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CricViz Analysis: Jos Buttler v Ben Foakes

Ben Jones analyses a classic keeping debate, with a twist.

It is always to easy to make sporting events about stories. It’s a kind crutch to see everything that happens as part of a larger image, as a piece in a bigger puzzle, as something grander than it is. In the mind of the writer, of the analyst, of the commentator, everything a player does forms part of the narrative of their life. Every frame a painting, every day a page.

At times it’s a grating affectation – and at times it’s entirely fitting. Today in Johannesburg, the latter was the case. Today, things felt like they were ending, like an era was tying itself up in a neat knot. Today, it felt like the last moments of Jos Buttler as a Test player.

Another innings without the solidity of a Test batsman, without the destructive abandon of an ODI batsman, has seemingly been enough to tip the collective scales against the England keeper. People have had enough, and have felt the lack of controversy elsewhere as the appropriate opportunity to draw a line under his stint as the gloveman in the England side.

The issue with the debate around Buttler, as it often is around keepers, is less about the people involved, than around ideology. Do you like keepers or do you not? Do you want to push their case as the fulcrum of the attack, the man through which everything flows, or do you see the fetishisation of their role as a hangover from an era long gone?

Proponents of Ben Foakes will, quite rightly, push his ability as a pure gloveman as evidence for his inclusion. Few will question his ability in this regard, and rightly so. According to our analysis of fielding ability, only one Test wicketkeeper has saved more runs-per-match in the last three years. It is without question that Foakes is an extremely talented keeper, who should not see his talents go unappreciated.

And so, let’s take this globally significant talent, and compare it to England’s current options. According to our fielding analysis, the sum ability of Foakes’ keeping superiority is an average of five runs a match, or 2.5 runs an innings, to keep the parlance of batting averages.

This isn’t a fair sample of course. Foakes’ having only kept in four innings may significantly increase or decrease the impact he offers, statistically, and we would avoid that if there were more detailed records kept in domestic cricket. Unfortunately, there aren’t for keeping – but there are for batting. If we combine the FC batting records of Foakes and Buttler then we can begin to see things a little more clearly.

Foakes is, on most obviously measurable levels, a better option. Yet the main difference comes not with the keeping gloves, but with the batting gloves.

People like to talk about keeping being an important aspect of the game. This could be for a few reasons. On one level it is clearly an influential aspect of the contest, as influential as any other perhaps, and it is given less attention than others because of a faint whiff of otherness, of a skill acquired away from the main huddle. It’s not like anything else in the game, and so many are nervous of holding forth on it.

However, in the opinion of this writer, a not inconsiderable element is the way that talking about it in detailed terms allows you to look like a connoisseur, a viewer who spots the subtleties and nuances that the casual viewer may not. Plenty of people speak about the importance of confidence that good keepers place in the bowlers, whilst in the same breath talking about the value of runs on the board. The benefits of keeping are, as is measurable, minimal.

Our measures may not be correct. They are not objective, and there could be plenty else which suggests greater influence. But for now, we go with this, we accept its assessment and judge things accordingly.

Foakes’ batting quality is tough to nail down. A Test century to his name, in alien conditions, but against an attack of lower quality than normal; a FC average of 40+ is impressive, but an average of 31 in the last two Championship seasons is not testament to a proven Test batsman. A brief purple patch in Test cricket should not mask the fact that whilst Foakes is competent with bat in hand, his work is not without issues, and is without the dominance in other formats to suggest he has a base level talent to back it all up.

And it’s hard, because Buttler is a genius. He is a better white ball batsman than any Englishman in history. He’s arguably a better white ball batsman than any Englishman has been a red ball batsman.

And yet, that ties into this story better than you may think. English cricket has been in a five year long attempt to bring a particular brand of beautiful cricket to the Test arena. It has done all it can to embrace its white ball stars, from Jos to Jason to Alex to Adil. In ODI cricket England had a dream, and they realised it more perfectly than anyone could have imagined. In the wake of that, in the midst of it, they tried to bring the raw joy of the 50 over team into the five day side, to carry the particular perfection of Bayliss’ white ball team into red ball cricket.

As is so often the case, utopia fought back, and didn’t want to be as amenable; San Junipero is a party town, and the party is ending.

England might be on the brink of a better Test side, of a more solid team with more measurable impact, more consistent performance. That is to be celebrated, as are the young men who will create it. But in that growth, there is a loss, the loss of a team that could have been, of a team that threatened to tear things up. That team may have been nothing but an illusion that we all bought into, the possibility of a team so entertaining that they could save Test cricket from the drudgery of four day finishes and 500+ chases.

That dream died today, and with it, English cricket’s dominance may well have been reborn. Whether that is for better or for worse – we’ll have to see.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: How Excited Can England Get?

Boom, we’re back.

In the wake of a second consecutive Test victory that leaves them on the brink of an improbable series win, English optimism is on the rise. Away wins for Joe Root’s team have been a rare thing in the last few years, and two victories in the space of a fortnight has caused more than a few flutters of optimism in the minds of the players and the fans alike.

