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CricViz Analysis: Joe Root

As England suffer heavy defeat in the First Test in Mount Maunganui, Patrick Noone looks at some worrying trends in Joe Root’s recent Test dismissals

We need to talk about Joe Root. It was another failure for England’s captain as the tourists lost the First Test in Mount Maunganui, folding to an innings defeat with little more than a whimper. The concern for Root is not so much that he missed out again, rather the manner of his dismissal was representative of his recent form in the Test arena.

In the first innings of this match, Root took 20 balls to get off the mark, then finally scored two runs before immediately nicking off. That can happen – this was a flat pitch but a slow one; runs hardly flowed at any point throughout the five days and bowlers are allowed to bowl well. Root is an experienced enough player to be able to negotiate his way through those tough passages, but on this occasion he was unable to do so.

In Root’s previous Test before this series – England’s victory at the Oval in September – he scored arguably the scratchiest 50 of his career. Sure, it was still a half century, but for a batsman who used to make runscoring appear so natural, so easy, so effortless, Root’s recent run of form is becoming part of a wider worrying trend. It’s possible to find isolated reasons to excuse each knock in Root’s current streak of 14 innings without a century, but at what point do England recognise their skipper’s form is a cause for genuine concern?

It’s no secret that Root’s raw numbers have been in decline since he took over the captaincy from Alastair Cook in 2017. His average is fully 13 runs lower in his 34 Tests as captain than in the 53 he played before assuming the role, a record that compares hugely unfavourably with the other members of the ‘Big Four’, an elite group to which Root’s membership must surely have expired.

Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have all shown that it’s possible to become captain and improve as a batsman at the same, but for whatever reason, Root’s form has gone in the other direction and his technique has never looked more uncertain than it does now.

The barometer for a player of Root’s talent should be that elite level, but too often in recent matches, Root has been guilty of finding a peculiar way to get out, rather than doing whatever is necessary to stay in. In this very match, it took a snorter from Sam Curran with one of the few balls that misbehaved off the pitch to dismiss Williamson, while both of Root’s dismissals could generously be described as soft.

Colin de Grandhomme is not a bowler known for bouncing people out. In fact, before dismissing Root today, the all-rounder only had one Test wicket to his name from a delivery pitching shorter than 8m from the batsman’s stumps. The ball de Grandhomme bowled to get Root couldn’t even be said to have had the element of surprise, given he attempted a bouncer the previous delivery, only for it to be called a wide by the umpire. Root was nonetheless hurried far more than a batsman of his quality should be by a 124kph bouncer and could only tamely divert it to Tom Latham in the gully.

Maybe Root’s current travails are not directly correlated to his being burdened by the captaincy; cricket is rarely as binary as that and there are likely other factors at play – his shifting between number three and number four and the high turnover of openers above him in the batting order, to name two. However, it is hard to not think back to Smith’s performance during the recent Ashes series and wonder if Root could become similarly liberated if unencumbered by the mental fatigue that comes with leading the side.

None of this is to say that Root cannot rediscover his form, or that he is finished at the top level. The instinctive reaction is to think that he is far too talented a player to not rediscover the form that established him among the game’s elite. But right now, England need something to change after sleepwalking to another defeat and their need for Root the batsman is greater than their need for Root the captain.

For all the talk of England’s new era of prioritising Test cricket and putting a renewed emphasis on ‘traditional’ batting, this loss had many of the hallmarks of previous overseas defeats under Root’s stewardship. An inability to capitalise on a solid position with the bat, a lack of a penetration with the Kookaburra ball in unhelpful conditions, topped off by a mini collapse with the bat for good measure.

England would have hoped a new coach, some new faces and a well-earned break for Root during the T20 series might have added up to a rejuvenated skipper, fresh to steer the team through its next stage of development. One defeat is far too early to be writing off a new regime and while now might not be the time for kneejerk reactions, the question England have to answer is whether relieving Root of the captaincy would be quite as kneejerk as it might seem.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: Mitchell Santner

Patrick Noone analyses the New Zealand all-rounder’s maiden Test ton

If Day 3 was a case of England being ground down by New Zealand, Day 4 was little more than the remains of the tourists’ faint hopes of salvaging a win in this Test match being disdainfully cast aside by the ruthless Black Caps. Every team is allowed a bad day in Test cricket; even the very best sides endure hours in the field where a combination of bad luck, below par performances and poorly laid plans contrive to see themselves lose whatever initiative they might have had.

