Ben Jones looks at the standard of bowling in a match for the ages.
Reading the rhythm of this Test match has not been easy. Rain delays make it tougher to grab onto the familiar markers of the five day game, to recognise the important passages and to feel the way the game is progressing. The game doesn’t sit in your mind in the same way, similar to when you watch an overseas Test and don’t quite know when the session ends. Those parameters matter. If you watched ‘The Godfather’ in 20 minute chunks over a week, you wouldn’t think it was much cop; ‘Blue’ wouldn’t be all that, in 10 second spurts.
And so, while the weather interruptions ensured that progress was sedate, it was easy to miss that the actual action in the middle did little to speed things along. This has been a remarkably slow, old-fashioned Test, when we’ve managed to get out into the middle. The run rate in the first two innings of this match was just 2.25rpo. That’s the slowest for a Test in England since 2000, and the slowest for any Test match since 2013. This was an arm-wrestle, good and proper.
Frankly, it needs to be said – the standard of bowling, from both sides, has been exceptional. The Expected Strike Rate in this game has been 46.1, the 6th lowest for any Test on record (since 2006), in essence suggesting that the wicket-taking threat on show is almost unprecedented in the modern era. The fact that none of the five Tests with lower xDR showcase a better Actual Dismissal Rate illustrates the quality of batting as much as anything else.
It should be no surprise, really. One of the excellent things about having a World Test Championship Final is that it (artificially) ensures that the two best teams in the world play each other, something which is not a given in the traditional cricketing calendar. It brings together, on this occasion, arguably the two best bowling attacks in the world, and what they have produced has been magnificent. We are living in an golden era of pace bowling, and the skill we’re blessed with was shown so perfectly across today by Mohammed Shami, Tim Southee, Kyle Jamieson. More broadly, seven of the bowlers in this game sit in the top 20 for ICC Test Rankings; three sit in the top 10. The attacks on either side should be delivering excellence, and it’s they who deserve the praise for doing so – but it’s the competition which deserves praise for creating the contest.
In many ways, conversely, it was Kane Williamson’s batting which best displayed the quality of the bowling we saw – and really, have seen throughout. Fellow genius AB de Villiers often talks about batting ‘in a box’, in terms of his hands being close to his body; Williamson may as well have been batting in a straitjacket.
His restraint, and refusal to even faintly try to force the pace in the Morning Session, was staggering. 2 runs, in 45 balls, a scoring rate of just 0.26rpo; no top order batsman has faced 40+ balls and scored slower in a first innings session over the last decade. A mouthful of a stat, but the point remains – nobody bats this slowly. Particularly not Williamson. Putting aside the paralysis of this morning, he managed just 15 runs from the 100 balls he faced; Williamson has never scored fewer runs from the first 100 balls of a Test innings.
This was a tour de force of technical excellence, even in the absence of a strike rate that quickens the heartbeat – in truth, it may have you checking Williamson himself for a pulse. To combat the movement, Williamson batted deep in his crease, playing the ball right under his eyes; his average impact point was the latest of any batsman in the Test to face a considerable number of balls. We speak of Kohli’s ostentatious swagger in batting out of his crease, charging the oncoming threat, almost every time he steps out of the dressing room, but Williamson’s own method is equally grooved, and proved. Only Steve Smith and Shan Masood intercept the ball later in the last few years of Test cricket, and while it may lead to days like today – taught, thrilling stalemates – rather than Virat-esque dominance of attacks, it’s wonderfully effective. He played the longest innings of the Test, in both minutes and balls faced, and in doing so showcased the might of the bowling itself better than anyone else.
The long and the short of it all, after five days of “action”, is that this game will probably be a draw. According to WinViz, we have a 23% chance of either side forcing a win here. We may even end this game with the result a foregone conclusion, with players drifting along for the final few hours, winding down the clock on a two-year experiment designed to save the game. It may, on the face of it, look like a failure. But the standard of play, and particularly the standard of the bowling, has justified the entire exercise by doing exactly what it should do – pitting the best, against the best, with everything on the line. For all Test cricket’s fetish for preserving the past, this is a present which deserves to be repeated.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.