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CricViz Analysis: Why Ben Stokes Should Bat at No.3

With England captain Joe Root stepping away from his role at first drop, Ben Jones analyses the case for promoting the star all-rounder. 


Conventional wisdom is messing with England’s batting order.

It forced Joe Root up to number three, because “that’s where the best batsman bats”, despite it being a position he neither suits nor wants. It’s forced them to bat their wicket-keeper without the gloves lower than their wicket-keeper with the gloves, because a player like Jos Buttler surely couldn’t bat in the top five for a Test side. It’s forced them into picking Ollie Pope, a young man who’s never batted higher than six for his county, at number four in a Test match against the best side in the world.

The issue with applying conventional wisdom to this side is that England don’t have a conventional group of cricketers. As many writers and pundits have noted, England are blessed (or cursed) with a pool of players who all seem ideally suited to batting at No.6 or No.7. Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran – all wonderfully gifted cricketers, who all naturally occupy the same spot in the side.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the top order was functioning properly, but it isn’t. Much has been made of England’s failure to replace Andrew Strauss, but the attempt to replace Jonathan Trott has been just as arduous. England have tried seven different players at three since Trott left the touring squad in 13/14; only two (Root and Gary Ballance) have averaged over 35 in the position. They are a Gary Sobers of a side – in that they have six sixes, keep up – but they don’t have a single number three. It’s all a bit of a mess.

The selectors have shown a willingness to kill two birds with one stone with this issue. Promoting Moeen Ali to three at The Oval had the dual benefits of spreading the batting talent more evenly across the line-up, allowing Root to bat at his preferred number four spot (where he averages 52.90 compared to 40.47 at three), and giving a talented batsman room to reach their full potential. As a strategy, it makes complete sense.

So why not promote Ben Stokes to three?

After all, Stokes has the best technique of any English batsman. His attacking shots are crisp, his defensive strokes thrown down emphatically like he’s flourishing a royal flush. His alignments are precise, his trigger movements clear and unerring. Look past the cliche of the tattooed slogger, the reputation of a white-ball gun, and what you’ve got is a superbly technical batsman, with no weaknesses other than those that plague all batsmen.

There is plenty of evidence which suggests that of this group of players, Stokes is the best equipped to cope with the challenges of top-order batting. The data implies that among England’s middle order who ended the Test summer, Stokes plays the moving ball better than any. Against deliveries moving more than the global historic average, Stokes averages the most against both swing and seam bowling.


This will come as a shock to some. Stokes’ role in the Test side has rarely been about negotiating the moving ball; it’s been about counter-attack, coming in late in the innings and exploding off a pre-built platform.

Yet Stokes doesn’t actually perform best in that kind of situation. When he arrives at the crease in the 60th over or later, he averages 26.71. By contrast, when he arrives at the crease in the first 20 overs of a Test innings (something he’s done on 22 occasions), he averages 35.68. Putting aside the vagaries of batting position, when Stokes comes out to bat against a newer ball, with all the challenges that brings, he performs better than when he arrives later in the innings.

The time also feels right to demand more from Stokes with the bat. This summer has been a difficult one for him personally, but as a batsman he has seemed to significantly mature. In an English season which has seen more seam movement than any other in the past ten years, Stokes adapted his approach, playing more within himself than we’ve seen before in Test cricket.

In the series against India, he left or defended 57.9% of his deliveries, his highest figure for any Test series where he’s played three or more times. Across the series, Stokes left 94 deliveries, the most he’s left alone since his debut series in Australia five years ago.

Whilst this more cautious method does not guarantee success – as shown by Keaton Jennings’ presence near the top of that list – for both Moeen Ali and Stokes himself it illustrates an ability to bat at a different tempo when the situation requires them to do so.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that promoting Stokes would affect his bowling, due to the likely increase in batting workload. However, there is evidence to suggest that Stokes’ current workload already takes a substantial toll on his effectiveness. His bowling average in the first innings of a Test match is 29.56, which rises to 41.00 in the second innings. When he’s already batted, regardless how long for, his bowling suffers.

The same story is true when we look at Stokes’ batting returns. When he hasn’t already been in the field, his batting average is elite. When he has, his batting average is 26.82.

This isn’t a desirable pattern, and one that needs to be addressed. Arguably, England need to make a choice between Stokes becoming more batting focused, or more bowling focused. He clearly has more ability in either area than he is able to show at the moment, because of the demands on his body and mind from being pulled in all directions.

England don’t have enough top-class batsman to be limiting Stokes’ productivity with the bat in this way. When England’s lower order contains all of Woakes, Curran, Moeen, and Rashid, picking a batsman of Ben Stokes’ class and having him bowl substantial numbers of overs is, bizarrely, the conservative choice. Put simply, England need Stokes’ batting more than they need his bowling. That might be a tough sell to a man who clearly wants to be in the action at all times, but England should be looking to mould Ben Stokes into Jacques Kallis, not into Andrew Flintoff.