Bad days can be written off with the usual platitudes: take the positives, put it to the back of our minds, let’s go again tomorrow etc. However, when one bad day turns into two, there are few things more dispiriting for a fielding team. How often have we seen a partnership hold firm until stumps, only to be broken within the first few overs on the following day? For England, there was no such respite as BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner batted the best part of two sessions as this gruelling juggernaut of a Test match trudged along with an unwieldy grimness.

It was not the first instance in recent times that England have made heavy weather of dismissing the opposition’s lower order in Test cricket. Since the start of 2018, no team to have played five or more matches has a higher bowling average against batsmen from number eight onwards. The likes of Tim Southee, Mitchell Starc and Ravindra Jadeja have all recorded half centuries against Joe Root’s side in that time, while Jason Holder took tail wagging to new extremes with his 202* in Bridgetown back in January.

Santner didn’t quite reach those heights in terms of the volume of runs he scored, but his maiden Test century was an innings that represented a coming of age for him as a batsman. Across the 269 balls he faced, Santner faced a variety of challenges from England’s tiring attack. He was equal to just about all of them to the point that, by the end of innings, he was dictating terms and striking the ball around Bay Oval at will.

When Santner arrived at the crease at the start of the evening session on Day 3, England’s seam bowlers peppered him with short-pitched bowling. 91% of the balls the quicks bowled to Santner in that session were short. He looked uncomfortable at times and he was only able to score off four of the bouncers he faced but, as Mark Richardson said on commentary, it’s ok to look uncomfortable against the short ball, as long as you don’t get out to it.

And Santner survived, forcing England to recalibrate their plans to him this morning. Only 32% of the balls he faced in the first session today were short, and that allowed him to settle into his innings and play the ideal support role to Watling as New Zealand continued their steady accumulation of runs.

Santner showed much greater intent this morning, upping his attacking shot percentage from 12% on Day 3 to 24% in the first session of Day 4. Though he continued to score slowly, it was clear that he was becoming more comfortable at the crease, laying the platform for him to accelerate after lunch.

Buoyed by the freedom that New Zealand’s ever-increasing lead provided him, Santner cut loose in the afternoon session, attacking over half the balls he faced and hitting seven sweetly struck fours and four towering sixes between mid-off and midwicket. Three of those fours came off a single Stuart Broad over, taking Santner from 57 to 69 in the space of five balls – his previous 13 runs had come from 47 deliveries.

Santner then added the 31 runs he needed to reach three figures in just 36 balls; the holding pattern that the game had fallen into during the earlier part of the day was a distant memory. While Santner and Watling were merely working the ball around, England seemed happy enough that they weren’t being hurt by New Zealand. Santner’s acceleration changed all of that, taking the game even further away from England and looking every inch the genuine Test all-rounder.

Santner would ultimately fall for 126, attempting one big shot too many and holing out to long on. His partnership with Watling had lasted exactly 500 balls, yielded 261 runs and succeeded in batting England entirely out of the game. When the previous wicket of Colin de Grandhomme fell immediately after the tea break on Day 3, England still had an outside chance of claiming a first innings lead. By the time Santner was dismissed, New Zealand were 224 runs ahead.

It was an important innings for Santner who, despite having established himself as a key part of New Zealand’s white ball setup, has been in and out of the Test team. Seamers have dominated for the Black Caps in home Tests in the last two years, picking up 101 consecutive wickets before Santner himself emphatically broke the sequence himself by dismissing Dom Sibley, Rory Burns and Jack Leach in the last half hour of play. With the role of the spinner therefore something of a bit-part player, it has been Santner’s batting potential that has set him apart from the other contenders for the position, namely Todd Astle, Ish Sodhi and Ajaz Patel.

