Ben Jones analyses the opening spell from the Windies all-rounder, which set the tempo for a remarkable day in Nottingham.
T20 does many things brilliantly. It calls for speed of thinking, strategic flexibility, and for players to be adapting on the hoof. It rewards power, skill, physicality. It’s a brilliant format, and cricket is undoubtedly richer for having it.
However, one thing that T20 doesn’t do, is allow you to do the same thing for very long. If you lose your focus and settle into a rhythm, you’ll be punished. Predictability, with bat or with ball, is the cardinal sin of the shortest format.
A case in point; in T20s this year, Andre Russell bowls an average of 16 deliveries per match. Accordingly, he varies his length a lot; 52% short, 16% good length, 32% full. He bowls slower balls 21% of the time, and cutters 40% of the time. He’s constantly shifting, moving the ball into new areas, making it do different things. In T20s you have to stay ahead of the game. In ODIs, not so much – and today Russell showed why the distinction between 20 over and 50 over cricket is still significant.
Pakistan’s innings started shakily with the early wicket of Imam-ul-Haq, but the situation wasn’t terminal. Jason Holder, taking the new ball, had taken some tap from his opening spell. After two overs, the Windies captain removed himself from the attack, and threw the ball to his all-rounder.
Russell’s next 16 balls – his typical allocation in T20s, remember – couldn’t have been more predictable. Every single one of those first 16 balls was dug in short, pitching further than eight metres from the batsman’s stumps. It was the execution of a repetitive plan over 16 balls, doing the same thing over, and over, and over again. He ran in, he bowled a short ball. He ran in again, and bowled another, then did that fourteen more times. Russell wasn’t messing about with variation – he was bowling bouncers, and he was bowling 140kph heat.
Yet that 16 delivery period proved rather effective. Fakhar Zaman, a man not averse to making a splash in ICC tournaments, was pushed back by a 137kph zinger, pushed deep into his crease from where he was able only to cannon the ball back onto his stumps. Proper pace does that. Haris Sohail was deceived by the barrage coming down, and couldn’t judge the bounce. It sparked the collapse that saw Pakistan lose wicket after wicket, haphazardly throwing their bats at bouncers as they zoomed towards their helmets. The compulsive hooking spread like a virus. Pace does that.
It really was proper pace as well, and pace that Russell’s never found before. He was finding an extra gear, in terms of the raw speed he’s capable of generating; 39% of the balls Russell bowled today were over 140kph, the most he’s ever recorded in an ODI, and the most of the five West Indian seamers on show at Trent Bridge. For a man whose bowling is rarely given centre stage, that’s some statement to make with your opening three overs in the biggest tournament in the world. It broke Pakistan’s spirit, and they were bundled out for 105. The chase last 64 minutes.
ODI woes are nothing new for this iteration of Pakistan’s white ball side, but for Russell, this felt like a departure. It’s hard to call a spell consisting almost entirely of bouncers ‘sophisticated’, but it was a version of Russell we’ve not seen in a West Indian shirt for a long time. This was him showing that, given the room, his skills aren’t limited just to T20 cricket, but can influence matches in a more traditional manner as well. Given 16 deliveries, he is capable of doing more than simply cycling through the variations. Today’s spell was – whisper it – the sort of spell that could take wickets in Test matches. This wasn’t the franchise inflected ‘Dre Russ’; this was Andre Russell, new ball enforcer.
The 94% short balls that he sent down (the only variation a snorting yorker that almost snared Sarfaraz Ahmed first ball) is the most he’s ever done in an ODI. Today, given the knowledge that he had plenty more overs to play with, Russell had time to try a tactic for a chunk of time, to not be concerned about predictability.
The story of the day – inherent behind Russell’s performance – was that West Indies are here in England to compete. Their batting line-up is brutal, but their attack was considered suspect before the tournament began. Today was a loud, unequivocal statement to the contrary. It made it clear that Holder (is there a more admirable captain in international cricket?) is still capable of getting the best out of men like Russell, men with talents and reputations formed in shorter formats. If Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran, Carlos Brathwaite, and Oshane Thomas can follow Russell’s lead, and successfully adapt their skills to a 50 over contest, then this squad has as much ability as any other. If they can do that, then this West Indies team could do something special.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.