After an extraordinary day at Lord’s, Ben Jones analyses the unique set of circumstances in which India’s batsmen found themselves.
It’s not normally like this. When people talk about the difficulties of batting in English conditions, they’re referring to gentle lateral movement, nibble off the seam. When people talk about the ball swinging around corners, it’s usually a figure of speech, but at times today at Lord’s it felt like if Jonny Bairstow just left James Anderson’s deliveries alone, they would happily swing all the way back to the bowler, like a Burnley boomerang. When people say it’s hooping, it’s normally a joke.
It’s no exaggeration to say that batting does not get tougher than it was for India’s batsmen at Lord’s today. The conditions were so extreme, the men exploiting them so ideally suited to the task, that you could surely enjoy a lengthy Test career without encountering anything else quite so fearsome.
Because make no mistake, these conditions were exceptional. The average swing movement was around twice the global average; so was the average seam movement. Imagine the thought process of a batsman expected to perform in such circumstances; you’ve spent your whole career tweaking and perfecting your technique, working on your mechanics and alignments, to combat lateral movement, and then one day, you walk out to bat and they’ve doubled the size of the incoming threat. It’s a different sport. It’s akin to Virat Kohli walking to the crease with two bats taped together.
The movement which England’s bowlers were able to find was staggering. No bowling attack in world cricket has found more swing than the 1.7° England found today since Trent Bridge 2015. 63% of the deliveries bowled swung a “large” amount. 56% seamed a large amount. It wasn’t that just one ball would have your name on it. Most of them did.
It’s important to give credit where it is due; in making the most of the bounties on offer, England were sublime. Lead by the majestic James Anderson, whose 5-20 took him to 99 wickets at this historic venue, the hosts’ attack looked more threatening than they have since that fateful day at at Nottingham three years ago. At times it was as if Root’s seam quartet were privy to some folk-wisdom, some intrinsic knowledge of the conditions gained by virtue of being born on these shores, as they tweaked their strategies to harness the full extent of the swing and seam available.
In the first 10 overs of the innings, Anderson bowled at 128kph, the slowest he’s bowled with the new ball in over two years. This was clearly a tactic, given that by winding back his speeds, only by a notch, Anderson was able to increase his primary weapon, that expansive lateral movement; he found an average of 1.9° of swing, the most he’s managed in a Test since the murky climes of Headingley in May 2016. Matched with 1.3° of seam, well up on his career average, Anderson was suddenly in possession of two serious threats to India’s batting. He used it superbly, hanging the ball outside the off-stump and letting the Indian batsmen flounder, which they duly did, playing and missing 13% of the time.
In support, Chris Woakes was sublime. His fleeting barrage to Virat Kohli may have been the “Love Me Do” to Anderson and Kohli’s ongoing symphony, but it suffered not one bit for it’s brevity. Five of his nine deliveries to the Indian captain brought edges or misses, a plentiful supply of errors which allowed a dropped catch to be forgotten far more quickly than Malan’s equivalent at Birmingham. The clear shift in tactic for the wicket ball, the fuller and straighter line of attack, was boosted by a little of Woakes’ frustration at the dropped chance – at 136kph, it was the fastest ball he bowled to Kohli. Yet beyond that key (and potentially series winning) battle, Woakes was on fire. 44% of his deliveries brought false shots, the highest figure he’s recorded in a Test innings, by a distance.
Eager not to lose the spotlight from Edgbaston, Sam Curran chipped in with an audacious dismissal of Dinesh Karthik. Swinging the ball back into the Indian keeper from over the wicket, Curran found 3.8° of swing, and bowled him through the gate. Only two deliveries swung more in that direction all day, and Curran harnessed that movement whilst lasering in on the stumps. The movement was so substantial that many onlookers assumed an inside edge had been found. It hadn’t – the movement was all Curran’s doing.
As Karthik trudged off following his dismissal, he looked like a man who thought it was almost unfair to be asked to bat in such conditions. In a way, you could agree with him. At one point in the innings, India had missed 17% of their balls faced, at the time the highest figure for any Test match where the data has been recorded. If any conditions were impossible to bat in, the returns of the Indian batsmen suggest it was here.
Even aside from the climatic conditions, the way the day unfolded added to the challenge. Many fans abandoned hope of seeing any cricket this afternoon, and the difficulty for any batsman to maintain their focus and mental readiness in such a situation should not be disregarded. Perhaps given a clearer sense of when they’d be heading into these horrifying conditions, India could have prepared, more settled. Rahane and Kohli had roughly 20 mins to prepare for the 5:10 restart, before being thrust into the midst. The constant inspections, the lack of certainty over when any play would take place make it less than ideal for batting.
Yet today wasn’t purely a stroke of bad luck for India. England have sustained their excellence with the ball across the three innings so far this tour, and the swing they have found is the sixth most ever by a bowling side in a Test series. Root’s side certainly have their faults, but they are an excellent swing bowling unit.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that India may have lost the series this evening. At 4:30, play looked almost impossible, but just a few short hours later and Kohli’s foothold in the series is gone, his team now chasing their tails on a green seamer Hardik Pandya as their first-change bowler. They may still get back into this Test – England’s batsmen have proven rather adept at initiating their own collapses in recent times – but it will take something extraordinary. However, if the London clouds don’t clear, and the capital remains cloaked in the dark and stormy humidity which defined today’s play, then perhaps we shouldn’t rule anything out.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.