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CricViz Analysis: How Australia Retained the Ashes

Ben Jones analyses the key ways Justin Langer’s side came out on top.

Australia have retained the Ashes. For the first time since 2001, the Australian Test side will return home with the urn in their possession. Victory in Manchester took them to an unassailable 2-1 lead with just the final match to go. So how did they do it?

STEVE SMITH’S DOMINANCE

The defining difference. Steve Smith has been so far ahead of everyone else in this series with the bat that it’s almost not worth assessing it, but nevertheless: he’s scored the most runs, faced the most balls, batted the most minutes, averaged the most, and played the fewest false shots.

His dominance over English attacks has reached historic levels. No player has won more Player of the Match awards against one team than Smith has against England. Only two players have scored more runs at a higher average against a single opposition (Sutcliffe and Bradman, in Ashes contests).

There is a conversation to be had, with the appropriate clarity and context, about how close Smith is to Bradman, about whether he has a claim on his crown. There will be opinions aplenty, but the fact that even some voices can fall on the pro-Smith side shows the weight of the talent England were up against this summer. They won one Test – when Smith was out. Australia without Smith are a flawed batting unit propped up by an elite attack – with him, they looked almost unbeatable.

BOWLING DRY

In England, Australian seamers have rarely been inert. They have always had an inherent aggression and threat, but in this country they have struggled to make an impression on recent tours, lacking control and letting the games get away from them. Not this time. Their economy rate in this series was just 2.63rpo, the lowest they have managed since the 1970s. Their control has been excellent, particularly given the naturally attacking inclinations of the batsmen they’ve been facing.

The main reason for this has been Australia consistently resisting the temptation to bowl too full. The attraction when you come to England is to be too easily seduced by the lateral movement on offer, and for seamers to pitch up too close to the batsman, becoming floaty, and too easy to hit. Cummins and Hazlewood in particular have avoided this, leading the line for Australia to bowl 37% short balls, the most they’ve bowled in an away Ashes series from which that data is available.

There is an irony in this. In 2010/11, only the second overseas Ashes win of the 21st century, England dropped the series leading wicket-taker Steven Finn because he was leaking runs. Andrew Strauss spoke of the decision in assertive terms, with the confidence of a man with a plan and the willingness to make tough decisions in pursuit of its execution. If Australia do go on to the claim the series, then they’ll have taken a significant leaf out of the Strauss playbook.

BOWLING DEPTH

Australia’s much-vaunted rotation policy for the seamers has exaggerated their assets, but fundamentally, they just have an excellent pack of bowlers. It doesn’t matter how fresh they are if you’re pitting Craig Overton and Pat Cummins against each other as first change.

What the depth has done however is allow Australia to be dominant in almost every area of the bowling battle.

OVERCOMING CONDITIONS

It’s the sort of trite observation that gets trotted out by partisan observers, trying to hype or diminish achievements, but Australia really have had the worst of the conditions this summer. On average, they have been batting during periods when it was more difficult to do so; the overall PitchViz difficulty rating for Australian innings was 6.2/10, but for England, it was 5.8/10. A marginal difference, but a difference nonetheless.

It felt like the Headingley Test best encapsulated this, with Australia having to battle through the tough, rain-affected first day, before England managed to chase down 350+ as the pitch in Leeds flattened out significantly. On that occasion, the gulf in conditions was so great that England were able to take advantage, but across the series as a whole, Australia succeeded.

TOP CLASS CATCHING

Catches don’t always win matches, but Australia can thank their fielding prowess for a lot in this series. Barring the odd slip, they have taken their chances with aplomb – 82% of the chances which have came their way have been pouched, above the average for this form of that game and, crucially, higher than England’s percentage.

DOMINATING JOE ROOT

Ben Stokes may currently be the most feared of England’s batsmen, but Australia always celebrated Root’s wicket with the loudest roar. The fact that they have kept him so quiet has been hugely significant – Root has played eleven Test series of 4+ matches, and only once has he averaged less than the 30.87 he’s managed this series.

What’s more, they got him early. In the first 20 balls he faced in an innings, over this series, he played 29% false shots, the most early risk he’s ever displayed in a series. Never before has he been dismissed four times in his first 20 balls over a series. No touring team has targeted Root’s stumps as much as this Australia side since India in 2014, with 13% of the Aussie bowling projected to hit or clip. Root has a conversion issue, but Australia barely gave him chance to show it.

People take a surprising joy in deriding Root, perhaps because he’s English and prematurely vaunted as being truly elite, perhaps because he has fallen so much further below Smith’s efforts, but he is a generational talent and is extremely difficult to stop entirely. Australia had to be excellent to restrict his impact, and they were.

And you know what they say. Chop off the head of the snake…

ENGLAND’S BATTING WOES

….and the body will die. England’s entire batting line-up under-performed this summer, and that is neither new information, nor at all up for debate. Their collective average this summer has been just 23.10, the lowest for 20 years.

This could be explained by the excellence of the Australian attack, arguably the best (in terms of overall depth) to tour England since 2012. Yet even against what we would expect against opponents of such sustained quality, England have failed to meet the mark. The Expected Average of the deliveries England have faced – 26.0 – is still higher than their actual average of just 24.71. They have faced good bowling, but they have still underperformed even in that area; Australia bowled well, but the extent of England’s batting failing was out of their hands, and hugely significant.

