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Tigers find their bite in Colombo

You may be familiar with the CLR James epigram which features in the preface of Beyond A Boundary: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

I often find a total break from the game – in my case a week covering horse racing’s Cheltenham Festival – gives me renewed energy to enjoy cricket, and a hunger to delve into the unique CricViz stats that underpin a particular match.

In this case, I am drawn inexorably to Bangladesh’s maiden Test victory over Sri Lanka. Put in the shade as it invariably will be by the titanic continuing struggle between India and Australia (1-1 heading to a Dharamsala decider, by the way) I certainly feel it deserves some extra attention.

First of all, there is the sheer landmark nature of this result. In their 100th Test, this was only Bangladesh’s ninth win and their first away from home against a team other than Zimbabwe or West Indies. It also comes five months after their Dhaka win against England which followed a winless year in 2015.

Then there was the less than ideal background to the win: a heavy defeat in the first Test, serious pressure and rumours of an impending axing for the captain Mushfiqur Rahim, an injury to the wicketkeeper Liton Das and three other players dropped after the Galle setback.

WinViz suggests it was the Shakib innings that turned Bangladesh from underdogs to favourites

And finally there was the troubling scorecard late on day two in Colombo: Bangladesh up against it at 198-5 on day two, some 140 runs behind. WinViz had a Sri Lanka win at 62% with Bangladesh at 27%: not a hopeless position for the tourists but an unencouraging one.

It was at this stage that Shakib Al Hasan crafted one of the most important centuries of his career. A naturally exuberant player (his strike rate exceeds that of all top current batsmen other than David Warner) he elected to curb his instincts to some degree but still scored at a healthy rate.

He watched the ball onto the bat well: only playing and missing five times from 159 balls faced while producing only two outside edges. When attacking, he timed the ball well – indeed our analysis shows he mistimed just two shots, the second of which finally brought his dismissal on 116, an innings which turned a probable Bangladesh deficit on first innings into a very valuable lead of 129.

WinViz suggests it was the Shakib innings, alongside valuable contributions from Mushfiqur and Mossadek Hossain, which turned Bangladesh from underdogs to favourites. But sometimes the hardest thing in a Test match is to reinforce a dominant position, or to get the job done when you hold all the aces – particularly if you’re a team without much experience of winning.

The next part of the job was carried out by Bangladesh’s bowlers, led by the hugely exciting fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman, backed up admirably by Shakib’s resourceful slow left-arm stuff.

There have been plenty of false dawns for Bangladesh fans in the past, but the rare successes are worth cheering

 

The key period came just after lunch on day four when these two bowlers operated in tandem and the draw had moved in excess of 50% probability on WinViz. Sri Lanka were 137-1, nudging into an overall lead – but suddenly Bangladesh found their bite.

The first breach came when Mustafizur had Kusal Mendis caught behind with a delightful delivery. It was the last ball of the over, and at 79.8mph it was the fastest too. Pitching on a fairly full, almost half-volley length – 5.9m from the stumps – it induced the drive.

All six balls in the over offered to swing away from the right-hander. But unlike two previous balls, which had carried on with the angle after hitting the wicket, this one straightened just enough (moving 0.9° degrees away from Mendis) to take the outside edge. Mushfiqur, the stand-in keeper as well as captain, gleefully accepted the chance.

Five overs went without a wicket before Mustafizur struck again. Continuing with a full length, he had Dinesh Chandimal fishing well wide of off-stump and nicking off. This was not per se a brilliant delivery, but an intelligent one, the sort with which Ian Botham used to take countless wickets. A tempting outswinger sometimes looks like it’s there to be hit. But Chandimal had not been at the crease long enough to play a relatively risky cover-drive and paid the price.

It was Shakib’s turn to get involved next: Asela Gunaratne lbw padding up for just seven. A misjudgement for sure, but again the bowler’s skills played their part: this ball drifted a fair bit, 2.5° into the right-hander who felt that on his initial observation he could afford to let this one bounce and turn away from him. The thing is the extra drift meant the ball was arrowing into the stumps and relatively modest turn away (2.6°, around half of the previous ball’s turn) meant it was straight enough to be hitting.