Undoubtedly, there are reasons why Stokes at three would be a gamble. If the experiment fails, then it leaves England with precious little time to settle on a new No.3 before the Ashes – but that is true of any player. Trying Joe Clarke, Ollie Pope, or even a veteran like Joe Denly, would carry the same risks, with all the added ones of having to introduce a new personality into the dressing room.

This reshuffling needn’t be the case for all conditions. There may be better candidates for the role on spinning tracks – i.e. Sri Lanka and in all likelihood, the West Indies – and there is no doubt that Stokes’ qualities are more obviously in play on harder, bouncier tracks. But as a new default option, with tours of New Zealand and South Africa coming up in 12 months time, England may find that for Ben Stokes, three is the magic number.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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

The first Test of the series will live long in the memory and for that, says Ben Jones, we can thank the wonder of the moving ball. Read more

MATCH ANALYSIS, INDIA V ENGLAND, FIRST TEST

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rashid’s finest

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.

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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.

MATCH ANALYSIS: BANGLADESH V ENGLAND, SECOND TEST

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WOAKES’ RENAISSANCE GIVES SELECTORS CAUSE FOR COMFORT

Chris Woakes is having a summer to remember in the England Test side. Since returning to the team for the second Test against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street, the Warwickshire all-rounder has scored 221 runs at an average of 55.25 and taken a remarkable 26 wickets at just 13.84.

His previous Test appearance before his renaissance was a chastening experience in Centurion. Posting match figures of 1-144 and making little impact with the bat as England went down to a 280-run defeat against South Africa, Woakes appeared to be running out of chances to convert his undoubted talent into significant contributions at the highest level.

So what has changed? His pace, for one. Often seen in the early part of his international career as something of a military medium pacer that batsmen found relatively easy to deal with, a couple of extra clicks on the speed gun appear to have been crucial in increasing the threat that Woakes poses with the ball.

During the second innings of that Centurion Test, Woakes was bowling at an average speed of 81.93mph with his quickest delivery clocking in at 86.9mph. Since his return to the side in Durham, that has been upped to 83.48mph and he has even broken the 90mph barrier on two occasions this summer. He has consistently been the quickest of England’s seamers and has also picked up that happy knack of taking a wicket in the first over of a new spell.

On six separate occasions, Woakes has struck immediately after being brought into the attack this summer; and it would have been seven had it not been for Jonny Bairstow dropping Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne at Lord’s. For a captain, it is such a key weapon to have a bowler in your ranks whom you know to have this uncanny ability. Andrew Strauss had it with Graeme Swann and now Alastair Cook has it with Woakes.

Woakes has also made subtle adjustments on the crease to alter his angle of delivery. Blessed with a natural bowling action – Shaun Pollock even went so far in the winter as to describe it as “too good, perhaps too predictable, so that the batsman knows what is coming” – Woakes needed to find a way to add variety to his bowling. He has achieved that by moving wide of the crease on occasion and it has brought him reward, most notably at Lord’s with the dismissal of Asad Shafiq in Pakistan’s second innings. The wider angle of delivery cramped the right-hander for room so that he could only divert the ball onto the stumps via the inside edge.

It is testament to Woakes’ improvement as an all-rounder that England have been able to deal with Ben Stokes’ injury problems with minimal fuss. A little over a year ago, during the 2015 series against New Zealand, Stokes was smashing the fastest hundred at Lord’s before taking the key wickets of Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum in successive balls during the visitors’ run chase.

At that stage, at what felt like the start of England’s brave new era that Stokes is such a key part of, an injury to him would have been deemed catastrophic to the balance of the side with both bat and ball. That is not to say that Stokes is not still seen as a talented and integral part of this England side, merely that his absence was not so keenly felt as once might have been feared; and that is all down to Woakes seizing his opportunity with both hands when it came along.

While Woakes’ bowling feats have been more eye catching, his steady improvement with the bat has been equally impressive. A well compiled 66 at number 8 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s hinted that he was getting the hang of batting in Test cricket before his 58 at Old Trafford formed part of a 103-run partnership with Joe Root and helped England to their highest total for five years.

That innings against Pakistan might one day be looked upon as a breakthrough knock for Woakes – batting at 6, nominally as a nightwatchman, his strike rate of 55.76 meant that the visiting bowlers were unable to attack his end as they might have been tempted to with Root batting so serenely at the other end. Pakistan bowled shorter to him than to any other batsman who faced 20 balls or more, but Woakes was particularly strong square of the wicket, with 19 of his 28 scoring shots coming through cover and midwicket including four of his eight boundaries.

With Stokes once again ruled out for the third Test at Edgbaston, Woakes might get another opportunity to bat higher up the order, depending on who the selectors decide to bring into the side. It is perhaps too early to say exactly where his future lies in this flexible, multi-faceted England side, but it is certainly a nice problem to have at this stage.

HOW ENGLAND BOWLED OUT PAKISTAN

England v Pakistan, Second Test, Day Three Analysis

England 589 for 8 dec and 98 for 1 (Cook 49*) lead Pakistan 198 (Misbah 52, Woakes 4-67) by 489 runs

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