ANDERSON’S INJURY

It has to be mentioned. Anderson may be advancing in years but he is a serious force in English conditions; over the last two home summers, he’s averaged 16.08 and has generally been the largest obstacle that touring teams have had to vault. At the time, to see him wandering off at Edgbaston after just four overs was concerning for the match at hand, but in retrospect it was the moment when the series tipped terminally in Australia’s favour. The tourists still had their Superhuman player, but England’s had been struck down.

RED BALL PREPARATION

On average, England’s batsmen faced 350 deliveries in red ball cricket in the four months before the first Test; for Australia, that figure was 502 deliveries. It’s an arbitrary figure but one which articulates a point many have honed in on – Australia prepared far better for the series than England did. That’s okay, in a broader context. England’s primary aim at the start of the summer was to win the World Cup, just as it should have been. For the greatest generation of English white ball cricketers to fail in the quest for the World Cup would have been a travesty. But, just as Australia have neglected their domestic 50 form for four years since the 2015 triumph, focusing on the Ashes, England have neglected their red ball side. They arrived undercooked – Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad aside, they never truly reached top temperature.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Pat Cummins to Joe Root

Ben Jones analyses the moment of the day.

It’s been quite windy in Manchester this week. Debris has blown across the field pretty regularly, from the party stand to the old pavilion, debris ranging from bin-bags to beach balls. Through a blend of miracles and meteorology, England have clung on in this Ashes series until this point. But today, as Pat Cummins wheeled away after dismissing Joe Root, there was to be no more hope. England had been blown away at Old Trafford.

It wasn’t just that England’s best batsman – on paper at least – had been sent packing first ball. It wasn’t just that it immediately followed the dismissal of Rory Burns. It was how a single delivery represented the thuddering authority of an attack which, ultimately, is too good for this group of England batsmen. The odd heist, sure. A good session, a positive day, absolutely. Sustained, secure, actual success? Not here. Not against this.

Cummins had chosen his moment. This delivery was the sort you try to bowl whenever you run in, the ball you’re holding in your mind as the ideal outcome of this whole endeavour, the best possible outcome. What better time to bowl it than to the England captain, in the opening over of the innings where, surely, this time, your team will regain the Ashes?

It was subtle in movement, rather than showy. It swung just 0.3° away from the England skipper in the air, movement only proved significant by what followed it. Deviating off the pitch, 0.6° of seam movement backed up the shape, emphasising the arc of the delivery and taking it past the straightest of bats from Root. That isn’t profound movement, but it’s enough to force the batsman into playing down the wrong line, particularly if you send it down at 139kph, particularly if you find it whilst hitting the top of off. When you place the ball in the right spot, you needn’t do much.

The first innings saw Australia force a lot of mistakes from Root. They tended to do so from good length deliveries and slightly further back, balls in that 7-8.5m region, just back of a length where deliveries are destined to go on and clip the bails. What Cummins did, with precision and control that is normally reserved for bowlers who have already found their rhythm a few overs into a spell, was immediately find the length which had troubled Root all throughout his earlier innings. Batsmen are always more vulnerable first up. They’re even more vulnerable if you go at them like this, and immediately press on a fresh wound.

The placement was the reason Root played at it. You have to be good to get Root playing in this Test; in the first innings here, he made it clear he was almost content to be bowled leaving the ball, desperate not to nick off. Some of the deliveries to which he played no shot were millimetres from the stumps. That isn’t how he typically goes about his business, but he has been in Manchester, trying to drag some of Stokes’ over-my-dead-body spirit over the Pennines.

To get him playing in that zone, you had to be perfect. Luckily for Cummins, perfection is well within his grasp.

Equally, he needed a touch of luck. The pitch had started to misbehave, the odd ball shooting along the floor and the odd ball leaping. Cummins’ exemplary control of line has always meant he’s brilliant at exploiting inconsistent bounce, but you do always need that stroke of good fortune that the straight ones are the ones which shoot. Today, he got it. As you can see below, plenty of other deliveries on the same length as Root’s wicket ended up going over the top of the stumps, deliveries which were no quicker than the wicket ball. Cummins was going to hit that good line until the pitch played along; it did as he wished first up.

Yet that luck had been coming. For no reward of his own, Cummins charged in for 10 overs yesterday, breaking his back when the pitch was being far less compliant. According to our Expected Wickets model, his spell would typically have taken 1.3 wickets, the highest figure for a wicketless spell of that length at Old Trafford; indeed, of all the wicketless spells bowled in England since 2006 (of ten overs or less), only one has a higher xW total, James Anderson at Trent Bridge last year, against India. Cummins had put in a shift that was deserving of something more tangible than simply building pressure for Hazlewood to capitalise upon. His rewards for that afternoon had disappeared off on the wind, and this evening they circled back around, arriving at just the right moment. The candle blew out.

And that, in truth, has been the pattern of this series. Headingley was an astonishing effort, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen without luck being on your side. Lyon’s fumble, the missed LBW, those are the moments when you’re dining out on your good fortune. Matches like this are where you have to pay the bill. Australia are not a great side; their batting is, Smith apart, barely even good. But they are better than England, and for the hosts to get close they needed the luck on their side. It was, and then it wasn’t.

