After another day where swing and seam took centre stage, Ben Jones reflects on the magic of India’s quick bowlers, and suggests where England could improve their returns.
After a difficult day, Joe Root might have a wry smile this evening. At Nottingham, off the back of two victories, he won the toss and sent India in to bat. He called for an intense display from his bowlers, to keep their foot on India’s throat. They responded with a lacklustre performance, conceding 329, a score which England couldn’t get near before promptly losing the match.
At Southampton today, India showed England how they should have bowled.
Kohli’s quicks were magnificent. They arrived at the start line already in fifth gear – the third delivery of the day was 138.7kph – and just kept up the pace from there. They were fast, accurate, and maintained an intensity across the morning session that has not always been the hallmark of Indian cricket four games into an away tour. Those watching the toss mainly thought that Root made a confident, correct decision. Nobody smelt blood – apart from the Indian bowlers.
This morning the conditions England faced, the movement conjured by the Indian quicks, was easily comparable to that in which India collapsed at Lord’s. There was more swing, and comparable levels of seam movement – all delivered at an average pace more than 4kph faster than England managed in the second Test. Some onlookers decried the decision to keep playing in drizzle and damp at Lord’s, but if those conditions were too difficult to reasonably expect batsman to face the music, then today’s play should have been called off after around five minutes. India had the ball talking, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
Ishant Sharma was majestic. He found 3.4° of swing, the most he’s ever found in a Test innings. Jasprit Bumrah pushed himself to his technical limits to dismiss Keaton Jennings, sending down a ball which swung more than all but two deliveries in Bumrah’s entire Test career. In those first 20 overs, 80% of their deliveries were on a good length, the most India have managed all series. Ishant and Bumrah set the tempo, and England couldn’t keep up.
However, that’s been the case rather often this summer, and not just for English batsmen. This season has been historically tough for top-order batting in England. It may have been the swing that did for Root’s men today, but the level of seam movement on show at the start of Test innings this summer has been the highest for any year where we have ball-tracking data. Moving later than swing, by its very nature, seam movement is tougher to react to, and to negate the effect of. It’s brutal out there.
This isn’t an excuse. It’s difficult to look at the dismissals of Alastair Cook, Keaton Jennings, Jos Buttler or Moeen Ali and suggest they’ve played their particular ball particularly well. They were dealt a bad hand, but they responded by setting fire to the cards.
Truly, England’s batsmen haven’t dealt with these extreme conditions well at all – to put it mildly. In their entire history, England have played 235 Test series of at least two matches. This series, England’s top four are averaging 17.70 – the lowest for all but five of those series. A mixture of top players being out of form, and young players struggling to adapt to the top level, has left England’s batting line-up looking rather like a lampost – that is to say, light up top.
But with the caveat that batting in these conditions is difficult, what is the best approach to get through the storm? How do you go about pressing on through? Well, the answer may be slightly counter-intuitive for some. In this series, with all that erratic new ball movement, wickets have fallen every 34 defensive strokes and every 31 attacking shots. Given that attacking shots bring exponentially more runs, there is a clear statistical argument that when the conditions are this difficult, countering the bowling with an attack of your own is the best option. It’s received wisdom in the most part, but the idea that one of those balls will have your name on it is broadly true in these sorts of conditions. Shot selection, and choosing the right ball to attack, is fundamental – but the principle of increasing attack remains a sensible one.
You won’t have to proffer this opinion to many people before you hear the notion that defensive techniques are getting worse, and that the issue is with the execution rather than the broader idea. Well, some numbers do suggest that over the last few years, defences have proven more permeable than they had done previously.
This series has not been a great indictment for defensive techniques. The shots per dismissal – for boths sides – is at a historic low. One in every 35.2 defensive strokes has resulted in a wicket, the fifth worst of any series in our database. However, the fact is that right now, there is a series on the line. For all the talented coaches behind the scenes, no England batsman is going to be able to remodel their technique in time for the final three innings of this contest with India, and the same is true of their opponents. No coach can turn Buttler into Boycott overnight, and frankly they shouldn’t be trying to. Technique is a long-term component of a players’ repertoire – but tactics, strategy and mental approach are short-term. They can be changed. The more attacking mindset shown by Sam Curran this afternoon (his 31% attacking shots the most of any England player) may be a more effective way, right now, for these batsmen to succeed.
However, to be honest, today is not be the time to focus on England’s failings. Bayliss’ team have collapsed often enough in recent times that we can pick and choose when the inquests take place – today, we should defer to the excellence of Bumrah, Ishant, and Shami. They deserve the plaudits. If India’s batsman can come to the party on Day Two, and back up their bowlers’ performance, then we could be in for a rip-roaring decider at the Oval next week. Long live the five Test series.
Ben Jones is an analyst for CricViz.