England wrapped up the series at the Ageas Bowl, but concerns remain about their top order’s ability against the moving ball.
In recent years, it has become something of a truism in English cricketing circles that Australian batsmen cannot play the moving ball. Their astonishing collapse of 60 all out at Trent Bridge in 2015 was met with sniggers and jibes as batsman after batsman came and went, flashing at balls that could and should have been left. Follow that up with Joe Root’s 130 on the same pitch and a simple narrative was formed: England can play the moving ball; Australia cannot.
At the time, the first part of that observation was backed up by the data. In home series from 2012 until the end of that 2015 Ashes series, England’s top six averaged 33.37 against balls that swung between 2.25° and 3.0°. The average might sound moderate but that is a significant amount of deviation; the average amount in England since ball tracking began in 2005 is 1.2°, yet England in those years were adept at playing deliveries moving roughly twice the average. And it should be noted that England were facing some of the world’s best quick bowlers in that period: Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn in 2012, Trent Boult and Tim Southee in 2013 and 2015, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in 2014, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc in 2015. England were up against elite fast bowlers, capable of finding movement both through the air and off the pitch, and were largely able to counter that threat.
Fast forward to 2018 and it is a different story. England’s top six are averaging just 11.28 against balls swinging in that 2.25°-3.0° bracket. That is the lowest in any home series since 2005:
England v balls swinging 2.25°-3.0°
|Series||Top six batting average|
|v India, 2018||11.28|
|v West Indies, 2009||17.00|
|v Australia, 2009||17.80|
|v West Indies, 2012||21.00|
|v India, 2007||21.66|
There is a debate to be had over how to play balls that swing to this extent: should you bat out of the crease to negate the effect of the swing, as Virat Kohli has at times against James Anderson in this series, or play back to give yourself time to assess how much the ball is doing and play it under your eyes? As the graphic below illustrates, four of the seven times England’s top six have got out to balls that have swung significantly have been when they have been playing forward, suggesting they are choosing the former method.
Perhaps more tellingly, three of those four dismissals have been from defensive shots. Ollie Pope’s second innings dismissal at Trent Bridge is the only example of an England top order batsman getting forward to the moving ball and playing a rash, aggressive shot. Each of the other three have been batsmen getting forward but then defending and edging. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with coming forward and playing a defensive shot; indeed being positive in defence is something that is often encouraged. However, England have arguably been guilty of being too cautious when coming down the pitch against the swinging ball. They have defended 52% of the time when doing so, nearly twice their overall number of 28% and that strategy has drawn a false shot 21% of the time compared to their series average of 17%.
To reiterate, these are balls that a swinging a lot and India’s seam attack is highly skilled, varied and they have been superb in this series, testing the batsmen through their ability to find movement in both directions. No-one is arguing that these are easy conditions for batting or that these are easy balls to face, but the fact remains that England’s top order are being found wanting in an area that they used to thrive.
Furthermore, what is more concerning for England is that it is not just the big swinging balls that are causing them problems. This series has seen the sixth highest amount of average swing by a visiting team to England, yet the hosts’ top six has never averaged less than they are in this series against seam.
|Series||Average Swing||Top six average|
|West Indies, 2007||1.5°||50.52|
England have deservedly won this current series, but that has been down to their bowlers’ ability to exploit the same swing that has caused the batsmen problems, as well as the form of lower order batsmen such as Sam Curran, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes. The situation is somewhat humbling for England’s top order though. With Australia due to arrive on these shores once again next summer, there is a certain irony that the home side’s fans can no longer ridicule their old rivals with barbs about their inability to play the swinging ball.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.