On a chaotic, historic day at The Oval, Alastair Cook bowed out in a fairytale manner. Ben Jones looks back at Cook’s innings, and revels in the thrill of a risk-laden finale. Read more
Despite England’s famous win at Edgbaston, the repetitive nature of Alastair Cook’s recent dismissals are cause for concern. Patrick Noone analyses his struggles.
CricViz analysis of the third Test between India and England in Mohali.
Wide turn stymies spinners
This was a difficult pitch to read with ball-tracking data indicating that it took significant turn from the second day onwards and by the third day was taking more turn on average, 5.14 degrees, than the pitch in Dhaka did at the same stage, 5.09 degrees. The graph below shows the rate at which the pitch turned as the match progressed. However despite this significant deviation only 21 wickets fell in the first 380.1 overs of the match and only when eight fell in the last 69.2 overs did the scorecard begin to reflect the amount of turn on offer.
The critical difference between this pitch and the one in Dhaka was that the extra grass on this pitch held it together far better and for longer meaning in Rajkot the sharpest turning deliveries predictably pitched in worn areas of the pitch, whereas in Dhaka balls spun big unpredictably from previously compact areas of the pitch that were broken up by the impact of the ball.
The nature of this pitch meant that the sharpest turning deliveries pitched well outside the line of the stumps, nearer the bowler’s foot holes, as illustrated by the pitch map above. Naturally more of a threat is posed if balls turn big from within the line of the stumps. 41% of the 58 deliveries that turned more than eight degrees but did pitch within the line of the stumps were bowled in the fourth innings when the pitch was most worn.
England’s spinners improve; India’s get worse
Speaking after the match England’s coach Trevor Bayliss suggested that their spinners had improved their control of length. Ball-tracking data shows this not to be the case with England’s length percentages remaining almost exactly the same as in the Bangladesh series. What they did improve however was their line, illustrated by the pitch map below: they maintained tighter groupings and conceded runs at 3.36 runs per over compared to 3.63 against Bangladesh as a result.
India’s spinners meanwhile bowled with less control than against New Zealand, as illustrated by the pitch map below. This was the flattest of the four pitches India have played on this season and England’s first innings was the longest they have been in the field in a home Test since they played England in Kolkata in 2012. In these less helpful conditions Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja struggled to maintain the exceptional groupings they managed against New Zealand.
England’s best spinner in this match was Adil Rashid who took match figures of 7 for 178. Rashid displayed significant improvement in his control of line and length from the Bangladesh series, illustrated by the pitch map below.
In this Test Rashid landed 60% of his deliveries in a two metre range between four and five metres from the batman’s stumps, in the Bangladesh series that figure was just 46%. The principal improvement came in bowling fuller: against Bangladesh he dropped 14% of deliveries shorter than six metres from the batsman’s stumps, in Rajkot that figure fell to just 9%.
England commit forward and back
It is perhaps too soon to pass judgement on England’s batsmen against spin given that this pitch did not break up and turn as both pitches in Bangladesh did and as they are expected to do more in the rest of this series. However, England’s four centurions, Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes and Alastair Cook, as well as debutant Haseeb Hameed showed really encouraging signs with their footwork against spin. None of Root, Moeen or Stokes played a single shot with footwork categorised as “no movement” in their hundreds suggesting that they committed clearly to going forward or back, which is critical to playing spin well, while Cook played just 28 out of 290 balls in the match as such and Hameed just 12 out of 259.
England escaped defeat in Chittagong thanks largely to a superb all-round performance from Ben Stokes and Bangladesh’s first innings batting collapse; they were not so lucky in Dhaka where their shortcomings playing and bowling spin were exposed again and they crashed to a heavy defeat. There is no shame in losing to this Bangladesh team but there is shame at the manner of the result, in which their batting, bowling and fielding were alarmingly substandard.
It is difficult to ascertain which area of their spin-game, playing it or bowling it is a greater problem and quite frankly it is facile to apportion blame to one or the other; both were poor and both must be improved dramatically if they are to avoid a thrashing at the hands of India.