Joe Root commented that the Number One Test ranking was “back in our sights”, and whilst he had a glint in his eye it would have been hard to imagine him saying such a thing after Centurion. By the barest of margins, England have just about managed to keep a lid on things – but there’s a clear sense of a team confident they’re moving in the right direction.

While there have only been two Test wins in the Chris Silverwood era, there has been a reassuring level of logic to proceedings, to the way they want to win their Test matches. Silverwood’s England have shown considerably more control with the bat than their previous incarnation; in the two Test series they have played under the former Essex coach, their false shot percentage has been 11.8% and 13.9%, both of which are lower than any series in the entirety of Trevor Bayliss’ tenure. Partly that is comes from the pitches in New Zealand and Port Elizabeth, but even taking that into consideration there has undoubtedly been a change in approach. There has been a conscious effort to defend more, to attack less, to remain in control of their strokes. That much is clear.

With a template in place, again, it’s easy to get swept up in things. Suddenly, England seem to have a solid top three, a free-wheeling middle order, and a seam attack that can bowl quickly and get results with the Kookaburra ball. They now seem to be led by a captain who feels confident and is buoyed on by the swaying choruses of ‘Jerusalem’ that swallow up the air around England’s overseas tours, rather than cowed by the expectations they imply. Suddenly, England look like a Test side to be reckoned with.

Except, of course, there’s a fair bit more going on than that.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a vintage South African side. They have been ravaged by a huge range of socio-economic issues that have been discussed widely elsewhere. They are a not a strong cricket team right now, they are not a strong cricketing culture, and they are working from a flimsy base with conversations around race, representation and wealth marring any significant progress on the field.

The cricketing consequence of all this is that South Africa’s batting is very, very bad. At CricViz, we have a Wicket Probability model, which uses ball-tracking data to calculate the likelihood that any ball should lead to a wicket, a run, or any other scenario. It allows us to look at the deliveries a batsman or batting team have faced, and compare their returns to what we would ‘expect’ a typical player to average. According to this model, the deliveries that England have bowled in this series would, typically, have averaged 28.9. That’s very good, particularly good for an England attack who have struggled without the Dukes ball in hand, and they should not go without credit. Yet South Africa have actually averaged 23.4 with the bat, well below what we’d expect.

Across an innings, South Africa have been leaving more than 50 runs on the park, averaging 5.49 runs-per-dismissal less than the average Test batsman would. Under performing to that degree is not something to ignore, because it isn’t normal.

In the last decade, England have played 28 series of at least three Test matches, against a range of opponents in a range of conditions. In that time, only twice has the opposition fallen so far below what was expected. In 2010, when Pakistan toured England, they averaged just 16.09 with the bat, a vast 12.2 runs-per-dismissal less than our model suggests that they should have given the balls they faced. That was a tour marred by all sorts of controversy and drama, which to some extent explains the calamitous results. The other occasion was an altogether more low-key affair, when Sri Lanka toured England in 2016. They averaged 21.31 with the bat, 8.9 runs-per-dismissal below what our model suggests they should have averaged. English conditions in early summer – a particularly damp and grisly one – were conducive to collapses.

Those are the only two occasions in the last decade when a side has faced England and fallen further below what they should be hitting with the bat than South Africa in this series.

There are cricketing caveats as well as socio-economic ones. Aiden Markam, a frustrating talent in many ways but a talent without doubt, has been sidelined. The potentially terminal poor form of Faf du Plessis is not the result of administration, but the passage of time and the process of age. Men like Rassie van der Dussen and Pieter Malan may be older, but they have played little to no Test cricket. They are learning, and the coaches are learning about them. It is understandable.

This is not intended as a slam dunk on South African woes, far from it. Rather, England need to quell any sense of optimism that may come from another win in Johannesburg this week, and could easily gather in momentum with an equally hospitable Sri Lanka tour coming up very soon They need to remember that, whilst this obviously isn’t the end of a journey, it isn’t necessarily the start of one.

For now, see this series for what it is. The bludgeoning of an old enemy, an enemy that has inflicted plenty of pain on English cricket over the years. Relish it, at a level. But don’t move too far from the fact that South Africa have never been lower in the modern era, and that the economic pull of England is in part responsible for that.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Keshav Maharaj

Ben Jones analyses the work of the South African spinner.

They call Port Elizabeth ‘The Friendly City’. Well, Keshav Maharaj does.

Ahead of play in PE, many noted the abrasive nature of the surface, and anticipated reverse swing playing a factor. It’s a tough gig reading pitches before a ball has been bowled, and given what was in front of the assorted ex-skippers and educated onlookers, that was a fair assessment. Swing looked as if it was going to be the threat.

However, it wasn’t. The seamers found 0.5° of swing, on average, the second lowest ever recorded on Day 1 of a South African Test. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley saw off the new ball and, after England’s longest opening partnership on Day 1 in around a decade, the time arrived for reverse. Except it didn’t arrive. A few signs of tail, a bit of shape here and there, but nothing substantial. The main threat was going to have to come from elsewhere. It needed to.

For Faf’s sake, it did. The flipside of the dry, abrasive surface is that whilst it negates the stand-the-seam-up quicks, it brings spinners into the game earlier, and that’s exactly what we saw.