The Ashes might not be back in Australia just yet, but they’ve checked in at the airport, they’re waiting for the gate announcement, and they’ve changed their watch to AEST. WinViz gives the hosts just a 20% chance of getting out of Manchester alive, and surely another northern great escape is beyond them here. Barring a second miracle in two matches, England will lose the Ashes on home soil for the first time in a generation. It will be fair, and it will be deserved.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Cummins and Hazlewood

For every ‘Fab Four’, there’s a Lennon and McCartney.

Australia’s attack has, over the last few years, been a relatively stable affair. The established quartet of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon were the backbone of the side, even as batsmen came and went with relative frequency. It’s rare a bowling unit is so consistently selected that they get a nickname, almost a brand, but The Fab Four were afforded just that credit.

Yet this series, they’ve been broken up. For the first time in a while, Australia have had those four bowlers fit and available but have opted against selecting their most tried and tested unit. Until this Test that is, and for a while it looked like a mistake.

Mid-afternoon today, the game was drifting. Nathan Lyon was bowling too straight to Joe Root, allowing him to nurdle and accumulate with far too much ease on a turning track. Mitchell Starc was spraying it about, unable to get his radar right on a pitch where inaccuracy was always going to be punished. England were batting through the precious time that Australia need to force victory. The draw was favourite with WinViz, and it looked increasingly like rain was going to have a greater influence on this match than any one player. Then, shortly before tea, Tim Paine threw the ball to Pat Cummins.

Cummins’ spell, which started with three overs before the interval and then followed up with seven more after, was a colossal effort. He has never bowled as many overs on the trot in a Test innings, saving his moment of peak stamina for an Ashes Test threatening to wander away from Australia on a flat deck, with a four man attack if not crumbling then beginning to creak.

What’s more astounding is that this wasn’t a spell of third gear, line and length trundling. It was accurate, of course, but this was a spell of fiery, top gear fast bowling. An average speed of 139.74kph across those ten overs made it the fastest spell by an anyone other than Starc in this Test. Backing that accuracy and pace up with considerable movement off the deck (an average of 0.89° of seam movement, well above the match average) made it almost unplayable.

And so it seemed to England’s batsmen. In that 60-ball period, he forced 20 mistakes from Root and Burns, a third of his deliveries bringing an edge or a miss. The ball was leaping off the splice of Burns’ bat and looping into gaps, and when it wasn’t, the ball was flying past the edge. At no point did either Root or Burns look comfortable, and they were both absolutely set having batted all day. Cummins was making it look like they’d just walked out to bat.

And yet England almost got through it. Somehow, the onslaught from Cummins wasn’t enough to bring the breakthrough; he had hammered away at England and, for all his effort got nothing. Eventually, Burns couldn’t keep out a sharp short ball, but not one from the hand of Cummins.

The issue for England was that off the back of this onslaught, rather than there being a collective reduction in pressure, Australia went again. Their best bowler, Hazlewood, came and pushed at the open door – or rather, ran at it with full force.

Across this series, Hazlewood has pitched 45% of his deliveries on a good line and length. He doesn’t mess about. If you’re a batsman – particularly a right-hander, particularly one called Jason – then he’ll be at you, from the get go. As a bowler, he’s more than capable of getting you out with pressure alone, the cumulative suffocation of good ball after good ball. Rash shots follow, bad balls get wickets. We’ve seen it too many times to mention.

Yet today, he didn’t need to get wickets with the bad balls, because at the end of this outrageous cumulative pressure created by Cummins, he simply produced two absolute jaffas to remove Root and Roy. The first had a Wicket Probability of 33%, the second 32%; they were the two most dangerous balls he bowled all innings. With the light beginning to dim, the pressure on England heightening as the follow-on target became a more pertinent topic of conversation on air and in the stands, Australia’s attack leader unleashed two savage, missile-like full balls that would be good enough to take a wicket at almost any moment. Given all that had come before, Hazlewood could have burst England’s balloon with a pin. He opted for a machine gun.

There has been a lot of discussion around the selection of Australia’s seamers this summer. The deliberate tactical choice to try and “bowl dry”, limit the scoring of the opposition through accurate, slightly more defensive bowling, has been enough to keep Starc out of the side up to this point. The injury record of James Pattinson has been a hurdle to get over, albeit one identified well in advance. Peter Siddle has been a noble foil, and has completely performed his role as assigned, but has at times looked a little lacking in terms of penetration. Each of the likely support bowlers has had a mark against their name, some bigger than others.

But what we saw today was that, ultimately, it’s Cummins and Hazlewood who are the beating heart of this Australian attack. Their skills, versatile and durable in all conditions (as far as we can see), are strong enough that the call on that third seamer is not as pressurised as it could be. They bang away in the corridor outside off, they get just enough movement through the air and off the pitch but are, in no way, reliant on that movement. The luxury of being able to pick and choose horses for courses backup bowlers is testament to Australia’s quick bowling depth, but Cummins and Hazlewood stand far and away above the rest, and with them in the side Australia will, barring disaster, rarely need to rely on the others. When the vocals are as perfect as this, you don’t worry who is on drums.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Steve Smith’s Double Century

Ben Jones analyses the latest epic in the Australian’s canon.

And so, he rolls on, increasingly seeming like nothing can stop him. Ban him, he returns. Hit him, he comes back. Yesterday, England all but dismissed him, before the reprieve from Leach’s no-ball. Even when they get him out, Steve Smith keeps batting.

