CricViz Analysis: Alastair Cook – Struggling in Defence

Despite England’s famous win at Edgbaston, the repetitive nature of Alastair Cook’s recent dismissals are cause for concern. Patrick Noone analyses his struggles.

Alastair Cook’s last three dismissals against spin have been eerily similar. Against Nathan Lyon in Sydney during the fifth and final Ashes Test, and in both innings against Ravichandran Ashwin at Edgbaston, Cook has been bowled by balls pitching in an almost identical area that went on to hit the same spot on the top of his off stump. No shame in being beaten by bowlers in the class of Lyon and Ashwin, perhaps, but it is the manner of Cook’s dismissals that hint at a greater underlying issue than simply getting out to good balls.

This did not used to happen to Alastair Cook. In his first 194 innings as a Test player, he was bowled just 17 times and only once by a spinner. Since 2015, he has batted 90 innings and been bowled a further 17 times, six of them by spinners. In terms of a percentage of total dismissals, that is an increase from 9% to 19% ; in other words, he is getting bowled out more than twice as often as he used to be. Whichever way you cut it, the numbers point to more than just a mere blip in the ex-England captain’s form. They suggest a sustained and worrying trend that Cook’s defence is not what it once was; a theory confirmed by the fact that his balls per dismissal when defending has decreased significantly in that time.

Alastair CookPercentage of bowled dismissalsBalls per dismissal when defending

Kumar Sangakkara, a man who knows a thing or two about facing spin as a left-hander, observed during the Edgbaston Test that Cook’s stance was much more open than it was earlier in his career. During England’s 2012 tour to India, Cook’s set up allowed him to get forward and smother the spin, taking bowled out of the equation as a possible dismissal. He was only bowled once by a spinner – Pragyan Ojha in Ahmedabad – during that tour and that was only after he had made 176 in the innings, 105 of which coming against India’s frontline spinners.

Since that tour, it appears that Cook’s trigger movements have slightly changed, with the result being that his stumps are more exposed and he is more susceptible to being bowled. The below image shows his first trigger movement in 2012 when facing Harbhajan Singh in Mumbai: a slight front foot press towards cover as the bowler releases the ball.

Cook’s second trigger back then was to take a further step towards the bowler with his foot pointing towards extra cover, thus covering his stumps and negating the likelihood of being bowled. This allowed him to press forward in defence and smother any turn.

Fast forward to this most recent Test match and Cook’s first trigger movement to Ashwin in 2018 is largely the same as it was to Harbhajan in 2012: that forward press towards cover as Ashwin enters his delivery stride.

However, unlike in 2012, Cook’s next trigger movement is to take a step forward but towards the leg-side, rather than the off-side and his foot is pointing towards mid-off.

The difference is only marginal, but it is significant enough to allow the ball to sneak past the bat and onto the stumps.

So, why is Cook doing this? One theory is that he is, at least in part, beguiled by Ashwin’s drift and his mis-step is a result of him following that drift rather than the likely path of the ball. While this is certainly a contributing factor, the numbers suggest that Cook’s problems go deeper than that. Ashwin found an average of 1.2° of drift from the nine balls he bowled to Cook at Edgbaston, a significant amount but not enough to ordinarily trouble Cook. For instance, during that Mumbai Test in 2012, India’s spinners collectively found an average of 1.8° of drift and Cook was able to score 135 runs against them in the match.

This is not the first barren spell that Cook has run into during his 12-year Test career; it is still more than possible that he will find a way to overcome these technical difficulties and prosper again in this series. England’s win in the first Test helped to somewhat mask his struggles against Ashwin, and while there is no suggestion that Cook will not last the series, England nonetheless need him to arrest this downward trend and rediscover some of his old methods in the next four matches.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz 

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