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England’s New Ball Reward

Ben Jones analyses how England’s bowlers set about trying to win this second Test.

Test cricket, when it’s as slow as this Test has been, is all about what comes next. 

It can feel like an in-club, and one where you’re not really welcome. Watching slow, attritional cricket, you are often met by a chorus of people crowing about how amazing this spectacle is, how correct and appealing, how morally superior to the other shorter, brighter, more exciting forms of the game. In these passages of play, the outsider is not welcomed.

The key, when we are explaining why these phases are interesting – as we have to, and as they are – is to focus on the fact that a Test match is all tied together in a neat little bow. This passage, is entirely tied to the one before, and the one that comes next.

Alfred Hitchcock said that even the most boring conversation could be tense and exciting, if the audience know there’s a bomb under the table. As long as you know that anything changing could be fatal, you are invested in things staying the same.

In the first session today, England scored at 2.19rpo, attacking 15% of deliveries. The only session they scored slower, and attacked less, was the very first of the match. To all intents and purposes, England started their first innings batting effort all over again at the start of Day 2, reverting to caution and doggedness.

Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes both reached their centuries. For one, their first on home soil; for the other, eventually their highest score on home soil. They left 101 and 106 deliveries respectively, second and first on the list of most balls left by an England player in an innings since 2006, when the data was first recorded. They were taking this one slow. 

In the afternoon, they tried to change things up. Stokes shifted through the gears, attacking 38 balls; in the morning he’d attacked just 14. He took 255 deliveries to get to his century, and then just 46 to get his next 50 runs. Stokes was able to accelerate with no loss of control, but Sibley couldn’t say the same. He attacked 4% more deliveries in the afternoon of Day 2, but his false shot percentage leapt from 14% to 30% – acceleration is not what Sibley is built for, at this level. They had crawled along, with little intent, and were now trying to kick on.

And yet, for all this slow and steady cricket, England knew their plan. They knew they were building to a position of control and a moment when they could attack. To paraphrase Aaron Burr from the musical ‘Hamilton’, England weren’t game’s not standing still – they were lying in wait.

England’s WinViz barely moved all day. It started at just above 70%, and ended the day at just under 80%. They strengthened their position by arm wrestling, not throwing punches, edging slowly towards a dominant position. As it stands at the end of the day, the West Indies have just a 1% chance of victory, England’s main opponent now the clock.

Because for all that boredom early in the day, the bomb was under the table. That tricky little session at the end of the day might not be as dangerous as the ex-players suggest, but it is by no means easy. 160 overs in the field, followed by England’s attack steaming in, fresh as a daisy – if you could avoid it, as a batsman, you would. When England came out onto the field this evening, they attacked. They attacked individually; they attacked as a group.

They had a handicap, just like at Southampton. Post-lockdown, England can’t swing the ball. They found just 0.6° of swing in the first 10 overs, 0.4° than they managed in Southampton – a Test notable for how little swing England found. As such, it was all about line, and length, and mode of attack. Chris Woakes didn’t bowl a single delivery that would have hit the stumps in this session at the end of Day 2. He worked the channel, finding that zone with 58% of his deliveries – neither of the other seamers could pass 40%. Woakes built the pressure, played on the batsmen’s patience. Woakes was the man who planted the bomb under the table, who worked on the suspense in the script; he won’t be on the poster, but it doesn’t happen without him.

Stuart Broad spoke at length last summer about how eager he was to get the batsmen playing, and how he’s done work with Kunal Manek the Nottinghamshire analyst about how he was a better bowler when doing so. That was what we saw here in Manchester this evening. While Woakes left the stumps alone, Broad attacked them with 17% of his deliveries – only once in his entire home Test career has Broad bowled more deliveries in the first 10 overs that would have hit the stumps. We had a ‘celebrappeal’ in the first over, and that set the tone – Broad was at the stumps, pitching up, making his much missed presence known.

England couldn’t force the wicket though, or at least that opening pair couldn’t. Joe Root, rather boldly, changed things up and gave the ball to Sam Curran. The left-armer could very easily have not played in this Test, had Jofra Archer not gone walkabout on his journey north, but he proved his worth almost immediately. He pinned John Campbell LBW, targeting the stumps, following in Broad’s sizeable footsteps. He would have taken another wicket if they he had successfully convinced Root to review, as Curran trapped Joseph with a very, very full delivery. Three of Curran’s deliveries this evening would have hit the stumps; one took a wicket, one deserved to.

The last time that England’s new ball seamers have pitched more balls on a good line and length at this point of a home Test, was August 2018; before that, July 2017. These are once a summer bursts of accuracy, where everything falls into place. Joe Root couldn’t have asked for more from his seam attack than he received.

England’s Expected Wickets this evening was 1.93 – they deserved that second wicket. They planted the bomb under the table, they lit the fuse – and it only partially exploded. The West Indies could have been decimated this evening, their hopes of grasping even a draw in tatters.

And that’s Test cricket. It isn’t a film. Sometimes, you go through all the build-up, you load all the tension, and it doesn’t pay off. Not necessarily stranger than fiction – but certainly less reliable. England mightn’t win this Test, and they might have been wrong for going so slowly, but this evening was the textbook template of why, through the boredom, there’s purpose. You just have to lift the table cloth.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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