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England’s Flexibility

Ben Jones analyses a day where England showed a willingness to adapt, in order to win.

England are on the brink. 

If Joe Root’s side don’t find a way to win tomorrow, they will be met with a second consecutive non-victory in home series. While some found the Australian celebrations and tales of redemption a little strange last summer – they still have not won on English shores since 2001 – England cannot claim the same credit for drawing (at the very best) with this West Indies series, as they did for tieing with an excellent Australian side. If they don’t find a way to win this series, questions should be asked, and will be asked. In an age when teams don’t win away from home, let alone when they’re the underdogs, any West Indies success needs to be looked at long and hard. England know this, and will be scared of the consequences.

In exceptional circumstances, with things on the line, you find yourself willing to try different things.

In the morning, England were conventional. They opened up with their two most senior bowlers, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad, both of whom bowled perfectly well. They were replaced by the natural first change bowler, and then followed with the traditional overs of spin before lunch. Dom Bess’ effort ball, gripping and spinning and deceiving Alzarri Joseph, was as close to the unorthodox as England got. A whole session with only the nightwatchman removed, and the game was drifting.

And then, in the afternoon England adapted. They were in a hole, with the game slipping through their fingers, and they went away from what has generally been their game. 

Shamarh Brooks gave them a pointer. Facing some early deliveries at his stumps, Brooks was flicking a whipping with the stylish control of Laxman, asserting himself on the game at a time when Kraigg Brathwaite was content to soak up the pressure. And so, with England emphatically told not to bowl on his pads, Joe Root directed his bowlers to the other end of the pitch. It was time to go short.

It was the highest proportion of short balls that England have bowled in a session at home since the final Test against Pakistan in 2016, at The Oval. 57% of all their deliveries were dug in short. England were forced into this situation, the game falling out of their grasp, thrown to the extremes where radical tactics were necessary.

57 was the number of the day, clearly, the number of short balls that Ben Stokes, off the back of a 300-ball innings, delivered single-handedly across his spell. In a spell of 12 overs, almost every ball was a short ball, and it was comfortably the most short balls that Stokes has sent down in a Test session. As if his marathon effort with the bat in the first innings hadn’t been enough, England looked to Stokes again, to take control again.

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A legs-pumping Broad burst with the new ball is nothing other than textbook at this point, the only thing worth noting is that his absence at Southampton probably cost England victory. But even Broad was moving away the script; the spell he sent down before the new ball was the shortest he’s bowled in Test cricket since the Perth Ashes Test of 2017. He might have pitched up with the new ball, but he earned it. He did his doggies.

Then, with the West Indies having valiantly made it past the follow-on target, England had to innovate again. Dom Sibley and Rory Burns are a very exciting pair, and seem set to open in the immediate future, but they are not aggressors. Both have had some success in white ball, but nothing compared to the men below them in the order. England were willing to disrupt the natural order in order to force a win.

It was the first time that Ben Stokes has opened the batting in a first-class match. He’s never opened the bowling, but you feel in this new environment, without the rigid hierarchy that comes with an ever-present Broad and Anderson, Stokes could easily break that duck soon. 

The effect that England were after, by promoting these two, was immediately clear. Buttler may have dragged on to a good Kemar Roach delivery, and Zak Crawley may have joined him back in the dressing room on a few overs later, but England were clearly trying to engineer something different. Only once in the CricViz database (2006-present) has a team attacked as much in the first eight overs of a Test innings, and that was when England were chasing in 2015 against Pakistan – perhaps not coincidentally, the last time that Buttler opened in a Test. England were intent on trying things, on adapting to the circumstances. England will want 80+ overs to bowl at the West Indies – as Broad affirmed in interviews at the end of the day.

This is how County Championship games often go. One team bats big, then the game becomes a chase for the follow on; if that chase fails, then you get flailing of the bat. This is the formula for a four day game, which is what we have at Old Trafford, thanks to the least welcome resident of a beautiful city – the weather. Part of the change in rhythm from county to Test cricket is that Time is a less conspicuous presence, and not simply because there are normally more spectators. The innovation that England displayed is a familiar one, when results are being hunted in domestic cricket.

A sort of traditional flexibility – it sounds like a juxtaposition of incompatible ideas, but it isn’t.

There has been a lot said about four-day Tests, much of it unnecessary or half-informed. There are legitimate questions regarding weather intervention, and plenty of other illegitimate objections. It is true that, had this been a scheduled four-day Test, we would have run out of overs and the game would have petered out. Equally, had there been no intervention from the rain, we would be staring down the barrel of two very, very dull days of cricket before this match was completed. Neither is a compelling case for either. But you will rarely here proponents of one idea acknowledge the value of the other argument.

Today, England showed that sometimes, being pushed into a corner can force you into a creativity which only enriches the sport, the sort that should be encouraged, not feared.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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