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India v England, Tactical Preview

CricViz’s analytical notes ahead of the five match series in Ahmedabad. 

Absence of Bumrah (& potentially Archer) exposes bowling attacks 

This series originally promised to pit the world’s best two T20 pace bowlers against one another in Jasprit Bumrah and Jofra Archer. However, Bumrah will miss the series due to his wedding while Archer’s troublesome elbow has cast a doubt on his participation as well. While these two bowlers missing the series will rob it of some quality it will provide both sides with opportunities to further test the rest of their bowling options and against two strong batting teams it could throw their weaknesses into some harsh light. 

What will conditions be like in Ahmedabad? 

All five matches will be played at the new 110,000 seater stadium in Ahmedabad and as such will go a long way to shaping the nature of strategy and selection in this series. Before the showpiece curtain raiser third and fourth Tests at the venue, the stadium hosted the seven knock out matches of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy – India’s domestic T20 competition. These games provide some indication of what we might expect from conditions with the pitch producing fairly low scores, spin bowlers bowling a lot of overs and five of the matches won by the chasing team. However, it’s interesting to note that spinners have averaged 25.05 in the first innings but 46.87 in the second, which suggests the onset of dew could be causing issues.

Selection puzzles: India have more gaps than locks

India in particular head into the first match with loads of selection uncertainty with as many as seven spots up for grabs with Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and Yuzvendra Chahal the only players who can be certain to play. Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul appear to be fighting for top order spots while Rahul (if he misses out at the top), Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan are vying for two more spots in the middle order. It says a lot about how some selectors conflate performances in formats that Pant’s exploits in red ball cricket make his selection more likely now than at any point in the last few years. At number seven we can expect that one of Washington Sundar, Axar Patel and Rahul Tewatia will balance the team but whoever misses out could still play if India opt to pick three spinners – Sundar is the front-runner for this spot. That leaves the quicks battling for two or three spots depending on the balance of the team. Given the likely conditions India may be tempted to go all-in on spin, picking Chahal and two of the all round spin options – which would lend them good batting depth as well. However, the counterpoint is that the dew—and England’s run of left-handers in the middle (as we’ll explore later)—could complicate life for the spinners.

Selection puzzles: England’s bowling attack 

Unlike India, England’s batting order looks very settled with Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan almost certain to make up the top six. The locks in the bowling department are Archer (if fit), Adil Rashid and most probably Chris Jordan (who has played in 38 of England’s 39 matches since the World Cup) leaving two or three spots (if Archer is injured) undecided in the attack. Assuming England don’t readjust the balance of their team and pick an extra batter in Liam Livingstone or Sam Billings—which will leave them heavily reliant on Stokes’ bowling—then one of Moeen Ali, Sam Curran or Tom Curran will likely balance the side at number seven. With just two spinners in the squad England don’t have the strategic choice to field three spinners so the remaining spots will be competed for by Mark Wood, Reece Topley and whichever of the Currans and Moeen isn’t at number seven. 

England’s lack of spin depth is curious 

The fact England only have two spinners in their squad for a series in India is curious and it’s something that might come back to bite them given how the first seven matches at the stadium favoured pace off. It might have been less surprising if England were fully confident in their two spinners but while they obviously back Rashid, Morgan’s recent usage of Moeen (more on this below) suggests that is far from the case. 

Ultimately though it may just be a reflection of England’s paucity of options in the department. Perhaps England have recognised that there’s no new spinner they can blood and trust in time for the World Cup which is fair enough but it leaves them vulnerable to Rashid getting injured. 

The other theory is that they have already earmarked Liam Dawson as their man—and this would make sense given he takes the ball away from the right-handers and as an experienced player is someone who could slot in with less frontline exposure—but the Hampshire all rounder is currently undergoing rehab from a ruptured Achilles.

Moeen’s usage and selection complicated by match-ups 

Of England’s options at number seven Moeen is probably the most appealing on paper: a left-handed spin power-hitter and an off spin bowler are generally valuable in Asian conditions.

