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CricViz Analysis: Joe Root’s innings

Patrick Noone looks at the England captain’s 57 as his conversion woes continued on Day 1 at The Oval.

Joe Root in full flow remains one of the most aesthetically pleasing sights in cricket. Those back foot punches as he rides the bounce, sweetly timed to the boundary as runs come effortlessly off the middle of his bat.

We know he can bat like that because we’ve seen him do it. Think of his 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2016, or his 190 against South Africa a year later in his first match as captain. Innings of great fluency, class and timing; a champion batsman at the top of his game.

Fast forward two years and things are a little different for Root. The talent remains undiminished but the moving parts that made him such an efficient machine are not quite moving in the right order.

His relatively poor conversion rate from 50 to 100, compared to some of his contemporaries, has been a bugbear of his for some time, but generally the pattern is for him to look like he’ll never get out, reach 50, then find a way to get out.

Today, things were different.

The scorecard will say that Root once again passed 50 and failed to make a significant contribution beyond that, but this innings followed a different pattern to many of those in the past.

To say Root’s innings today was streaky would be generous. He was dropped three times in the space of 18 balls, first at deep fine leg by Peter Siddle and then by wicket-keeper Tim Paine and Steve Smith at second slip.

Root had only once been dropped twice in the same Test innings; this was the first time he’d been put down three times. Already he was benefitting from hitherto unscaled levels of luck, and that sense of Root not being entirely at the races was further confirmed when he reached his half century.

21% of the balls he faced in today’s innings were either missed or edged. Only once has he passed 50 in a Test innings and registered a higher false shot percentage. On that occasion, in Cardiff in 2015, Root played a false shot to 25% of the balls he faced, benefitted from being dropped early on but did at least go on to make 134.

What is perhaps most alarming for the trajectory of Root’s career is that three of the top ten innings on the above graph have come in this series. There are arguably two ways of looking at this – maybe it’s a good sign that even though Root is in such scratchy form, he’s still passing 50 as regularly as ever. Alternatively, one could take the view that such an apparent dip in a batsman’s control is unlikely to ever be a sustainable model for success.

That certainly appeared the case today as Root struggled to settle on a pitch that, according to PitchViz’s deviation rating, was less threatening than any other in the series at this stage of the game.

To watch Root today was to watch a man battling with his technique, fighting to get everything going as he knows it can. He appeared to be making a conscious effort to play the ball earlier – positive footwork to try and force the issue as well as negate the movement being found by Australia’s seamers.

But it just never quite clicked. He was unable to make the most of the let offs he received from the dropped catches, unable to power England from an advantageous position into a truly dominant one, unable to perform the role that Steve Smith has in this series and stamp his authority on a match.

And to make the harshest of assessments, that has been the story of Root’s career in recent years. 50 and out. Yet there cannot have been many of his innings of that ilk that have felt as much of a missed opportunity as today’s. Here was a chance for Root to remind everyone of what he can do – facing a tired attack who had bowled 107 overs just four days ago, beginning to doubt their decision to bowl first in conditions that were improving for batting. Even with these factors seemingly in his favour, it was still 50 and out.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the whole story was that it still took an exceptional piece of bowling from Pat Cummins to dislodge Root, even on a day like today. According to our Expected Wickets model, Cummins’ wicket-ball stood a 10.73% chance of taking a wicket based on the speed, swing and seam movement of the delivery.

It was comfortably the best ball Cummins has bowled to Root in the series, better even than his similarly unplayable ball to dismiss the skipper at Old Trafford. It’s unlikely that Root would have been able to keep such a delivery out even if he were at the peak of his powers; in this kind of form, he had no chance.

Root’s innings came to embody England’s as a whole – a missed opportunity, albeit one that was polished slightly by the late innings extravagance of Jos Buttler. In that sense, England are certainly a team that reflects their captain in their current state. Undoubtedly talented and capable of remarkable things, but a recurring tendency to fall well below where they could.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

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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.

MATCH ANALYSIS: ENGLAND V PAKISTAN, 3RD ODI

Trent Bridge has been a high scoring venue in limited overs cricket of late—earlier this season the average score across six domestic innings was 380—but even given the ground’s recent history few people could have envisaged the carnage that unfolded in the first innings of this match.

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