PlayViz recorded a -38 fielding score for the hosts

Shakib’s next wicket soon followed, a dismissal that reduced Sri Lanka to 190-5 (effectively 61-5). Bowling with a lovely rhythm, Shakib was getting some deliveries to turn really quite sharply, others to skid on without any turn at all. At times like these, batsmen often believe their best bet is to premeditate, and invariably out comes the sweep shot.

Niroshan Dickwella played one such sweep to a ball that turned a lot (6.6° in fact, putting it in the top dozen of Shakib turners for the innings). Also, the length was short of ideal length for sweeping, so the ball had time to turn and bounce before Dickwella’s bat made contact with the ball. Mushfiqur, who had a fine game behind the stumps, anticipated everything smartly to move across to complete the catch.

Sri Lanka fought on. The ninth wicket put on 80 to leave Bangladesh some kind of challenge, namely a target of 191. However the Tigers would not be denied and man-of-the-match Tamim Iqbal hit 82 (Shakib arguably had stronger claims to that individual gong). A memorable victory was achieved with four wickets in hand.

A final footnote: Sri Lanka have been poor in the field for much of the past six months and PlayViz recorded a -38 score for the hosts against a +52 aggregate for Bangladesh. The differential in batting was even more stark at +141 for the winning side (who had the clear disadvantage of batting second) against Sri Lanka’s -21. These indicators are very welcome for Bangladesh going forward while Sri Lanka’s side, still in transition following the retirements of so many key players of late, could find more roadblocks in their path.

Flaky batting and the demise of the draw

Throughout 2016, some 47 Test matches were played around the world. Of them, only seven resulted in draws and three of those were so severely weather affected no result was even possible.

Of the other two draws, the match between West Indies and India at Kingston was badly affected by rain (the equivalent of a day and a bit was lost), and so too the Lord’s match between England and Sri Lanka (even more play lost to rain).

So that leaves two draws which weren’t weather affected, and they both involved England: the essentially dull match in Cape Town when both teams hit more than 600 on a spectacularly flat wicket in the first innings, and the one in Rajkot where a bolder declaration from Alastair Cook might have put India under severe pressure. As it was, they still lost their sixth wicket with more than half an hour to go on what was generally considered an unusually flat wicket, even by sub-continent standards.

There were certainly several instances of teams succumbing to pressure late in the day when a draw seemed almost assured. England in both Dhaka and Chennai last year, and Pakistan in Melbourne are examples that quickly spring to mind.

This lack of draws in 2016 is a fairly remarkable development, even allowing for the more expansive tactics that modern cricket has adopted. Between 2000 and 2015, just under a quarter of Tests (24.4% to be precise) finished as draws. In 2016, it was less than 15%.

The first Test of 2017 has ended in such a thumping win for South Africa that it would have been wrapped up well inside three days had Faf du Plessis chosen to enforce the follow-on. Sri Lanka effectively lost the match on the second day. First, they allowed South Africa to convert a platform of 297-6 to an all-out score of 392. Then they collapsed from 56-1 to 110 all out, losing nine wickets in less than 20 overs.

There was no excuse for this. All our ball-tracking data suggests fairly modest amounts of swing and seam movement throughout the match, and particularly over the course of the opening two days. There was also largely predictable bounce. What there appeared to be, visually at least (this is an aspect that cannot yet be calculated scientifically) was a reasonable amount of pace in the wicket.

Batsmen appeared to be hurried at times, particular when facing the quicker bowlers such as Kagiso Rabada and Lahiru Kumara. But there was none of the really extravagant, unplayable movement that many of the pre-match pundits had forecasted.

Bangladesh win in Dhaka

Bangladesh completed a historic Test win over England last year after a spectacular collapse by the hosts

Perhaps the best concerted spell of bowling in the whole match came when Sri Lanka began their first innings. A very high percentage of balls were edged or missed by Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, but somehow they got through the first 15 overs. Then, Silva was unhinged by a short-pitched ball from Rabada (Sri Lanka were particularly bad at leaving the short stuff) and could only guide it onto his stumps. But the ball was getting softer and Sri Lanka got through more overs. Less was happening… until the batsmen started losing their heads.

