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ENGLAND’S ODI BOWLING REMAINS A WEAKNESS

It’s hard to know right now if England are truly on the cusp of surfing a wave in one-day cricket, but there has certainly been something of a revival since their pitiful displays in the last World Cup 18 months ago.

In all, they have won 13 one-day internationals since then and lost nine. They have won series against New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa.

The evidence suggests the batting is in excellent shape at the moment. In that time, England have posted grand totals of 408, 399, 365, 355 and 350 – five of their seven best totals ever. Even allowing for some flat wickets and the modern trend for a par score to be so much higher than in previous times, this is a remarkable feat. However the bowling has not always been so good.

Against Pakistan, in the five-match series that begins on Wednesday, England are likely to start as fairly strong favourites thanks to their batting might, but this would be a good time for them to have a strong series with the ball.

In South Africa in February, England did not generally excel in the bowling stakes, though they led 2-0 with three to play and at Centurion set a faltering side, who had just lost the Test series, 319 to win.

Let’s examine what happened from that point. David Willey and Reece Topley, both currently injured, failed to strike with the new ball, allowing Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla to get away with a fast start. But it was what ensued subsequently that really hurt England. Ben Stokes, Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali – all in the squad for the upcoming series – failed to stem the flow or take wickets in the overs that followed. Only Adil Rashid, who returned an exemplary 1-45 from his 10 overs, emerged with credit.

The CricViz database records that Stokes, in returning 0-54 from 8.2 overs, attempted just three slower balls and found no discernible swing or seam. The lack of movement was not his fault – this was a flat wicket and he did not have use of the new ball – but should he have been trying more slower balls? Chris Jordan bowled seven slower balls in his 1-54 from seven overs. South Africa scored just two runs from Jordan’s slower deliveries suggesting it was a tactic worth pursuing, but Jordan bowled only one per over, Stokes less than one every two overs.

As for the spinners, whereas Adil Rashid created a degree of uncertainty by bowling seven googlies in his 10 overs, every single delivery sent down by Moeen Ali was an off-break. Little wonder, perhaps, that he went for 30 more runs than Rashid.

The stats show also that Moeen had a bad shift at the office with his lengths that evening: six short-pitched balls and three full tosses, one at beamer height. As for the seamers, Stokes only got one attempted yorker on the spot, three others ending up as half volleys, two as full tosses. Jordan got two in the spot, but bowled three full tosses and seven half-volleys in all. When Jordan dropped short he was punished, with 27 runs coming off 16 balls.

As for the bowlers’ lines, Jordan bowled the vast majority of his balls outside off or down the leg side. On the 11 occasions he bowled at the stumps, South Africa scored just four runs. Stokes bowled significantly straighter, while Rashid – as you would expect from a decent leg-spinner – bowled all but five balls on a line between middle stump and outside off. Moeen’s default line, outside off stump, was easily milked – 47 runs coming from the 32 balls he bowled there.

Let’s fast forward to the mid-summer home ODI series and the only game England game close to losing against Sri Lanka, which ended in a fascinating tie at Trent Bridge.

On this occasion, Sri Lanka batted first and hit 286-9. It should have been a winning score when England then collapsed to 82-6 – that was until Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes had other ideas. In the Sri Lanka innings, 40 of the 50 overs were sent down by bowlers picked for the series that starts on Wednesday. They produced some varied results. Rashid took no wickets but his 10 overs cost just 36 runs, against batsmen who play spin particularly well. Ali was again much more expensive, taking 1-69. Liam Plunkett returned 2-67 and Woakes 2-56.

Ali again produced barely any variety, with 58/60 off-breaks and 55/60 missing off-stump. His lengths were an improvement on the Centurion ODI – nothing short, no full tosses – but he sent down 11 half-volleys which cost 21 runs.

The most expensive seamer on the day, Plunkett, had a problem with his lengths – a beamer, four full tosses and eight half volleys among his bag. His line was OK, but movement was hard to obtain – the one leg cutter he produced was hit for four in any event.

