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New Zealand’s Warning Shot

Ben Jones looks at a period of new ball bowling that will be causing nerves in the Indian camp.

In 2010, Lord’s played host to a Test between Pakistan and Australia. In the aftermath of the Lahore terrorist attacks, the ECB offered to have Pakistan play their two-match Test series on UK shores – and frankly, not since that series has a Test in England had less to do with the actual England Test side, than the one currently taking place in North London.

Yes, Joe Root’s side will be eager to win, and further their player depth given the challenges ahead. Honour and competitive instincts don’t disappear.

But this series, between England and New Zealand, is about the World Test Championship Final. This Test is about India. And today – the period of play just before the Tea interval – was New Zealand’s shot across the boughs.

Having suffered something of a collapse, falling from 288-3 to 378 all out, there was pressure on New Zealand’s bowlers to recover the lost ground. The ball was thrown to Tim Southee, and then to Kyle Jamieson – and they duly wreaked havoc.

In the first 10 overs that New Zealand bowled today, they found a staggering 2.6° of swing. Since ball-tracking data began in 2006, only one team has ever come to England and found more new ball swing than Southee and Jamieson managed today – Southee and Boult, back in 2015. This was historic, extravagant movement, and England barely stood a chance.

The ball from Jamieson to dismiss Sibley was an absolute stunner. Swinging away, seaming away, the combined movement for the delivery was 4.3° – only 13 balls in the entire game have moved more. In some respects the effect of the movement was exacerbated by Jamieson’s slightly wayward (or perhaps intentionally wide) first over, given that the wicket ball was the first ball Sibley faced that would have hit the stumps.

The dismissal of Zak Crawley was, on the face of it, more in the hands of the batsman. The young England batsman through the kitchen sink at a full ball from Southee, driving hard towards cover but only edging the ball straight to BJ Watling. Yet on a closer look, there was plenty of craft in the wicket, from Southee’s perspective. All four balls he bowled to Crawley were big, hooping outswingers, but the fourth was delivered from around 30cm wider on the crease. Southee had all the weapons in the world at his disposal, and he went for the subtle strike.

What’s concerning for England, is that NZ didn’t bowl very differently to how the hosts did on Day 1. Their average length (6.1m) was a touch shorter than England’s, and they pitched a fraction fewer deliveries right up – but it was marginal. The main difference was not strategic, but the skill involved; very few players arrive in England and find more movement than Anderson and Broad.

The swing did continue after tea, and beyond that new ball spell. The average of 2.1° swing in the first 25 overs is the fifth most for a visiting side in England since records began, another list topped by New Zealand at Headingley 2015. The ball was changed at the 23-over mark, and that did seem to affect the movement on offer. The average swing dropped by about 25% after the ball was changed, and while we’d expect less swing with an older ball, the fall was dramatic. When you’re a batsman standing in the midst of those new ball spells, you pray for some intervention to get the ball back on the straight and narrow. To an extent, England got lucky.

However, Joe Root had earned that good luck, and showed his team – and others watching – that this wasn’t unplayable. The England skipper batted out of his crease, particularly to de Grandhomme, looking to negate the movement in a way not unlike getting to the pitch against a spinner. It was at one point the third furthest down the track Root had ever batted in a Test; at the other end, Rory Burns was doing similar, his own interception points the second furthest down he’s recorded. 

It was a technique memorably used by Virat Kohli in 2018, who batted around 30cm further forward than on his previous visit to England in 2014. Whether India look to their captain or the England No.4 for their template, the approach to swing bowling is the same – play under your eyes, but with a big step forward.

Let me be clear – India are not poor players of the swinging ball. Indeed, in recent years only New Zealand have averaged more against it – but the degree of movement on show today was a step up from what they (and any other side) will have faced. If NZ can replicate those spells, or anything close, when the WTC final commences, then it will take something pretty special from Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli to resist. 

The wonderful thing for a cricket fan, for those around the world preparing themselves for this unique occasion in Test history, is that something special feels entirely within their grasp. Roll on the Rose Bowl.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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