As bad as England’s batting was though, chasing 273 in the fourth innings was always going to be a very difficult task on a turning pitch against an excellent spin attack, and the size of that run-chase can be traced back to bowling and fielding errors throughout the Test.
After the match Alastair Cook was forthright in admitting that “we didn’t bowl great. And yes, their spinners did out-bowl our spinners. We’re not hiding behind the fact that we haven’t got world-class spinners.”
If the spinners England do have cannot exploit helpful conditions at their disposal then they are always going to struggle to win matches on the subcontinent because they will more often than not be chasing too many runs.
In the first Test England’s spin problem was primarily their inaccuracy and in the second Test the same can be largely said again. England’s inability to land the ball in roughly the same area consistently contributed to Bangladesh’s spinners bowling 15 maidens in the match compared to England’s eight and 50 in the series to England’s 21.
This failure to build pressure prevents spinners finding a rhythm against batsman and lining them up. Balls that turn fractionally more or less than preceding deliveries are far more dangerous if they are bowled at the same batsman rather than a different batsman because the same batsman is more likely to be influenced by the ball before and play down the wrong line.
Cook said that he would be interested to see the stats comparing England’s spin lengths to Bangladesh’s, suggesting that their bowlers maintained a better length. In fact both sets of spinners bowled very similar lengths overall [see below] with Bangladesh over-pitching slightly less, but both teams landing about 60% of deliveries in a two metre range between 3 and 5 metres – categorised as a ‘good’ length for spin bowlers.
England’s lengths, were almost identical to the first Test [see below] while Bangladesh’s actually got slightly worse. The home team were able to maintain more control because they bowled far tighter lines [see above]. Bangladesh’s pitching line groupings are tighter and straighter than England’s which forces the batsman to play and increases the chances of getting a wicket bowled or lbw.
Moeen was the most accurate of England’s three spinners [see below] and improved the percentage of deliveries bowled in the 3-5 metre range from Chittagong from 58% to 61% by cutting down on over-pitched and short deliveries. He also improved his line considerably – recording a far higher percentage of deliveries that would have gone onto hit the stumps. Rashid’s lengths actually got worse from Chittagong, most notably pitching 13% of his deliveries six metres or shorter. Ansari, meanwhile, recorded better lengths than Gareth Batty did but struggled to maintain his line.
Speaking after the match Cook explained the problem inaccurate bowling poses for setting fields. “You always feel you are a fielder short,” he said. “If you are leaking four, five runs an over in a low scoring game you have to put your boundary-riders out. It would be great if you could attack but you have got to hold your line and length better.”
England struggled to play spin just as much as they struggled to bowl it. Their dramatic collapse from 100 for 0 to 164 all out in a single session was the vertex of a problem that had been made all too apparent in the three preceding innings in the series in which they were 106 for 5, 62 for 5 and 114 for 6.
As has already been mentioned, batting in these conditions is not easy and Bangladesh have a very good spin attack, however to lose ten wickets in a single session is indicative of a more deep-rooted problem.
In terms of personnel, five of England’s top seven: Cook, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, are proven performers at this level and are guaranteed selection, while Ben Duckett’s second innings fifty showed enormous promise. Only Gary Ballance, who could well be dropped for the first Test in India, can be said to be out of his depth. In this sense England’s problem is not who, it is how – it is technique and strategy.
What has characterised the success of Bangladesh’s spinners, like that of Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja and Rangana Herath too in recent years, has been the lack of ‘mystery’ in their bowling. Rather than doosras and carom balls posing the threat instead it has been orthodox spin bowling. Alongside their accuracy these bowlers’ chief weapon is very slight differences in deviation and the key variation is the one that goes straight on. What makes this particular variation so deadly is that more often than not it is a natural variation, meaning it cannot be consistently read from the hand.
Eight of the fourteen dismissals of England’s top seven batsmen were to deliveries that deviated less than the average for any of the frontline spin bowlers [see below]. Playing against natural variations such as these is understandably difficult because there are no visual cues on which to predicate decision making other than the trajectory of spin after pitching, by which point the reaction time is negligible unless the batsman has gone back deep in his crease and therefore has some time to adjust, or, the spin can be nullified if the batsman is well forward and has smothered the turn. This reemphasises the importance of clearly committing either forward or back.
