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India’s Flying Start

Ben Jones looks back on a day where India’s seamers showed their immense quality.

Before this summer, England hadn’t lost a Test series at home since 2014;  in June, that record fell as New Zealand were quite simply too good. England haven’t lost the ‘main’ Test series of the summer since 2012; you’d be a confident fan to think that record survives till the end of 2021. 

That isn’t primarily because England are struggling, ticking along as a middling and mediocre Test side, no worse, no better. It’s because India are outstanding. 

The early movement that Virat Kohli’s attack found today was exceptional. 2.6° of swing in the opening five overs was the third most an Indian attack has managed in the opening passage of an innings since records began in 2006. Jasprit Bumrah was finding most of that swing, and Mohammed Shami finding seam at the other end. The set up of Rory Burns was clean and simple, taking it away from his bat before pinning him with the ball coming back. It was indicative of the elegant, high quality cricket, founded on mastery of orthordox skills, through unorthodox means.

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It should be no surprise, given the bowlers on show are among the best in the world. Take Bumrah. Only 9% of his balls in England have been categorised as ‘not swinging’, the lowest proportion of any bowler in the CricViz database. He hoops it, and he does so in different ways. Sometimes, the late, almost reverse-style dives into the stumps; sometimes, the arcing, orthodox shape of James Anderson at his best. 

At times, with the lights on in the Evening Session and England’s tail at the crease, it was far from a fair fight. Having ‘dismissed’ James Anderson LBW before a review overturned the decision, he bowled him next ball, and greeted England’s greatest ever bowled with a cheerful grin as if to underline the lack of tension in the situation. In truth, it was a grin which could have graced each of Bumrah’s four dismissals, for the same reason. After the frankly disrespectful criticism he received after the World Test Championship Final, when his Expected Average was the best of any bowler on either side, it was a joy to see him flourish.

After all the discussion of Shami’s luck, or lack thereof, we saw a clear reversal today. In 2018 his false shot percentage was outrageous, forcing mistake after mistake – but without reward. Partly, that was blamed on him bowling too short, partly on poor fortune. Today, he made a gesture towards the former, and the latter met him halfway. His length in Nottingham was 20cm fuller, on average, than in 2018. While that actually coincided with his Expected Average getting slightly worse (going from 23.2 to 23.7), it came with a healthy dose of increased luck. 

A generous spectator could claim that wicket of Dom Sibley, while fortunate, did at least involve bowling to a plan with the man in close on the legside, the wicket of Dan Lawrence was a textbook strangle down leg, good and bad fortune unequally between batter and ball. Bairstow’s wicket was a beautiful piece of bowling, exploiting the Englishman’s age-old issues with balls on his stumps, but in a manner which accommodated the new off stump trigger; five of Shami’s deliveries were on that leg stump line, and the fifth took him out. 

India’s Expected Bowling Average, 22.8, was lower than all but one of their innings during the 2018 series. The qualities on show were elite, and historic in the manner they all came together. Indeed, since 2006 there has been only one occasion where any side has matched all of India’s swing, pace, and accuracy from today, in the same innings. 

Shardul Thakur played his part. For much of the day, he was tasked with bowling a wide line, swinging the ball away from the right-handers. While Thakur is a skilful bowler capable of finding considerable movement, he was in effect being used defensively. 45% of his deliveries were wide outside the off stump, comfortably the most of any bowler on show. In the absence of Ravichandran Ashwin, the importance of one seamer playing that role was clear; while his economy of 3.2rpo suggests it wasn’t entirely successful. He got his reward against Joe Root, when one of the three deliveries he bowled all day which would have hit the stumps, snuck past the defences of the England skipper. It was classic sucker-ball bowling, and it kicked England while they were down.

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India bowled extremely well against New Zealand. They kept up their side of the bargain, in terms of coming to the party at the pinnacle of the format. Kane Williamson’s side had the quality to resist, and the bowling ability to keep the pressure on when the time came. England did not.

There will be some frothing words written about the home side’s lack of preparation, but India’s has hardly been much better. They have played one FC game ahead of the series; England have played none. Kohli’s side aren’t waltzing in midway through the Ranji. English society adores the idea of itself as nuanced and polite, a cauldron of civility; English cricket is the same. In reality, it’s as reactionary and erratic as any cricket culture in the world, and an early look at tomorrow’s back pages and CMS shows it further.

But this isn’t about England. The coaches have said this isn’t their priority, and so does the schedule. Some people find that a problem, some don’t – either way, it’s a dull debate. What is not dull, is the ever-rising reputation of Virat Kohli’s India. 

India’s failure in the World Test Championship Final was reminiscent of England’s tour of Pakistan in 2012; a side looking to cement their place in the all-time great list, snagging when given a short opportunity to tick off an achievement. Had India won that match in Southampton, they would have had a unique title to their name, and thus a significant boost to their credentials as one of the Great Test Sides. While that title slipped through their fingers, this series offers a chance to make a more traditional statement; beating England over five Tests is harder than beating New Zealand in one, but it’s an achievement which stands alongside historical equivalents. Yet ultimately, India are a side that deserves to stand along with the greats. Whichever achievement, they can grasp, they’ll take.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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