Woakes produced a little more movement, with five off cutters, and his lengths were better than Plunkett’s. However his economy rate would have surely been even better had he not bowled 20 balls on leg stump or down leg which produced 24 runs in all.

Why was Rashid so hard to score off? His line was excellent; by now he had added the top spinner to his armoury (so was bowling three different deliveries) and 77% of his balls were at that ideal spinner’s length just short of a half-volley.

In terms of overall stats, Rashid now has the foundations of what could become be a very good ODI career. He has played in all 10 of England’s ODIs this calendar year, picking up 11 wickets from 10 matches at an economy of 5.03. Ali’s record over the same period is six wickets from eight matches at an economy rate of 5.75. You would have to worry that having been treated to some pretty rough treatment at the hands of Pakistan’s spinners in the Tests that England might be tempted to overlook Ali at the start of the ODIs.

If they want a second spinner, then Liam Dawson, who enjoyed a fine T20 international debut in July, might be a better option.

As for the seamers, they are also a unit in flux. Mark Wood has not played an ODI in almost a year but his raw speed, seen to fine effect on Twenty20 finals day last Saturday, will surely be called upon. England’s lack of variety elsewhere – made all the more acute by the absence of the left-armer Topley alongside Willey who can swing a white ball – is a potential weakness. It has been demonstrated in this piece that Stokes, Woakes, Plunkett and Jordan – as right-arm seamers who don’t move the ball a huge amount and who all bowl speeds in the mid 80s – can struggle to be an effective unit. And that problem only exacerbates itself when they miss their yorkers, bowl too short or slide the ball down the leg side.

It sure has been fun to watch England bat of late in white ball cricket – when Jos Buttler and Jason Roy are in full cry few teams can live with them – but sometimes the pyrotechnics of the batsmen have masked the imperfections of the bowlers. Against a Pakistan side invigorated by squaring the Test series in the final match of that rubber, England might need all 11 players to pull their weight.

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.

YASIR’S FOOD FOR THOUGHT

One of the reasons Pakistan were so comprehensively beaten by England in the second Test at Old Trafford lies in the temporary fall from grace of Yasir Shah.

The tourists’ most potent bowling weapon, fresh from collecting an exceptional haul of 10-141 in Pakistan’s Lord’s triumph, came to Old Trafford hell-bent on further destruction. By reputation and statistics, Manchester’s international ground tends to be a welcoming one for spinners, who take their wickets at the same average as seamers (the English norm is of course that seamers are more handsomely rewarded).

And yet what befell Yasir Shah? A painful match bag of 1-266, that’s what. And how on earth did that come about? Plenty of credence was put into the theory that this was the first opportunity for England to bat first against a Pakistan team featuring Shah, Alastair Cook having lost the toss in all three UAE Tests, plus the one at Lord’s. Thus, instead of facing familiar “scoreboard pressure” batting second, England could create a platform against the seamers on the first morning, and continue the momentum against the spinner.

But one issue with Shah that simply doesn’t get enough of an airing is his reluctance to produce much variety with his bowling, and in particular his lack of googlies. A leg-spinner cannot be a great leg-spinner without being able to confidently land and (to at least some extent) disguise a googly in whatever conditions he is presented with. Yet in this match Shah sent down four googlies. From 378 balls. Of the remaining 374 balls, one was classified as a quicker ball. The remaining 373 out of 378 were leg-breaks. So there came a point when the batsmen could sense there was a very, very high chance (98.94% as it happens) that the ball, on pitching, would move away from them if they were right-handed and into them if they were left-handed.

I plucked a random one-day international in which England’s leg-spinner Adil Rashid (who some felt was unlucky not to feature at Old Trafford), and spotted he bowled seven googlies and two top-spinners in his 10 overs. That means on average there’s one ball an over which will be different to his others.

