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Statistical Analysis: South Africa’s Test squad v England

Statistical highlights from the announcement of South Africa’s Test squad for their three match series v England.  Read more

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.

ANALYSING AUSTRALIA’S APOCALYPSE

Freddie Wilde examines the detail behind Australia’s innings and 80 run defeat in Hobart.

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MATCH ANALYSIS: SOUTH AFRICA V NEW ZEALAND, 2ND TEST

After South Africa’s large first innings score in the Second Test at Centurion it was always going to be difficult for New Zealand to save the match with South Africa able to set aggressive fields and reap the benefits of scoreboard pressure. However South Africa still had to take twenty New Zealand wickets and they did so thanks largely to Dale Steyn who took 8-99 from 36.2 overs in the match.

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WORLD T20 2016, SUPER 10 PHASE ANALYSIS

A summary of venue and innings-phase statistics from the Super 10 stage of the ICC World Twenty20 2016

The following data is comprised of the 38 innings that were played over 20 scheduled overs in the Super 10 stage of the ICC World Twenty20 2016. Therefore the rain-reduced match between India and Pakistan is not included.

Phase Breakdowns:

  • Powerplay: 1-6
  • Middle Overs: 7-16
  • Death Overs: 17-20

Venue Analysis

VenueAverage RunsAverage WicketsAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Bangalore142.166.6614.52%36.69%
Delhi140.506.6613.75%38.79%
Dharamsala1388.5012.50%37.08%
Kolkata1456.6616.00%37.95%
Mohali170.665.3317.09%30.52%
Mumbai200.836.1622.07%28.93%
Nagpur1157.838.64%43.58%

Mumbai clearly emerged as the best venue for batsmen with the highest average runs, highest average boundary percentage and lowest average dot ball percentage of all seven venues. Mohali also proved to be a good batting venue coming second to Mumbai in runs, boundary percentage and dot ball percentage and recording fewer average wickets than any other ground.  Nagpur was the toughest batting venue recording the lowest average score, second highest average wickets, lowest boundary percentage and highest dot ball percentage. Dharamsala only hosted one Super 10 match, while Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata proved similar venues across all metrics and make up the middle of the table.


Powerplay Analysis: Batting

TeamAverage Runs ScoredAverage Wickets LostAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan40.252.0014.58%54.86%
Australia53.001.0018.41%47.89%
Bangladesh38.251.7511.80%43.05%
England54.502.2522.91%38.88%
India36.002.3312.03%45.37%
New Zealand46.250.7520.13%50.00%
Pakistan54.001.3325.92%45.37%
South Africa55.501.2527.77%46.52%
Sri Lanka40.752.2515.27%46.52%
West Indies42.661.3319.44%50.00%
Match Winners47.151.3620.61%45.17%
Match Losers44.891.8917.54%47.26%

The most striking set of data from this phase belongs to India who are one of the four Semi-Finalists despite recording the lowest average score, the highest average wickets lost and the second lowest average boundary percentage. Interestingly another Semi-Finalist, West Indies also struggled in the phase, recording the fifth lowest average score and third highest average dot ball percentage. South Africa and Semi-Finalists England both boasted high average runs scored and average boundary percentages largely due to their record-breaking aggregate Powerplay total in their match in Mumbai of 172. England did however record the second highest average wickets lost. Another intriguing set of data belongs to Pakistan, who despite becoming the first ICC Full Member to be unable to qualify for the Semi-Finals recorded the second highest average score, fourth lowest average wickets lost, second highest average boundary percentage and fifth lowest dot ball percentage. Fourth Semi-Finalists New Zealand have batted in all four of their matches and have been chasing modest totals in three of them which accounts for their mid-table average runs scored and high dot ball percentage. Notably they did record the lowest average wickets lost and a healthy boundary percentage. Australia had success in the phase with the fourth highest average score having scored more than 50 in each of their four Powerplays and second lowest average wickets lost.