Last year England used Moeen almost exclusively as a Powerplay match-up bowler, targeting the left-handed Fakhar Zaman against Pakistan and Quinton de Kock against South Africa. Moeen bowled 69% of his overs in the Powerplay and 43% of his balls to left-handers, both above his career averages for England of 12% and 36% respectively, suggesting a concerted effort to use him in this manner. 

However, unless India spring a surprise and open with the left-handed Kishan then India’s top three—and most probably their top four—will be entirely right-handed, with Rohit, Rahul, Kohli and one of Iyer or Suryakumar. This will really challenge Morgan’s preferred usage of Moeen who, since the start of 2018 has conceded runs at 11.77 runs per over against right-handers and hasn’t taken a wicket. Five of India’s six potential right-handers dominate off spin, and Rohit is at least very secure. 

England’s Powerplay problem 

In the last couple of years England’s most glaring problem has been their Powerplay bowling. Since the 2019 series against the West Indies England have returned the worst Powerplay economy rate, second worst strike rate and the worst average of all full member teams. Since dropping David Willey—who was a Powerplay specialist—England have struggled to retain control or make early incisions in the first phase of the game. 

To remedy this problem they broadly appear to have three strategic options: high pace from Wood or Archer, a method they adopted with mixed returns last year, left-arm angle and swing from S Curran or Topley or the defensive option of choking runs through Jordan and T Curran’s back of a lengths and changes of pace. 

Among England’s current options Wood is the only bowler who even comes close to rivalling Willey’s supreme record in the phase thanks to his excellent strike rate. Wood’s credentials as a Powerplay wicket-taker are good and he should be seen as one of the best solutions to England’s problem. 

S Curran’s left-arm angle and swing seemed in many ways a perfect replacement for Willey but he’s found just 0.71° of swing in the Powerplay compared to Willey’s 1.25° and has in fact the second worst Powerplay record of any of England’s quicks.  

With this in mind, Topley’s presence in the squad is interesting. The left-armer is the only bowler with a worse record than Curran but he has not played a T20I since the 2016 T20 World Cup so this carries slightly less weight than it might do were it more recent. Since that World Cup Topley has battled injuries but made a return in ODI cricket last summer and provides an alternate left-arm option who may not offer Curran’s batting but with a couple of yards of extra pace is arguably slightly more versatile as a legitimate death overs option. S Curran has had some success at the death in the IPL and for England but his margin for error at a slightly lower pace is smaller. Note also how Topley found prodigious swing in his first stint in the team. 

Pant and Pandya’s power 

While India’s regal top order of Rohit, Rahul and Kohli may ooze class, India’s primary run scoring threats are lurking deeper in the innings in the form of Pant and Pandya. Thankfully for England there are clear tactics to restrict them both. 

For Pant it’s wide yorkers – keep it wide, take it out of his hitting arc and force him to hit on the off side. Pant’s leg side preference, particularly square of the wicket, means the best method for quicks is to take the ball out of his arc and attack the wide line. 

Targeting this zone makes it harder for Pant to access his favoured leg side. He has got range behind square on the off side—as Jimmy Anderson knows all too well—but it’s a lower percentage option for him.

Typically Moeen would match-up well with Pant but the southpaw shreds spin of all types, averaging 44 and scoring at 8.5 runs per over against off spinners.  

For Hardik it’s all about hard lengths – keep it short and fast, don’t let him access full lengths with his long levers; keep him pushed back. The graphic below clearly shows how small the margin for error is to Hardik but there it is: a yellow beacon at chest height: strike rate 118. Archer and Wood are well equipped to exploit this angle of attack. England’s quicks should also be well-advised to avoid slower balls: Hardik destroys them striking at 186 against pace off deliveries. 

Jordan and Curran will need to adapt their typical death method of yorkers and slower balls against Hardik who feasts on such bowlers. Their career head-to-head records are testament to that: Curran 0 for 28 off 16 balls (ER 10.50) and Jordan 0 fo 27 off 13 balls (ER 12.46)

Chahal v Roy

Roy’s issues against left-arm spin were exposed in England’s most recent series in South Africa where he was targeted by George Linde. However, it’s not so much left-arm spin that troubles Roy as it is spin away from the bat, which obviously includes leg spin as well. Since the 2016 World Cup Roy averages 34.00 against the ball turning in but just 19.81 against the ball turning away. Chahal is a bowler who has exploited this weakness before: he has got Roy out three times in 35 deliveries in T20s (although Roy has returned the favour in ODIs: with 45 runs off 33 balls without being dismissed) and India may well open the bowling with the leg spinner who is not unfamiliar with bowling in the Powerplay having bowled 590 career balls in the phase. The fact that Buttler has been shackled by Chahal (48 runs off 42 balls) further supports this tactic. 

