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CricViz Analysis: Spinners under the scanner

CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde investigates the evolution of Nathan Lyon and Ravi Ashwin.

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Analysing Australia ahead of the 2017-18 Ashes

Australia pulled off an impressive victory within three days against India in Pune, their first win in India since 2004.  This comes off the back of a middling home season where they lost 2-1 to South Africa but recovered to beat Pakistan 3-0. CricViz looks ahead to what England might expect later this year in the 2017-18 Ashes

General overview

Australia lost the first two Tests of the season to South Africa with their worst performance occurring in Hobart, losing by an innings-and-80 runs.  They then won the day-night contest in Adelaide before sweeping aside Pakistan.  The chart below shows the scores and the number of wickets they lost in each of their 11 innings.

The blue bars (indicating victories) show that they generally racked up big scores in the first innings and either scored quick runs before declaring or chased down small targets in the second innings.

Driving these performances were Australia’s top order, three of whom scored at least 500 runs over the six matches.  The table below shows their top ten run-scorers.

Newcomers Peter Handscomb and Matt Renshaw have adapted to Test cricket quickly, scoring three hundreds and three fifties between them. This includes a Renshaw 184 against Pakistan in Sydney.

Australia’s attack was spearheaded by their opening bowling duo of Hazelwood and Starc, picking up 60 wickets between them, and adequately supported by Nathan Lyon’s offspin (17 wickets).  We will take a closer look at what made them so successful later in the piece.

The dependable Steve Smith

Firstly, let’s take a look at Australia’s captain and top run-scorer this season, Steve Smith, who scored two hundreds and three fifties from 11 innings.  The beehive plot below shows where he scored his 653 runs.

From first glance there isn’t much we can say.  Perhaps he puts away a lot of full or wide balls to the boundary and picks up singles from balls closer to the stumps.  We can filter this further to see how he performed against particular bowlers and types of bowlers.

Smith faced a lot of Yasir Shah so it’s not surprising that he scored the most runs and was dismissed by him most often.

The heat map above shows the distribution of deliveries faced by Smith from Yasir with his dismissals in red.  He favoured a good length just outside off-stump, shown by the dark green regions.  Smith pounced on anything marginally short or full.

The blue balls show Smith’s boundaries many of which are just above the dark green areas.  The pitch map below also illustrates how Smith punished Yasir for bowling too short or too full.

David the Destructive

Warner also enjoyed a prolific season scoring nearly 600 runs at a remarkable strike-rate of 93.

Warner targeted the spinners more than the seamers, scoring at a strike rate of 113.  The heat map below shows how he scored his boundaries against spinners.  Deliveries wide of off-stump and fractionally short were, more often than not, cut to the boundary.   

In contrast, the heat map below shows the distribution of dot balls for Warner.  Spinners who bowled closer to middle and leg stump with a more consistent length generally kept Warner quiet.

Against seamers it’s a similar story with Warner dispatching deliveries wide of off stump of any length, shown in the heat map below.

A seam bowler’s best bet to restricting Warner to dot balls is to bowl back of a length on off-stump as the heat map below shows.  There isn’t really an obvious pattern in his wickets (shown in red) which suggests his dismissals come about from a lack of concentration or simply one hit too many.

Starc and Hazlewood

Australia’s opening pair put in a big shift for their side, between them bowling more than half the total overs in their six home Tests.  The heat maps below show how they bowled to both right and left-handers with their wickets in red.

They both bowled quite consistently slightly back-of-a-length just outside off-stump.  They did however get many of their wickets from fuller and straighter deliveries indicating that they used movement in the air and off the pitch pretty effectively.

The histogram below illustrates how much Starc and Hazlewood swung the ball.  Negative values of swing, measured in degrees, indicate that the ball swung away from the right-hander and swung in to the left-hander and vice versa.  Starc mostly favoured outswing (to right-hand batsman), while Hazlewood employed inswing the majority of the time.  However, the distributions overlapped suggesting both bowlers had a number of deliveries that swung in both directions.  It’s notable how similar the distributions are in terms of height and width – both bowlers had similar plans in terms of how often they bowl their stock delivery compared to their variations.

We can take a look at how much Starc and Hazlewood swung the new ball and when it got older.

