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West Indies Adapting to Conditions

Ben Jones analyses how the away team adapted their game for touring conditions – and so did the hosts.

In ‘Grease’, the two young protagonists fall in love over a summer. They return to school separated by social groups, kept apart by who they are. It’s a whole thing.

Eventually, in the climactic scene, the two characters arrive to meet, each having changed their style entirely for the other. The goody-two-shoes in leather, the jock in the varsity jacket. We were a far sight from Joe Denly in spray-on leather jeans in Southampton – perhaps for the best – but the spirit was the same. On show were two teams who, today at least, changed for each other. 

When Shane Dowrich last faced England, in January last year, he was on the front foot. His average contact point against pace was about 1.9m from his own stumps. You can’t really walk at the bowlers when you’re a man of his stature, but he is normally at them. Today, it was 1.59m from his stumps. Dowrich was sitting deep, resisting his natural game and getting right back. He’s never made a half-century while batting deeper. This was wholesome, sensible West Indies, were doing what they know they need to do to succeed in these conditions. Kraigg Brathwaite hasn’t been doing well in Test cricket. For all the achievements of Headingley 2017, he’s struggled hugely since, averaging in the mid 20s. But he adapted. He showed a willingness to drop deep, sit back, and take hits from the English attack. 

The Windies overall contact point was 1.76m from their stumps, the latest they have played as a team since December 2017. The West Indies played their part. They approached this like a normal English Test.

The hosts were not so obliging. 

Mark Wood’s average speed was the highest ever recorded by an Englishman over an innings at home. On any other day, that would be the headline figure, but his overall ineffectiveness renders it trivia, nothing more for now. He wasn’t finding the swing that the Windies were worried about, nor the seam – he was turning up the heat, sure, but there was nothing boiling.

Jofra Archer wasn’t doing much better, but he’s earned a touch more good will. Since 2000, no English bowler has averaged more in home conditions than Mark Wood. No English bowler has averaged less than Archer. Plus, when the King of Swing is struggling, things are tough – it was the least swing that James Anderson has found in England since July 2017, just 0.75°. The last time England as a whole attack found less seam movement in a home innings was July 2017. 

We spoke on Day One about how England’s selection pointed at a broader thought process, a willingness to concede ground at home in order to gain it away. It’s easy to do that at the start of a match; it’s even easier to say that they should do that during a chastening winter tour, when the summer is many months away. It’s harder to justify that tactic when England can’t swing or seam the ball in home conditions. 

Overseas wins are rare in modern Test cricket, as you all know. Part of that is the lack of preparation, the swiftness with modern cricket demands players move onto the next challenge. Part of it is an era of great bowlers, who are naturally more in-line with home conditions than their batting colleagues. The teams that win away are either just supremely good (India in Australia), blessed with a god-like performance (Kusal Perera in Sri Lanka), or those or adapt. The Windies know they aren’t the first, and they don’t want to rely on the second – so they’ve become the third.

Ed Smith and Chris Silverwood have made a call, and they deserve to be judged by the terms of that call, and those terms aren’t whether England win this Test, but whether they win in India and Australia. Such is the nature of modern Test cricket. 

West Indies were adapting to a threat that never arrived. England were preparing for a challenge that won’t arrive for at least six months. 

The overall effect of this simultaneous switch is that a sort of equilibrium was reached. Our Expected Wickets model, which looks at all the ball-tracking data from a spell or innings and calculates how many runs or wickets those balls would bring ‘on average’, was rather pleased today. Only knowing the tracking data of the balls, nothing more, it suggested that the West Indies score should have been 319 all out. In reality, it was 318 all out, but the remarkable closeness of the model to reality shows that both teams got what they deserved.

On a hard fought third day West Indies stretched their slender lead to a large one, and England fell further into the dirt.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz..

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