Maharaj found an average of 5.6° spin today in Port Elizabeth. That’s a serious amount given that in South Africa Tests Maharaj typically averages 1.5° of turn. Today was a treat. He’s more than used to operating in such conditions, and has found a way to succeed without enormous movement off the pitch but, today at least, Maharaj was met with unprecedented help from the surface.

In fact, it was an historic amount of assistance. Not since ball tracking data has been recorded (2006) has a pitch in South Africa spun as much on Day 1 of a Test. Typically, with these sorts of stats, the man responsible is a ripping leg-spinner, some round arm hard-spinning wristy sacrificing accuracy for revs. Yet here was a finger-spinner bowling around 84kph getting big, consistent spin off the pitch, on Day 1. This was never going to be a straightforward day for the batsmen, though as it turned out, not for the reasons we expected at the start of play.

To his credit, du Plessis recognised this, and went with it. Philander was thrown into the outfield for all of the day barring a few short and not-so-sharp spells, with Maharaj bowling unchanged for a remarkable chunk of the day. 35% of the balls bowled by South Africa were from spinners – that’s the highest percentage in the first innings of a home Test this century.

It’s not been an easy life as a finger spinner plying your trade largely in South African conditions. Wickets are more expensive there than almost anywhere else in the world. Maharaj had earned this, and he was making the most of it.

He had Joe Denly cornered. The English No.3 faced 62 balls from Maharaj, scoring just three runs before being dismissed – an attractive and crowd-pleasing run rate of 0.3rpo. Denly may have only played three false shots – one bringing the dismissal – but he was straining to remain secure. A stalemate between spinner and batsman on the first day of a Test match feels like a win for the bowler.

And yet, that wicket of Denly was the only tally in the wicket column for Maharaj at the end of the day. For all that turn, and admirable control, he hadn’t exactly ran through the tourists’ line-up.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. According to our Expected Wickets model, the deliveries that Maharaj bowled would – on average – have taken 3.2 wickets. In part, the England’s solid defence is responsible for that difference. Root’s men clearly went out with determination to bat time and a willingness, where necessary, to resist any urge to accelerate the scoring. They were content to soak up pressure, and to leave runs out there – our model suggests that Maharaj’s deliveries would normally have gone for 86 runs, whereas England only took them for 55.

That was the trade-off England were willing to make. It defined the day.

Because that pattern was extrapolated across the whole action. The deliveries South Africa bowled today should, on merit, have taken 9.4 wickets, at the cost of 262 runs. England should have been in deep in it, but with a few on the board. That would fit the pattern of recent times, for this England side. It would have been an outcome South Africa settled for in an instant, when Joe Root called correctly at the toss. Yet England resisted. 41% of the strokes they played today were defensive strokes – the last time they played more on Day 1 of a Test was on the India tour in 2016. There was a concerted effort, throughout the side, to defend. The merits of that decision are up for debate, but it is clear that England took a clear choice. They were going to leave runs in the middle, and take wickets to bed.

Such is a bowlers lot, tomorrow Maharaj will have to come back and do it all again, lay down that bet for England, invite them to twist when they really should stick. This England side don’t really make big scores batting first, but will be eager to change that habit – another session of grinding away could very quickly turn into some Stokes/Buttler fireworks if South Africa aren’t careful.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Ben Stokes’ Spell

Rufus Bullough analyses the decisive spell of the day.

England’s man of the match, week, month and year has done it again. He has once again been the spearhead that has led England to their first Test match victory of the Silverwood era. Throughout this contest Stokes shone in all three disciplines, which considering his current form and pedigree, can hardly be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about the current state of English Cricket.

A blistering third innings knock of 74 from 47 took control of the game away from South Africa and helped to amass an unlikely fourth innings target of 438. Stokes then equalled a world record in the fourth innings, by taking 5 outfield catches including an excellent effort in the slips, diving low to his right, to remove set debutant batsman Pieter Malan for 84, who’s stubborn resistance had been a source of much frustration for captain Joe Root.

But the period of play that will live long in the memory of England fans was his final spell of bowling, deep in the heart of the final session of the match. It ignited a Test match that was meandering towards an anticlimactic five-day draw. In his fourth spell of the day Stokes charged in like a man possessed and bowled 28 balls at searing pace which turned the game on its head with spell figures of 4.4-3-1-3.

During this spell, Stokes bowled at an average speed of 85.57mph, which is the 11th fastest average speed in a Day 5, 3rd session spell by any England bowler. He induced 28.5% false shots from the batsman, which was the highest percentage of any spell (of two overs or more) by a seam bowler in the entirety of the test match. Stokes was also managing to successfully make the ball reverse swing during this passage, a goal which has dominated news headlines at Newlands in recent years. He recorded an average swing value of 0.897°, which was the highest of any spell bowled by Stokes in the match.  

As this table shows, the Stokes spell drew a false shot more regularly than any other in the match.

Stokes’ method of slightly leaning away as he delivers gave him the widest release point of any seam bowler in this match. This creates an angle where right-handed batsman have to play at the majority of balls delivered that pitch outside the off stump. In this game 61.2% of balls delivered to right handers by Stokes were played at, the highest percentage of any of England’s right arm seamers. When coupled with Stokes uncanny ability to then reverse the ball away late, at high pace, he becomes a formidable opponent for Test batsman of any ability. The South African lower order never stood a chance against bowling of such quality.