The graph above shows the absolute value of the swing (how much it swung regardless of direction) during a particular over.  A moving average of six overs is taken to dampen out the fluctuations.  Both bowlers swung the new ball, the magnitude of which steadily declined until the 10th over.  Hazelwood is generally a bigger swinger of the ball up until the 30th over, when Starc starts to visibly make use of reverse-swing between the 30th and 50th over.  Hazlewood swings the ball most prodigiously with a 70 to 80 overs old ball, although it should be noted that he only bowled two overs in this period.  When the second new ball is taken after 80 overs, a similar trend is seen as with the first new ball.

Additionally, Starc and Hazlewood extract pretty much the same assistance from movement off the pitch.  The histogram below illustrates this where, as before, negative values indicate movement away from the right-hander etc.  The opening pair marginally favour seam movement away from the right-hander but are more than capable of bringing it back in or away from left-handed batsmen.

Nathan Lyon

We can take a quick look at a similar plot that shows how much spin Nathan Lyon gets.

Lyon has quite a broad distribution indicating that he varies the amount of revolutions he imparts on the ball, as well as being a consequence of the different pitches he bowled on.  There is a slight bump at 0 degrees – his quicker and flatter delivery which he bowls about 5% of the time.

The beehive plot below shows Lyon’s release points when bowling.  Over the wicket, he is fairly consistent bowling quite wide of the crease.  When going around the wicket, he varies his release point a bit more, bowling from quite close to the wicket to very wide of the crease.

Ground analysis

Finally, we can also take a look at which grounds are most conducive to swing and spin bowling.

The table above shows the average swing, seam and spin in degrees at each of the grounds that hosted a Test this season.  England will be playing in all these grounds apart from Hobart.  The most swing-friendly ground was Perth although it was also the least seam-friendly and spin-friendly ground.  Brisbane offered the most spin of all the grounds.

The graph above shows distributions for Perth and Adelaide, the grounds with the highest and lowest average swing.  It is evident the Perth has a shorter and wider distribution indicating a large range of inswingers and outswingers.  Adelaide has a narrow range centred around 0 degrees, although there is a slight bump towards fairly big outswingers.  This data coupled with knowledge about how much a ball swings when it is a certain number of overs old can be exploited by England when choosing how many seamers to play and when to bowl them.

Imran Khan is a contributor to CricViz and the @cricketsavant

AUSTRALIA’S CAUTIOUS SPIN APPROACH EXTENDS THEIR LOSING RUN IN ASIA

As Australia slumped to a series defeat against Sri Lanka in Galle, their shortcomings against spin bowling were exposed in ruthless fashion. Now 2-0 down in the three match series after losing the first Test in Pallekele as well, Steve Smith’s side are set to lose their spot at the top of the world rankings as their wretched record in Asia continues.

Going back to the start of the India series in 2013 – the tour that became infamous for coach Micky Arthur’s ‘homework-gate’ fiasco – Australia have now lost eight consecutive Test matches in the subcontinent and the UAE. The common denominator across all eight matches has been the dominance of the home sides’ spin bowlers, as compared to the limited impact seen by the various spinners Australia have tried in the traditionally spin-friendly conditions.

The eight defeats in India, UAE and Sri Lanka have seen Australia lose a total of 159 wickets with 131 – or just over 82% – taken by spin bowlers. Conversely, of the 111 wickets that Australia have taken in those matches, only 51 of them (46%) have gone to their spin bowlers. As one would expect, Nathan Lyon has been Australia’s most prolific spinner in that period. He has taken 27 of the 51 wickets having played in seven of the eight defeats but the dismissals have come at a worryingly high average of 46.7. His strike rate of 67.5 is adequate and only a few balls higher than his career strike rate of 61.9 so the high average illustrates that batsmen are going after him, meaning that each wicket is far more expensive than his career average of 32.8.

The approach that Asian batsmen have taken to thwarting Lyon is something that Australia would do well to take on board. During the first innings of the Galle Test, Sri Lanka’s batsmen attacked 55% of all deliveries bowled by Lyon and debutant Jon Holland. When Australia batted in their first innings, that figure was just 38% and seven of the nine batsmen who fell to spin did so playing a defensive shot – or, in the case of Usman Khawaja, no shot at all. Sri Lanka were even more aggressive against Lyon and Holland in the second innings, attacking 63% of the deliveries they bowled and while Australia’s figure for their second innings was up to 47%, it nonetheless illustrated the tentative approach they had to the turning ball throughout the match.