It will be interesting to see the speed Chahal bowls; the success he has had against Roy has come when he’s bowled faster and flatter, rather than giving the ball air. In T20s, where Chahal has dominated the head-to-head, more than half his deliveries to Roy have been above 88 kph, but in ODIs just 15% of his balls have been that fast.

Roy will also be plotting his own approach. In the Big Bash League, where Roy was playing for the Perth Scorchers, his method against spin was notable for how often he employed the reverse sweep: he scored 28 runs off 11 reverse sweeps in the season, more runs than he’d scored with the shot in T20s in the last three years combined. Against leg spin the reverse sweep enables right-handers to play with rather than against the spin. In addition to that, with only two fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the Powerplay, the reverse sweep can potentially help Roy maneuvere the field by forcing India to push point back, potentially bringing a boundary rider over from the leg side and making it harder for Chahal to bowl the straighter line he might otherwise adopt with two men out on the leg side.

Across Roy’s career he has a brilliant record with the reverse sweep, scoring 130 runs off 62 balls with just two dismissals. It would be a high-risk tactic—especially against the hard new ball that bounces more and with Chahal bowling faster speeds—but it could help Roy escape his funk against the ball turning away from the bat.

Sundar v the lefties 

Off spinner Sundar is very likely to play as the balancing all rounder at number seven for India. Not only is the ‘man in possession’ having played and done well in Australia but he matches up very well with England who could pick as many as four left-handers in their top seven. Sundar is at his most effective in the Powerplay and although he does have a good record against Buttler (2 for 12 in 14 balls) India may prefer to keep him away from the right-handed openers and hold him back for England’s slew of middle order lefties. If both Roy and Buttler are out then Bairstow’s match-up with Sundar, as the lone right-hander in the middle order, will be particularly important for England.

Axar’s complicated match-ups

The other finger spinner in India’s squad is the left-arm spinner Axar, fresh off his brilliant form in the Test series and while he is unlikely to play ahead of Sundar he could play as well as Sundar in a three-man spin attack. The issue complicating Axar’s selection is England’s likely run of left-handers through the middle order: Malan, Stokes, Morgan and potentially Moeen or Curran – all of whom are destructive against left-arm spin. If Axar plays India may find him tricky to deploy unless they bowl him in the Powerplay against Buttler and Roy or if Bairstow finds himself at the crease with one of the openers.

England’s reverse sweeps

Roy is not the only England batsman who may benefit from employing the reverse sweep. England’s slew of lefties through the middle all play the shot well and can look to counter Sundar by turning to it – although Sundar is likely to respond by bowling faster which will challenge England’s dexterity. Morgan’s men used the reverse sweep really well against South Africa late last year and don’t be surprised to see the shot play a big role in this series as well.

Saini v Morgan

Another match-up to keep an eye on is India’s Navdeep Saini against Morgan. Across the last few years Morgan has developed a reputation as struggling against the short ball after a series of high profile dismissals against them in the 2019 World Cup. His numbers against short bowling are mixed – since the start of 2019 he has smashed them in T20s, averaging 40 but in ODIs he’s only averaged 23. Saini is India’s only bowler capable of operating regularly above 140 kph and is ideally suited to take on England’s captain with a short ball barrage. 

Natarajan’s yorkers 

In the absence of Bumrah, India’s death bowling responsibilities may well fall on the shoulders of Natarajan. The left-armer shot to the national team after an excellent IPL where he caught attention by bowling three times as many yorkers as any bowler in the tournament. England know exactly what to expect at the death – the challenge will be taking them on. Of England’s batsmen Stokes stands out as the best yorker hitter, returning a strike rate of 140 against yorkers across his T20 career. 

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