Rufus Bullough is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: The Final Ball in Cape Town

Ben Jones looks at a remarkable end to the second Test.

This was, from start to finish, a subtle game, with unsubtle reactions.

The fury on the opening day as England collapsed again, in the face of good bowling, was exaggerated. We saw it again, with the excitement as South Africa fell away in reply. The crack on the pitch a distraction which grew as the match went on, but rarely caused havoc.

This was a surface that started out lively, but was not getting much livelier. Our PitchViz model, built using historical ball-tracking data, looks at the data from any given match and assesses how difficult batting must be, how tricky the conditions are. And while we did see the general worsening of conditions that you would anticipate with the longer format, it wasn’t radical. This was a subtle decline in standards – think more Oasis than Stone Roses – that insisted the game develop and progress at a gentler pace.

The collapses in the first innings, more the result of poor batting and good bowling than tough conditions, set the game up nicely. Ollie Pope’s late innings resistance dragged the tourists back into it, Dean Elgar’s 88 shaped to take it firmly in the hosts’ favour. Every time the game feigned one way, it dropped a shoulder and floated back the other.

And so the last day, in its own way, was reflective of the game in its entirety, resisting wholesale collapses or petering out into nothing. Instead it teetered on the brink of each result before falling back, not so much swinging as sidling. This was a Test which played out slowly, but never without purpose. This was a sink slowly emptying, the water cycling around quicker and quicker.

Before, at the very last minute, Ben Stokes popped the plug in. It fits with the theme, with the discussion of the days, that the very best ball of the match was the final one.

Our model suggests that the delivery to Philander, that lifting cracker just outside off stump, would on average have taken a wicket every 7.5 times it was bowled. No other delivery bowled on Day 5 was as dangerous, none in the Test as likely to do the job of prising out one of the eight batsmen England needed to claim victory. The calculation does not look at the context, the situation, the myths and legends that Stokes holds, the ink that has been spilled in his name. It considers the way the ball moves alone; its speed, its swing, its seam movement, its length and line, and any number of other factors.

139.17kph, moving 1.2 degrees away in the air and a further 0.9 degrees away off the pitch, it was a beast – but the real killer was the bounce. The wicket ball bounced 51cm more than the other ball Stokes sent down to Philander on that length. The South African seamer, the master of consistency, had all right to be shocked by the inconsistent spurt from the Newlands pitch. Nobody could have dealt with it, nobody could have coped. It was lethal.

This was a perfect ball for the moment, the perfect ball for the moment. For the umpteenth time in recent memory, Stokes reached deep and pulled out another piece of magic. With the last ball of the Test.

Sometimes, things are worth the wait. Somethings are worth sticking around for.

Time, at times, brings unique reward.

***

And yet, and yet. Plenty will try and skew the work of Sibley on the afternoon of Day 3 as the “boring passages” people talk of as the downside to five day cricket. It was not. That period was tense, purposeful, the absence of activity in terms of runs and wickets an intriguing thing rather than something to ignore.

The periods four-day cricket could well eradicate are seen elsewhere more readily. The days spent lifting 340 run leads into 550s, the deference to personal milestones that become the sole source of interest in drifting weeks of noncompetitive cricket. The boring stuff. Not this, not the slow play that drips from the pitch like treacle.

Like everything in 2020, the debate around it all has fallen along cultural lines, flung to opposing packs of rabid followers and commenters like a fresh carcass, something new to devour and scrap over and push cricket fans further into their own interest. This isn’t helpful to anyone.

In reality, the proposed changes are a question of lobbing 50-odd overs from the absolute maximum capacity of a red ball cricket match. It will make the game more vulnerable to weather conditions, but it will eradicate many dead days. It will allow for undoubted improvements in scheduling, but will reduce the grandeur of the format. It will bring some good, it will bring some bad.

And putting the language of hyper-real capitalism aside – a thing cannot be “an advert” for itself – there could scarcely have been a more perfect demonstration of why five day Test cricket should always be available, why four-day Tests should not be compulsory. Its almost unique qualities of scope and sprawl are not in doubt, and in Cape Town they were underlined more than ever. Let’s enjoy them.

That’s the best advert for five day Tests.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Dom Sibley

Ben Jones analyses a day when England’s new opener guided them to a dominant position in Cape Town.

Dom Sibley, 85 (222).

222.

Two two two.

It’s not without significance that, on a day when old-fashioned and classical Test batting was back en vogue, the Englishman at the heart of that revival ended on the most on-the-nose reference to a voice from the past as possible. Try saying that, 222, without lapsing into the most affectionate impression a cricket fan can offer, without hearing Those Words said in That Voice.

A coincidence, of course, and nothing more.

And yet, the key element of Benaud’s commentary, the most quoted phrase from his advice to other commentators, was simple. Don’t speak, unless you’ve got something to say. Don’t add anything to the action, if nothing needs to be added. He may have been in the middle, rather than in the commentary booths of either Supersport or TalkSport Radio, but Dominic Sibley seemed to be heeding that advice.