There is one mitigating factor to consider and that is the state of the match when Sri Lanka started their second innings. Having bowled out Australia for just 106 and holding a lead of 175, the home side could bat freely without scoreboard pressure and targeting Holland, a left-arm spinner playing in his first Test, would have been a logical step. However, the data shows that Sri Lanka did not target Holland specifically as his percentage of balls attacked was almost identical to Lyon’s.

The difference in mind-set was evident to anyone who watched the extraordinary events unfold on Day 2 in Galle. Australia were tentative and prodding during a collapse that saw them lose 47-8 on their way to being bowled out for 106; Sri Lanka were aggressive and carefree as they put on 237 to bat Australia out of the game. For a side that prides itself on positive, attacking cricket and scored at an average rate of 4.3 runs per over during their most recent home summer, the contrast in Australia’s differing game plans could not be more pronounced.

After Australia lost the first Test in Pallekele, the Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh lamented that there was little more that they could do in terms of preparation, highlighting the success Australia ‘A’ had had during their tour to India last year and questioning if the extra pressure of a Test match environment was playing on the players’ minds. It is as good an explanation as any for Australia’s failings against spin; batsmen famed for their bravado and aggression retreating into their shell when confronted with high quality spinners on a turning track.

So with the series lost and the number one ranking surely gone, Australia have the third Test in Colombo to salvage some pride. However, if their batsmen continue with the tentative approach to playing Sri Lanka’s spinners, their long wait for a win on Asian soil might yet continue.

LYON’S SHARE

Little is likely to be remembered of the third Test between Australia and West Indies, so ransacked of playing time has it been by inclement weather, in a series already convincingly won by the hosts. Yet one statistical quirk – that of Nathan Lyon bringing up his 100th Test wicket in Australia, removing Kraigg Brathwaite on day one – should ensure it is not completely lost in the ether.

It’s taken a long time for the 28-year-old twirlyman’s value to be truly appreciated, but one that is now receiving rightful recognition after becoming his nation’s most successful Test offspinner in history earlier in 2015. Following a decent Ashes showing in England, where most of his team-mates floundered, Lyon has continued his impressive form since returning home.

And his experience and, crucially, ability to adapt to slight changes in pitch conditions is demonstrated clearly when compared to current young counterpart, West Indies’ Jomel Warrican.

Warrican, 23, has made quite an impression in his short Test career, stunning Sri Lanka by removing 4-67 on the first day of his debut bout with them back in October. However, while also exciting during the ongoing Australia tour, a mixture of zapping rigours and youthful exuberance has prevented him from adding the consistency required to frustrate and topple Australia’s batsmen.

Lyon showed the benefits of regularly bowling good lengths in the first Test, 80% of his deliveries at Hobart either landing on or just back of a length, while Warrican wasn’t far behind (70%), 23% of his deliveries were sent down as half volleys, accounting for 46 runs.

1st Test, HobartGood lengthBack of a lengthHalf volley 
Lyon59%21%17%
Warrican63%7%23%

The Australian further proved his reliability by maintaining a line of outside or on offstump 86.1% of the time, where as Warrican managed 74.3%, straying down leg too often and releasing the pressure he had built up.

The difference in control is exemplified again by the number of full tosses bowled by the pair, Lyon sending down just a single full delivery – coming in the second innings of the 2nd Test – unlike Warrican who has bowled 11 so far.

Lyon is, of course, notably aided by a better pace bowling unit who can almost constantly nag away at opposing batsmen. Warrican, meanwhile, is not afforded such a luxury, his side still to undo more than four Australian batsmen in a single innings.

However consistency is key to Warrican’s development, and importantly he has already attempted to make improvements, exhibiting an enhanced understanding and awareness in this series by tightening his lines in the second Test (85.3% outside or on offstump). It is a skill that Lyon built up over a number of seasons, and Warrican can expect to need just as long. Then he may be in a position to know when and how to pitch the ball a little bit fuller or shorter, extracting extra bounce to deceive a batter, just as Lyon did to remove Brathwaite and record his ton.