Powerplay Analysis: Bowling

TeamAverage Runs ConcededAverage Wickets TakenAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan45.752.0022.91%51.38%
Australia42.251.5016.66%45.14%
Bangladesh46.750.7520.13%42.36%
England50.002.0023.61%49.30%
India45.661.3318.51%48.14%
New Zealand43.752.0017.36%43.05%
Pakistan50.661.3319.44%43.51%
South Africa59.252.2523.61%43.75%
Sri Lanka36.751.0014.58%44.44%
West Indies40.502.0013.88%51.38%
Match Losers47.151.3620.61%45.17%
Match Winners44.891.8917.5447.36%

West Indies emerge as the success-story of this phase, conceding the second lowest average runs, taking the joint highest average wickets, the lowest boundary percentage and the joint highest dot ball percentage. Their bowling statistics are boosted by virtue of being the only team to play two matches in Nagpur – the best bowling venue. Sri Lanka also recorded impressive data in this phase conceding the fewest average runs despite taking the second fewest average wickets. They were the only team who didn’t concede more than 40 in the phase.  Semi-Finalists New Zealand recorded impressive figures: the fourth fewest average runs conceded, joint second highest average wickets taken and the fourth lowest boundary percentage and they did so despite playing at four different venues including the relatively high-scoring Mohali. Australia recorded the third lowest average runs concede. Semi-Finalists England and India recorded high average dot ball percentages, the former’s average runs conceded is dented largely by conceding 83-0 against South Africa, India meanwhile, struggled to take wickets finishing with the joint third fewest average wickets taken alongside PakistanSouth Africa, who played twice at Mumbai where attacking cricket is encouraged by conditions, conceded the highest average runs but took the most average wickets.


Middle Overs Analysis: Batting

TeamAverage Runs ScoredAverage Wickets LostAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan66.753.2510.00%36.25%
Australia72.003.2510.93%36.67%
Bangladesh60.754.2512.16%43.76%
England77.252.2511.25%27.08%
India62.003.007.22%35.00%
New Zealand63.003.508.75%36.66%
Pakistan86.332.0016.11%25.55%
South Africa71.502.509.58%27.50%
Sri Lanka69.503.0011.25%35.83%
West Indies78.662.3315.00%38.33%
Match Winners74.102.6312.10%31.66%
Match Losers65.843.319.93%35.88%

Fascinatingly it is Pakistan who boast the most impressive middle over batting statistics ranking first in all four metrics. Of course, this data does exclude their match against India in which they scored 118-5 in 18 overs on a difficult pitch, and they did play two matches in the second highest scoring venue Mohali, but even considering these factors their numbers are still impressive enough to suggest the existence of a trend. Semi-Finalists England and West Indies both registered high average runs scored and low average wickets lost, England also had an impressive dot ball percentage. This is the phase where the Bangladesh batting came unstuck. They recorded the lowest average runs scored, highest average wickets lost and highest dot ball percentage. Interestingly unbeaten Semi-Finalists New Zealand also registered some poor figures in this phase: the third lowest average runs scored, second highest average wickets lost, second lowest average boundary percentage and fourth highest dot ball percentage. They were, of course, chasing relatively low totals in three of those four innings. India recorded a high average wickets lost having lost three and four wickets against New Zealand and Bangladesh respectively. India’s boundary percentage is dragged down by hitting none in the phase against New Zealand. Afghanistan and Australia both lost a relatively high number of wickets in this phase.


Middle Overs Analysis: Bowling

TeamAverage Runs ConcededAverage Wickets TakenAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan64.502.759.58%35.41%
Australia73.752.7512.08%31.25%
Bangladesh81.003.0015.00%29.16%
England90.503.0015.41%28.33%
India65.003.338.33%37.22%
New Zealand47.754.505.91%42.51%
Pakistan74.332.6614.44%33.88%
South Africa73.753.0011.25%27.08%
Sri Lanka68.252.0011.25%36.66%
West Indies60.752.757.08%37.08%
Match Winners65.843.319.93%35.88%
Match Losers74.102.6312.10%31.66%

It is in this phase that New Zealand clearly set themselves apart from the other nine teams in the competition. They are not only ranked first in all four metrics but are so by large margins, particularly in terms of average runs conceded and average wickets taken. Astoundingly in the four combined six over periods between overs seven and thirteen New Zealand conceded only two boundaries and took 12 wickets for just 89 runs. That is a boundary percentage of 1.38% across 24 overs. India were also impressive in this phase, recording the second highest average wickets taken, third lowest average boundary percentage and second highest dot ball percentage. Although they did not take a high number of wickets West Indies conceded very few runs in this phase and had low boundary and high dot ball percentages. Interestingly the fourth Semi-Finalist England conceded more runs on average in this phase than any other team. They did at least take the joint fourth average number of wickets in the phase. Sri Lanka had the lowest average wickets taken while Pakistan were second from bottom in terms of wickets and also had a high boundary percentage.