For England, it was a grim day, but not an unexpected one. From the moment that Steve Smith walked out – and the equivalent moment in every other Test he plays – an air of inevitability draped itself over proceedings. He was never going to do anything other than pile up runs, he never looks like doing anything other than dominating.

One potential reason for this is that, above all, Smith doesn’t make mistakes. Other batsmen batter the opposition attacks more mercilessly, or demonstrate a wider range of technical skill, but few are able to occupy the crease for so long while giving so few chances away. This double century was no different. Just 9.3% of Smith’s shots in this Test were edges or misses, the lowest percentage he’s recorded for any of his six centuries in England. It is a flat deck, and you would expect most players to be batting with reduced risk, but the point stands. He batted with less risk than we’ve ever seen him do in this country.

Going deeper, the reason for this security appears to be a clarity of mind, a complete understanding of how he wants to score his runs. The cliché of Smith leaving balls outside off stump only to then nurdle the straighter ball away is accurate, and demonstrates this clarity. Don’t do one thing, so that you can do something else. Simple.

We can see this self-denial elsewhere. As is often the case, at Old Trafford Smith didn’t score through the ‘V’. He doesn’t play straight, he doesn’t need to. His scoring areas are mid-wicket and square leg, and through the covers, 154 runs of his runs came through those zones; he knows what he wants to do, so clearly, and is willing to let everything else go in order to play in that way. His two main shots are that high handed drive, executed almost entirely with his arms rather than his wrists, and the nudge off his pads. Two shots, fired from a gun with a seemingly endless supply of bullets.

That clarity of thought is equally evident in his shot selection. Against England’s battery of right-arm seamers, he was completely in control of when he wanted to attack – essentially, only if they erred away from a good length. Almost none of his attacking intent was against length balls, keen to either rotate or leave the ball in that zone, admit defeat and let the bowler win that battle. He was always going to win the war.

The pattern was different against the spinners, but the clarity was the same. Against Leach, Denly and Root, he would attempt the odd forceful stroke off a length, but the vast majority were when the spinners drifted too full, and Smith could attack with little to no risk.

His clarity of thought contrasts strongly with the confusion he creates in the minds of the opposition. England weren’t particularly good at approaching the task of bowling to him in this match, but Smith does funny things to you. Just 29% of the deliveries they sent down to him were on a good length, the sort of deliveries you’d normally want as your staple; he has never faced a lower proportion of good length balls in a Test match. Smith makes bowling teams treat him differently, deviating from the plans which are deemed the default, moving to short ball tactics, leg theory, hiding the ball. He convinces people not to bowl in good areas.

Smith will likely make at least two more centuries before the end of this series, such is his current level of output. He has achieved a level of batting control and execution that few thought possible in the modern era, and he has done it through calm, assured, single-minded focus on playing in one particular way.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Joe Denly

Ben Jones analyses the troubles of the England batsman.

Today was never going to be easy for Joe Denly. In the field for two (intermittent) days, watching Steve Smith pile up run after idiosyncratic run, and was asked to go out and face a Tricky Little Session just before the close. Australia’s attack was fresh, and confident from a day of success and some late evening slogging. It was never going to be easy.

What’s more, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are a fearsome opening pair, and the fact they weren’t deemed automatic selections for Australia’s best XI this summer shows the depth of the tourists fast bowling stocks right now. This evening, Starc was slightly wayward, but rapid and above 140kph, whilst Hazlewood was typically controlled and accurate, in the channel outside off with 52% of his deliveries. Backing them up, Pat Cummins as first change, arguably Australia’s most impressive all-round bowler.

Denly looked, as many batsmen do, vulnerable at the start of his innings. He was flashing outside off at balls which weren’t there to drive, forcing himself to play in a bubble under his eyes, but still not making clean contacts. Errors like this happen early on, while you’re getting set. The issue was the extent of this vulnerability, with Denly displaying a level of insecurity at the crease which has been essentially unmatched throughout this series. This evening, he played a false shot to 50% of his first 20 balls. Only one knock this series from an Englishman has seen a higher percentage at the start of an innings; Denly, in the first innings at Headingley. Twice, against quality bowling, he has looked unable to cope.

The challenge was stiff. Yet Denly wasn’t up to the challenge, deflecting a Cummins short ball to Matthew Wade at short leg, where the former gloveman took an excellent catch. There was joy and celebration over the brilliance of Wade, but there was sense that Denly was going to last much longer had the chance been spilled. It was an innings plagued with inevitability, and not in the way that Smith’s was.

Unfortunately for England, this sort of risk isn’t new. Denly’s record in terms of control has been an ongoing issue across this series; only Jason Roy has played a higher proportion of false shots for England than Denly this summer, and the Surrey man has been opening the batting throughout, facing the new ball. Denly has not exactly been coming in after 60 overs with the ball old and soft, but he’s still been afforded the luxury of a slight buffer from those opening assaults. To be batting in the middle order, and to be missing or edging the ball almost twice an over, is simply not sustainable at this level.

What’s more, Denly is not an opening batsman. His white ball focus may not be quite so ostentatious as Roy’s, but it’s similar in the way it affects perception of the player’s overall career. He hasn’t opened in red ball cricket for the last four years, his notable and considerable success coming both down the order, and in the shorter forms of the game. Across his career, he averages 33.44 when opening the batting. There is little evidence that he has the ability to step up.