Now I am not writing this to denigrate the usual excellence of Shah, whose international pedigree far exceeds Rashid’s. Shah’s 87 wickets in 14 Tests overall is a very healthy return indeed. But I am fairly convinced from watching great leg-spinners of the past – Abdul Qadir, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble – that variety is the spice of life, or at least the ingredient that contributes to a long and healthy career. Too often recently, exciting spinners from the sub-continent have endured frustratingly truncated careers and it would be nice to see Shah continue to spearhead Pakistan’s slow-bowling attack for a good while longer. To do that, he will need to make the batsman guess what might be coming out of his hand. If the man with the willow can put his mortgage on it being a leg-break, then the mental battle is less easy for Shah to win.

Another area in which Shah could improve is adapting his speed. You’ll often hear commentators mention that different wickets have different optimum speeds for spinners. Whereas he had done well at Lord’s on a wicket that was pretty slow and low and got lower as the match wore on, Old Trafford offered a faster surface where the bounce, fairly unusually, increased through the course of a match. England’s spinner Moeen Ali dropped his average pace quite considerably from the first innings to the second (and he worked quite heavily in practice with Saqlain Mushtaq to get more loop on the ball too). Moeen was successful in both innings – he was given more work to do in the second innings after Ben Stokes picked up an injury – and picked up highly satisfactory figures of 2-43 and 3-88. He bowled at an average of 54.87mph in the second innings and 53.05mph. By contrast, Shah actually bowled slightly faster in the second innings than he did in the first, just as he had done at Lord’s. In London, where the wicket got increasingly slower and lower, it was the right tactic. At Old Trafford, it wasn’t. Interestingly, the one wicket Shah did take at Old Trafford, Chris Woakes stabbing back a catch to the bowler, came from a delivery with a pace of 50.9mph. Yet his average paces were 51.73mph for the first innings and 52.18mph.

RAHAT ALI: FROM UNDER THE RADAR TO OVER THE MOON AT LORD’S

While all the focus before the first Test at Lord’s had been on the return of Mohammad Amir to the Pakistan side, few were highlighting the talents of fellow left-arm seamer Rahat Ali. Indeed, Rahat came into the series as very much the least heralded of Pakistan’s left-arm trio that also included Wahab Riaz. English fans of course knew all about Amir, while Wahab’s match winning spell of 4-66 in Dubai in October was evidence that he could cause the home side plenty of problems in even the toughest conditions for fast bowlers.

Nonetheless, at Lord’s this week it was Rahat who quietly went about his business and made key contributions to Pakistan going 1-0 in the four match series. With England chasing 283 for victory on a pitch that was still adequate for batting, the visitors needed early wickets to keep them in check and it was Rahat who delivered.

In his eight over spell with the new ball, the England batsmen played no shot to just 15 of his 48 deliveries. That was despite our ball tracking data showing that only a fraction over 2% of all his balls bowled would have gone on to hit the stumps. In essence, this tells us that England were playing at balls they could have left and on this occasion it proved to be their downfall.

The ball to dismiss Alastair Cook was a classic seamer’s dismissal – a hint of movement (0.89°) through the air towards the left hander before finding just enough deviation off the pitch (0.66°) to hold its line and draw the outside edge.

Next to depart was Alex Hales, an opponent whom Rahat is enjoying bowling against so far in this series. He only bowled nine balls in the whole match to the Nottinghamshire opener but that was enough to pick up his wicket in both innings. On each occasion, Hales was caught in the slip cordon; however what is noticeable is how much Rahat varied his length to him, even in the relatively low number of balls he bowled.

In the first innings, Rahat bowled three balls on a good length (roughly six metres from the batsman’s stumps) with one back of a length at eight metres and a fuller delivery at 3.9 metres. However, his four deliveries in the second innings to Hales were much shorter; the first three pitching at 9.9 metres, 9.6 metres and 8.1 metres before the wicket ball that was slightly fuller at 7.6 metres. This variance in length prevented the batsman from settling and drew the false shot – it is clear from Hales’ hesitant footwork for his second innings dismissal that he was unsure what length to expect. The Rahat v Hales contest could be one to look out for in the remainder of the series if this pattern continues.