Death Overs Analysis: Batting

TeamAverage Runs ScoredAverage Wickets LostAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan36.753.0021.87%35.41%
Australia36.002.0519.85%27.65%
Bangladesh36.002.2521.66%27.70%
England49.501.7532.00%21.49%
India30.661.6626.47%38.06%
Match Losers34.502.6618.28%30.53%
Match Winners38.521.5725.15%24.67%
New Zealand39.002.7515.62%20.83%
Pakistan36.662.6615.27%16.66%
South Africa33.002.0011.17%25.04%
Sri Lanka29.252.5018.49%35.34%
West Indies23.501.5012.63%36.49%

Semi-Finalists England dominated this phase scoring the highest average runs and highest average boundary percentage and doing so by considerable margins. They also registered the fourth lowest average wickets lost and third lowest dot ball percentage. Despite completing their run-chases in this phase with relative ease in all four of their innings New Zealand recorded impressive results in all four metrics, particularly average dot ball percentage where they ranked second and did so despite not once facing the full four overs. They did have a high average wickets lost but of all four metrics in this phase wickets lost can be said to be the least important. Although the other Semi-Finalists India and West Indies recorded poor figures in this phase their data is to an extent excusable because India’s numbers are dragged down by being bowled out by New Zealand in the phase after scoring just 13 while West Indies didn’t once face a full four overs having completed their run-chases on three occasions and being bowled out on the other. Having recorded strong numbers for the other two batting phases it is here that Pakistan drop off. They set a mid-table average runs scored and had the lowest dot ball percentage but had the second highest average wickets lost and crucially the third lowest boundary percentage. Sri Lanka struggled in this phase with the second lowest average runs scored, the second highest average wickets lost and the fourth highest dot ball percentage.


Death Overs Analysis: Bowling

TeamAverage Runs ConcededAverage Wickets TakenAverage Boundary Percentage Average Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan 45.501.2528.61%20.46%
Australia41.752.0027.46%15.40%
Bangladesh34.503.0021.66%29.79%
England34.501.2518.75%34.45%
India33.002.6616.66%25.00%
New Zealand25.002.6618.28%30.53%
Pakistan48.001.0025.00%18.05%
South Africa 28.253.5019.04%42.43%
Sri Lanka38.251.0029.22%19.73%
West Indies36.002.7518.75%31.25%
Match Winners34.502.6618.28%30.53%
Match Losers38.521.5725.15%24.67%

After their sensational middle-over phase it is unsurprising that New Zealand dominated the following death over phase recording the lowest average runs conceded, joint third highest average wickets taken and second lowest average boundary percentage – and they did this despite bowling first in their four matches. India also fared well in this phase, registering the third lowest average runs conceded, joint third average wickets taken and the lowest average boundary percentage. Semi-Finalists England were relatively frugal, notably bowling a large number of dot balls. So too were West Indies who recorded the third lowest average runs conceded and third highest dot ball percentage. They were also potent too collecting the third highest average wickets taken. Pakistan, having struggled in the corresponding phase with the bat, did so also with the ball, recording the highest average runs conceded, joint lowest average wickets taken  and second lowest dot ball percentage. Sri Lanka struggled to collect wickets and had high boundary and low dot ball percentages. Afghanistan had a high average runs conceded.


Innings Analysis: Batting

TeamAverage Runs ScoredAverage Wickets LostAverage Boundary PercentageAverage Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan143.758.2513.75%41.66%
Australia161.006.5016.81%32.03%
Bangladesh142.166.6614.52%36.69%
England181.256.2518.85%29.43%
India128.667.0011.68%36.88%
New Zealand148.257.0013.54%37.50%
Pakistan177.006.0018.88%29.72%
South Africa146.007.5011.75%36.96%
Sri Lanka139.507.7513.40%38.60%
West Indies137.505.5013.76%41.31%
Match Winners159.785.5716.88%31.13%
Match Losers143.427.7313.70%38.13%

