Ben Jones analyses another distressing day for English Test batsmen.
Why does this keep happening?
Why do England keep collapsing? Why do England, a country with a surplus of white ball talent and a drought of red ball equivalents, fall so hard, so fast, so frequently? Why do England keep cracking open?
They have been bowled out in a session four times in the last three years. These are, in a broad sense, good players. Not all of them, and not very good. But too often, too many members of England’s batting line-up go completely missing. Why?
If we’re honest, there are a dozen or more reasons why. Some broader ones relating to the way the domestic structure is set-up; some are contextual, the swirl of mixed motivations in play with a Test side so constantly changing personnel; some are individual, technical, tactical reasons that just seem to come to the fore on days like these. The reasons for these collapses are numerous, broad and specific, macro and micro.
So, right now, let’s not try to answer that question. Let’s try to answer a smaller, more precise question. Why did England collapse today?
Did the ball swing an unmanageable amount, moving so staggeringly through the air that no batting line-up would have had a chance? Not really. William Porterfield’s seam attack were on their game, without a doubt, but they only found a slightly larger degree of swing than we typically see at Lord’s. To compare with another extraordinary day in this part of London, Ireland’s opening spells fell well short of the 1.7° of swing which ripped through India’s top order here last year. Today, it was swinging, but it wasn’t extraordinarily tough. It was, in the most literal cricketing sense, survivable.
So, did the ball seam an unmanageable amount? Again, no. Again, Ireland were able to extract more movement off the surface than the average for Lord’s, but only a fraction more. Lord’s has become a more bowler friendly ground in the last few years, but it has generally been a great place to bat; the 0.7° of seam movement we saw today is not a huge deviation – excuse the pun – from the conditions that have gained Lord’s that batting friendly reputation. It was nipping about, but it was survivable.
Were Ireland unusually accurate? Tim Murtagh was, unquestionably. In his opening spell, 67% of his deliveries pitched on a good line and a good length. Only one bowler in our database has sent down a more accurate opening spell in England – that man was Glenn McGrath, at the Oval in 2005. Murtagh was teasing England’s top order, batting them back and forth in his hands like a cat playing with an almost-dead mouse. This was a sensational level of precision and control from a man who is more than familiar with these surroundings, and seemed to call upon his entire career’s experience of bowling at this famous ground. Having to cope with that, when your top three is as lacking in Test experience as it ever has been in the modern era, is an all but impossible task.
But given that level of excellence from the chief destroyer with the ball in his hand – were England too reckless? They attacked 24% of the deliveries they faced today; only once since 2010 have they attacked more in the first innings of a Test match. With the ball doing enough through the air, enough off the surface, and with Murtagh doing rascally things with the ball on a string, perhaps this was a factor. It probably contributed to them losing wickets in the way they did. Of course, you can still argue that in such trying conditions it is a better option to attack, to try to put the bowlers off their length and to get them before they get you.
Were England unlucky? Yes, a bit. In the first 20 overs of both innings today, there were 26% false shots – roughly twice the Test average. The actual proportion of shots where the batsman was not in control was almost identical for Irish and English players, and when you’re not in control of the shot, you’re not in control of the outcome. England lost eight wickets in those 20 overs; Ireland, just two.
Of course, a collapse of these proportions can rarely be attributed to just one cause. It was a medley of all these contributions, a chaotic cocktail of skillful bowling, indecisive batting and a dash of poor fortune. The determining factor was most likely the brilliance of Murtagh, summoning the ghost of that other great Lord’s performer, and terrorising England in the place they claim to call home.
It’s only through some excellent bowling late in a long day that England are still in this Test, and they will still fancy their chances of coming back, but today was the latest wake-up call in a long line of similar incidents. At some point, we have to answer that wider, broader question – why do England collapse?
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.