Perhaps Sibley has aspirations beyond playing, ambitions to end up behind the microphone, or perhaps he understood the broader, more nuanced message behind Benaud’s comments. Assess your ability, look over the general landscape. Look where you can offer something, and interject then, but otherwise be content to sit. To rest. To be quiet, to be peaceful, to let others shine. Either way, he seemed to take it on board.

When England walked out to bat today, off the back of James Anderson’s five-fer and with the tailwind of optimism, WinViz was cautiously joining in. England had a 60% chance of leaving Cape Town with a win, far higher than they may have expected as wickets were tumbling in the latter stages of their first innings. They had a lead, but not a decisive one. It was a strong position, but not a dominant one. They needed someone to convert the former into the latter, and they found one – emphatically.

Sibley, after a few Tests suggesting he was capable of such an approach, offered it. His innings was restrained, a parade of the negative, of leaves, of absence. Just 14.8% of his strokes were attacking. Since 2006 when such data started to be recorded, that is exceptional, in the very literal sense of the word. Only five innings of more than 200 balls by English openers have seen fewer attacking shots. Four have been by Alastair Cook, and one by Nick Compton, a man dismissed by Trevor Bayliss with one sweep of a press conference remark, when he asserted that he wanted two attacking batsmen in the top three. He may well have, and he may well be right. But excluding one sort of player is rarely productive, and rarely for the broader good.

Sibley has attracted an odd kind of attention over the last few years, an ideological sort of discussion forming itself around his batting. Don’t pick these white ball dashers, these World Cup winners. Pick Sibley. Back red ball talent, support the Championship, Buy British.

According to our Wicket Probability model, the average batsman would have scored 108 runs off the deliveries Sibley faced today. He didn’t even get close to that, and that shows the limitations of his scoring and of his ability to assert himself on an attack and bend them to his will. But our model also shows that, on average, a batsman facing the deliveries Sibley faced today would have been dismissed 3.5 times. And he hasn’t been dismissed once.

Such a performance is of huge value. To have the technical and mental skills to resist that sort of onslaught, an attack which would have removed the average batsman thrice over, is impressive. Sibley has carried England from a strong position, into one they would do well to lose from.

Yet of course, all this is double-edged. Blocking, negative cricket, defensive play – it’s very easily co-opted by a certain kind of cricket fan who “follows” the game, who enjoys it as a peak-time-train to the past and nothing more. Slow going is a tactic, and nothing more, not a dinosaur’s approach but not a cheat code to pure success in this format. It is one way of overcoming the obstacles which England are faced with, but it is not the only one.

“That’s what we needed.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Proper cricket.”

“Proper batting.”

“None of this hit and giggle nonsense”

“Reminds me of how it used to be.”

“When men were men.”

You didn’t have to look far for this sort of sentiment today. It’s a peculiar quirk of the English character that, if they are honest, they would rather things were bad so that they could really get their teeth into complaining. One person railing against the present, by showing the Qualities Of The Past, is a dream come true for plenty.

Which is why it’s important that England fans don’t lose themselves in this. Since the start of 2019, England’s Test batsman have averaged 26.48 runs-per-dismissal. According to our Wicket Probability model, the deliveries that England have faced should, on average, have cost 26.9 runs-per-dismissal. They are not the shower-of-snowflakes plenty are trying to paint them as, but rather a group of talented yet flawed players, who have to play their cricket in an era when bowlers don’t smoke, drink on their rest days, and have the benefit of being able to watch every delivery any player has ever faced before even sending down a ball. They haven’t done as well as they perhaps could have done, perhaps as well as the budgets of the ECB suggest they should. But they haven’t done badly.

As simple as it is to lapse into the easy binaries of social media, of thug.gif or clown.gif, it’s wrong to suggest English Test cricket has been some sort of joke for an era. They haven’t lost a main home series since 2012, they haven’t lost a home Ashes since the Democrats were still contesting Al Gore’s right to the Presidency. They are poor away from home, but that is the tune of this era.

And yet, today did feel like a reawakening of a certain value system, a callback to the values of Flower and Strauss which did, however fleetingly, take England to the summit of Test cricket. The challenge for England is that, really, they don’t have many Sibleys. Of all the English batsmen over the last two Championship seasons, only nine (min 20 matches) have recorded a lower attacking shot percentage; two, Haseeb Hameed and Gary Ballance, have played Test cricket, and none of the others have averaged over 36. Cry back to this mould of cricket all you like, these cricketers are few and far between.

Question the means of production, but the product remains the same. England don’t have Sibleys round every corner, at the top of every order across the land. They are, essentially, an item out of fashion, an emblem of a style no longer considered worthy of sitting at the front of the shop. Perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Short balls in Perth

The First Test between Australia and New Zealand at Optus Stadium showcased some fine short-pitched bowling. Patrick Noone analyses the role the bouncer played throughout the contest.

Short-pitched bowling in Perth is nothing new. The old WACA ground had a well-earned reputation for being one of the fastest, bounciest pitches in world cricket. It was a haven for fearsome quicks – Dennis Lillee in one era, Mitchell Johnson in another – the scene of many a batsman ducking and weaving to take evasive action as ball after ball reared up off the unforgiving surface.