Having performances well across all three phases England top the batting rankings in terms of average runs scored and average dot ball percentage. Strong showings in the Powerplay and middle over phase from Pakistan as well as two matches in Mohali see them end up with the second highest average runs scored, third lowest average wickets lost, highest boundary percentage and second lowest average dot ball percentage. The runs scored data for New Zealand is somewhat skewed by them having batted second in all four innings but they still managed to be ranked fifth. New Zealand’s high average wickets lost is their weakest performance across phase metrics; they also struggled to hit boundaries – but this can in part be explained by comfortably chasing totals. The West Indies fared poorly in terms of average runs scored but batted second on all four occasions, chasing two out of three low totals. India had the lowest average runs scored and lowest average boundary percentage, two statistics which are largely shaped by being bowled out for 79 against New Zealand. Australia were ranked in the top five across all four metrics. Afghanistan and Sri Lanka had the highest average wickets lost.


Innings Analysis: Bowling

TeamAverage Runs ConcededAverage Wickets TakenAverage Boundary Percentage Average Dot Ball Percentage
Afghanistan155.756.0016.87%36.87%
Australia157.756.2516.26%32.45%
Bangladesh162.256.7517.85%33.07%
England175.006.2518.54%34.79%
India143.667.3313.05%38.05%
New Zealand110.258.509.62%40.89%
Pakistan173.005.0018.05%33.61%
South Africa161.258.7516.46%35.09%
Sri Lanka143.254.0014.90%36.14%
West Indies137.257.5011.45%40.20%
Match Winners143.427.7313.70%38.13%
Match Losers159.785.5716.88%34.13%

England and Pakistan, who had the highest average runs scored also register the highest average runs conceded, low numbers for average wickets taken and the highest two average boundary percentages. Bangladesh had similarly high average runs conceded and average boundary percentage and also bowled relatively few dot balls. Interestingly Australia, who performed mid-table in terms of average runs scored, average wickets taken and average boundary percentage had the worst dot ball percentage. Semi-Finalists New Zealand and West Indies, who batted second in all four of their matches registered the best two average runs conceded figures, second and fourth highest average wickets taken respectively and the two lowest boundary percentages. India recorded mid-table average runs-conceded and took a relatively high number of wickets. South Africa were the most potent bowling team, collecting the highest average wickets taken and Sri Lanka were the least potent bowling team.


Super 10: Aggregate Trends

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Freddie Wilde is a freelance journalist, @fwildecricket. 

RABADA EXCELS WITH CONTROLLED PACE

Dale Steyn is 32 and injuries are creeping up on him. Morne Morkel is 31 and will surely be a fading influence too as time goes on. Meanwhile, Vernon Philander is not far from his 31st birthday and has a potentially difficult rehab in front of him after snapping ankle ligaments late last year.

No wonder South Africa are excited about the emergence of the 20-year-old Kagiso Rabada, who has natural pace, a fluid action and has arrived on the world stage with an almighty bang during the home Test series defeat to England.

Rabada first attracted wider attention in February 2014 at the U19 World Cup. He was one of the top performers in the South Africa squad who won the tournament, and during it he took 6-25 against Australia. Last year, he took 6-16 on his one-day international debut in Dhaka against a Bangladesh side who were good enough to hit and back claim the series. They were the best figures by an ODI debutant and his haul included a hat-trick for good measure.

By then, Allan Donald was among those waxing lyrical about the young man who had been versed in the nuances of the sport at a noted Johannesburg breeding ground for top-class cricketers, St Stithians College.

Donald said: “I am blown away by the knowledge he has got at 19. He wants it badly. He is a great athlete, he has got immaculate work ethic and he has got some gas. He is built like a racehorse, a thoroughbred and that’s exciting.”

Rabada unsurprisingly struggled on India’s featherbed wickets in his first three Tests, but has come of age against England – although he did not start it with a bang. With one eye already on controlling his workload, South Africa’s selectors did not even pick him for the first Test at Durban.

He took four expensive wickets on the flat Cape Town track, but improved considerably to grab 5-78 in the first innings in Johannesburg, and then there was Centurion. Rabada took 7-112 and 6-32 to emerge with 13 match-winning wickets. Only twice previously has a South African taken so many in a Test.

Analysis of our ball-tracking data which is instantly recorded and fed into the CricViz archive to inform all our future predictions has produced some interesting statistics regarding Rabada.