But being picked on potential is one thing, delivering on it is quite another. Today was the day when Santner arrived as a batting force in the longest form of the game, showing patience, skill and clinical aggression to cement his side’s commanding position in this match.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: BJ Watling

Patrick Noone analyses the New Zealand wicketkeeper’s century

The term ‘dark horse’ is a label that follows the New Zealand cricket team to every major tournament they compete in. No matter how many World Cup finals they reach, or how many world class players they produce, there remains the perception that the Black Caps are somehow punching above their weight, gatecrashers to the very top table of international cricket. There was even a time when, because of a sponsorship deal with The National Bank of New Zealand, the team wore the logo of a dark horse on their shirts – an inadvertently fitting nod to the oft-referenced moniker.

In truth, the idiom does players such as Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Trent Boult a disservice. ‘A usually little-known contender that makes an unexpectedly good showing’ is not an accurate description for some of the world’s finest cricketers, yet the depiction of New Zealand as plucky underdogs persists.

However, there was an irony on Day 3 in Mount Maunganui that it was not one of New Zealand’s more heralded names who caused England the most damage. Williamson and Taylor had both been dealt with on Day 2, and it was left to BJ Watling and Colin de Grandhomme to grind out a 119-run partnership on a pitch that offered the visiting bowlers little in the way of assistance.

Watling is a player who often flies under the radar, even by New Zealand’s standards. In terms of the current Black Caps’ batsmen he is, well, a dark horse. And yet even for Watling, that reputation is arguably unfair. Only five men in Test history have a higher batting average than him with the gloves, and three of them are Adam Gilchrist, Andy Flower and AB de Villiers, all rightly recognised as some of the finest keeper-batsmen of the last 20 years.

Perhaps it’s because Watling has rarely been a regular in New Zealand’s more visible white ball teams that he – unfairly – becomes something of an afterthought in the Test team. Watling has shown himself to be a batsman of serious quality over the last few years and today’s innings should only add to his legitimate claim to being the best wicketkeeper batsman in the longest format.

When Watling brought up his century in 251 balls, he had all but eschewed playing down the ground. Only seven runs came in the V between mid-on and mid-off and four of them were from a single on-drive after Stuart Broad over-pitched. Watling instead accumulated his runs square of the wicket on both sides of the ground, punishing England whenever they were either too wide or too straight.

Watling’s technique is simple and unspectacular, but extremely effective. He knew exactly where his off-stump was throughout his innings, only offering one scoring shot from balls in the corridor of uncertainty on a fourth stump line. England’s seamers bowled 42% of their deliveries in that area, yet Watling had the discipline and the patience to simply keep them out and not look to score.

In all, Watling defended 38% of the balls he faced, the highest percentage of any top six batsman in the match. That speaks volumes about the way he went about his business, not only highlighting how obdurate he was at the crease, but also shining a light on England’s shortcomings in that regard. As the visitors try and rediscover the art of Test batting, Watling provided a compelling blueprint of what they should be aiming for; composed, ruthless accumulation.

In the death throes of the day’s play, England thought they finally had their man when Jofra Archer bowled an exceptional inswinging knuckle ball that struck the batsman on the front pad. Umpire Bruce Oxenford raised the finger but – almost inevitably – Watling had managed to get a thin inside edge and survived by the barest of margins. England would already have known that it was going to take a moment of magic to dislodge Watling and knowing that Archer had produced it, only for the wicket to be snatched away was the icing on top of a particularly demoralising cake.

This Test match has been a war of attrition almost from ball one. It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the game’s most patient and obdurate batsmen should play a key role. If England fail to win this match, they will look back on the middle order collapse on the second day that meant they could barely reach 350. Conversely, Watling showed England how to grind out a Test innings on a lifeless pitch. He might be forever destined to be the darkest of all New Zealand’s dark horses, but his innings today was a timely reminder that his good showings should be anything but unexpected.  

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: Tim Southee

Patrick Noone analyses how a familiar foe hurt England again

Tim Southee’s participation in this Test was not guaranteed in the build-up to the game. Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry were both vying for selection, but the Black Caps opted for the experience of their senior new ball bowler. After leading the New Zealand attack for the best part of a decade, there was the sense that the right-armer’s powers were on the wane having lost his place in the ODI team and delivering modest returns in some of recent Test outings.

