The first Test of the series will live long in the memory and for that, says Ben Jones, we can thank the wonder of the moving ball.
And, breathe. After three-and-a-bit days, 903 runs, and more pendulum swings than your standard Newton’s Cradle, England were victorious. The favourites tag, according to WinViz, changed hands 12 times throughout the match, as both teams found themselves in positions where victory seemed unthinkable.
It was, without question, one of the great Test matches. It glimmered when you stood close to it, appreciating the details, the skill in every ball and shot. It glowed when you stood back, appreciating the context, personal and historical, of this Indian colossus dragging his team towards the finish, and falling just short, thwarted by a 20-year-old in his second ever Test.
In England, these sort of low-scorers don’t tend to come from the ball turning square. Here, when the wickets come as often as runs, it’s because the ball is moving through the air, not ripping out of the rough. This match, without a doubt, falls into that category. The last Test match anywhere in the world to see the ball swing as much as this one (an average of 1.5° across the four innings), was Trent Bridge 2015. Some of you may remember that Test match as when Australia were dismissed for 60, with Stuart Broad swinging the ball around corners. Not a bad benchmark to be second-best to.
Indeed, over the last decade, only seven Tests have swung more than this one. The lateral movement on display at Edgbaston this week has been legitimately exceptional, the contest between bat and ball and firmly weighted in favour of the ball, and the resulting spectacle has been astonishing.
James Anderson averaged 1.8° of swing in this match, the most he’s managed in over two years of Test cricket. The greying, looming clouds overhead had more than a touch of Constable about them, but they could easily have been painted to Anderson’s own specification. These were ideal conditions for the Lancastrian.
Given this, his returns were surprisingly meagre. Four wickets at 22.75 is solid, around the par for the match, but less than what you imagine a magician like Anderson could do with such conditions. Yet it seemed as if his task was not to take wickets, but to maintain the wonder of his battle with Virat Kohli. Because even the man who dominated proceedings had to reach new heights to succeed. Kohli played 46 false shots in the match, the most he’s ever played in a single Test; few could argue his innings were without flaws, or even particularly controlled, but therein lay their beauty. These were, quite genuinely, extreme conditions, that will likely exist as an outlier even after Kohli’s retired. It’s no surprise that even the best batsman in the world could struggle. It’s the fact that the struggled went on for so long, so often, which enthralled. If Kohli had nicked off early, if Malan had taken his catches, then Anderson’s remarkable head-to-head record may have improved, but the grand, mythical nature of their rivalry has only increased across this match.
As it was, it fell to Ben Stokes to actually remove the Indian captain, in an opening over which is already bordering on iconic status. Two wickets fell, sending England’s WinViz through the roof, increasing by 61% across the course of the over. Stokes has long been labelled a difference-maker, and that could not have been more true today.
However, aside from the ferocity of the moment where Kohli was struck in front, bamboozled for the final time in the game, there was an important lesson to be learnt. The conditions across the match have insisted that Stokes show that, contrary to the popular image of him as a bang-it-in bruiser, he is at his best as a swing bowler. His career best figures of 6-22 came in the innings where he has swung the ball most as a Test bowler, against West Indies last summer. He’s a physically imposing man, and a remarkable athlete, but he’s not a bouncer bowler. He is, perhaps, better placed to replace Anderson than anyone else in England. He already swings it more than the master, he just needs to learn to control it.
Essentially, this Test, these conditions and these bowlers are what India have been frightened of since they left England in 2014. Whilst Kohli appears to have mastered his swing-based demons, the same can’t be said of India. Of the 17 Indian wickets to fall to pace in the match, 13 were to deliveries swinging more than 0.5°. They were presented with an extreme test, and their captain aside, they failed.
The enormity of the challenge will lessen, you’d imagine. Over the past decade, Old Trafford and the Riverside are the only English venues to have swung less than Lord’s, and the Indian batting line-up will be desperate for the Home of Cricket to play to type. If it does, then they have a chance of levelling the series. But if England (with or without Ben Stokes) can produce this kind of movement once more, then the tourists’ dreams of a series win could be looking a long, long way off.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.