Given the average height and stride length of a batsman, deciding whether to commit well forward or well back is particularly difficult to balls pitched between 3 and 5 metres from the batsman’s stumps, within which 60% of all Bangladesh’s spinners deliveries landed, and also, as the match progresses and bounce becomes less predictable, balls pitched between 5 and 6 metres from the stumps, within which a further 21% of the spinners’ deliveries landed.
All the deliveries to dismiss England’s top seven batsmen excluding Ballance’s second innings leading edge pitched within this three metre range. This illustrates how difficult it must have been for England to commit either forward or back to those balls that they got out to because they were landing within a length range in which making the appropriate footwork is extremely difficult and even then once having committed either back or forward they then have to play the ball successfully. The less committed they are to going forward or back the less spin they will have smothered or the less time they will have to adjust.
The foundational aspect to succeeding against spin bowling therefore is reading the length well, something that England are going to have to work on ahead of the India series where the opposition is even stiffer.
England v Pakistan, Second Test, Day One Analysis
England 314 for 4 (Root 141*, Cook 105) v Pakistan
Alastair Cook is nearing yet another notable landmark. The England captain is 36 runs short of 10,000 in Tests and will expect to raise his bat in acknowledgement against Sri Lanka at Headingley next month.
His opening partner will also be under scrutiny, for very different reasons. Another Test series, another debate about who will open with Cook. The man in possession is yet again under pressure, and the list of alternatives to Alex Hales is longer than ever.
If the selectors do move away from the Nottinghamshire man, it could well be towards a player previously tried and discarded. County Championship runs are expected of the candidates, and Sam Robson has started the season in a manner that is hard to ignore.
Robson plundered 231 and 106 against Warwickshire at Lord’s, maintaining his habit of heavy early season scoring. Batting in April and May is supposedly so tricky that it has contributed to a major change in competition rules. It is not an issue for Robson.
Facing the moving ball on juicy early summer wickets has held no problems for the Middlesex man. Since his Championship debut in 2010, Robson averages 47.6 batting in April and May. His average in these months from 2013 onwards is 59.4.
Seven of Robson’s 10 Championship centuries have come in April and May, with four of those tons seeing him pass 150. The Middlesex man is clearly adept at catching the eye early in the season, but if his headquarters haul against the Bears is not enough to edge out Hales, can he maintain this form?
Few of the possible partners for Cook have as many questions asked of their technique as Robson. Adam Lyth’s tendency to fall to an outside edge became apparent last summer, but Robson’s susceptibility to balls moving into him became even more damaging.
Four bowled dismissals in 11 Test innings suggested to some a flaw that was unacceptable for a prospective Test opener. Nicking to the keeper and slips is one thing, missing straight ones is quite another.
However, perhaps too much was read into this mode of dismissal. 14.2% of Robson’s Championship dismissals have been bowled, compared with 23.3% for Hales. The incumbent England opener had his stumps disturbed eight times in 18 Championship innings last year. 22.4% of Nick Compton’s Championship dismissals have been bowled, largely batting in the middle order.
Openers have the hardest job to correct technical issues, as the new ball poses the most challenges. All have weaknesses to some degree and Robson knows what contributed to his England axing. His work in correcting a problem that was not exposed by express pace seems to be bearing fruit.
Alastair Cook holds the key to success for the tourists as the South Africa v England Test series reaches its halfway point. Joe Root, Ben Stokes and James Anderson are notable match-winners for the away side, but the Proteas know that a recovery is very achievable if Cook continues his run of low scores.
The away captain currently averages 10.5 in the series, his lowest average in any of the 37 Test series he has played in. An upturn in form would not be a surprise considering Cook’s pedigree and record-breaking efforts against Pakistan before Christmas, but South Africa have found the right tactics to give the best chance of restraining the opposition batting anchor.
Cook has only twice had a lower batting strike rate than the 36.8 he currently has in this series. How have South Africa restricted Cook?