Southee is bowling a fraction slower than he has been in recent years, with his average speed in 2019 down at 131.84kph after hovering around 133-134kph for every year between 2011 and 2018. But Southee’s threat has never solely been about pace; movement both through the air and off the pitch has been his lifeblood across all formats. That, coupled with canniness to outwit batsmen with subtle variations, has made Southee one of the most potent quicks of this era.

His average speed in England’s innings was just 129.44kph, the slowest he’s been in a home Test since 2010, but Southee found 1.3° of swing, the second most he’s found in a home Test since 2009. He was a threat on Day 1, drawing a false shot with 10% of the balls he bowled, and was economical without picking up more than the solitary wicket of Joe Denly. On Day 2, his false shot percentage rose only slightly to 11% and he was much more expensive, but that translated into three wickets that ripped out England’s middle order just as they were looking well set to post a formidable score.

Southee made up for his relative lack of pace by varying his position on the crease. On Day 1, he broadly stuck to two distinct groupings when bowling over the wicket – either close to the stumps or slightly wider – as he focussed on regularly hitting a good line and length. On Day 2 he made a subtle change, adding more variety by spreading his release points across a much larger area, rather than sticking to the two groupings he had preferred on Day 1. This kept the England batsmen guessing as Southee traded accuracy and ‘bowling dry’ for more threatening wicket-taking deliveries.

Ben Stokes was Southee’s first victim on Day 2, dismissed edging a ball that was bowled wider than any other from around the wicket. It was the perfect ball to a left-hander – angling in and then seaming away 0.6°, the most of any ball Southee had bowled at that stage of the innings.

Southee followed up that key dismissal with two wickets in two balls in his next over, first enticing Ollie Pope to flash at a very wide one outside his off-stump and then nailing Sam Curran on the pad with his quickest ball of the day at 133.05kph.  

The way Southee picked up his three wickets only served to emphasise how versatile a bowler he is. Yes, both Stokes and Pope were guilty of injudicious drives, but Southee helped create the opportunity for them to do so by changing his release points so adeptly without greatly compromising his accuracy. In the space of 11 balls, Southee had picked up three wickets, one wide to the left-hander, one wide to the right-hander and one dead straight, bisecting the previous two deliveries.

Southee fell short of completing a hat-trick, his radar uncharacteristically askew as Jofra Archer was able to work the next ball through fine leg, but the damage had been done and England had gone from eyeing a total in excess of 400 to suddenly feeling as though 350 was a long way away.

Today was not the first time Southee has saved his best for England. Last year, he memorably took four of the ten wickets that fell on the first morning of the series as Joe Root’s side were routed for 58 at Eden Park. While in the 2015 World Cup, his 7-33 set the Black Caps on their way to another crushing win. His performance across the last two days was perhaps not as explosive as those earlier instances, but there was plenty to admire in the subtlety with which Southee went about his business in delivering damaging blows to the England middle order.

All fast bowlers can expect to gradually lose pace in the latter part of their career. Southee, three weeks shy of his 31st birthday, is perhaps starting to enter that final chapter and the challenge for a bowler of his style is to find ways to keep threatening top level batsmen even as elements of his armoury are diminished. While his body might be starting to slow, his mind is showing no sign of letting him down; today he showed how to use all his experience and nous to develop innovative ways to continue to be a thorn in England’s side, possibly for a few more years to come yet.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: New Zealand v England, 1st Test, Day 1

Patrick Noone analyses the Day 1 action from Bay Oval

“When you win the toss – bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague – then bat.”

The above quote, attributed to WG Grace, is reflective of a bygone era. An era of sticky wickets and gentlemen and players when runs on the board were king. The game is wildly different today and perceptions have changed since Grace made his famously dogmatic proclamation. The rise of short form cricket has encouraged teams to regularly chase while teams make informed decisions at the toss based on a multitude of data rather than convention.

However, despite the many advances that the game has undergone in the last 150 or so years, there remains an ingrained culture in the cricketing psyche that batting first is somehow the ‘correct’ choice to make when the coin falls in your favour. Nasser Hussain’s decision to bowl first in Brisbane in 2002 has passed into infamy, but you hear less about Joe Root opting to bat first at Lord’s against Pakistan in 2018, despite both matches ending in similarly heavy defeats.

