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Pakistan’s New Ball Magic

Ben Jones analyses the devastating three wicket burst from the tourists.

Pakistan are good at pace bowling – who knew. In a rapid fire assault on the English batting order, Azhar Ali’s side reduced the hosts to 12-3 in 5.3 overs of magnificent new ball bowling. At the start of the innings, England’s chances of winning the Test were 37% according to WinViz; by the end of that 33 ball attack, it had fallen to 12%.

After all the scrapping of Shan Masood – only twice since records began has a Pakistan batsman left the ball more often in a Test knock – Azhar’s bowlers had license to come out all guns blazing for a session, as the Manchester sun set across the sky. My, how they took that license.

Mohammad Abbas is the most accurate seamer in the CricViz database. He pitches a higher proportion of his deliveries on a good line and length than any ‘pace’ bowler to send down 600+ deliveries since 2006. He might be slow, he might not look threatening, but he gets the ball in the right areas more often than not, and more often than everyone else. That’s his modus operandi, and he does it better than anyone in the world. Only Mohammad Asif averages less when seaming the ball (min 600 balls) since records began, Abbas the king of cricket’s subtlest art.

Shaheen Shah Afridi is king of its’ most bold and and brash – he pitches up, and swings it. With the new ball, Shaheen bowls full 40% of the time, the third most in the world after Tim Southee and Colin de Grandhomme – Shaheen is a good 6kph quicker than Southee. He is an outrageously attacking bowler, a young man with the instincts of a white ball bowler, a format where wickets are of less value but receive greater pageantry. Shaheen has worked out that that what worked for him in limited overs – pitch up, swing, at pace – is good enough for the grand old format that is Test cricket.

Today, Shaheen found 1.6 degrees of swing in that first 10 overs. No other bowler in the match found more than 0.9 degrees at the equivalent point in the innings. He was pitching up with 48% of his deliveries, the most of anyone in the game. He was a piledriver, refusing to give England an edge. 

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Rory Burns was struck infront on the pad,  full and straight and overturned after being not out. Before this Test, Burns averaged 83 against balls on his stumps from seamers – it takes something special to remove him, but luckily, that’s something in which Shaheen specialises.

Abbas pinned Sibley LBW with a classic Abbas-ball, one which nipped off the seam and had, according to our Expected Wickets model, a 31% chance of taking a wicket based on trajectory alone. Abbas producing understated jaffas is nothing new. Abbas producing straightforward front-page worldies, such as the one that dismissed Ben Stokes, is; Abbas’ record against England’s talisman now reads 12 balls, no runs, two wickets.

The sum of it all was a remarkable opening passage, where Pakistan’s Expected Wickets in the first 10 overs was 1.8 – only two touring teams have started an innings better in England since records began. They were a bustling, balanced surge of aggression and precision, the net result of which was an almost perfect new ball burst.

The last time Pakistan the first three wickets in an innings, in less than the 5.3 overs it took today, was November 2005, against England; it was also the last time England lost their first three wickets quicker. English supporters have grown used to top order subsidence, but even this is something else.

Ollie Pope met the onslaught with an onslaught of his own. Joe Root not so much; he scored just seven runs from his first 50 balls, the lowest score he’s ever recorded. Some fight fire with fire, some with a big bucket of sand. Pope attacked more than the global average (31%) and played with less risk, a false shot percentage of just 12%. The disparity in performance between England’s No.3 and No.5 was instructive and, for the hosts, alarming.

As was the entirety of this evening session. There is little more thrilling than a touring attack launching their statement of intent in the first innings of a series, demanding to be taken seriously, imposing themselves on the hosts with every ball that they bowl. That’s what Pakistan, with Shaheen and Abbas, did tonight in Manchester. Nothing could have set the series up better.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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