misbehaving from the pitch. It was good accurate bowling, as you expect from India in these conditions, but not unplayable. You can talk all you want but the top order have to go and deliver.”

Those words issued forth from the mouth of Alastair Cook as he considered the wreckage of England’s latest Test defeat to India, a reverse that brings his team an unwanted (but not unwarranted) fourth defeat in their last six Tests – not a whole lot worse than Australia’s much-mocked recent record. It has to be added that two of England’s last half-dozen games have been against Bangladesh, a team who not so long ago were barely thought worthy of their place among the Test family.

So I considered this: how bad has England’s top order actually been in these six matches?

Well, one guide is to look at what the total has been when the fourth wicket has fallen. At The Oval, when a draw would have given the series against Pakistan to Cook’s men, England were 74-4 in their first innings and, again, 74-4 in their second.

In the first Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong, they’d got to just 83 and 46 when the fourth wicket fell, and in the first innings at Dhaka they were on 64. So far, so bad. In the second innings, Alastair Cook and Ben Duckett put on 100 for the first wicket but there was an immediate and stunning collapse that meant the fourth wicket came at a none-too-clever 124 en route to a historic defeat.

And so to the first Test in India: a welcome success story for English top-order batting with 281-4 first innings and a second innings declaration at 260-3. But then back to some bad times: 79 & 101 in Visakhapatnam and 87 & 78 in Mohali.

Even including that big first innings in Rajkot, England’s average score at the loss of the fourth wicket is 99 during this period. It is very difficult, however good your lower order is, to avoid defeat if four top-order batsmen are out with such a poor score banked. No wonder Cook was so cross on Tuesday.

India celebrate the kew wicket of Jonny Bairstow on day four of the third Test

India celebrate the kew wicket of Jonny Bairstow on day four of the third Test

Now, drilling down into the grim detail of the two most recent defeats, let’s look at what actually happened to cause the first four wickets to fall on each occasion, and consider how much bad batting as opposed to fine Indian bowling caused those wickets. There are 16 individual dismissals which we can number accordingly, and they are chronological, so starting with the first innings in Visakhapatnam:

1) Cook b Shami 2
What happened: Cook played down the wrong line to a delvery coming back into the left-hander from an off-stump line and was clean bowled.

What ball-tracking data says: Ball swung one way and seamed another (this is much less unusual than it sounds, by the way). But the degree of movement was a far from outlandish 0.1° (swing) and 1.3° (seam).

What wicket-weighting says: CricViz’s unique gauge calculates the “quality” of the delivery compared to thousands of historic balls of near-identical properties. In this case, it reckoned the ball was capable of getting a batsman out 5.6% of the time – one of the highest ranked deliveries of the Test.

2) Hameed run out 13
In a Test match, a run-out is of course an entirely avoidable circumstance – 100% batsman error here. Let’s move on…

3) Duckett b Ashwin 5
The left-handed Duckett found the challenge of the world’s best off-spinner too hot to handle, this one of three cheap dismissal to Ashwin that ultimately cost him his place in the side.

Ball-tracking data: A big-turning off-break from Ashwin with plenty of drift and it’s the added spin that has done him: this one moving 6.2° off the track whereas the previous ball had practically gone straight on. Wicket-weighting: 2.2%.

4) Root c Yadav b Ashwin 53
With England already under pressure at 79-3, Root goes for a big shot down the ground which is caught by the man at long-off. A delivery that the batsman could have safely defended, he has instead gifted the bowler one there.

FIRST INNINGS VISAKHAPATNAM SUMMARY
Two wickets: Good bowling
Two wickets: Batsman error

5) Hameed lbw Ashwin 25
A “shooter” which barely got off the ground – a very unlucky moment for Hameed and a bonus for India. Ball-tracking: The ball would have hit the at stumps at 19cm height; the previous ball (of similar length) would have passed 9cm over the top of the stumps.

6) Cook lbw b Jadeja 54
A critical wicket falling in the final over before stumps on day four. Electing to play without a straight bat, trying to shovel it to the on-side when he probably should have blocked it in the circumstances. Ball did bounce lower than most other balls of similar length, but not dramatically so.

7) Duckett c Saha b Ashwin 0
Stranded on 0 for 15 balls, Duckett elects to hit his way out of trouble this time and gloves his sweep to the keeper. With standard amouts of drift, spin and bounce the wicket-weighting of this ball was 0.4%.

8) Ali c Kohli b Jadeja 2
Playing defensively, Ali can’t avoid getting a thick inside edge to the man catching at short leg. Ball-tracking confirms what the naked eye can see: severe extra bounce and turn – batsman not at fault here.

SECOND INNINGS VISAKHAPATNAM SUMMARY
Two wickets: Good bowling aided by pitch
Two wickets: Batsman error

9) Hameed c Rahane b U Yadav 9
Based on previous balls in the over, this should have bounced around 60cm high at the stumps; it actually bounced more than twice that much. Good probing areas from Yadav, but undoubtedly poor luck (again) for young Hameed, coming forward and gloving this ball to gully.

10) Root lbw b J Yadav 15
Very poor judgement from Root, pulling a straight one that is only slightly short of a length, missing and trapped in front. Also the batman’s first ball v spin and first ball after drinks – so wrong shot choice for many reasons. Ball did nothing untoward.

11) Cook c Patel b Ashwin 27
Poor ball, short and wide. Never a wicket-taking delivery (wicket-weighting very low at 0.6%), but Cook doesn’t execute his cut shot correctly and nicks it.

12) Moeen c Vijay b Shami 16
Head-height bouncer, top-edges the attempted hook and caught down at fine leg. One aspect to note: this was just 76mph, some 8-10mph slower than most of Shami’s balls, so clever enough bowling but ultimately the batsman at fault here (he could have ducked).

FIRST INNINGS MOHALI SUMMARY
One wicket: Good bowling aided by pitch
Three wickets: Batsman error

13) Cook b Ashwin 12
Ashwin’s variations of drift and turn while maintaining such a consistent line and length have been a feature of the series, and here was a case in point: the final ball of a fine, probing over, this one turning quite a bit less than the third and fourth balls. Cook played the line that he predicted and over-estimated the turn.

14) Moeen c J Yadav b Ashwin 5
Batsman coming down the pitch, and instead of going right through with the shot fatally checked it at the last minute. Held back by Ashwin, easily his slowest ball of the over and the delivery drifting the most, but an avoidable dismissal nonetheless from England’s point of view.

15) Bairstow c Patel b J Yadav 15
Going back to play the spinner off the wicket has its advantages in that a batsman doesn’t have to “guess” how much turn there will be. But when you get a bit of low bounce you’re often in trouble. And this is low bounce: 28cm at stumps (“normal” bounce would be 50cm.)

16) Stokes lbw b Ashwin 5
The first ball of a new Ashwin spell and Stokes, seeing one spin more than anything the other two Indian slow bowlers had managed against him, is playing watchfully but not good enough so early in his innings to deal with the challenges posed by Ashwin.

SECOND INNINGS MOHALI SUMMARY
Three wickets: Good bowling
One wicket: Batsman error

OVERALL SUMMARY of the two Tests
Exactly half of the 16 wickets examined here can be said to be the result of unforced errors by the batsmen, (and let’s face it when England weren’t in a comfortable enough position to make them). Cook appears to be absolutely justified in voicing his frustration that England’s top order have not beeen able to “go and deliver”.

That said, India’s bowlers deserve plenty of credit for bowling some fine deliveries to account for the other eight wickets to fall. To this extent, they were helped partially but not unduly by assistance from the pitches.

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