Let’s start with pace, because this is Rabada’s primary asset – and bearing in mind he probably has a few years to go before he reaches his ultimate speed level this will probably remain his greatest quality through his career.

Only 16 deliveries in a Test that lasted five days and featured seven seam bowlers were sent down in excess of 90mph (144.84kph). Rabada bowled 10 of them and the seven fastest of all, with a best of 93.28mph. Morne Morkel bowled the other six and had a good match too with five wickets all told.

The statistics firmly suggest that this was a wicket that rewarded out-and-out pace. Ben Stokes, England’s most successful bowler in the match, was the only one of the tourists’ bowlers to even threaten the 90mph threshhold. Those that kissed the surface and looked for the pitch to outwit the batsmen, such as Stuart Broad (well down on his Johannesburg speeds), Chris Woakes and Kyle Abbott, had modest matches.

Interestingly, James Anderson was much quicker on the fourth morning than he had been on the first – and that must have been a factor in him picking up the wickets of Stephen Cook and AB de Villiers in the same over as England briefly threatened to gain a foothold in the Test.

But let’s get back to Rabada, because he’s the one we’re really interested in. How much does he move the ball in the air and off the pitch? The answer is not a lot compared to others, but clearly it’s enough to take wickets.

Having worked on the CricViz model since last October, the level of deviation which appears to be significant factor on influencing edges and uncertainty among batsmen is two degrees.

If he does move the ball much, Rabada favours outswing to a right-hander (or inswing to a left-hander). He swung 11 deliveries in the match this way by two degrees more and only one (out of 238 legal deliveries) went the other way by the same margin. He did not achieve three degrees of swing in either direction at all.

By contrast, there were 102 outswingers at two degrees-plus by other seamers in the match of which nine went in excess of three degrees. There were also 100 such inswingers of which two (one bowled by Stokes and one by Anderson) came in by more than four degrees. It’s a similar story when we look at deviation off the pitch. In total, 20 balls seamed in by more than two degrees, only one of which was bowled by Rabada. Seventeen balls seamed away by more than two degrees, of which two were bowled by Rabada.

And to focus on an individual delivery, the wicket-taking ball to Joe Root in the first innings, arguably the most important of Rabada’s 13 strikes, barely moved at all. Root was caught behind for 76, the wicket heralding a collapse which turned the game squarely in favour of South Africa.

So how did the bowler do it? Well it was quick enough at over 87mph, it was in that familiar line just outside off stump which can so often cause problems and it was nice and full. Did it move much? No, just 0.83 degrees in the air and 0.45 off the pitch. But Root, one of the world’s best batsmen, nicked off anyway. As the cricinfo commentary observed: “…beautiful line, takes the edge – gottim! Rabada gallops off in celebration, he’s taken out England’s key man! The gazelle bests the lion, full enough to make him play and he just got the ball to curve away.”

Pace, consistency, a beautifully-honed action and intelligence too. Rabada’s got so much, he barely needs swing and seam movement in addition – though the ability to morph into a gazelle from time to time must help.

SOUTH AFRICA’S RECIPE FOR COOK SUCCESS

Alastair Cook holds the key to success for the tourists as the South Africa v England Test series reaches its halfway point. Joe Root, Ben Stokes and James Anderson are notable match-winners for the away side, but the Proteas know that a recovery is very achievable if Cook continues his run of low scores.

The away captain currently averages 10.5 in the series, his lowest average in any of the 37 Test series he has played in. An upturn in form would not be a surprise considering Cook’s pedigree and record-breaking efforts against Pakistan before Christmas, but South Africa have found the right tactics to give the best chance of restraining the opposition batting anchor.

Cook has only twice had a lower batting strike rate than the 36.8 he currently has in this series. How have South Africa restricted Cook?

The durable left-hander often wins a battle of wills when opposition bowling attacks starve him of scoring opportunities. When in form Cook invites bowlers to try a straighter line after getting frustrated with an off stump channel approach. Death by a thousand nudges to leg ensues.

However, South Africa have retained their discipline so far against Cook. BatViz analysis of ball tracking data shows that just six of the 114 balls he has faced in this series would have hit the stumps, 5.3%. For comparison, 13.6% of those faced by opening partner Alex Hales would have struck the timber.

