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West Indies Pace Bowling Depth

Ben Jones analyses a thrilling day in Southampton, where the value of the Caribbean pace quartet was clear.

The strength of the wolf is in the pack. And what a pack.

Kemar Roach has been the star of the Windies attack, of late. 10 thousand deliveries in Test cricket, 19o-odd wickets will do that to a guy. From tearaway to metronome, Roach has had quite a journey at the top level, but he’s arrived at 2020 as a mature, accomplished bowler. The leader of, well, the pack.

In any other situation, him reaching the fifth day of the Test without a wicket would be a terrible sign. Yet in this Test, it’s not been an issue.

In part, it’s not been an issue, because he’s been very unlucky. Our Expected Wickets model suggests that the deliveries Kemar Roach has bowled in this match should have brought, on average, 4.2 wickets. He’s the unluckiest bowler in this game, sending down quality, consistently, and getting nothing in return. And yet, when your fulcrum is delivering the goods but not getting the roll of the dice, you can still take inspiration. Perhaps it’s all the more available.

Because, it’s not been an issue because he’s built a phenomenal amount of pressure. The last time Roach bowled this many balls in an innings with a lower economy away from home was 2017. He dug in, the selfless centre of the touring attack, a mature bowler at the peak of his game. He targeted the stumps 20% of the time, forcing caution. He was taking wickets at the other end. 

At the other end, there were some serious bowlers.

Shannon Gabriel, relentless, targeting the stumps like he has a personal vendetta against them. His action is a graceful, powerful whirl of muscle, the fastest non-Australian in the CricViz database. In the last two years, the only genuinely quick bowlers to target the stumps more than Gabriel are Trent Boult and Mohammed Shami. He has a method, he sticks to it, and it works. He doesn’t need lateral movement – almost nobody moves it less. It would be almost unfair to add that to his threat. For all the fuss about Mark Wood’s pace, Gabriel is 1kph slower and he’s played more than twice as many Tests in the last three years. This man is a wonderful bowler.

Today, Alzarri Joseph, was held back. He bowled less than any of the seamers in the first innings, and was barely used until mid afternoon. Joseph is a peculiar bowler, with a notably ungainly gather and approach to the crease, but he finds movement. His slingy action seems to skid under the batsman’s eyeline, just as his effectiveness skids under the radar in this attack. Held back until the second new ball, when he went up through the gears and topped 140kph as the shadows lengthened, Joseph showed his worth. 

Jason Holder, the king. We have spoken here about the extravagant movement he finds, and we need not retrace it. But the different angle of attack he offers, is key. Joseph releases the ball 195cm off the floor, 35cm lower than Holder. The contrast offered by the captain improves his own returns, sure, but also those of his bowlers. Batsmen are constantly tested in different ways.

The evening session was where it all came together. The benefit of this four-man pace attack -the deployment of which was a clear tactical choice for Holder – is that they can keep coming back, for spell after spell, maintaining that level of intensity throughout the day. If the aim of the batsmen is to outlast the onslaught, this pace quartet allows Holder to keep that onslaught going for longer. Ben Stokes and Zak Crawley looked a million dollars after tea, asserting themselves on the match and threatening to take the game away at 5rpo, dragging the game through the Windies’ fingers. But Holder’s men still had something to give, and boy, were they going to give it.

The West Indies were quick, in the evening session. They were good, in the evening session. Their Expected Average, on a pitch that was dying in their arms, was just 25.2 – the lowest for any session of the day. Legs filled with the miles of the day, heavy with the toils of the scorecard, they shook it off, and smashed it. Five wickets in a session that could win them the Test. 

It’s not just that late burst, but the excellence throughout the day. At one point, midway through the afternoon, Roach, Holder and Chase all had economies below 2rpo. The attack was able to sustain the intensity across all three sessions, marshalled by their leader, expertly. 

Joseph found the most swing. Gabriel was the quickest. Holder was the most accurate. Roach threatened the stumps the most. The strength of the wolf is in the pack, and this is an attack of such skill and variety that it calls to mind the greatest we’ve seen on these shores. Perhaps not in raw quality – we’ve been blessed in recent times – but in the remarkably different challenges each bowler offers. They are a wonderful quartet of bowlers.

For all this, there is no question that England gave it away. 

The average wicket probability of the dismissals in this innings was 3.1%; in the first and second innings of the match, it was 6.6% and 5.4% respectively. In essence, the balls which got wickets in this England second innings were significantly worse, objectively, than others in the match. Rory Burns got out to the shortest ball that Chase dragged down to him. Joe Denly chipped the ball nonchalantly to midwicket when set, most likely his final action in Test cricket (with the bat at least). Even Dom Sibley, reprieved off a no-ball having just passed 50, immediately fell in a manner he’s beginning to make a habit of, strangled and squirming down leg. Each was an unnecessary dismissal, and each player was batting with control in the moments prior to dismissal. England’s top three built a platform, then leapt off it. 

The West Indies were excellent in the evening, but had England played the day properly then they would have been meeting that onslaught with seven, eight wickets in hand, with numerous set batsmen not just a 22 year old playing out of his skin. Joe Denly’s image as the calm and collected protector of the middle order has never looked less deserved.

Of course, this game is not decided. England are a few big swings away from setting the tourists 230 to win, and at that point, a West Indies batsman needs to get to work. Equally, they’re a few good balls from wrapping this up by tea.

This has been a wonderful Test match, full of the ebbs and flows that so often fill conversations about the longest formats but all too often disappear on the field. We are lucky to have it back, and we’re lucky that we are mostly all fortunate to be able to care, and to enjoy it. We can all but hope this welcome distraction continues until the last possible moment tomorrow.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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