Optus Stadium, Perth’s new venue, does not yet have the same storied history as its predecessor across the Swan River, but this week’s First Test between Australia and New Zealand was perhaps the first chapter of what will become the second part of Perth’s love affair with the bouncer. In all, 21 of the 31 wickets to fall to seam in the match were from short balls. Since 2005, when our ball-tracking records began, the 2013 Ashes Test in Brisbane is the only Test on Australian soil in which as many wickets have fallen to seam with a higher percentage coming from bouncers.

Neil Wagner is no stranger to the short ball and is arguably the world’s pre-eminent exponent of the craft. Since the start of 2016, he has taken 75 Test wickets with the bouncer, more than any other fast bowler in that time. The conditions at Optus Stadium were made for him and he delivered, sending down an eye-watering 60 overs in heat close to 40°C, picking up seven wickets, five of which came from short deliveries. In total, Wagner bowled 193 short balls throughout the match, more than any bowler has ever bowled in a single match in Australia since records began.

That said, Wagner’s performance was not merely a bouncer barrage; he is a smarter bowler than that. The left-armer opted for a more conventional strategy on Day 1 when the pink ball was hard and new, pitching just 14% of his deliveries short in the first session of the match and picking up the wicket of David Warner with one of the fullest balls he bowled. As the match progressed and cracks began to open up on the Optus Stadium pitch, Wagner dragged his length back further and further until he was bowling short 86% of the time during his final spell on the fourth morning.

Wagner also turned to the bouncer more often during the night sessions, bowling short 72% of the time under lights, compared to 61% during the first sessions of the day. It was a trend that was followed by the seamers on both teams throughout the match as the overall short ball percentage shot up to 61% during the final sessions, having been consistently around 48% for the first two sessions across each of the four days.

That trend was something of a surprise, with the conventional wisdom being that the pink ball is more likely to swing and seam under lights and therefore pitching it up would be the logical tactic in order to exploit that extra lateral movement. The short ball tactic was perhaps driven by the match situation – only on Day 2 did a team have the new ball at the start of the night session, meaning that each side had an older, softer ball with which to attack during the ‘witching hour’.

Despite ultimately suffering a heavy defeat, New Zealand will be encouraged by the fact that their plans to Steve Smith were effective. Smith was dismissed in both innings by a Wagner short ball, on each occasion picking out a fielder with a pull shot. It’s not a shot that usually causes the former captain much strife – his first innings dismissal was the first time he’d got out on the pull since March 2017 and even now he still averages 72.66 when playing the shot, but Wagner was twice able to hurry him into playing the false stroke.

It’s too early to say whether the Black Caps have unearthed a true weakness in Smith’s game, but there are signs that he is playing the short ball less effectively than he used to. Up until the point he was struck on the neck by Jofra Archer at Lord’s, Smith averaged 93.66 against short-pitched bowling. Since then, that figure has dropped to 40.00 and three of his five dismissals against seam have come from short balls.

Conditions at the MCG for the Second Test will likely be very different to those seen at Perth. The temperature will surely be lower, the pitch will almost certainly be slower while batting under lights will not be a factor in Melbourne. It could all mean that the short ball tactics seen in the first Test were a one-off in terms of the series, but they will surely be a key feature in future Test matches at Optus Stadium, as the new ground begins to a build a similarly daunting reputation to that of its predecessor on the other side of the river.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: Indian Quicks’ Historic 2019

Ben Jones analyses the achievements of Umesh, Bumrah, Shami and Ishant.

Once again, Virat Kohli’s India have absolutely steamrollered a Test opponent. In the day-night Test in Kolkata, Bangladesh have been swotted aside by an innings and 46 runs, a huge margin of victory which entirely reflects the level of dominance from the home side. Once again, India have have smacked the opposition down, beaten them up, thrown them sideways and back again. In home conditions all the way across India, this team is as close to unbeatable as you can imagine. Seven wins on the bounce equals their longest winning run in the history of the format, and even with a strong and talented New Zealand side up next, you would be brave, bordering on careless, to bet against them extending that run.

There are lots of reasons for this streak. A core group of players who have played together around the world for a good few years now, supplemented by some fresh, exciting faces; a batting line-up with a brilliant blend of obduracy and aggression; a spin attack with the ability to compete in all conditions, attacking and defending, performing whichever role is asked of them.

Yet the real triumph of this side – perhaps of Indian cricket in its entirety – is the pace attack. This core of seamers that India have accrued is so varied, so excellent, that this year they have reached new and historic heights. A quarter of Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, and Jasprit Bumrah, have excelled to a statistical level few others can match.

In 2019, India’s seamers have averaged 20 runs-per-wicket. That’s clearly superb, by the metrics we used to measure individual bowlers, but when you extrapolate it to the entire attack, it is truly elite. India have played eight Tests this year – in the entire history of Test cricket, only two sides have played as many matches in a single year with a lower bowling average for their seamers.