This is partly explained by Hales’ greater exposure to spinners, who generally bowl a higher proportion of balls that would hit the stumps. Nonetheless, Cook has certainly received a lower proportion of full and straight deliveries from the fast men: the team percentage for balls hitting the stumps in all four of England’s innings range between 11% and 18%.

Cook has been unable to rotate the strike, failing to score off 95 of the 114 balls he has faced. 24 of his 42 runs have come in boundaries. Those relief shots into the legside have not been available – 44 of the 52 balls he has faced against the first choice seam line-up of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott have been dots.

Whether Cook can find a way to frustrate the South African pacemen is a key factor in the two remaining Tests. If the skipper has tired the home attack out, the prospects of a sparkling contribution from the middle order is increased.

OPENING VOID

We are in an era of Test cricket, or a mini-era at least, in which opening partnerships are struggling almost as much as they ever have. In only two half-decades since the Second World War have opening partnerships averaged fewer than they have since 2011.

Since January 1st 2011 opening partnerships in Test cricket have averaged 35.07, which is 2.52 runs fewer than the historical average for the first wicket and more notably 6.05 runs fewer than the half decade between January 1st 2006 and December 31st 2010. An even sharper decline can be traced back to the first half decade of this millennium in which opening partnerships averaged 41.60, 6.53 more than they have in the most recent half a decade. The fall of 6.05 runs from the last half decade is considerably greater than the overall fall in average for all wickets of 2.09, suggesting that the decline in the average for opening partnerships is not only the product of an overall decline in averages.

PeriodOpening Partnership AverageOverall Average
All Time37.5932.17
2011-Present35.0733.51
2006-201141.1235.60
2001-200641.6034.24
1996-200133.2330.81
1991-199637.8432.04
1986-199136.9232.84
1981-198635.5532.98
1976-198136.5431.08
1971-197640.3434.24
1966-197138.9330.83
1961-196641.1133.70
1956-196135.6928.02
1951-195633.5929.68
1946-195145.2734.37

The last half decade of opening batting in Test cricket has been defined by the relative lack of consistently successful players. Since January 1st 2011 only Alastair Cook (4839) and David Warner (4277) have scored more than 3000 Test runs as openers while in the half decade before that Cook (4363), Virender Sehwag (4305), Andrew Strauss (3990) and Graeme Smith (3855) all scored well over 3000 runs, and in the decade before that Matthew Hayden (6366), Marcus Trescothick (5162), Justin Langer (4631), Herschelle Gibbs (3955), Chris Gayle (3476), Smith (3332) and Marvan Atapattu (3136) did so too. This abundance of successful openers established a relative golden age for opening partnerships between 2001 and 2011.

PairInningsRunsAverage100s50s
Sehwag & Vijay1079879.8031
Hayden & Jacques1178471.2726
McKenzie & Smith27166466.5658
Gambhir & Sehwag61350560.431019
Hughes & Katich1160460.4024
Jaffer & Karthik1474457.2332
Gibbs & Smith56298356.28710
de Villiers & Smith30164654.8656
Katich & Watson28152354.39310
Petersen & Smith1475954.2125
Strauss & Trescothick52267052.35812
Hayden & Langer113565551.881424
Farhat & Umar1575450.2631

Therefore, principal among the reasons for the sudden and dramatic decline in the returns of opening partnerships since 2011 has been the retirements of many of these hugely successful opening batsmen. Namely, Smith (last Test 2014), Sehwag (2013), Strauss (2012), Hayden (2009), Gibbs (2008), Langer (2007), Atappattu (2007) and Sanath Jayasuriya (2007) as well as the inconsistent selection of Chris Gayle for the West Indies who has only played 27% of West Indies’ 43 Tests since 2011.

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Replacing such prolific batsmen was of course never going to easy; but every team—perhaps with the exception of Australia—have failed to do so. Since 2011 nine of the ten Test match teams have averaged less than 36.66 for their opening partnership and only Australia, with an average of 48.66, have managed more.

TeamPartnersInningsRunsHighAverage10050
Australia11104501323748.661721
South Africa767234613836.65510
Bangladesh848166331235.5825
England10105360423134.65812
India1388288928933.20413
Sri Lanka1491287820732.70315
New Zealand1081263215832.49414
Pakistan1380249517832.40711
West Indies1483245725430.7159
Zimbabwe82864310222.9612

The struggles of opening partnerships since 2011 is reflected in the relative instability of them. Since 2011 the average number of innings per opening pair is 7.17 which is the shortest life-span of an opening partnership since the half decade between 1996 and 2001.