It seems hard to believe now that Rahat was very nearly not even selected to play in this match. Sohail Khan picked up 3-26 in the first warm up match against Somerset before Imran Khan impressed during his 2-60 against Sussex. Either one of those right-arm bowlers could have taken Rahat’s place but the selectors opted for the left-arm triumvirate and it paid dividends. It perhaps goes to show the benefits of competition in a squad; the need for a player to perform when he knows there are team mates knocking on the door to take his place.

The final blow from Rahat in his opening spell was the big wicket of Joe Root. With what was his second shortest ball of his spell at that stage (11.8 metres from the batsman), he forced Root to hole out to square leg and England were in real trouble at 47-3. Wahab and Amir would go on to have their say later in the innings, not to mention the brilliance of man of the match, Yasir Shah. But at that stage, Pakistan’s unsung hero had seized the moment and set his side on their way to famous victory.

ENGLAND IN A SPIN

Much of the talk in the aftermath of England’s defeat to Pakistan in the first Test at Lord’s was on the contrast between Moeen Ali and his Pakistani counterpart Yasir Shah.

As Yasir sprung to the top of the ICC Test rankings for bowlers, Moeen now has his place under threat. While Yasir got more turn and had a had a higher chance of taking wickets according to nearest neighbour analysis, the difference in terms of pure data between the two bowlers was a slim one.

England v Pakistan 1st Test, Lord'sMoeen AliYasir Shah
Average degrees of turn3.223.86
Average length (metres from stumps)4.6m4.64m
Average weighted runs per ball0.430.43
Average wicket probability per ball (%)1.21.34

Moeen didn’t bowl badly. He performs at pretty close to his potential ability as possible, maintaining a consistent line and length and getting the ball to turn on a regular basis.

While he had the odd horror ball, like the ball in each innings that slipped out of his hand and got to the batsmen at head height, this was a steady performance by England’s spinner. He was just played very well by the Pakistan players, especially Misbah-ul-Haq in the first innings, who took him for 32 runs from just 23 balls, including seven fours. Misbah targeted him successfully in the first innings, but less so second time around.

This is not to say Moeen is as good a bowler as Yasir, who is clearly a world class performer streets ahead of the England off spinner, but the difference between the two is not as simple as saying Moeen bowled badly and Yasir bowled well.

The massive difference between these two bowlers is that Yasir has the ability to turn the ball both ways. Every single delivery that Moeen pitched in this Test turned from off to leg, so into the right hander and away from the left hander. There was a wide range of the degrees of turn, from 0.69 degrees to 7.9 degrees, but all of them went the same way. The batsmen knew what to expect and could adjust.

Yasir on the other hand got the ball to turn in both directions. His biggest leg break turned 11.16 degrees, his biggest turning googly moved 2.81 degrees the other way. A difference of 13.97 degrees – more than enough to keep a batsman guessing.

Batsmen can play with more confidence against off-spin than they can against high quality leg-spin. This difference in approach is very apparent in the context of these teams’ respective batting line-ups. England as a batting unit lack a plan against Yasir that the tourists have for Moeen.

The point here is that Moeen is not objectively bowling badly, he is just struggling to trouble Test class batsmen on a consistent basis. The question isn’t one of whether he is bowling well, it is whether he is good enough at this level. If it was a question of form rather than ability the fix would be an easier one, but throughout his career Moeen has made the absolute most of what he has got.

Adil Rashid has been brought into the squad for the Old Trafford Test. He has the advantage of possessing a googly that can turn the other way from his stock ball, something that Moeen has never mastered despite occasional talk of him working on a Doosra. That makes him a different challenge for the Pakistan batsmen, but history tells us that Rashid is more likely to bowl boundary balls than Moeen, not less.

