Monday, 4 February 2019

Second Test notes: Root Maths - The Head of the Snake; Holder's Ban

The parsing of a player's stats in order to sustain a particular argument about their game has a name of quite longstanding: Root Maths. It generally fails because it assumes that stats are somehow infallible as well as immutable, when the truth is that they are as open to interpretation as a Jonny Bairstow straight drive.

But after the Antigua Test, when Joe Root's batting average as captain - 1,954 runs at 42.47 - fell more than ten runs behind his average when he's not - 4,594 at 52.80 - the urge for some Root Maths about the original victim of it becomes irresistable.

It was Glenn McGrath who put the concept of targeting the opposition's best batsman into the public arena, although the notion of Bodyline was constructed around it, as was the idea that the good Dr Grace's irascibility might occasionally be used against him. Cutting the head from the snake is especially attractive when it involves a captain: it rots authority; it opens psychic wounds.

So a specious bit of Root Maths appeals. Does team performance align with Root's when measured against his opposing skipper? Series by series, it looks like this:

Eng v South Africa (Home, 2017), Eng won 3-1
Root 461 runs at 57.62
Faf du Plessis 171 runs at 28.50

Eng v West Indies (H, 2017), Eng won 2-1
Root 268 runs at 67.00
Jason Holder 86 runs at 17.00; eight wickets at 39.12

Australia v Eng (Away, 2017-8), Eng lost 0-4
Root 378 runs at 47.23
Steve Smith 687 runs at 137.40

New Zealand v Eng (A, 2018), Eng lost 0-1
Root 142 runs at 35.50
Kane Williamson 124 runs at 41.32

Eng v Pakistan (H, 2018) Drawn 1-1
Root 117 runs at 39.00
Sarfaraz 31 runs at 10.33

Eng v India (H, 2018), Eng won 4-1
Root 319 runs at 35.44
Virat Kohli 593 runs at 59.30

Sri Lanka v Eng (A, 2018), Eng won 3-0
Root 229 runs at 38.16
Dinesh Chandimal 34 runs at 17.00

West Indies v Eng (A, 2019), Eng trail 0-2
Root 40 runs at 10.00
Holder 229 runs at 114.40; seven wickets at 17.85

Superficially, an argument could be made that there's some kind of link. Yet it has too many flaws to list. An Ashes of monolithic Australian dominance bears little relation to the delicate, butterfly-wing interventions of weather and fate that tilted the India series one way and then the other last summer. Root was outbatted in both. The batsmen around Root have collapsed like the post-Brexit Stock Exchange on several occasions, fatally in New Zealand and the West Indies, and so on, ad infinitum.

Notably, though, Root has been outmatched by the other 'Big Four' club members, Smith, Kohli and Williamson, whose hundred in the first Test of the short New Zealand series helped set up the win. And Root's decline as a batsman is evident. He has not averaged 40 in a series since the Ashes, and much of the old certainty that showed itself in the rapid, rhythmic starts to his innings has been whittled away.

Perhaps there is something more obvious. Root's reluctance to bat at three is understandable, as with England it's essentially opening. The captain should bat where he wants, and if Root, as the leading player, needs time to decompress then he should take it. But given the frailty of England's top order, does he get it?

Root has batted 47 times as England captain, eleven of those at three and the rest at four. Here's the breakdown of the team score at the time he went in:

  0-10 - 6
10-20 - 9
21-30 - 6
31-40 - 6
41-50 - 2
50-100 - 13
100+ - 5

In 27 of his 47 innings, Root has gone in with England at 40-2 or worse. In 45 per cent, it's less than 30. The bulk of those have been after his first three series as captain, when the oft-maligned number three batsmen were Tom Westley and James Vince.

There was moment in the India series, during the Southampton Test, when I thought that if India had drawn level at 2-2, Root might have seriously considered his position. His agony was palpable, and he is not good at hiding it. Perhaps his feeling is that he will only truly be able to shape a team once Anderson and Broad have gone, although the hole they will leave is terrifying. Maybe he sees the Ashes next year as some kind of watershed, as it so often is. 

Root Maths is Root Maths. But at some point, England and Root will have to decide whether his captaincy is worth the missing runs. In so many ways, it may not be.

Banning Jason

Jason Holder's ban for slow over-rates is pedantry of the highest order, which I accept is the definition of having rules, too. Yet there is an element of Root Maths to it. England batted for a total of 103.1 overs in a Test that was done in less than three days. It is the role of the match officials to make a calculation based around a minimum over rate of 14.28 per hour (which gives 85 in a six-hour day, plus an extra half-hour to reach 90). From that, they must deduct time for drinks, stoppages while adjusting sightscreens and kit, injuries, use of substitutes, use of DRS and so on. This time is within their gift, and many of the stoppages that they stand there and watch are against match regulations.

The game itself, in terms of time, was incomplete. Just as DRS must predict the path of the ball and has a Schrodinger's Cat element, so Holder could suggest that, had England been less inept, the fourth and fifth days would have incorporated the use of his spinner, Roston Chase, as selected, and had its effect upon the rate.

The travelling fans that paid to visit Antigua have been sanctioned not by Holder's over rates but England's terrible cricket, and have missed two days' play. Those that have shelled out for St Lucia must now watch one team that has been manifestly weakened (it'll probably be a better game then, etc etc). Either way, they are denied spectacle. No-one, apart from the match officials and some ex-pros in the commentary box, gave a fig about the over rate in Antigua. As Jason Holder might ask: were you not entertained?

And anyway, do you want to be the one telling Shannon Gabriel he needs to walk back faster?


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