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Joe Root: How To Play Spin in Test Cricket

CricViz Analysts Ben Jones & Freddie Wilde examine what makes Joe Root one of the modern game’s best players of spin.

This week will see Joe Root make his 100th appearance in Test cricket. 

It is now broadly accepted that Root is one of England’s finest ever players of spin. His twin centuries in Galle have brought the discussion to the fore, with a lockdown-nation focused on cricket like perhaps never before – but this is no flash in the pan. England’s captain has built up a body of work that can rival anyone from the rich history of English cricket. 

Facing spin, Root averages 65.84. Among English Test batsmen only Ken Barrington, Geoff Boycott and Wally Hammond boast a better record. Yet numbers aside, there is an elegance to Root’s approach when faced with spin bowling, which is not typically born in the UK. A flair, an assertive joy against this sort of bowling which doesn’t look quite right in an England shirt. 

Indeed, so great is Root’s dominance over spin that his record warrants comparison beyond English shores. The only active players, globally, with a better average against spin than Root are Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, and Marnus Labuschagne. Given that the young Australian is yet to tour Asia since an abbreviated debut in the UAE, Root is standing alongside two greats of the modern game as one of the world’s very best players of spin. That really is quite something.

To understand how Root has become this good, we need to talk about batting against spin more broadly. There are some fundamental principles of facing spin which hover around the edges of general discussion, that are worth digging into, reaffirming the key principles which underpin the game. These principles are: getting fully forward, getting fully back, and disrupting a bowler’s length. Each of these three principles revolves around something called the Danger Zone.

WHAT IS THE DANGER ZONE & WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The most important thing about playing spin in Test cricket is the Interception Distance; this is the distance the ball travels between pitching, and making contact with the bat. Batsmen want to either minimise this distance by getting well forward and smothering the spin, or maximise this distance by getting well back, and giving themselves time to adjust to the spin. Balls that are intercepted in-between these two regions are the most dangerous, having had long enough to spin significantly, but not so long that the batsman can adjust his shot. 

The importance of the interception distance is illustrated by the table below. When batsmen intercept the ball in that ‘Danger Zone*, between two and three metres after pitching, their average plummets to just 12.75 runs per dismissal. When batsmen get well forward, or go well back, they average in the high 40s. 

Root’s brilliance against spin is nestled in his ability to avoid this danger zone. In fact, he does so better than anyone.  Only 11.7% of his shots in Test cricket intercept the ball in that zone, the lowest figure for any established player in the ball-tracking era. Better than Kohli, better than Dravid, better than Williamson, better than Clarke. 

The reason for Root’s strength in this particular area is his ability to judge length and his footwork: decisive & crisp. The two images below illustrate Root getting well forward & well back to spin in the Sri Lanka series as part of an analysis from Mike Atherton on Sky Sports. “You’ve got to trust your defence when playing in Asia and Root is very good at this,” Atherton observed. “If Root can’t get right to the pitch of the ball he likes to play the spinner off the back foot and off the pitch. He comes forward when he feels he can smother the ball and he gets right to the pitch and doesn’t allow the ball to spin.”

What Root does particularly effectively is get fully forward to smother the spin, defending beyond the danger-zone. The table below shows Root’s excellence when defending off the front foot. Indeed, only Kraigg Brathwaite and BJ Watling escape the danger zone more regularly when playing the forward defensive than Root. 

While there are some physical elements to this – Root’s height simply allows for a longer stride than other batsmen – the fundamental skill here is reading the length. Root, and the others at the top of this list, are picking up the length (and the fact they need to get forward) earlier than other players, giving them more time to make the appropriate stride.

If you thought Root looked particularly in control against Sri Lanka, this is a significant reason why. When defending off the front foot in those two Tests, Root’s interception distance was just 1.03m from the pitch of the ball. That’s the closest any batsman has got to the pitch when defending spin off the front foot in a series, in the ball-tracking era (150+ balls). He was smothering the turn more than anyone we’ve seen, and it’s no coincidence that the two centuries he made in Galle were the most controlled, by false shot percentage, of his Test career. 

As well as getting very far forward when defending, Root goes back – a lot. 33% of the time, Root is playing spinners off the back foot, avoiding that danger-zone by allowing himself as much time as possible to adjust and play the spin off the pitch – this is the second highest percentage of any player in the world since such things were recorded. 

Interrogating Root’s footwork against good length balls illustrates his relative bias for playing off the back foot. When the ball is pitched in the zone where one can normally choose to play either forward or back, Root chooses the latter 42% of the time; far more than the global average of 25%.

“Going back” to spin is rarely discussed as a genuine option in the modern game. It’s broadly considered high-risk, because if the ball is full, batsmen can be trapped in the danger zone, without enough time to respond to the spin. However, for players who can pick up length quickly and effectively, going back can be a hugely rewarding option. Not only does back foot play earn batsmen additional time to respond to the spin, but from a back foot position it is typically easier to score with players able to manipulate the ball into gaps & punch through boundary-riders. 

The table below shows how against good length balls – lengths that typically catch batsmen in two minds as to whether to go forward or back – going back is a significantly better option. And yet batsmen do it less than half as often. There’s an inefficiency here.

As with so many areas of the game, it’s the absolute elite who best exploit that inefficiency – because Root is not by any means alone in his preference for going back. Perhaps revealingly, some of the world’s best contemporary players of spin bowling: Root, Kohli, Williamson and Smith, are among the players with the highest back foot percentage against spin. 

Avoiding the danger-zone isn’t the foolproof way to infinite success, and nor is it the only way. As the third bar chart in this article shows, some of the players who have intercepted the ball in that two to three metre range more than anyone have returned supreme numbers against spin: AB de Villiers and Kevin Pietersen, to name two. Yet even then, it should be noted that they played less than one in four balls from that dangerous in-between range. But of the players who seek to avoid the danger zone, Root is King.

DEALING WITH & DISRUPTING LENGTH

Let’s turn this around a second, and consider the bowler’s perspective. As a spinner, your focus is on getting the batsmen to intercept the ball in the danger zone, as often as you possibly can. The key to this, is length. For spinners in red ball cricket, a classical “good” length is around 4-5m from the batsman’s stumps. That’s the spot where you’re neither too full, nor too short, and it’s the spot where bowlers take the most wickets. Bowl fuller than that good length, and you average 40+, just as you will if you drop short. Find that sweet spot in the middle, on that good length, and your average drops to just over 20. 

The reason that this length is so effective is that, as the table below shows, the vast majority of deliveries on this length are intercepted in that danger-zone. It’s the perfect example of why good lengths are called good lengths. Batsmen are unsure whether to go forward or back. By the time they’ve made their choice, it is too late – they end up trapped.

Now, we’ve shown the importance of batsmen escaping the danger zone, and spinners hitting a good length to force batsmen into it. We have dealt with how batsmen can approach getting out of the danger-zone when faced with threatening deliveries, but there is another, more proactive option – trying to stop spinners bowling that threatening length altogether.

There are two primary methods by which to deal with and disrupt length against spinners in Test cricket: coming down the track, and sweeping. 

Coming down the track is the most conspicuous of the two methods. By skipping down the pitch towards the pitch of the ball, the batsman is clearly and quite dramatically seeking to minimise the interception distance, reducing the period for the ball to spin past the bat, and turning a good length ball into a half-volley. For the majority of batsmen, coming down the track is an aggressive option: 51% of trips down produce an attacking shot and 31% produce a rotating shot. Defending after coming down is tricky as it risks being run out by close fielders. The jeopardy of coming down the track is that if the ball does turn and beat the edge – or the batsman simply misses the ball – then they’ll be stumped. In the shot-type era there have been a handful of players who have used this method a lot, with Clarke, Pujara, Smith, Dimuth Karunaratne and Pietersen being the most fleet of foot. For these players, they disrupt length by coming down the track.

The more conservative option to disrupt length is the sweep shot. Based on a similar principle to coming down the track, i.e. minimising the interception distance, sweeping intercepts the ball a whole metre further down the track than the average shot against spin. Additionally, as a cross-batted stroke the sweep makes direction of spin less relevant, hence why batsmen often use it when they can’t ‘pick’ the spinner, or when the turn is massive. The downside is that while the sweep counters sideways movement well, extra or inconsistent bounce brings the top or under edge into play.

Both the sweep, and coming down the track, perform the same function for a batsman – they make the spinner bowl shorter. Both tactics minimise the interception distance, forcing spinners to pull their lengths back as they attempt to increase the interception distance, and haul the batsman back into the danger-zone. As a quality batsman who can pick up length well, you can then sit back and in the time-honoured manner, slap the shorter ball to the rope. The spinners then go fuller, the batsmen skip down or sweep, and so the cycle continues. 

There are some players – a select, elite group – who have thrived against spin whilst almost never coming down the track or employing the sweep shot. The chart below shows the players with the lowest percentage of balls swept or skipped down to. With the exception of Darren Bravo & Kraigg Brathwaite, all of these players averaged at least 50 against spin and their ability to do so despite not employing the sweep or coming down the track, suggests a preternatural ability to pick up length (and thus escape the danger zone without needing to revert to these decoys) and an exceptional level of hand-eye coordination, helping them counter even the most challenging deliveries with fast hands and supple wrists. Laxman, Dravid, Kohli – these players are geniuses, and outliers all deserving of further investigation, another day.

While Root is not close to the level of these players, he does share an element of their approach; Root also doesn’t come down the track. Only 4% of his career shots against spin have seen him come down, below the average of 6% for all Test batsmen, and while he can do it – though a career average of 35.66 speaks to mediocre execution – it’s not really a key part of his game against spin.

The sweep shot, however, is. Root sweeps often, and sweeps well. Since 2006 when shot-type data was first recorded, the most sweeps, slog-sweeps and reverse-sweeps we have seen in an innings was the 53 that Root played in the first Test against Sri Lanka; second on the list, is the 52 Root played in the second Test.  

The prevalence of innings played in Sri Lanka in the chart above is notable. Because of the low bounce and sharp turn on offer the sweep is an excellent option in those climes. Root has always been a competent sweeper but the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka was a watershed moment for his game against spin—and England’s more generally—as they swept their way to victory and repeated the trick this year. Since that 2018 tour 11% of Root’s shots against spin have been an orthodox sweep shot., and his sweep averages a mind-warping 299 runs per dismissal, dwarfing every other player on the planet. To watch Root playing the sweep is to see a batsman entirely at ease with his own game, and his record compares favourably with players of any nationality – very favourably in fact. 

On top of the execution, Root’s sweep is more versatile in terms of scoring zones than we would normally expect. Capable of executing both the dab sweep (generally going behind square and shown on the left in the image below ), and the more powerful variant which hits the boundary riders in front of square (shown on the right), Root has an almost unmatched ability to manipulate the field and hit gaps with his sweeps. 68% of the runs Root scores with the sweep come in-front of square; only a handful of players since 2006 (Mike Hussey, Daniel Vettori, Kusal Mendis) have a lower figure. In essence, Root’s sweep opens up a larger section of the field than almost any other active player.

The different nature of sweeps played by Root is nicely illustrated by his boundary percentage wagon wheel with the shot which shows how almost one in two of his sweeps in front of square go for a boundary but behind square it’s around one in four. The same stroke allows for multiple scoring options, in different areas of the ground.

Yet all of this sweep-ology is just one part of Root’s two-card trick against spin. As a bowler, if you swerve to avoid one of Root’s traps, you find yourself stuck in the other. Faced with Root dropping onto the back foot as frequently as he does, you are understandably inclined to bowl fuller, at which point he’s able to sweep more effectively, as shown below. As Root begins to sweep – constantly, brilliantly – you pull your length back, and you are back to square one. Nothing ground-breaking, nothing innovative, but two entirely complementary tactics that amplify the effectiveness of the other. 

Together, these methods disrupt length and better enable Root to avoid playing the ball in the danger-zone, and are the basis for his excellent record against spin. However, it probably doesn’t hurt him that on the odd occasion he does get caught between going forward and back, and intercepts the ball in that danger-zone, his recent record is still phenomenal. As with most of the world’s best players this is testament to his remarkable hand-eye coordination and raw talent. 

One effect of Root’s two main strategies, sweeping and going deep off the back foot, is that he barely scores a run in the V. Compared to other English batsmen of the last 20 years, Root scores very few of his runs straight; while Root’s assertive approach feels more in-line with Kevin Pietersen than Alastair Cook, it’s the latter whose scoring zones match Root’s more closely. Pietersen, famed for coming down the track, big strides forward & playing out in front of his body, scored very straight, while Root asserts himself on the bowler by sweeping, and playing square off the back foot.

The difference between Root and Pietersen here – and throughout this piece – is instructive. England’s batsmen heading into this first Test could look at Root’s method and think the best route to success is to copy, to mimic their captain. Yet what they should be mimicking is the commitment Root has to his method, rather than simply the method itself. The most important thing about batting against spin in Test cricket is not the nature of your plan, but having a plan to begin with. 

Time and time again on the lists above that outline batting approach and strategy, the best players of spin are found at either end of the spectrum; batting against spin demands, and rewards, extreme approaches. For England, Root and Cook are the players who avoid the danger-zone most effectively, who play the squarest and dance down the least, and yet the player who is best-placed to challenge their records, Pietersen, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, hitting straight and coming down the track with impunity. The players in between – those who sweep a bit, come down fairly regularly, rock back on occasion – all have inferior records to the men who have taken a clear, pronounced approach to their batting, and executed it as well as they possibly could have. 

Avoiding the danger-zone is not a silver bullet to destroying spin bowling, and operating within it is no guarantee of failure. de Villiers, and Pietersen himself, both intercepted a higher degree of deliveries in this zone than we would expect given their exceptional records – though the outrageous gifts that both these batsmen showed throughout their careers, in terms of hand-eye coordination and instinctive ability, should serve as fair warning for any player willing to do more than the bare minimum of their work in this zone.

Because ultimately, at its heart, the danger zone teaches us everything we need to know about batting against spin. Enter if you dare.

Ben Jones and Freddie Wilde are analysts at CricViz.

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*It is worth noting that on broadcasts when batting against spin is analysed the ‘danger zone’—often illustrated by interception points from side on—is actually showing something slightly different from the danger zone we refer to in this article. Although the core principle of smothering the spin or adjusting to the spin remains the same with both our danger zone (best referred to as an interception danger zone) and those you see on TV (which is an impact danger zone). The broadcast version just works better as a visualisation.

The side-on visualisation on broadcasts simply shows the point at which the batsman makes contact with the ball, irrespective of the pitching distance but the danger zone we refer to in this blog post is distance from pitching point. The broadcast form of analysis works and makes sense because in Test cricket spinners bowl a relatively well clustered length that means the danger zone remains fairly constant in terms of distance from the stumps—making contact with the ball between 2 and 2.75 metres from the stumps produces an average of 28.21 compared to 50.12 outside that zone—but 28.21 is a lot higher than the 12.75 returned when the interception distance is in the danger zone that we refer to and as such does not quite get to the key essence of how to effectively counter spin bowling in Test cricket. 

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