Once again, England’s tail wagged today, and saw their side to a very competitive total. Ben Jones reflects on a series where England’s lower-order has been fundamental to their success.
England’s tail-enders have won them a series against the best Test team in the world.
Sure, their bowling has been superb throughout the summer. In helpful conditions (the average swing of 1.34° is the sixth highest in the CricViz database for a 3+ match series) Joe Root’s bowlers have repeatedly restricted India’s stellar batting line-up to mediocre totals, and have kept Virat Kohli and co within reach. The tourists have passed 350 just once, and have been rolled for less than 200 on four occasions. England’s bowlers have been excellent.
Yet this match, and particularly today’s play, offers greater insight into how England look set to wrap up a tightly fought series with such an emphatic winning margin.
When Sam Curran was dismissed last night, England’s WinViz stood at 39%. After an attritional partnership between Moeen Ali and Alastair Cook, the familiar sight of an English middle order collapsing sauntered into view. They were left at 181-7, and whilst they were by no means out of the contest, India smelt blood.
When England finished batting, their WinViz stood at 58%. As has so often been the case this summer, England’s tail hung around to support Jos Buttler, allowing him to play his swaggering swats and slashes with relative confidence that the lad at the other end wasn’t getting out immediately. They clawed their way back into the contest.
Indeed, that has been the pattern of play across the series for Root’s side. Throughout the five matches, the secret ingredient to England’s success has been the strength of their tail. They have scored more than twice as many runs and faced more than twice as many deliveries as their opponents. Whilst the top-order has faltered, the tail has stood firm.
On top of that, it’s not just the runs that those tail-enders have added – it’s the time they were occupying the crease. England’s last four batsmen have batted for just over 22 hours this series; India’s last four have batted for 12 hours and 41 minutes. The value of that occupation was so clear today, as Buttler went up through the gears only when Anderson came to the crease, shifting up from 36% attacking strokes to 60% with the Lancastrian for company. Buttler is a master of shepherding the strike, but he needs someone to shepherd. England have always made sure that someone has stuck with him.
However, without question the performance of Curran and co has masked the failing further up the order. In the first four Tests, England’s last four batsmen outscored their openers, in every game. On two occasions they more than doubled the match totals for Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings. They have repeatedly offered more than their top-order counterparts. They have consistently bailed them out, when consistency has evaded all others.
So why have they been so effective? Well, India haven’t approached their tail-end batting in a radically different way to the English. Root’s men have had a bit more luck with false shots, but have been slightly more attacking. The increased intent, particularly of Curran, has often spooked Kohli into setting more defensive fields, and thus lessening the opportunity for those false shots to bring wickets.
Some responsibility must fall on the bowlers as well. England’s pace bowlers have had a different strategy when trying to take those last few wickets, bowling 16% of their deliveries on the stumps, compared to India’s 13%. Not a vast difference in isolation, but they have also been consistently bowling fuller; 38% of their deliveries to the tail have been full of a good length, compared to India’s 29%. It appears Kohli has instructed his his bowlers to bowl shorter at England’s less able batsmen, but it has backfired, England’s tail averaging 33.00 against those shorter deliveries, compared to just 17.50 to fuller bowling. India have found a level of intimidation previously unseen in their pace bowling, but it’s come at the expense of taking wickets.
However, you’d be foolish to look beyond the obvious when marvelling at England’s lower order resistance. The combined Test averages of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and R Ashwin is 52.63; the combined Test average of England’s last four in this game (Broad, Rashid, Anderson and Curran) is 86.57. The regular recoveries that occur with England’s lower order shouldn’t be a surprise; to use an underused phrase in cricketing punditry, England’s tail are just better at batting than the Indians.
That’s been the difference between the two sides. Indian fans and players alike will feel, in their heart of hearts, that this wasn’t a 4-1 series, but that looks increasingly certain to be the final result. It’s felt closer than that because India have won in the traditionally crucial areas; they’ve dominated England’s openers, and they’ve limited the powerful middle order. But they’ve lost in the slightly hidden overs at the end of the innings, the moments when most fans might nip off to the shops if they’re watching at home, and briefly allow their attentions to slip. Perhaps the player have done the same. Regardless, it’s in these final passages of the innings that England have seized their advantage – and with it, the series.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.