The durable left-hander often wins a battle of wills when opposition bowling attacks starve him of scoring opportunities. When in form Cook invites bowlers to try a straighter line after getting frustrated with an off stump channel approach. Death by a thousand nudges to leg ensues.
However, South Africa have retained their discipline so far against Cook. BatViz analysis of ball tracking data shows that just six of the 114 balls he has faced in this series would have hit the stumps, 5.3%. For comparison, 13.6% of those faced by opening partner Alex Hales would have struck the timber.
This is partly explained by Hales’ greater exposure to spinners, who generally bowl a higher proportion of balls that would hit the stumps. Nonetheless, Cook has certainly received a lower proportion of full and straight deliveries from the fast men: the team percentage for balls hitting the stumps in all four of England’s innings range between 11% and 18%.
Cook has been unable to rotate the strike, failing to score off 95 of the 114 balls he has faced. 24 of his 42 runs have come in boundaries. Those relief shots into the legside have not been available – 44 of the 52 balls he has faced against the first choice seam line-up of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott have been dots.
Whether Cook can find a way to frustrate the South African pacemen is a key factor in the two remaining Tests. If the skipper has tired the home attack out, the prospects of a sparkling contribution from the middle order is increased.
When Ian Bell struck 143 in his first Test innings of 2015 his exclusion from England’s touring party for South Africa seemed unlikely. But seven months is a long time in cricket, especially for England players, the busiest in the Test arena.
Four half-centuries in 23 innings since – top score 65 not out – has resulted in the removal of a senior player that is difficult to argue against. Bell battled hard with little reward against the turning ball in the UAE, but it was his run of low scores against the high class pace bowling of New Zealand and Australia that was perhaps a bigger factor in his axing.
Dale Steyn and co. were presumably considered too big a challenge for a player who failed to record more than a solitary run in nine of those knocks since his century in the Caribbean. Bell’s age counted against him in the choice between the Warwickshire man and Gary Ballance, when the former’s 33 years – or vast Test experience at least – was a crucial factor in his retention earlier in the year.
Both Ballance and Bell were under huge pressure after the second Ashes Test and it was the Yorkshire player who made way for the in-form Jonny Bairstow. The old hand was not only retained, but promoted in the order, batting at three in six Tests since.
So what has changed? Giving youth a chance and Ballance’s strong start to his career partly explain the switch, but Bell’s twin half-centuries at Edgbaston justified the selectors’ choice – he was thought to be more likely to produce that Ballance in that pivotal Test, and so it proved.
The selectors now think Ballance and Nick Compton are the more likely run-makers, an eye on the future notwithstanding. This might just reflect a personal preference of Trevor Bayliss, but the characteristics of Bell’s slump must have alarmed the selectors.
Nine of Bell’s 22 dismissals since his North Sound ton have been bowled or LBW. Seven of these have been for 0 or 1. A bad habit of binary returns, made worse by the manner of the dismissals.
The balanced tempo that is the hallmark of Bell’s best innings has also deserted him. He was skittish in his crucial knocks at his home ground, seemingly trying to hit his way back into form – a brave approach that made his first innings aberration against Nathan Lyon forgivable.
However, that positive intent has not been maintained. Bell laboured against Pakistan’s spinners, hitting 158 runs in six innings, at a strike rate of 31.6 – the lowest of England’s top order.
A comparison of Bell and Alastair Cook’s innings in the first innings of the third Test at Sharjah shows just how becalmed England’s number three was in his battle to regain form. Being proactive against good spinners on a tricky pitch is not easy, but Bell’s intent was lacking.
He left alone or played defensive shots at 70% of the 158 balls he received in scoring 40. Cook hit 49 from 119 balls, leaving alone or playing defensively to 45% of his deliveries. Bell didn’t just fail to dominate the barrage of spin – 47 of the 51 balls he faced from Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali were dots.
All this points to a player ill-equipped to cope with a skilled South African pace attack that can be complimented by the leg-spin of Imran Tahir. Whether those who fill Bell’s shoes can do so remains to be seen – there might yet be a way back for the 118-Test veteran.
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