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England’s Defensive Batting Woes

Ben Jones analyses how Joe Root’s side succumbed to their first home Test series defeat since 2014.

For the first time since 2014, England have lost a Test series at home. An unbeaten run which goes back 23 series on home soil, has come to an end as New Zealand battered the hosts at Edgbaston. A genuine point of pride for English cricket, and one used to cover a wide variety of ills, is gone.

And now, the inquest. The post-mortem. The Joe Root-and-branch review. No English sporting debacle would be complete without a desire to tear up the carpet so you can’t see the spill, to zoom out as far as possible and take the most macro, sweeping perspective possible. In terms of practical relevance, it’s like a firefighter arriving at your burning house, only to lecture you about the flammability of various fabrics, leaving their hose untouched. 

In the short term, the answer to the question “why did England lose” is simple, and short – the batting was too weak. England underperformed their average by 4 runs-per-wicket, while New Zealand overperformed by almost the same amount. While the two sides bowled to a similar level, the visitors batted substantially better. 

However, the reasons for that are slightly more complicated. Initially, it’s fair to say that they had a fair bit of luck. New Zealand’s false shot percentage across the series was higher, implying they played with a higher level of risk (and despite attacking marginally less than the opposition). For those of you concerned about the second innings at Lord’s rather skewing these figures, the pattern is still replicated if you remove Ross Taylor et al’s declaration-based charge. New Zealand, through a mixture of England dropping chances, and pure chance itself, were able to get away with this high level of risk. 

To continue with this bucket of cold water, England’s batting malaise was not a simple case of recklessness. After all, both sides played with an almost identical degree of intent, New Zealand averaging 20% attacking shots to England’s 21%. What is particularly noticeable however, and perhaps more indicative of where England’s issues lie, is the strength of New Zealand’s defence. NZ’s top order saw their defence breached once every 75 shots, emphatically better than England’s figure of 44. It wasn’t that the home batsmen were refusing resistance, but that – on the face of it – they were incapable of it.

It’s a figure which does not bear comparison historically; of the 55 England Test series since the data has been recorded, that defensive dismissal rate ranks 50th.

And yet, in terms of the bowling, there is little to separate the sides. New Zealand’s bowlers did an excellent job, and in particular found a remarkably large amount of swing movement. The image of New Zealand home conditions being defined by swing and seam is an outdated one, making the achievement of the quicks in this series – all seven of them – even more impressive given the necessary adjustments, adapting to the Dukes ball with ease. 

More broadly, England’s bowlers matched the tourists stroke for stroke. As we saw above, their Expected Average was almost identical to New Zealand’s, implying that while the raw components of their attack – swing and seam – were down in comparison to their opposition, the overall effectiveness was similar. 

The practical takeaway of these numbers, is that England’s bowlers were not to blame; and thus, in part, it’s hard to criticise the lack of spinner with any real conviction. While Ollie Robinson’s debut series will not be remembered for his cricket, on the field he was outstanding, pushing himself squarely into the pecking order. Olly Stone’s 3-97 was not quite so emphatic a statement, but he still impressed. Jack Leach may well have been just as impressive, but it’s hard to see how his involvement could have swayed the result given the batting deficiencies. There will be those who look at Anderson and Broad’s meagre returns across the series as being indicative of their latest terminal decline; very little suggests this is the case. While Anderson’s xA is worse this home summer than in a long time, him and Broad still stand alongside the best bowlers in the series. Equally likely will be people painting the absence of a spinner as a tactical blunder as instrumental in England’s defeat as the batting deficiencies. While hypotheticals are a foolish game in which to get involved, you’d suggest this is also a reach.

As attention turns to the India series, inevitable questions about personnel come to the fore. A degree of rejigging will happen regardless, with the return of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. A choice will likely be made between Dan Lawrence and Ollie Pope, for who takes the remaining middle order spot. But there are further options to move things around.

Haseeb Hameed’s presence in the squad for this series suggests that some in the England camp are satisfied that his return to form is substantial and trustworthy. Dawid Malan may only have played six first-class innings in the last two seasons, but he’s performed well when given the opportunity. Players like Tom Abell, Adam Lyth and Matt Critchley have built cases on short bursts of excellent form, but don’t come with anything like the pedigree you’d want from new arrivals in a Test side. James Bracey, for all his travails in this series, probably still remains in contention – though likely without the gloves. Sam Northeast, a longstanding cab lurking around the corner from the rank, wasn’t included in a 55-man squad at the start of last season; barring a remarkable turnaround of opinion for Chris Silverwood, he seems to be another non-starter. 

There is still a rational and relevant basis for a discussion around the domestic schedule. It may not be as simple as throw out the white ball pyjama nonsense and bring back national service, but a considered assessment of how the current schedule affects talent production in particular areas is understandable. Calls for change tend to err towards a very particular type of change, but an open conversation about how the summer plays out is not inherently revolutionary, or reactionary. If the reason for England’s defeat was a failure of defensive batting, then it is reasonable to apportion blame to both the individuals involved and to the structures which created them.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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