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A fresh way of looking at Test match cricket as India takes on England at Lord’s

As reviews of last week’s Edgbaston Test came in, a picture of the game was formed — using parameters ranging from the key turning points to the shortcomings of Indian batsmen not named Virat Kohli. The visitors lost of a golden opportunity to win a Test in England because their batting failed. If you have read reviews of the game in the public prints, you could, by now, play the key episodes in the game in your head, from Virat Kohli’s brilliant run-out of Joe Root, to Virat Kohli’s brilliant innings amidst the ruins of India’s top order, to Sam Curran’s superb, match-turning effort in the third innings, to a second collapse by India’s batsmen.

This is a picture, not of the game but, of the scorecard. The scorecard tells us that barring Kohli, none of the Indian batsmen made a significant score. It tells us that England collapsed following Joe Root’s run-out on the first day. The scorecard tells us that Sam Curran’s crucial half-century added a 100 runs to India’s fourth-innings target. It is a picture of outcomes, not actions.

A picture of actions is available from Cricinfo’s control data. This is a record of the game in which every delivery is recorded from the batsman’s point of view using a binary control measure. If the batsman is deemed to have been in control of the delivery (basically, if the ball goes where the batsman intended), the delivery is classed as “in control”. Otherwise, it is classed as “not in control”.

At Edgbaston, English bowlers forced Indian batsmen to be “not in control” more often than Indian bowlers did to English batsmen. This was especially true in the first innings of the match. Ishant Sharma struggled to challenge the left-handed English openers from over the wicket. He couldn’t attack the top of off-stump. Mohammad Shami got a couple of wickets, but looked indifferent. And Umesh Yadav struggled to find a length all innings. If it had not been for Ravichandran Ashwin’s mastery and Virat Kohli’s brilliant opportunism, India might have been overrun on the first day.

When India batted, it was a similar story. The English fast bowlers beat the bat 37% of the time. James Anderson, Ben Stokes, and — to a lesser extent — Stuart Broad were able to attack the top of off stump of left- and right-handers alike. Sam Curran threatened the stumps and rarely drifted onto the batsman’s pads. The English attack is limited in a broad set of conditions, but at Edgbaston, they were very much at home.

We have come to understand cricket as being a batsman’s game, and the Test match as a stage for elite batsmen to take on central starring roles. Especially in India, the overseas Test hundred is the holy grail of sporting achievement. A different picture would be something like this. Cricket is a game in which the bowler challenges the batsman every ball. The bowler who challenges the batsman more consistently than others is the better bowler. Batsmen survive by their technical prowess and judgment of each delivery. Some batsman are better at this than others. Every mistake forced by a bowler does not produce a dismissal. But a batsman cannot hope to keep escaping indefinitely either. The control measure captures this contest. The figure below shows the distribution of batting inningses according to the number of “not in control” deliveries in each innings (there are 910 individual innings) over 6 series — the most recent India v South Africa series in India and South Africa, and the two most recent India v England series in India and England, going back to 2011. In other words, this chart answers the question, “How many times does a batsman have to be beaten to be dismissed?”

 

Half of all inningses end no later than the 7th mistake. Two-thirds end by the 10th mistake. 90% of all innings end by the 24th mistake. Most Test hundreds are the result of a batsman surviving an unusual number of mistakes. This is also why specialist batsmen fail as a rule in Test cricket. The median Test innings for a batsman in the top 7 in Test cricket is only 20.

Thinking of inningses this way tells us that there are basically two ways for batsmen to construct a long innings. First, batsmen can avoid making mistakes. Second, a batsman can get lucky. Cheteshwar Pujara made 206 in 389 balls against England at Ahmedabad in 2012. In this innings, he was not in control of 21 deliveries out of 389. In the same Test match, Alastair Cook made 176 from 374 deliveries, 33 of which he was not in control of. Alastair Cook’s 294 off 545 included 76 deliveries of which he was not in control. Karun Nair’s triple-century was a relatively chancy affair. He was not in control of 60 of the 381 deliveries he faced for his 303. However, Virat Kohli’s 167 at Visakhapatnam was an assured innings. He was not in control of only 24 of the 268 deliveries he faced in that effort.

At Edgbaston in 2018, Virat Kohli made 149 in 225 balls. He was not in control of 57 of these deliveries. Among the six series and 910 inningses included in the chart above, only 3 inningses involve more than 57 not-in-control deliveries. For comparison, Dean Elgar’s 86 not-out off 240 balls at Johannesburg in 2018, an innings notable for the number of times Elgar played and missed, included 54 not-in-control deliveries.

In India’s innings on the second day, batsmen not named Kohli faced 235 deliveries and were not in control on 68 occasions. Nine of those were dismissals. When Kohli miscued his attempted square-cut off Rashid, it was the 57th delivery he was not in control of. Among the 56 previous instances, he had been dropped twice and had edges fall short of the fielder a few times. In contrast, Joe Root’s 80 off 156 on the first day included only 21 deliveries where he was not in control. Unlike at Visakhapatnam, this innings by Kohli was not one where he was the master of the situation. It was one where he was luckier than his colleagues and made the most of his good fortune.

 

An analysis by Ben Jones at CricViz shows that the amount of swing on offer at Edgbaston was greater than at in any Test match since the Ashes Test at Nottingham in 2015. In that game, Stuart Broad took 8/15 and Australia were bowled out for 60 on the first day. Each of the Tests in that list feature batting collapses.

When pitches offer assistance, teams which exploit that assistance with greater persistence usually win. At Edgbaston, England were this team. That the difference between the two sides was only 31 runs in the end suggests that England are not as strong as they were in 2011 and 2014, and the Indian bowling is better in 2018 than it was in 2014 and 2011. This suggests that the remaining Tests should be closely contested.

Like the series in South Africa, and especially the Cape Town test, the Edgbaston Test was decided by England’s superior bowling and greater overall depth. India played three genuine tailenders, while England played only one — James Anderson. If Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are available, India have an opportunity to shore up the weak link in their XI.

The result at Edgbaston was the cumulative outcome of 1,632 equally important deliveries. There were no key moments. The moments which appear to be key are only the most obvious but not the most significant of these 1,632 mini-contests.

If the batting-centric picture of Test cricket is set aside, every delivery becomes significant. The cumulative effect of a group of deliveries — a spell — becomes evident. The control numbers provide a new way to understand the contest. The logic of this approach has always been available. We have always heard commentators talk about accuracy and control and the amount of turn or movement extracted by bowlers, and of the technique of batsmen. But until the control measure came along, it was difficult to build an overall picture based on these apparently “right” ways of doing things. Cricket-watchers were prisoners of the obvious. The control measurement, and other analytics like CricViz’s false shots measure, provide a new picture of the Test match contest.

Put another way, Virat Kohli is unlikely to survive 57 not-in-control deliveries in the same innings too often in his career. But England’s bowling attack is very likely to force mistakes more frequently than India’s bowling attack in conditions favouring seam-and swing-bowling. India has a good chance of winning a Test match somewhere because the difference between the two attacks has reduced over the last three tours. But if all goes to form (and Test series usually go to to form), unless England suffer personnel-related setbacks, they’re likely to win the series.



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