In the blink of an eye, Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva and Dinesh Chandimal were sent packing. And the daft thing is, it wasn’t a glut of particularly good balls that did for them. Mendis went slogging the spinner and Karunaratne also brought about his own downfall, slapping a short, wide one to point. Mathews was at least playing defensively when Rabada had him caught at the slips – but the ball wasn’t threatening the stumps. De Silva was skipping down the track when trapped lbw, and Chandimal’s wild, flat-footed nicked drive was one of the worst of the lot.

That was essentially game over, the specialist batsmen all gone – and the tail unable to salvage anything from the wreckage. Whatever happened from that point – and there were four sessions of cricket to follow – the only viable result was a heavy Sri Lankan defeat.

Let’s look at weighted wicket probability (WWP) for the five key Sri Lankan dismissals – the second to sixth wickets in the first innings, the ones that turned hope into despair. Now you may (or may not) have read in previous blogs how WWP works. It essentially uses the tracked characteristics of each delivery to assess its wicket-taking danger – a unique and (we think) rather clever analytical tool. The final number in the grid below is the percentage of times we would expect each delivery to take a wicket.

And here we are:

  • Mendis (slogging spinner) – 0.01 = 1%
  • Karunaratne (cut to point) – 0.013 =1.3%
  • Mathews (defensive prod edged) – 0.023 = 2.3%
  • De Silva (lbw down the track) – 0.016 = 1.6%
  • Chandimal (flat-footed drive) – 0.013 = 1.3%

So, rather appropriately, the highest of these five deliveries on WWP is the one which saw off Mathews – and he was the only one of these five batsmen not to be playing an attacking shot for his dismissal.

When we rated James Anderson’s swing-bowling masterclass at Headingley (also against Sri Lanka), we found his average WWP was 2.13%. The average of these five dismissals in question is just 1.5%, a significant amount less.

To go back to where this blog started off, Sri Lanka should not be castigated for failing to draw the Test as such. It’s possible this match was never meant to be drawn. But they certainly should have been able to bat for longer than 43 overs in the first innings.

Don’t be surprised if 2017 brings us another famine on the draw front.

Cricket stats for November 2016

Aside from our app and its models and forecasting, we also work with global broadcasters and other publications to provide rich, contextual analysis. Often it’s about helping them create a story or theme, where numbers are needed to confirm (or dispute) a theory they’ve come up with. With so much data, however, it’s very often that one of us will come across something curious, and that happened a few weeks ago when looking into Kraigg Brathwaite’s numbers. Our piece for All Out Cricket magazine has it in full (below), but briefly:

 

Brathwaite has a better record (2,214 runs at 37.52, five hundreds) than Desmond Haynes did after his first 34 Tests (1,893 at 37.11, four hundreds)

 

I grew up watching Haynes at Middlesex. Even though he usually pummelled England when playing for West Indies, it was difficult not to love the style and brutish force he employed in his beatings, so it was a huge surprise to see Brathwaite mentioned in the same breath as him. Brathwaite’s career has begun encouragingly, but numbers alone don’t tell the full story (and you need to watch Fire in Babylon for a proper education on West Indies’ rise and fall). Would Brathwaite have fared as well facing Akram, Younis, Lillee, Kapil, Imran or Botham? While the pull-quote here is undoubtedly fascinating, everything has to be taken in context – something we remind ourselves of at CricViz each day.

 

CricViz's statistical article for All Out Cricket magazine

CricViz’s article for All Out Cricket magazine

MEHEDI MAGIC: HOW TIGERS’ TALENTED NEW SPINNER UNPICKED ENGLAND

You would not have required an expert knowledge of cricket to make the visual observation that the wicket prepared for Bangladesh’s historic Test win over England was a raging “bunsen”. The pseudo-Cockney slang term (bunsen burner = “turner”) indicates a wicket particularly conducive to spin, and traditionally alien to cricketers brought up in English conditions.

What was less usual about this particular surface was that it turned from the word go and did not deteriorate as such. CricViz ball-tracking data shows England debutant Zafar Ansari was getting deliveries to turn a whopping 11 degrees on day one. The most successful bowler in the match by some distance – Mehedi Hasan, who brilliantly captured 12 wickets – was peaking at between nine and 10 degrees deep into the final session.

The BatViz slider on the CricViz app provides further evidence to support this theory. Rather than showing a gradual move towards maximum difficulty, it reveals fluctuations throughout the course of the match.