His batting average in Test cricket, 22.76, is very low. Too low, for a man whose primary role is to score runs. Of the 70 men to play for England as often as Denly has since 2000, only two specialist batsmen average less – Graeme Hick and Adam Lyth. To compound this, we can see that his poor performances can’t be explained away by excellent bowling, given that the Expected Average of the balls that Denly has faced is 25.9. Good bowling, but he’s under-performing compared to what we’d expect.

His most successful innings in Test cricket – the rearguard with Joe Root at Leeds, which laid the platform for one of the great chases – came at four. In a way, it’s a compliment from the selectors that they saw such potential in that knock that they backed Denly to succeed further up the order. In some respects it was admirable trust in a player that they clearly like.

Yet in other respects, it is the latest decision that betrays the slightly muddled thinking which has been a consistent theme in England’s recent selection. Perhaps there is a reluctance – an understandable one – to trust domestic form as being indicative of international potential, and England are keen to focus on character and temperament, and are thus keen to keep Denly in the set-up.

Given the weather forecast, the Ashes may well still be alive as the series returns to London next week. If it does, England could well be required to swallow a significant amount of pride, and bid farewell to a man who is clearly well liked and respected within the set-up, but who increasingly looks like a player no longer deserving of his place in it.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Stuart Broad v David Warner

Ben Jones analyses the battle between two top class competitors.

It’s a relatively select and elite group of players who’ve appeared in each of the last five Ashes series; James Anderson, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Nathan Lyon, Steve Smith, Stuart Broad, and David Warner. To be involved in such a high profile series for such a long period of time is a fair indicator of ability. Staying in the system for that long shows that you’ve got something about you.

What it allows as well are for long, fluctuating rivalries to build up. Return series, the challenges of touring and the comforts of home, the varying contexts; all of these things contribute to the texture of great contests. So it is with Stuart Broad and David Warner.

Before this series, the rivalry wasn’t exactly well balanced. Ahead of this summer, Broad’s record against Warner was straightforwardly poor. Five dismissals at an average of 65.60 made pretty grim reading, little indication that Broad was going to be able to limit the effectiveness of a man in extremely good white ball form. A dominant IPL, a dominant World Cup, looked set to be joined by a dominant Ashes series.

And yet that emphatically hasn’t been the case. Warner has been almost unable to play Broad, even to lay bat on ball, and has been dismissed five times in seven innings at his hand. 40% of the deliveries Broad has sent down to him have brought a false shot, an edge or a miss almost every other ball. Having been tilted so far in favour of the batsman, the contest has swung back in favour of the bowler, and dramatically so.

One noticeable technique Warner has adopted is batting further down the track; you would imagine that this is a decision taken as a means of countering the swing which is so common in England, the swing which has caused Warner so much trouble in the past. This series, he’s batting almost 40cm further down than he has previously done in England. That is a pronounced difference, a concerted effort to change his technique and adapt to the specific challenge of batting in this country.

However, it does seem to have affected his ability to attack the ball. He has attacked just 11% of the deliveries he’s faced in this series, less than half of the 30% he managed in 2015, and still well below the 22% he recorded in 2013. Perhaps, by batting further down the track, Warner has restricted his ability to punish width with quite the same efficiency. Perhaps it’s affected his instinctive understand of the geometry of his own batting, and with it his judgement of which are the good balls to go after. He’s never scored slower in England.

This will have been exaggerated by England’s clever strategy against Warner, ensuring they attack him from the correct angle, from the get go. 100% of the deliveries Broad has bowled to Warner in this series have been from around the wicket, obviously the highest figure he’s ever recorded against the Aussie opener. Across his career Warner’s averages against right-arm seamers coming over and round the wicket are actually rather similar (52.10 and 45.78), but England clearly spotted something they wanted to exploit.

However, we shouldn’t just dwell on the negative, because it’s fair to attribute a fair bit of agency to Broad in this particular battle. The deliveries he’s bowled have, fundamentally, been really good balls. The Expected Strike Rate of the balls he’s delivered to Warner would, according to our model, take a wicket on average every 33 balls – that makes his bowling this series the most threatening he’s ever been against Warner.

Broad’s also been very good at not feeding Warner’s strength against the short ball. Just 11% of his bowling to Warner has been pitched further than 8 metres from the batsman’s stumps, the lowest figure Broad’s ever recorded against him. Keeping him driving and prodding, in consistently difficult conditions, was a simple and effective plan which Broad executed very well.

Warner is made of stern stuff, and is precisely the sort of character who’ll see this as an opportunity rather than a tragedy. A defiant century after hitting Broad out of the new ball attack doesn’t feel likely, given his current form, but few would doubt he has the temperament and ability. And the fact that it’s a possibility is evidence of the credit he’s got in the bank, because nobody is suggesting Australia should drop Warner. He’s in for the series, even with Broad licking his lips. The fact that Australia could well win 3-1 and have their second best batsman (on paper) suffer such a drought is a rather surprising turn of events. For England, their legend getting the better of Australia’s attack-dog could well be consolation only – regardless, the turnaround in fortunes has been remarkable.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Joe Root’s Conversion Issues

Ben Jones analyses the England skipper’s problem with converting 50s into 100s.

Joe Root is an all-time England great. Only two Englishman to have made as many Test runs as him can boast a superior average – those two batsmen are Wally Hammond and Len Hutton. Esteemed companions, if ever there were.

So why doesn’t he make hundreds?

