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An English Length

Ben Jones looks at a day defined by bowlers trying to find the perfect length for English conditions.

The question of what is the right length to bowl in the UK is a long-standing one. It’s a debate where everyone has an opinion, an angle they think is underrepresented. James Anderson and Stuart Broad have more than 700 wickets on these shores, at an average of 24.85, and people still think they bowl too short. Heaven forbid you chirp up without an urn under your arm.

When you have conditions as thrilling and bowler-friendly as we see in England, the path to get the best of them is keenly fought. Today, in three parts, we saw that debate played out in real time.

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Kyle Jamieson is a unique bowler. His release height, the highest of any active bowler barring Jason Holder, marks him out as distinct and different from everyone else in Test cricket. That height changes things, in the game of angles that is fast bowling. In this game, Jamieson was New Zealand’s second fullest bowler, and still passed the stumps higher than anyone else. Pitch it up; it still leaps up. It’s not easy.

As such, on Day 2 of this Test, Kyle Jamieson bowled too short. You might not have noticed, because he was outstanding while doing so, finding more seam movement than anyone on either side, jagging the ball in a fashion nobody can match in a swing-dominated contest. Yet ultimately, he enabled India’s defensive approach. On Day 2, Jamieson bowled 16 deliveries which wouldn’t have gone over the top of the stumps; he bowled 15 today, in significantly fewer overs. 

The adjustment today was obvious, his full pitched percentage moving from 29% to 43%, an increase matched by an upsurge in reward. All of a sudden, India were tempted, the attacking shot percentage against Jamieson’s deliveries leaping up from 7% to 18%. Like fish in the pool, temptation only went one way; 5% edges turned into 15%, 13% false shots turned to 29%. Added risk, added reward; the obvious upside of bowling fuller. Toss out more bait, get more bites. When you’re coming from as high as Jamieson it’s tricky to not seem like you’re talking down to people, but when you’re this good, it’s an occupational hazard.

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When Jamieson had done his damage, and India had the ball in their hand, the debate shifted. With the new ball, India were dogmatic, academics in a practical world. The length they bowled – that classic English length, 6-8m from the batsman’s stumps – is the right length, statistically. It has the lowest average, it allows for swing and seam without moving towards half-volleys; it offers both control, and threat.

The 63% balls on a good length that they managed with the new ball was the most they’ve managed in a Test innings since 2016. They packed a plan in their luggage, and played it perfectly. Their Expected Wickets in the opening 10 overs was 1.4, quality demanding reward.

Yet Tom Latham didn’t agree.

Latham is an old-fashioned opening batsman, a player more than content to not play. Since the start of 2017, only a handful of batsmen have a higher leave percentage than Latham in Test cricket (Murali Vijay, Dom Sibley, Jeet Raval). If you give him the opportunity to not put bat to ball, he’ll take it. According to our Expected Wickets model, had the average batsman faced Latham’s deliveries today, they would have left 18 balls; Latham left 29. 

And so, India’s strategy with the new ball played right into his hands. In England (for balls in line with the stumps), more than 90% of full pitched deliveries would go on to hit, but only around a third would do so from a good length. While the bounce is not as pronounced as Australia or South Africa – or indeed New Zealand – you can still largely leave on length. That appeared to be the way Latham went about his business. For Conway, not targeting his stumps and hitting a classical good length was a brilliant option, and brought an edge or miss every three deliveries, there or thereabouts. To Latham, it was playing on the patience of a saint. 

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Mohammed Shami has been grappling with the idea of an English length for his entire career. It’s well-documented – on this site, in other CricViz media, on the ICC broadcast – that Shami has been working with historic levels of bad luck when playing in England. In 2018, he drew more false shots than anyone, had a world class Expected Average, and yet he went at over 40 runs-per-wicket.

Well, today, he recorded 33% false shots – the most of any bowler in the Test. And yet, check the box next to his name, and he’s wicketless. It’s an old story with a brand new chapter.

In England, the majority (51%) of Shami’s deliveries pitch between 6 and 8m from the batsman’s stumps. The average of balls on that length in England (from all bowlers) is 20.58. The average of balls fuller is 33.05. The debate about Shami bowling too short is tainted, a constant ebb and flow with first-hand experience (players, ex-players, commentators) and the bare facts involved. If Shami bowls fuller, he’s going to take the edge more, but his wickets will cost more. He will be busier, but less effective. Worse, but louder.

What do you want?

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While a strategy can be the right thing to do on paper, there will always be the intrusive influence of the players on the field, the collection of individual strengths and weaknesses that walk around and do the actual batting, bowling, and fielding. 

The quality of the bowling, regardless of length, is illustrated by the rate of scoring. An average of 2.27rpo is the slowest for a Test in England and Wales since the 1980s; whatever has been happening from a bowling perspective, coupled with the weight of the occasion, has suppressed scoring to generationally historic levels. 

And the latter is the key there. The occasion speaks louder than the lengths, or the players. Plans interact with the context in which they are deployed, and the players who deploy them. The intrusion of the real on the hypothetical, the academically ideal, is what makes sport better than everything else. For every bowler – differing heights, differing speeds, differing aims – the ideal length is different. That fluctuation, and the room for it, is the joy of Test cricket.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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