And that’s really what made the Test match quite as fascinating as it was: three big partnerships, one of 170, one of 100 and one of 99 (by England’s ninth-wicket pair, no less) and yet modest totals of 220, 244, 296 and 164. If ever there was a track where batsmen had to get themselves in before finding any confidence then this was it.

What was surprising was that only one spinner in the match consistently caused problems, and that was Mehedi – the man who turned 19 in the short window between the Tests. A fairly conventional off-spinner in style, he would have been delighted to find himself up against four left-handers in the England top six – and by bowling round the wicket to them he worried the outside edge of their bats with the one that turned a lot, and the stumps with the one that didn’t turn so much.

Mehedi removes Woakes

Mehedi removing Woakes on day two and ending a 99-run stand for England’s ninth wicket

His first wicket in the match was the key one of Alastair Cook, and it came early. The six balls in Mehedi’s first over had turned between 3.7 degrees and 6.9 degrees. The six in his second varied even more widely, turning between 2.7 and 7.3 degrees. Cook had faced 10 of those 12 deliveries and was on strike again when Mehedi bowled the first ball of his third.

This one turned the least of all of Mehedi’s deliveries up to then, just 1.7 degrees. You may have heard commentators at the time mentioning the ball “skidding on”. Well that’s partly becuse the ball didn’t bounce particularly high either – 55cm from a pitching position five metres from the stumps. A considerably fuller ball in his previous over had bounced higher. With variable bounce and variable degree of spin to account for, there was much in favour of high-quality spin even against the most watchful batting and Cook was a gonner – lbw after a successful review by the Bangladesh team.

Even good right-handed batsmen were prey to Mehedi’s variations. Jonny Bairstow, statistically England’s best batsman in 2016, had survived for almost an hour when also falling lbw to the young man from Khulna. This one was pitched 58cm shorter than the ball he had trapped Cook lbw with but bounced even less and Bairstow, playing off the back foot to give himself time to assess the degree of spin, was unable to adjust to the low bounce.

The most important wicket of all for Mehedi was Cook in the second innings. England were by now in deep trouble at 127-4 needing 273, but with their captain still there on 59, an in-form partner in the shape of Ben Stokes and a capable tail to come the beast had not yet been slain.

“I always wanted to do well whenever I got the opportunity. I didn’t really think it would be this series. It could have been any time in the next year or two. I wanted to come into the national team with a strong mentality so that I could perform well” – Mehedi

This delivery was again at the perfect in-between length. On another pitch Cook might well have played back to it, but perhaps wary of the manner in which he had fallen in the first innings, he came forward and looked to push runs into the off-side. But this was a slower one from Mehedi and it turned a fair bit, not too much as Cook would have missed it and the delivery would have been wasted but at 6.2 degrees of spin it was just right, slightly more than the average spin achieved by Mehedi through the match, and enough to locate a thick outside edge – and for the man at silly point to complete a fine catch.

Mehedi’s consistency of length was so important. He bowled 78% of his deliveries in the match on a good length, so was constantly provoking doubts in English batsmen. As for England’s spinners, they fell well short of this, particularly in the first innings where they collectively sent down just 40% of deliveries on a good length (Moeen Ali the best of a very poor bunch with a 50% ratio). And that really says it all: when you’re a slow bowler there is no substitute for being able to exert control over your opponents – just think back to the halcyon days of Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne. Mehedi had it; England’s spinners did not.

There is a footnote to this blog and it concerns the value of picking a talented young player unexposed to the rigours of hard-toil professional cricket across multiple formats. Mehedi is the first teenager ever to take 19 wickets in his first two Tests.

England are famously reluctant to pick teenagers for Test cricket. One of the most remarkable stats I found during the Dhaka Test was that in all, only five teenagers have ever represented England in Test cricket. Bangladesh, who began playing Tests more than a century after England, have had 26.

And another thing: when given their head, talented youngsters have tended to do well in the bowling department. Three bowlers took 50 Test wickets as teenagers, and you may well have heard of them: Waqar Younis, Daniel Vettori and Mohammad Amir.

Bangladesh have produced four of the most productive teenage batsmen ever, including England’s nemesis Tamim Iqbal, in a list headed overall by a certain Sachin Tendulkar, who amassed 1,522 runs before turning 20.