PeriodInningsNumber Of Opening PairsAverage Innings Per Opening Pair
2011-Present7751087.17
2006-20117651067.21
2001-20069221227.55

Of course, replacing players of the quality that retired was never going to be easy, but teams have almost universally struggled to do so. Since the turn of the decade only Warner has emerged to join Cook as a consistently successful Test match opener.

Perennial strugglers Zimbabwe have predictably fared the worst, averaging just 22.96 since 2011.

Sri Lanka and West Indies have tried fourteen different opening combinations, more than any other team, [Sri Lanka, West Indies] but have only given more than ten innings to two and one of those combinations respectively.

Dimunth Karunaratne appears to be a promising prospect for Sri Lanka, with a Test average of 35.97, including a healthy average of 49.66 in bowler-friendly New Zealand, but they are yet to find a partner for him, with Kithuruwan Vithanage the latest to occupy the spot.

West Indies meanwhile are desperately missing Gayle who is 461 runs shy of becoming his country’s most prolific opening batsman ever but is nowhere near the team currently. Kraigg Brathwaite is, and has now played 25 Test matches. With three ducks in his last six innings and five single figure scores in his last ten, he is far from consistent but 94 in his most recent innings against Australia and an average of 33.76 suggests he is worth persisting with. Rajendra Chandrika is Brathwaite’s latest partner.

Similarly to Sri Lanka and West Indies, Pakistan have tried a lot of opening combinations: 13 to be precise, and have had a few relatively successful pairings. After Cook and Warner, Mohammad Hafeez is the next most prolific opening batsman in this half decade and he takes up one spot at the top of the order, leaving Azhar Ali, Shan Masood and Ahmed Shehzad to fight over the second spot.

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New Zealand, who possess the third worst average (30.48) for opening partnerships after Bangladesh (28.55) and Zimbabwe (21.72) since the turn of the millennium, have the makings of a successful pairing in Martin Guptill and Tom Latham. Guptill’s Test record is uninspiring but the Kiwis will hope a century last week against Sri Lanka in Dunedin can be the beginning of him translating the quality he has displayed in limited-overs cricket into the Test arena. Latham meanwhile is arguably the most promising Test opener in the world. In Dunedin Guptill and Latham recorded 50 partnerships in both innings of the Test—the first time a New Zealand opening partnership has done so for six years. Admittedly, the Sri Lankan bowling attack is not the most threatening, but perhaps a corner has been turned.

Ostensibly India appear to have finally solved their opening partnership conundrum which has seen them attempt thirteen different combinations since January 2011. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have now opened together on 33 occasions and average 46.20. However, that average is inflated by huge partnerships of 289 against an Australian team that would go onto be whitewashed by India and 283 against Bangladesh. Excluding those two partnerships Vijay and Dhawan average just 23 together.  With a Test average of 41.09 overall, 47.75 this year and and 45.93 since 2013, Vijay looks to be a solid option for India. It is Dhawan, who has an average of 29 outside of Asia who remains something of a concern. Admittedly, India’s problems are not as serious as those facing other teams, but it would be wrong to assume the Vijay-Dhawan axis is a stable one.

England’s opening problems have attracted a lot of attention, possibly because they have attempted seven combinations (excluding Moeen Ali & Jos Buttler’s cameo in Abu Dhabi) in just 19 Tests since Andrew Strauss’ retirement, but in fact their first wicket average of 35.41 since Strauss’ retirement is merely in line with the global average of 35.07 since January 2011. Indeed, the downward global trend makes England’s decision to axe Nick Compton, who averaged 57.93 with Cook, all the more surprising. None of the other opening partnerships attempted by England since 2011 have averaged more than 36.60. Alex Hales is expected to be the next to be given an opportunity.

Bangladesh have only played 25 Tests since January 2011only Zimbabwe have played fewer—but their first wicket average of 35.58, is only bettered by South Africa and Australia. In that timeframe, Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes have the best average of opening pairs who have played more than ten innings together. However, the only time they batted together outside of Asia was against Zimbabwe.