With few other notable spin options in county cricket the selectors have a straight choice between premier off-spinner and leg-spinner. However, with a glut of all-rounders at their disposal they might choose both for the second Test.

Yasir, offering control and wicket-taking threat, is two bowlers in one. It is perhaps logical that England need to select two spinners to instil those characteristics in their spin attack.

Masterful Misbah

In the build up to their tour of England, Pakistan’s cricketers were put through the toughest training routines of their lives by the Pakistan Army. As they punched above their weight to improve their fitness levels, the go-to exercise at the camp was a set of 10 push-ups. Perhaps fittingly, then, as Pakistan’s most successful Test captain brought up his hundred on the opening day of the Lord’s Test, he proceeded to do another set of 10 push-ups. At 42, he got through the push-ups with great ease. 

Almost six years ago, Misbah ul Haq was so frustrated with how he was being treated by the Pakistani selectors that he wanted to burn his kit. His career would have ended having played 19 Tests with a batting average of 33.60 – low enough for him to fade into obscurity and have no legacy. Fast forward six years and a 42-year old resilient Misbah has, to his credit, 4,462 Test runs in 61 matches. Age, they say, is only a number. Misbah is perhaps a living example of this.

Pakistan’s tour of England is extremely significant for Misbah, both as a player and as a captain. This is, afterall, his first Test tour of England in a career spanning 14 years now (he has only played consistently since October 2010). In fact, out of his career tally of 61 Tests, he has only played 11 matches in England, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Assessments of Misbah’s batting talent have always taken this fact into account. He has plenty of runs in conditions that favour batsmen but what about testing conditions? A 100 at the Home of Cricket is not a bad way to prove one’s ability.

The tour also holds great significance for Misbah as captain because his legend as captain is built around victories in the UAE. Since 2010, his team has guarded the UAE fortress remarkably well. They have not lost a series at their home away from home in these six years. However, during the same time, Misbah’s side has not played a single Test in England and Australia. In South Africa, they were blanked 3-0. So, how can Misbah be ranked as Pakistan’s most successful Test captain if he has not been tested where others have succeeded? 

So, as he walked out of the Long Room for the toss this morning, Misbah knew he had to deliver as both, player and captain.

Opting to bat first after winning the toss was a no-brainer. With the sun out, Pakistan just needed to get through the new ball on a harmless Lord’s pitch. But that would make life simple, uncomplicated, and non-Pakistani. Post lunch, Pakistan found themselves in a tangle at 77/3 and in walked Misbah.

Misbah has reduced his body fat and looks leaner and fitter. But doing all this at the ripe old age of 42 runs the risk of also losing balance as a batter. Misbah had adjusted his technique accordingly. For one, his knees are more bent than they used to be before this tour. This braced position has helped him to maintain his balance while at the crease. He also took guard closer to the off-stump, an attempt to gain better off-stump awareness. There seemed to be a conscious effort to bring down a straight bat barring a few extremely tempting freebies from Moeen Ali.

Most importantly, there was positive intent after a familiar start to his innings during which he blocked nearly everything. During Pakistan’s last tour of England in 2010, Pakistani batsmen regularly made the mistake of trying to block everything. As a result, the scorecard did not move and wickets were lost. It is no surprise then that Misbah batted with a strike rate of 61, 17 better than his career strike rate. The innings itself was a mixed bag. Against the pacers, he showed caution except when Steven Finn began drifting down the leg side. Against the spin of Moeen Ali, he became brutal hitting him for 32 runs off 23 balls.

Even though Pakistan will rue the soft dismissals from Day 1, they could probably not have asked for a better start to a tough tour. Sitting at a healthy 282/6, they now have their last recognised batting pair on the crease and getting through the first session tomorrow will be key. Misbah has passed his first test as a player with flying colours – in his first Test innings in England, he is unbeaten on 110. His name will now make its way to the famous Lord’s honour board.

As captain, he knows fully well that the game has only just started.