In Test history, 73% of teams winning the toss have chosen to bat first. Even in more recent, enlightened times, that figure is still up at 67% in the last 20 years. Yet New Zealand has always been a setting in which that trend has been bucked. Nearly 55% of the 213 matches hosted there have seen the team winning the toss choose to bowl first; no other country has seen more than 37% of teams choose to insert the opposition.

The recent trend has been even more skewed in favour of teams opting to bowl, with only two of the previous 33 toss winners before today choosing to bat first in New Zealand. Perhaps seduced by pitches that often contain more than a tinge of green, or the reputation New Zealand has of being swing-friendly, teams have overwhelmingly opted to get ball in hand on the first morning.

Except today, at a new Test venue, England chose to go against the grain. Despite the typically verdurous appearance of the pitch Root opted to bat, making him the first captain for two and a half years to choose to bat first in New Zealand.

Making such a decision against Tim Southee and Trent Boult in home conditions might have provoked trepidation for a touring team, especially one with as many recent batting demons as England, yet the new opening partnership of Dom Sibley and Rory Burns acquitted themselves well while New Zealand could be accused of wasting the new ball.

On Test debut, Sibley faced 63 balls and was able to see off the threat of Southee and Boult, despite the new ball pair finding a healthy average of 2.2° of swing and 0.4° of seam movement. Sibley was relatively untroubled by the movement and even less so by the line of attack that New Zealand adopted.

In First Class cricket, Sibley scores 64% of his runs on the leg-side. New Zealand either didn’t know this, or executed their plan to counter it poorly, bowling too straight when they went straight and too wide when they went wide. It meant Sibley could flick off his pads at will or simply let the ball go. It was not until Colin de Grandhomme found the line that was close enough to Sibley’s stumps that he couldn’t leave it, and full enough that he felt he could score runs off it.

Sibley’s debut innings wasn’t as long as he would have wanted it to be, and he’s unlikely to win many awards for aesthetics, but it was effective in seeing off the new ball threat and vindicating the decision to bat first. A compelling argument could be made that New Zealand’s wayward lines were as much a product of Sibley forcing the bowlers to bowl where he wanted them to as it was the Kiwi bowlers searching for the magic delivery.

That patience and diligent shot selection is something England have lacked in recent years. Since the start of the 2018 home summer, only three innings of 50 balls or more from England openers have seen a higher leave percentage than Sibley’s 37% today. It’s a statistic that is indicative of both England’s new regime and the one that preceded it; new coach Chris Silverwood has emphasised the need for batsmen to ‘bat time’ and become a more solid Test match outfit. The experiment to turn Jason Roy into a swashbuckling Test match opener already feels like a distant memory.

These were the first tentative steps into England’s Cautious New World on what was far from a perfect day for the visitors. Root’s strange run of form continued as he nicked off for just two off 21 balls, while Joe Denly had his cage rattled by Neil Wagner as England failed to significantly up the run rate in the middle session. In their defence, so rarely have England’s openers laid a platform for the middle order, it should hardly be a surprise when they’re unable to capitalise on one when it arrives.

But with the emphasis now seemingly less on scoring rates and more on crease occupation, England will be pleased with the efforts of all of the top three batsmen. Between them, Sibley, Burns and Denly faced 63.3 overs; only once since the Boxing Day Ashes Test in 2017 have an England top three faced more balls in an innings.

Last time they arrived on New Zealand soil, England were blown away for 58 in Auckland – on that occasion they effectively chose not to bat, even after being sent in by New Zealand. Today, they might have had doubts, but they chose to bat; they might have big doubts, but they chose to bat. The transition from one era to the next might not be seamless, but this was a step in the right direction for an England side looking to embrace its new identity.

Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.

@patnoonecricket

CricViz Analysis: The Demise of Moeen Ali

After a poor winter, Moeen Ali has been dropped from the England team. Ben Jones looks at the data to explain what went wrong for the Beard That’s Feared.

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