That’s right. The only two seam attacks in history who have managed to surpass what Kohli’s India have done this year, the only two who compare, are an England attack from an era of uncovered pitches, and a West Indies attack comprised variously of Michael Holding, Patrick Patterson, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh. Of course, you would be out of order to say any of India’s current team compare on an individual level to that great attack – though in the future, who knows – but as a collective, they are delivering similarly outstanding results.

The fact that they have done this with Jasprit Bumrah – the jewel in the crown, potentially the best player in the side, and the man with the lowest average in that scatter – injured for half of the matches this year, is astounding. Bumrah is still learning his red ball craft, but he is as destructive as they come in the current game, and the fact Kohli’s side have reached these levels largely in his absence is, frankly, terrifying for the rest of the world.

The wide ranging, versatile nature of the Indian pace unit is as important as any individual aspect, but the fundamental basis of the success of the attack is, well, that they attack. They take a wicket every 31 balls, a figure that in other words means a wicket roughly every 20 minutes of bowling. This is not a grind you down, bowl dry, wait for you to tie your own noose seam attack, but rather an ultra-attacking one who will come at you from the word go.

Whilst that overall ethic of aggression underpins all the success they have had, that versatility is key. India’s seamers this year have, on average, been the second fastest bowling attack in the world, a raw ferocity present in their work which has been absent from earlier iterations. And yet, that raw pace is backed up with skill; only the West Indies, a side regaining some of their earlier excellence, have swung the ball more than India this year. Not reliant on the hard and fast surfaces of Australia (the scene of their greatest triumph to date) nor the damp, grey conditions of England (the scene of their greatest frustration), this quartet have proven themselves capable of adapting to the conditions in front of them, emphasising the particular techniques and tactics which will see them succeed in whichever situation they find themselves.

This may all sound a bit sycophantic, but frankly the praise is completely deserved. India are on fire, and either through good fortune or careful planning have found themselves in possession of four absolutely top class fast bowlers who, on their day, each offer something unique and incisive to the cause. There is a general feeling beginning to swirl around this Indian side that history is theirs to make, that era-defining dominance could be around the corner. If – or when – they ascend to that level, then they can look back on this quarter of fast bowlers, and thank them for laying the groundwork.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Joe Root

As England suffer heavy defeat in the First Test in Mount Maunganui, Patrick Noone looks at some worrying trends in Joe Root’s recent Test dismissals

We need to talk about Joe Root. It was another failure for England’s captain as the tourists lost the First Test in Mount Maunganui, folding to an innings defeat with little more than a whimper. The concern for Root is not so much that he missed out again, rather the manner of his dismissal was representative of his recent form in the Test arena.

In the first innings of this match, Root took 20 balls to get off the mark, then finally scored two runs before immediately nicking off. That can happen – this was a flat pitch but a slow one; runs hardly flowed at any point throughout the five days and bowlers are allowed to bowl well. Root is an experienced enough player to be able to negotiate his way through those tough passages, but on this occasion he was unable to do so.

In Root’s previous Test before this series – England’s victory at the Oval in September – he scored arguably the scratchiest 50 of his career. Sure, it was still a half century, but for a batsman who used to make runscoring appear so natural, so easy, so effortless, Root’s recent run of form is becoming part of a wider worrying trend. It’s possible to find isolated reasons to excuse each knock in Root’s current streak of 14 innings without a century, but at what point do England recognise their skipper’s form is a cause for genuine concern?

It’s no secret that Root’s raw numbers have been in decline since he took over the captaincy from Alastair Cook in 2017. His average is fully 13 runs lower in his 34 Tests as captain than in the 53 he played before assuming the role, a record that compares hugely unfavourably with the other members of the ‘Big Four’, an elite group to which Root’s membership must surely have expired.

Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have all shown that it’s possible to become captain and improve as a batsman at the same, but for whatever reason, Root’s form has gone in the other direction and his technique has never looked more uncertain than it does now.

The barometer for a player of Root’s talent should be that elite level, but too often in recent matches, Root has been guilty of finding a peculiar way to get out, rather than doing whatever is necessary to stay in. In this very match, it took a snorter from Sam Curran with one of the few balls that misbehaved off the pitch to dismiss Williamson, while both of Root’s dismissals could generously be described as soft.

Colin de Grandhomme is not a bowler known for bouncing people out. In fact, before dismissing Root today, the all-rounder only had one Test wicket to his name from a delivery pitching shorter than 8m from the batsman’s stumps. The ball de Grandhomme bowled to get Root couldn’t even be said to have had the element of surprise, given he attempted a bouncer the previous delivery, only for it to be called a wide by the umpire. Root was nonetheless hurried far more than a batsman of his quality should be by a 124kph bouncer and could only tamely divert it to Tom Latham in the gully.

Maybe Root’s current travails are not directly correlated to his being burdened by the captaincy; cricket is rarely as binary as that and there are likely other factors at play – his shifting between number three and number four and the high turnover of openers above him in the batting order, to name two. However, it is hard to not think back to Smith’s performance during the recent Ashes series and wonder if Root could become similarly liberated if unencumbered by the mental fatigue that comes with leading the side.

None of this is to say that Root cannot rediscover his form, or that he is finished at the top level. The instinctive reaction is to think that he is far too talented a player to not rediscover the form that established him among the game’s elite. But right now, England need something to change after sleepwalking to another defeat and their need for Root the batsman is greater than their need for Root the captain.