This is an exaggeration, of course. Root has 16 Test tons, an immense effort given that many were made in tough conditions against elite attacks, in an era where ball dominates bat like we haven’t seen in generations.

Yet if you ask the average cricket fan to assess Root in one line, as soon as they have mentioned his excellence, they’ll likely turn to his difficulty turning starts into centuries – and with good reason. In the history of Test cricket, there have been 129 players to notch up 10+ centuries over the course of their careers. Of those 129, only five have a worse conversion rate than Root.

It’s strange that a player of Root’s ability is going on to make a century only once every four times he passes fifty. When you compare that to the other members of ‘The Big Four’ (a dubious term but one used enough to warrant examination), you see what an outlier Root’s conversion rate is; if Steve Smith or Virat Kohli pass 50, they’re more likely to make a century than not.

There are lots of theories surrounding the issue. Some have suggested that it’s an issue of mental fatigue, a completely understandable consequence of his punishing all-format schedule. Others have been less sympathetic, instead blaming Root’s more aggressive intent, an eagerness to score which leaves him vulnerable to loose shots. Some have gone so far as to actually question Root’s ability as a batsman. Of course, ability does come into it – making hundreds is, put simply, harder than making fifties – but Root gets to 50 so regularly that questioning his skill feels like going down a blind alley.

So really – why does Root struggle to convert?

Well, first of all it’s fair to say that converting in England is hard. Since 2000, New Zealand and Zimbabwe are the only countries in the world with a lower conversion rate for all batsmen, than England. Root may have individual issues, but it’s important to acknowledge that he’s working in tough conditions.

With that in mind, how much does the caricature of Root actually hold up? Let’s look at the idea of him being “loose”. On the face of it, there’s no real evidence that he plays with any greater risk than the average batsmen; he edges or misses the ball almost exactly as often as you would expect. It’s a little surprising for a player of his calibre, but it’s by no means a genuine concern.

However, that false shot percentage doesn’t fluctuate particularly over the course of an innings; regardless of how many balls he’s faced, Root never appears to be properly in. His false shot percentage never rises far above that overall average of 13.3%, even when he’s just arrived at the crease, but it never drops too far below either. He seems to bat with a similar level of risk throughout his innings.

When you compare this to those other elite batsmen, the issue becomes particularly clear. During the first 180 balls Root faces, his false shot percentage is well above that of Kohli and co. After then, his record aligns itself with the others, but it seems to take him far longer to get “set” at the crease than his colleagues.

Again, there could be context around this. The majority of Root’s test career has been played in England against a Dukes ball, in tough conditions for batting. As shown below, more false shots are played in England than the average throughout the innings; in this light, it’s understandable that his false shot percentage remains higher, for longer.

However, the other implication in the word “loose” is the idea that Root is too attacking – and this may give greater indication for why he rarely looks well set. Root is, indeed, a fair bit more attacking than the average batsman, attacking 27% of deliveries in Tests compared to the average of 23%. Equally, he rotates the strike more than most top level players in this format, as shown below – Root’s intent to score is greater than other players of similar ability. He’s busy.

Yet he isn’t particularly loose when he’s attacking. When Root plays an attacking stroke, he averages 65.64 runs-per-dismissal; that’s good, given that a typical top six batsman playing those same strokes averages 58.47. It suggests a solid judgement of which balls he should attack, and the ability to execute those strokes.

However, this judgement and ability rises and falls considerably throughout his time in the middle.

By comparing Root to that elite group (plus the oft-neglected Cheteshwar Pujara), we can see that when he’s starting his innings the England captain mixes it with the best. En route to his half-century, Root’s attacking shots average roughly as many runs-per-dismissal as these other top class batsmen.

And yet, as we know, the issue for Root comes after he’s reached that half-century; at this point, the records diverge. Root goes from averaging 85 with his attacking strokes, to averaging 45.

A fall of some kind seems to be understandable. Pujara’s restraint allows his average to remain flawless, but everyone else’s record takes a hit. The problem for Root is that for him the size of the hit, a drop of 40 runs-per-dismissal, is only comparable to Williamson, whose average was much better to start with.

It appears that this is the most obvious difference between Root and the genuine elite. In that period between the two landmarks, he gets out playing attacking shots far, far more regularly than other top class batsmen. That’s the problem.

If we try to look beyond the data, you could infer that this is the result of fatigue – both mental and physical. Root has expressly stated that he wants to play attacking cricket, but he has also shown that, when fresh and at his best, this is blended with exceptional shot selection, knowing which balls he’s capable of dispatching and which he isn’t. It feels fair to assert that during particularly dense periods, that judgement falls away.

This isn’t an attack on Root in the slightest, just an attempt to explain an odd aspect of an excellent player’s record. His average is excellent, his contributions consistent albeit dwindling slightly of late. His 77 in the chase at Headingley shows that even when he doesn’t reach those personal milestones, he is regularly doing top class work for his team.

With that caveat, you still suspect that if Root could maintain a little more of that early circumspection, he could become even better than he already is, and get back on that level he was working at when ‘The Big Four’ nomenclature first arrived. That’s what is at stake here, for all in English cricket – squeezing every last run out of a special talent and a top class performer.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Using Reviews

Ben Jones analyses how Test teams use their reviews.

It was one of a few moments which defined the climax to the Headingley Test. Nathan Lyon, down on his haunches, imploring the umpire to give Ben Stokes out, the Englishman struck on the pad by a spinning, drifting delivery, plumb in front. Lyon’s hands waved, he sunk lower into his stances, then as the penny dropped that Umpire Wilson would remain unmoved, he fell backwards.

It looked dead – it was dead. DRS replays confirm that had Australia reviewed the decision, they would have had their man. Except, of course, they didn’t review it, because they couldn’t. They had wasted their final remaining review on a speculative call in the previous over, an LBW appeal for Jack Leach which even to the naked eye pitched well outside leg. Australia’s desperation to win lost them the match.

An umpiring error was to blame, primarily, but Australia’s misuse of the review cost them the match just as clearly. Reviews, whether you like it or not, are a skill like any other. Some teams are good at it, some teams aren’t, just like slip catching, in-fielding, and getting the ball to reverse.

The irony is that over the last two years, Australia have actually been rather solid at reviews, among the best in the world when it comes to overall success. 28% of their reviews have led to the decision being reversed, the same figure as the average for all teams. That places them as the fourth best reviewing side in the world, just below the leading trio of West Indies, England, and Pakistan.

When you look just at batting reviews, Australia are similarly bang in the middle. On average, if a batsman is given out and he reviews it, there’s a 35% chance it’ll be overturned, and again Australia just match this figure. Bangladesh have an astonishingly good record in terms of overturning decisions.

As a fielding unit, if you review a decision then 22% of the time you’ll have it overturned. Australia are below that rate, but only slightly. They have form for being better than Cummins/Paine/Leach incident.

These international numbers can be skewed of course, and don’t offer a completely foolproof way to assess this as a skill. Speculative reviews at the end of innings could alter things, but over a large enough sample you’d suggest that such opportunities will smooth over any anomalies.

The point is that just like any other skill, the ability to review well can degrade under pressure. Players with otherwise bucket hands can shell the softest chance when there are 10 runs to win, batsman can miss straight ones when the heat is on. Just like that, a player’s ability to judge a review well is decreased under pressure. Which is what happened on Sunday.

Perhaps it’s time then that players took this more seriously. Are teams practising reviewing? Are batsmen being bombarded in the nets with deliveries targeting their pads, being asked to make a call on if it’s hitting? Are bowlers watching their deliveries back and being forced to re-assess their heated initial decisions. Is there any level of training at all for a skill which could, as we saw at Headingley, decide matches, define careers? Perhaps there is, but some teams are still significantly better than others. In a sporting landscape of aggregated marginal gains, of stealing a march on your opponents wherever you can, this feels a small new area for savvy teams to get ahead. Tim Paine might agree.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Jofra Archer’s Five-fer

Ben Jones analyses another big day for the young quick.

Lord’s was the set-up, Leeds was the punchline. Some, bizarrely, watched Jofra Archer’s performance in the Second Test and saw only a relatively barren wickets column. All those bouncers, all that pace, was just for show, with no substance behind it. Well, the first day of this Test rather nipped that in the bud.

Lord’s was a flat pitch, albeit with inconsistent bounce, and Archer recognised this. As everyone knows, he bowled with extreme pace, his average speed in the first innings almost 142kph. Shortly before he hit Steve Smith on the head, he bowled the fastest over by an Englishman in the entire CricViz database, which goes back to 2006. On that pitch which, if we’re honest, was a tough surface for bowlers, Archer did what he had to do – bend his back, and throw the ball down with flames on it.

Yesterday, he also did what he needed to do. It was a grey, foul day in Leeds, the players on and off the field throughout. Whether such days benefit batsmen or bowlers more is up for debate, but the actual conditions themselves were about as far in the favour of the bowlers as you can imagine. The ball was swinging 1.22°, seaming 0.9° (both above average for Test cricket in England), the moisture in the air perhaps helping the lateral movement, the damp aiding the nip off the pitch. Unlike at Lord’s, the conditions were offering the bowlers something – and Archer took it.

With that movement available, he went down through the gears in terms of pace, and pitched the ball up. His pace, reduced by 4kph from last match, was no longer the main weapon. In that Test, 18% of his deliveries were full of length; on day one at Leeds, it was 44%.

When he needed to, when he sensed that something was happening, Archer was still capable of cranking it up. The ball from which dismissed David Warner was 142.88kph, the second quickest Archer had bowled all day at that point. It was in and of itself an excellent delivery, but more importantly it showed that Archer’s lack of pace was not simply a result of being overbowled at Lord’s, but rather an intelligent tactical choice from a man in his second ever Test. It was a conscious choice to adapt to the situation at hand.

The sort of bowling we saw from Archer yesterday has implications well beyond this game, or even this series. Joe Root is yet to really stamp his mark on this Test side. He’s been captain for over two years, and has had plenty of success, as well as plenty of failures, but the lack of a clear playing style is notable. Yet the hand he’s been dealt – and experienced pair of legendary seamers, who know exactly how they want to go about their business – makes any sort of tactical expression quite hard. Broad and Anderson know what they are, and know what they’re good at.

Archer, it seems, can be anything Root wants him to be. On a dead wicket, he can bowl rockets and wait for inconsistent bounce to do the damage; in traditional English conditions, he can pitch it up, hit the seam, and exploit the lateral movement while saving his real pace for another spell, another day.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: Luck

Ben Jones analyses a day of mixed fortunes.

“You make your own luck”.

“I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

“The more I practice, the luckier I get”.

There are lots of quotes about luck. They’re mostly nonsense.

***

Today was a strange day in Leeds. The opening two sessions of this third Test match – the morning and afternoon, effectively rolled into one rain interrupted block – were brief affairs, conducted with umbrellas at half-mast and the atmosphere similarly confused.

Having opted to bowl first, under grey clouds that could have kept Turner busy for a summer or two, England did everything they are constantly being told to. Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, English seamers at opposing ends of their careers, ensured that they weren’t going to suffer from not pitching it up.

In those two initial curtailed sessions, they pitched up 55% of their deliveries; never in the entire CricViz database have England ever bowled fuller in the first two sessions of a Test match. “Bowl fuller, and the ball takes the edge and doesn’t pass the bat” – the battle cry of the ex-professional, but tell that to England’s opening duo. They won’t react kindly, you’d think. In those two sessions, 26% of England’s deliveries missed the bat; 9% caught the edge.

Edges from Marcus Harris and Usman Khawaja brought a wicket in each of those shortened passages, but otherwise, nothing was doing. England’s luck was out.

David Warner played a false shot to 53% of the deliveries he faced in his first 30 balls – never before has he been less in control at the start of an innings. This is a man who darts, who dashes, wants to take on the opposition and put them under pressure. He’s never looked riskier, never closer to dismissal.

It was a fever which spread to the team as a whole. In the first 25 overs of play today, Australia played 34% false shots; more often than twice an over, Tim Paine’s batsmen weren’t in control of their shots. Since records began in 2006, Australia have batted in 259 Test innings; only three times have they played more false shots at this stage. In those innings Australia were bowled out for 60, 47, and 88, in performances which to varying degrees precipitated fundamental change in Australian cricket.

According to our Expected Wickets model, the deliveries England bowled in those opening two “sessions” would normally have taken 2.67 wickets, but only two came. All those misses, all those edges, were failing to translate themselves to actual ink in the scorebook.

Essentially, we were all witness to the sort of performances which sees Aussie captains placed on notice, Dukes balls introduced to Shield cricket, values questioned. Except, well, Australia weren’t losing wickets.

Yet.

There’s a reason that Fortuna has always been linked with the wheel. Sometimes you’re on top, and sometimes you’re at the bottom, but you always come round to the other side. The point is, luck swirls. It’s a mischievous, disloyal companion that arrives, dictates your life and carries you along on a wave then deserts you. If you build your success on its presence, your success won’t last long.

There were no wickets from the first 46 plays and misses today. Then, all of a sudden, there were two from the next three.

According to our model, Stuart Broad’s dismissal of Travis Head was almost unavoidable. It had a 12.3% chance of taking a wicket, making it the most threatening ball of the day; 137kph, seaming a remarkable 2.1° off the pitch, clipping the top of off, an absolute jaffa and just the sixth ball Head faced.

And yet even in this moment of clear, obvious bowling quality, there’s luck lurking in the background. Had David Warner, or any well-set batsman faced that same delivery, it may have been met with a straight bat, led to nothing, and we all decry the misfortune of another English bowler.

Matthew Wade didn’t deserve to get out, really. He defended adequately, only for the ball to bounce around, searching for the stumps until it eventually found it’s target. He was unlucky, the victim of a turning tide.

In the morning/afternoon session, we saw a wicket every 19 false shots. England were floundering, cursing their luck as the edges didn’t carry, the misses not even getting that far. That was their bad luck in its rawest terms, and then, as it always does, it turned. In the evening session, we saw one every six false shots. England were on top.

Ben Stokes’ junk full toss to Labuschagne had a 1.3% chance of taking a wicket. That’s nothing, and yet it dismissed the best batsman of the day, an undeserving dismissal in fading light.

Yet Stokes’ Expected Wickets figure today was 1.06. He has, cumulatively across his day, done enough to have a tally in that wickets column. His work, across a period of time, deserved reward. Such is luck.

According to our model, England should have taken about four wickets in the extended evening session. They took eight. By stumps, England were outperforming Expected Wickets. The pendulum had swung, and Australia had been hard done by.

Since the data has been recorded, there have been 531 Tests and in only eight of them has Day One seen a higher percentage of false shots. It’s a reasonable reflection of the day that Australia were bowled out. In this sense, justice was done, but only as part of a larger chunk of time; for England, the passage where Australia fell apart was in large part the result of good fortune.

Whether luck evens out is more a philosophical question than a purely mathematical one. Statisticians have put forward very convincing arguments that it doesn’t, that luck flows the way of the rich and the powerful just as it does in “real” life. It feels cold, and hard, and true. But there’s a romantic alternative, an alternative philosophical path, which we can take together.

We aren’t in control of our lives, you know. Everything that happens, each of our actions, is in constant conversation with a thousand other things, simultaneously, impacting silently on every single other thing. Some of those things we can see, but most of them we can’t. Some people explain it with religion, some with politics, but in sport we tend to call it luck.

The only quote about luck worth listening to is one from the English author EM Forster. He said, “There is much good luck in the world, but it is luck. We are none of us safe. We are children, playing or quarrelling on the line.” We stand, take our portion of fortune when we reach the front of the queue then go about our lives. Today Australia feasted, then succumbed to famine; England, the inverse. It’s the ebb and flow of Test cricket; the ebb and flow of sport; the ebb and flow of life.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.