Despite never appearing to be totally secure Alviro Petersen managed to form a fairly strong partnership with Graeme Smith for South Africa, and at least gave the top order some consistency. However, with Smith and Petersen now retired, neither opening position is safe. It is expected that Stiaan Van Zyl will partner Dean Elgar against England next week with Temba Bavuma, who opened in the final Test against India, lurking down the order. It is apposite of the age that the weakest link of the world’s number one ranked Test nation is their opening batting.

With Chris Rogers and Warner, Australia were the only team in the world with a stable and consistently successful opening partnership. Now Rogers is gone not one team can claim to have two openers who are assured of selection. Joe Burns has made a promising start to his career, but it is far too early to pass judgement on his new axis with Warner.

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Without diminishing what Warner and Rogers achieved it is revealing that they are the most prolific opening partnership of this half-decade with just 2053 runs. In the half-decade before that Cook and Strauss scored 3678 runs together, and in the half-decade before that Hayden and Langer scored 5122 runs together.

Rarely in the history of Test cricket have opening batsmen struggled as much as they are now. The extent to which that is self-inflicted is uncertain but what is certain is that as selectors and coaches itch to make changes to their struggling partnerships they should bear in mind that statistically at least, opening the batting has rarely been harder.

The seeds of success at the top of the order are there for most teams; but they will need patience and care in this harsh age.

With inputs from Patrick Baatz.

BINARY BELL’S UNTIMELY SLUMP

When Ian Bell struck 143 in his first Test innings of 2015 his exclusion from England’s touring party for South Africa seemed unlikely. But seven months is a long time in cricket, especially for England players, the busiest in the Test arena.

Four half-centuries in 23 innings since – top score 65 not out – has resulted in the removal of a senior player that is difficult to argue against. Bell battled hard with little reward against the turning ball in the UAE, but it was his run of low scores against the high class pace bowling of New Zealand and Australia that was perhaps a bigger factor in his axing.

Dale Steyn and co. were presumably considered too big a challenge for a player who failed to record more than a solitary run in nine of those knocks since his century in the Caribbean. Bell’s age counted against him in the choice between the Warwickshire man and Gary Ballance, when the former’s 33 years – or vast Test experience at least – was a crucial factor in his retention earlier in the year.

Both Ballance and Bell were under huge pressure after the second Ashes Test and it was the Yorkshire player who made way for the in-form Jonny Bairstow. The old hand was not only retained, but promoted in the order, batting at three in six Tests since.

So what has changed?  Giving youth a chance and Ballance’s strong start to his career partly explain the switch, but Bell’s twin half-centuries at Edgbaston justified the selectors’ choice – he was thought to be more likely to produce that Ballance in that pivotal Test, and so it proved.

The selectors now think Ballance and Nick Compton are the more likely run-makers, an eye on the future notwithstanding. This might just reflect a personal preference of Trevor Bayliss, but the characteristics of Bell’s slump must have alarmed the selectors.

Nine of Bell’s 22 dismissals since his North Sound ton have been bowled or LBW. Seven of these have been for 0 or 1. A bad habit of binary returns, made worse by the manner of the dismissals.

The balanced tempo that is the hallmark of Bell’s best innings has also deserted him. He was skittish in his crucial knocks at his home ground, seemingly trying to hit his way back into form – a brave approach that made his first innings aberration against Nathan Lyon forgivable.

However, that positive intent has not been maintained. Bell laboured against Pakistan’s spinners, hitting 158 runs in six innings, at a strike rate of 31.6 – the lowest of England’s top order.

A comparison of Bell and Alastair Cook’s innings in the first innings of the third Test at Sharjah shows just how becalmed England’s number three was in his battle to regain form. Being proactive against good spinners on a tricky pitch is not easy, but Bell’s intent was lacking.

He left alone or played defensive shots at 70% of the 158 balls he received in scoring 40. Cook hit 49 from 119 balls, leaving alone or playing defensively to 45% of his deliveries. Bell didn’t just fail to dominate the barrage of spin – 47 of the 51 balls he faced from Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali were dots.

All this points to a player ill-equipped to cope with a skilled South African pace attack that can be complimented by the leg-spin of Imran Tahir. Whether those who fill Bell’s shoes can do so remains to be seen – there might yet be a way back for the 118-Test veteran.