For all the talk of England’s new era of prioritising Test cricket and putting a renewed emphasis on ‘traditional’ batting, this loss had many of the hallmarks of previous overseas defeats under Root’s stewardship. An inability to capitalise on a solid position with the bat, a lack of a penetration with the Kookaburra ball in unhelpful conditions, topped off by a mini collapse with the bat for good measure.

England would have hoped a new coach, some new faces and a well-earned break for Root during the T20 series might have added up to a rejuvenated skipper, fresh to steer the team through its next stage of development. One defeat is far too early to be writing off a new regime and while now might not be the time for kneejerk reactions, the question England have to answer is whether relieving Root of the captaincy would be quite as kneejerk as it might seem.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: Mitchell Santner

Patrick Noone analyses the New Zealand all-rounder’s maiden Test ton

If Day 3 was a case of England being ground down by New Zealand, Day 4 was little more than the remains of the tourists’ faint hopes of salvaging a win in this Test match being disdainfully cast aside by the ruthless Black Caps. Every team is allowed a bad day in Test cricket; even the very best sides endure hours in the field where a combination of bad luck, below par performances and poorly laid plans contrive to see themselves lose whatever initiative they might have had.

Bad days can be written off with the usual platitudes: take the positives, put it to the back of our minds, let’s go again tomorrow etc. However, when one bad day turns into two, there are few things more dispiriting for a fielding team. How often have we seen a partnership hold firm until stumps, only to be broken within the first few overs on the following day? For England, there was no such respite as BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner batted the best part of two sessions as this gruelling juggernaut of a Test match trudged along with an unwieldy grimness.

It was not the first instance in recent times that England have made heavy weather of dismissing the opposition’s lower order in Test cricket. Since the start of 2018, no team to have played five or more matches has a higher bowling average against batsmen from number eight onwards. The likes of Tim Southee, Mitchell Starc and Ravindra Jadeja have all recorded half centuries against Joe Root’s side in that time, while Jason Holder took tail wagging to new extremes with his 202* in Bridgetown back in January.

Santner didn’t quite reach those heights in terms of the volume of runs he scored, but his maiden Test century was an innings that represented a coming of age for him as a batsman. Across the 269 balls he faced, Santner faced a variety of challenges from England’s tiring attack. He was equal to just about all of them to the point that, by the end of innings, he was dictating terms and striking the ball around Bay Oval at will.

When Santner arrived at the crease at the start of the evening session on Day 3, England’s seam bowlers peppered him with short-pitched bowling. 91% of the balls the quicks bowled to Santner in that session were short. He looked uncomfortable at times and he was only able to score off four of the bouncers he faced but, as Mark Richardson said on commentary, it’s ok to look uncomfortable against the short ball, as long as you don’t get out to it.

And Santner survived, forcing England to recalibrate their plans to him this morning. Only 32% of the balls he faced in the first session today were short, and that allowed him to settle into his innings and play the ideal support role to Watling as New Zealand continued their steady accumulation of runs.

Santner showed much greater intent this morning, upping his attacking shot percentage from 12% on Day 3 to 24% in the first session of Day 4. Though he continued to score slowly, it was clear that he was becoming more comfortable at the crease, laying the platform for him to accelerate after lunch.

Buoyed by the freedom that New Zealand’s ever-increasing lead provided him, Santner cut loose in the afternoon session, attacking over half the balls he faced and hitting seven sweetly struck fours and four towering sixes between mid-off and midwicket. Three of those fours came off a single Stuart Broad over, taking Santner from 57 to 69 in the space of five balls – his previous 13 runs had come from 47 deliveries.

Santner then added the 31 runs he needed to reach three figures in just 36 balls; the holding pattern that the game had fallen into during the earlier part of the day was a distant memory. While Santner and Watling were merely working the ball around, England seemed happy enough that they weren’t being hurt by New Zealand. Santner’s acceleration changed all of that, taking the game even further away from England and looking every inch the genuine Test all-rounder.

Santner would ultimately fall for 126, attempting one big shot too many and holing out to long on. His partnership with Watling had lasted exactly 500 balls, yielded 261 runs and succeeded in batting England entirely out of the game. When the previous wicket of Colin de Grandhomme fell immediately after the tea break on Day 3, England still had an outside chance of claiming a first innings lead. By the time Santner was dismissed, New Zealand were 224 runs ahead.

It was an important innings for Santner who, despite having established himself as a key part of New Zealand’s white ball setup, has been in and out of the Test team. Seamers have dominated for the Black Caps in home Tests in the last two years, picking up 101 consecutive wickets before Santner himself emphatically broke the sequence himself by dismissing Dom Sibley, Rory Burns and Jack Leach in the last half hour of play. With the role of the spinner therefore something of a bit-part player, it has been Santner’s batting potential that has set him apart from the other contenders for the position, namely Todd Astle, Ish Sodhi and Ajaz Patel.

But being picked on potential is one thing, delivering on it is quite another. Today was the day when Santner arrived as a batting force in the longest form of the game, showing patience, skill and clinical aggression to cement his side’s commanding position in this match.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket