CricViz Analysis: Cheteshwar Pujara – A Batsman Transformed?

CricViz analyst Ben Jones assesses whether the success of India’s No.3 is due to a technical change, or just their class shining through.

Edgbaston, 2018. It’s not quite as evocative as the date which preceded it by 13 years, but for Indian cricket, it could come to be as prestigious a moment.

On the 1st of August, India dropped Cheteshwar Pujara.

They opted to pick KL Rahul, the swaggering talent of half-fulfilled wonder, ahead of their hard-knock proven No.3. It was a staggering decision, one that left the press box and the stands aghast. One senior journalist in the room, when the decision was announced, exclaimed “where the **** is Pujara?”. It was a sentiment shared by many. Even now, it feels like a bizarre decision, and that may have cost India that Test. They lost it by 31 runs. Rahul made 17 runs in the match.

Yet if you proffer this opinion, that the decision to drop Pujara was a catastrophic error, you will be met with resistance from many who insist that the dropping was the best thing to ever happen to him. They insist that he changed his technique as a result of the dropping, altering the issue that had prevented him from completely dominating away from home in the way he had in India.

It’s fair to offer this. Since being dropped, and then subsequently returning for the following Test at Lord’s, Pujara has faced 2,035 deliveries, more than any other batsman in the world. He’s faced more deliveries and made his runs at a better average than his captain.He has become a colossus, ascending to a level others have been unable to match.

So, it feels appropriate to ask the question: has Pujara actually changed anything?

The first thing to isolate is that the problem for Pujara, an untrusted tourist, was that people didn’t think he could play the moving ball away from home. Whilst this isn’t completely borne out in the data, the numbers do point towards a clear issues against pace – specifically, an issue against good length deliveries from seamers.

This feels so incongruous, considering the caricature of Pujara. He is a wall, a Dravidian descendant who can bat for days – surely his resistance can’t be undone by the most basic of things, the ball on an awkward length? How can a man so solid average less than the 20.79 that top seven batsmen have averaged against those deliveries in the last two years? Yet the data suggests that, despite our impressions, this has been a flaw.

Equally, since the the Birmingham rejection, that record has altered significantly. His career average against pace in SENA countries (28.89) has risen to 37.33. It’s not huge, but it’s allowed him to dominate.

He has improved against all lengths, more solid in all areas, but most crucially he’s improved against those good length balls.

There are a number of things one could do to counter this kind of issue. You could bat more or less out of your crease, in the manner of Virat Kohli. The Indian captain has taken to striking the ball on average 2.2m away from his stumps during this series, whilst others like Ajinkya Rahane have opted to make the most of their back foot strength and sit deep. However, Pujara appears to have done neither.

An alternative option is that he’s playing the ball into different areas. If the batsman is looking to score in alternative areas of the field, and is succeeding, then that points to a change in technique. Across his career, Pujara has typically been heavy scoring behind square. That trademark cut, underrated in its aesthetic beauty and its ability to make you catch your breath, allows him to batter the seamers through backward point.

If we compare that to how Pujara has gone in these last two away series, has that changed?

Barely. These are minor alterations, the sort of small changes that are the result of an edged four here, a skewed drive there. Nothing has changed here. Pujara is still Pujara.

So if the issue in the South Africa series – the one that preceded being dropped – was the way he played pace, and he hasn’t changed when or where he’s hitting the ball, then how has he changed his intent?
In South Africa, he averaged a jot under 20, and struggled against the marauding seamers, let loose on hard, spitting pitches, but how did he respond? Has he run scared? Has he come out all guns blazing?

Below is Pujara’s batting record in SENA countries, across his career.

Since being recalled Pujara has attacked balls on his stumps less and attacked balls outside off stump more. He has, generally, been very aggressive off his pads, but cautious outside off stump, but this pattern has changed in that last six months. It is a tweak, an alteration in intent which hasn’t seen him score more heavily through off (as we’ve seen), but an alteration nonetheless.

So what we’re seeing here is a man who has slightly increased his intent in one area, whilst slightly decreasing his intent in another. It is a man who has changed his modus operandi marginally, but has certainly not thrown his previous game away. This is unequivocally not a man transformed.

And so, it’s fair to push back. Pujara has not become a different player since being removed from the side in Birmingham – he has simply regressed to the mean.

This is a phrase that, for better or for worse, has become associated with analytics. Leave things be, we say, and everything will revert to the norm. Leave Stuart Broad in the Test side, and he will take wickets. Keep Jose Mourinho, and he will win games. It is an instinctively and emotionally difficult argument to take, and it is easy to throw it back in the faces of those who throw it in yours. But is is valid, and it is important.

Because it’s simply a new version of an old idea. “Form is temporary, class is permanent”. Pujara will go to bed tonight with a Test batting average of 51.07. Of those to play 20 Tests in their career – the standard, accepted line where a sample becomes reasonable – just 32 men in history have managed to better Pujara’s record. Here before our eyes is a great of the game, a player of such skill and substance that only a generous handful of those before him could compete.

Yet he isn’t trusted. Perhaps this is an aesthetic issue, though I’ve made my personal position clear. Perhaps it is a broader issue, his status as a man untethered to an IPL franchise leaving him with fewer hardcore supporters than others in his homeland. Perhaps it’s simply that, aware of the crop of wonderful players at their disposal, India’s selectors erred on the side of youth and aggression.

But history will suggest that their decision was wrong. If Pujara plays in Birmingham, India may win that Test. They may remain faithful to a victorious side, and decide against including Kuldeep on the greentop at Lord’s. They may ultimately defeat an England side strong in spirit but low on confidence, and then arrive in Australia not with a point to prove, but with a supremacy to affirm. The history of Indian cricket could well have been oh so different.

Yet ultimately, this is just another microcosm. Pujara is a great, a great who will transcend any of these series, and anybody who doesn’t acknowledge this is wrong. And yet, as Day One turns into Day Two across the harbour in this famous city, India are content. They have assumed a dominant position in their most important Test of the 21st century, their overnight WinViz an assured 66%. At this most crucial of moments, they are in control of their destiny. For that, they can thank Chesteshwar Pujara: unassuming, unchanged, immoveable.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: December Players of the Month

December has been a busy month for Test cricket with eight of the 12 full member nations playing at least one match. Using CricViz data, Patrick Noone picks out the most impressive performers of the last 30 days.

Tom Latham

There were few signs at the start of the month pointing to what the New Zealand opener would achieve come the New Year. Latham’s first Test in December was in New Zealand’s series-clinching victory over Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, but the left-hander could only contribute scores of four and ten in the 123-run win.

Upon his return to home shores though, Latham found his groove and piled on the runs, 464 of them in total, making him the leading run scorer in December. Against Sri Lanka in Wellington, Latham recorded a career best score of 264* and followed that up with 176 in the second Test in Christchurch.

Latham’s recent form bucks the trend in a year in which openers from all over the world have struggled. To put that into perspective, Latham’s December average is 116.00, the next highest for an opening batsman is Dean Elgar’s 36.00. Latham has also been outperforming himself this month when compared to his career record – he’s played a false shot to just 8% of the deliveries he’s faced, compared to his career figure of 12%.

While New Zealand’s middle order might contain more eye-catching players, it has been the weight of runs from an old-fashioned opener that has put them on course for a fourth successive Test series win.

Cheteshwar Pujara

India’s rock at number three capped off a fine year with two more hundreds at Adelaide and Melbourne as Virat Kohli’s side retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy. Kohli (four) is the only player in 2018 to have scored more away hundreds than Pujara’s three and it remains a mystery that such a reliable performer in all conditions was dropped just ten Tests ago.

Obduracy is one of Pujara’s main assets and this month he was even harder to dislodge than normal. Across his career, Pujara is dismissed every 111 balls but in December, that figure shot up to 148. To record numbers like that anywhere would be impressive, to do so in unfamiliar conditions against one of the best bowling attacks in the world is nothing short of remarkable.

Australia have tried to bounce Pujara out at times, bowling short 36% of the time, but he’s been equal to it, averaging 79.00 against those deliveries in the current series. And when the quick bowlers have pitched it up, Pujara has averaged a more than handy 44.00.

His series has been a masterclass in patient, high quality run accumulation. With 328 runs, he is the leading scorer in the series and the contrast between Australia’s batting struggles and the calmness with which Pujara has made his runs has been stark.

Nathan Lyon

All the talk before the series against India was about the clash of the two seam attacks, but it’s been Australia’s off-spinner who tops the wicket-taking leaderboard for the home side. Lyon has taken 17 wickets in the first three matches of the series, only four fewer than he managed in the five Ashes Tests last summer. Those wickets have come at an average of 27.11, if he can continue at that rate in the last Test at Sydney, it will be his best performance in a home summer since 2011-12.  

However, it’s not just been the wickets that underline Lyon’s importance to this Australian bowling attack. He has also been able to exert more control than ever, limiting the Indian batsmen to boundaries from just 3.42% of the balls he’s bowled, the lowest he’s ever recorded in a home summer.

Lyon’s tactics have been varied in the current series – at Adelaide and Perth he bowled 6% and 10% of balls hitting the stumps respectively, before adjusting his line to see that figure shoot up to 26% in Melbourne.

It has not always been the case that Lyon has had the full backing of Australia’s selection panel and captain but now that the man they call ‘The Goat’ has long established himself as his sides’ number one spinner, he has the confidence to alter his game plan depending on conditions and, more importantly, the skill to succeed with whichever method of attack he chooses.

Jasprit Bumrah

India’s tearaway quick has been one of the finds of 2018 in the Test arena and his match-winning performance at the MCG capped a remarkable debut year that saw him excel in South Africa, England and Australia.

His nine-wicket haul in Melbourne took him to the top of the wicket-taking list for December with 20 Australian scalps to his name. Bumrah’s unorthodox action and ability to find movement both through the air and off the pitch have made him a nightmare for Australia’s batsmen to play – the right-arm quick has forced the Australians to edge or miss the ball with 24% of the deliveries he’s bowled. It has been one of the best performances by a visiting seamer to Australia; only Chris Tremlett’s 26% in 2011 surpasses the regularity with which Bumrah drew a false shot.

In a fast-bowling attack widely considered to be the best India has ever produced, Bumrah is the jewel in the crown, the X-Factor equally capable of bowling line and length to nick a batsman out as he is to bounce out the tail. His contribution to India’s retention of the Border-Gavaskar trophy has already been enormous, and it would take a brave man to bet against him having an impact in Sydney next week.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@PatrickNoone08

CricViz Analysis: Australia v India, First Test, Day Four

Freddie Wilde’s analytical notes from day four at the Adelaide Oval.

AUSTRALIA MISS A TRICK

Day four resumed with India leading by 165 runs and Australia in desperate need of quick wickets. It was intriguing—and in hindsight most definitely an error—that Australia opted to start the day with Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood and not Nathan Lyon, who had without a doubt been their best bowler until that point. It only took four wicket-less overs for Tim Paine to change his mind and introduce Lyon but his hesitancy had given Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane 15 precious minutes to ease into the day. 

PUJARA’S MASTERCLASS

Cheteshwar Pujara has defined this match. Australia’s first innings top-top-scorer Travis Head acknowledged in his press conference at the end of day two that he had showed them the way to bat on this pitch by remaining patient and in their second innings Pujara’s teammates followed his example. 

Pujara’s performance in the second innings is one that player’s of lesser ability may find hard to replicate. The way he countered Nathan Lyon’s persistent bowling into the footmarks outside off stump with quicksilver footwork was a display of astonishing skill. In the second innings Pujara came down the track to 40 balls from Lyon, but notably this wasn’t the attacking approach it is often considered to be: from those 40 balls he only scored 8 runs. However, coming down the track allowed him to safely negotiate balls pitching in the most dangerous area of the pitch and more significantly disrupted Lyon’s length allowing him to play back to 39 balls – and from those deliveries he scored 28 runs – rotating the strike effectively and relieving pressure. A classic one-two, perfectly executed. 

Arguably no player in the modern era has such crisp footwork against spin as Pujara and it was that footwork which allowed him to bat as long as he did in India’s second innings – slowly and surely, bending the shape of the match to his will. 

LYON’S MASTERCLASS

It took 88 balls from Lyon to Pujara in the third innings but eventually the off spinner got his man. Pujara’s footwork had allowed him to control the majority of his engrossing contest with Lyon but a significant adjustment to the field setting early on the fourth day made a big difference to the nature of their head to head. In the 70th over Australia deployed a silly mid off to Pujara for the first time—this simple change made it a lot more difficult for Pujara to come down the track because he risked being caught bat-pad by the close fielder or even run out. Once the silly mid off was deployed Pujara either padded from his crease—which was fraught with danger because it required him to read the degree of spin—or come down the track and smother the ball—which proved immensely difficult. Pujara’s false shot percentage against Lyon almost tripled once the the fielder was put in place. 

With Lyon’s 30th ball to Pujara with the silly mid off in place he finally got his man. A wonderful build up of pressure was rounded off with a vicious ball that gripped and turned from the footmarks. Without the silly mid off Pujara may have skipped down but he attempted to pad the ball from his crease and misjudged the turn and bounce, the ball clipping his glove on his way to the short leg. Ashwin pitched 47 deliveries to Pujara in the danger zone around the foot hole which we identified in our day three notes, from those deliveries Pujara only scored 7 runs and was eventually dismissed.

Once Pujara was gone Lyon ran though Australia’s middle and lower order. The silly mid off directly accounted for Rohit Sharma who pouched an inside edge bat-pad. Lyon finished with 6 for 122 – a masterclass of off spin bowling on a turning pitch and against high quality players and due reward for his persistence into the foot-hole.  

SLOWER SPEEDS

In the first innings Ashwin earned success by bowling significantly slower than on the 2014/15 tour of Australia where he really struggled. In the second innings it was slower speeds that once against brought him success. Although the percentage of his deliveries faster than 88 kph increased slightly from 30% to 35%, the wickets of Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja were snared with deliveries of 86.23 kph and 86.66 kph respectively. 

His dismissal of Khawaja was an excellent piece of bowling. Khawaja had attempted to come down the wicket in Ashwin’s previous over but got nowhere near the pitch of the ball and had a wild swipe. It was clear that having scored just 8 off 42 balls he was becoming restless. Ashwin recognised this and continued to toss the ball up at slower speeds and when he saw Khawaja advancing down the track once more he pulled his length back, Khawaja was unable to reach the ball and his aggressive drive was shanked out to the sweeper fielder who took a good catch. The big wicket of Khawaja reduced Australia’s WinViz from 16% to 5% and leaves India on the cusp of a historic victory.

Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst. @fwildecricket

CricViz Analysis: Australia v India, First Test, Day Three

Freddie Wilde’s analytical notes from day three at the Adelaide Oval.

INDIA’S PLANNING EXPOSED

India managed to seal a small first innings lead of 15 but it could have been more were it not for Nathan Lyon’s cameo of 24 off 28 balls. Lyon’s brief innings suggested a lack of planning from India who bowled 38% short balls at him despite his Test average against short bowling being a very impressive 43.33. Against full and good lengths Lyon averages just 9.57. 11 of Lyon’s 18 runs against pace came against the short ball, including an emphatic hook for six off Mohammad Shami – runs that could prove crucial in a low-scoring match.  

TALE OF TWO NEW BALLS

After 15 overs of India’s first innings they were 30 for 3; after 15 overs of their second innings they were 45 for 0. These differing results can be explained by a combination of slightly shorter Australian bowling and more watchful Indian batting. 

The lines bowled by Australia’s pace bowlers in the first 15 overs were almost identical in both innings but in the second innings they pitched just 39% of their deliveries full compared to 47% in the first innings. 

Across the first 15 overs of both innings India’s overall leave percentage was relatively similar but crucially in the very early overs they left more second time around, giving themselves more of a look as they eased into the innings. 

VIJAY & RAHUL CAN’T RESIST 

Early on Vijay an Rahul resisted the temptation to flirt with deliveries outside off stump but their restraint was short lived. Of course, runs still needed to be scored and in both instances there was width on offer but aggression needs to be calculated and both shots demonstrated questionable judgement in this regard. Vijay fell into a simple trap: driving at a wide one angled across him by Mitchell Starc with a packed cordon. Rahul’s shot—a huge booming, drive—was inexcusable. Earlier in the innings he’d nailed a ball on a similar length from Pat Cummins over the off side for six but that delivery was significantly wider than the one which dismissed him. Rahul’s slapped six and his dismissal trying to the same shot encapsulated what a frustrating talent he is. 

CLASH OF KINGS 

Late on day three Lyon became embroiled in an utterly fascinating battle with two of the best players of spin in the world: Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Bowling from over the wicket Lyon was aiming into a large patch of rough which was on a good length, about half a metre outside off stump. 

Pujara and Kohli adopted different methods to counter Lyon. 

Kohli opted to get onto the front foot to 25 of the 40 balls he faced from Lyon and trust his and hand-speed and supple wrists to smother the turn, working the ball into the leg side 13 times or defending it onto the off side ten times. Recognising the danger of driving out of the rough Kohli only did so twice when on the front foot. On 15 occasions Kohli was able to play off the back foot. 

In contrast, Pujara only played nine of the 57 balls he faced from Lyon off the front foot. Instead he came down the track on 23 occasions and to 12 of those 23 balls he opted to pad the ball away. This method nearly cost Pujara his wicket when he was adjudged lbw only to be reprieved on review when the ball was shown to be bouncing over the top. Pujara’s proactive footwork forced Lyon to occasionally drop short and when he did so Pujara was able to rock onto the back foot. 

This Adelaide pitch is taking big turn and Lyon is a big turner of the ball. A comparison with Ashwin yesterday illustrates this point. 

This sharp turn simultaneously made Lyon dangerous but complicated his task. Perversely the bigger the turn, the smaller the margin of error in terms of line and length.

The challenge for Lyon was one of angles: too straight and the ball would turn down the leg side but too wide and it wouldn’t challenge the stumps; too full and it wouldn’t have time to turn but too short and Pujara and Kohli would have time to adjust. 

This challenge is illustrated by the pitch map below which isolates balls that were too full (fuller than 3.50 metres), too short (shorter than 5.00 metres), too straight (no further than 20cm from off stump) or too wide (wider than 70cm from off stump). This created a danger area of 0.75² square metres which is labelled as ‘Perfect’ in the pitch map. 

The relative success of these different groupings is revealing. When Lyon missed the area he was searching for Pujara and Kohli were able to rotate the strike – particularly when he dropped short. But when he landed in that perfect spot they could barely score and right at the end of the day he was rewarded with the wicket of Kohli, caught bat-pad with Kohli pushing forward by a sharp turning off break. 

Interestingly Lyon only bowled one ball that was considered too wide. Given the amount of turn he was finding it would be very risky for the right-hander to leave or pad the ball purely on line. On day four it could be worth him trying more wide deliveries outside off stump and daring Pujara to continue padding it away. 

Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz. 

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ANALYSING BOWLING SPEED

NB: All speeds are in miles per hour. 

In T20 cricket bowlers changing their speed is one of their key weapons. Adjustments in pace can disrupt the rhythm of a batsman’s swing and force them out of control of their shot.

Beyond a bowler’s average speed and fastest and slowest balls, there are very few methods by which to quantify and analyse bowling speed.

The best illustration of how a bowler uses changes in speed is a simple line graph, such as the one shown below for Rajat Bhatia’s bowling for Rising Pune Supergiants against Mumbai Indians in Match 1 of the 2016 IPL.

From this graph we can see that Bhatia’s speeds hovered between 65 mph and 70 mph for his first 11 deliveries before he changed it up regularly for his last 13 deliveries, dropping to almost 50 mph and reaching towards 70 mph.

Basic analysis of Bhatia’s bowling is displayed in the table below.

BowlerAverage SpeedMedian SpeedFastest BallSlowest BallRange
Rajat Bhatia62.2865.7070.3152.3917.92

The table tells us that Bhatia had a significant pace range of 17.92 mph, however, it does not tell us how often or by how much he varied his speed.

Closer analysis of Bhatia’s bowling enables further quantification of his bowling speed on more detailed metrics, displayed in the table below.

BowlerSlower BallsFaster BallsMedian Speed Change
Rajat Bhatia933.83

For this analysis we are considering slower balls to be deliveries that are 7.50% slower than the bowler’s median speed and faster balls to be deliveries that are 5.00% faster than the bowler’s median speed. 7.50% is used for slower balls and 5.00% for faster balls because bowlers generally operate closer to their maximum speed than their minimum speed. We are using median speed as the benchmark figure because it is a better representation of the most common speed than the average which is skewed by outliers.

So, in Bhatia’s case, slower balls are deliveries that are 4.92 mph below 65.70 mph and faster balls are deliveries that are 3.28 mph above 65.70 mph. The slower and faster ball data tell us that Bhatia bowled nine balls 7.50% slower than his median pace and three 5.00% faster. This corresponds with the illustration in the line graph with Bhatia’s troughs outnumbering his peaks.

The median speed change figure displayed in the table above tells us how much a bowler varies his speed from delivery to delivery. This is an important figure because it quantifies the extent of variation from ball-to-ball rather than against a median or average figure.

The median speed change is calculated by finding the speed change from one delivery to the next, ignoring positives and negatives, and then finding the median figure of those differences. Median is preferable to average because average is skewed by significant changes in pace and is therefore less representative of typical speed change.

These two sets of data: slower and faster balls and median speed change enable a comprehensive assessment of bowling speed.

The number of slower balls and faster balls reveals how often a bowler makes significant changes of pace while the median speed change reveals how much a bowler changes his speed each ball.

When analysing median speed change it is more helpful to look the change as a percentage of the bowler’s median speed because that places the change in the context of that bowler’s regular speed. In Bhatia’s case therefore, his median speed change of 3.83 is divided by his median speed of 65.70 and multiplied by 100 to give a figure of 5.82. In the chart below this is displayed as Speed Change Rating.

SCR enables comparisons of speed change between bowlers regardless of their median pace and would allow us to ascertain which bowler changes his speed the most from ball-to-ball. This data could be analysed with regards to a single bowling spell, innings, tournament, or career.

Using the methods described above we have analysed four more bowling performances that have been hand-picked to illustrate different uses of bowling speed.

BowlerSlower BallsFaster BallsSpeed Change Rating
Rajat Bhatia935.82
Ishant Sharma203.17
Harbhajan Singh276.63
Mustafizur Rahman276.12
Adam Milne301.80

Ishant Sharma’s SCR of 3.17 indicates he changed his speed slightly ball-on-ball. The graph below shows a number of balls delivered below his median pace but only two were slow enough to register as slower balls.

Harbhajan Singh has the highest SCR of the five bowlers, indicating he changed his pace regularly and significantly and this is supported by the line graph. He favoured bowling quicker balls to slower balls.

Mustafizur Rahman is famed for changing his pace regularly and that is supported by the data which gives him the second highest SCR of the five bowlers. Interestingly the data has him bowling more faster balls than slower balls – this is perhaps because he is a seam bowler who regularly operates below his maximum speed.

Adam Milne’s SCR of 1.80 indicates he very rarely changed his pace, and the graph below supports that. The graph, with five troughs, does suggest that Milne bowled five slower balls, not three, but those two balls, recorded as 82.63 and 82.86 mph were not 7.50% slower than his median speed of 88.45 mph.

***

It is important to note that SCR, displayed without slower and faster ball data, could be misleading. For example, if a bowler’s first 11 balls were all of varying speeds but the remaining 13 deliveries all a very similar pace, that bowler would have a low SCR because their median change would be very low, despite almost half their deliveries representing significant changes in pace. This is because SCR is designed to show a bowler’s most common speed change ball-to-ball, not an average speed change. When SCR is displayed alongside slower and faster balls a comprehensive analysis of a bowler’s speed is given.

Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz.