Monday, 13 April 2015

West Indies selection mistakes prove crucial to England comeback

Cricket is all about mistakes. Wickets drive the game forward, and they’re rarely down to an unplayable ball. Fielding mistakes, dropped catches, poor shots, poor shot selection. Then there’s the off-field mistakes. Wrong team, wrong call at the toss.

The first day of the Test series between the West Indies and England was defined by mistakes, most of them made before the first ball was bowled. The first mistake was made by both teams, not playing two spinners.

Both teams went in with a specialist finger-spinner, and left out a leg-spinner. For England, it seemed more understandable. Those watching England’s warm-ups and net practice report that Rashid, in the words of George Dobell, “is not currently in the form to select.”

But net bowling is one thing, Test cricket is another thing entirely. Perhaps Rashid wouldn’t merit selection as an only spinner, but as a second spinner, batting at seven, even if he didn’t contribute wickets, his overs would be expendable. England may have made the correct decision, but it wasn’t the brave one, it could still prove to be a mistake on a pitch where seamers found it difficult once the new ball's shine faded.

Rashid’s selection was a risk worth taking, but Devendra Bishoo’s was an obvious choice spurned. I’ve written extensively about West Indies’ spinners, so it hardly needs repeating. Suffice to say, Bishoo is in form, the pitch should spin, and England are inclined to self-destruct at the mere possibility of leg-spin (witness Steven Smith’s wickets in the 2013 Ashes - from a bowler well inferior to Bishoo).

If you’re not with me on my leg-spin hobby horse, fair enough, but one decision which will take some explaining is Denesh Ramdin’s decision to bowl upon winning the toss. It wasn’t quite Nasser Hussain at Brisbane levels of misguided, but England are not quite the 2002 Australians.

The decision was flattered by three early wickets, confirming Denesh Ramdin’s reasoning at the toss of early moisture. However, making a decision based on early moisture can backfire when it evaporates. The moisture did, the swing slowly ebbed, Bell and Root got in and made hay.

Then there were the on-field mistakes. Sulieman Benn dropped Root at mid-wicket on 61. He went on to make another 22. Ian Bell edged through a vacant third slip on 21; he went on to make another 122.

Still, as the game goes on, the fundamental bowling mistakes may cost West Indies just as much. Bowling too short as the day went on, waywardness in the face of stubborn, then increasingly fluent resistance.

England have been known for starting series slowly, but what was impressive for them today is that they didn’t let it degenerate beyond 34-3. Perhaps the best analogue for today is the first Test two years ago in New Zealand. England were confronted with a decent but not world beating attack, and after losing early wickets, batsmen never got in and never got a chance to grind the bowlers down.

Here, the bowlers were ground down. It seems a long time ago now, but 16 overs in to the day, Gary Ballance had just succumbed and each of the West Indies’ quicks had a wicket, whilst Benn when he came on also threatened, but only briefly. But good batting exposed the West Indies bowlers.

Individually they’re all talented, but they were thrown a raw deal by their captain, and his lack of leadership in the field meant that the day drifted, the West Indies drifted and squandered their opportunity.

Perhaps the lack of Bishoo defined the day. After the early wickets, the West Indies seamers searched too hard for wickets, bowling bad balls in the process. Add Bishoo to the equation and you have another wicket taker in the middle overs of the day, allowing the seamers to bowl consistently and not worry about blasting out wickets.

Add Bishoo as a fifth bowler and you eliminate the costly and impotent overs from Samuels, you take some burden off the seamers (and Benn for that matter), allowing them to be fresher late in the day for the second new ball. Put simply, when coming up against the quality of Bell and Root, the West Indies needed more incision and more overs and they left the man who could have provided that out. Big mistake.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The new spin kings of the Caribbean

It’s six years since England last toured the West Indies for a Test series and since then the ongoing development in West Indies regional cricket has continued to be towards the spinners. Thirty years ago every regional team had two or three decent pacers, now each plays at least two spinners. Times have changed.

In the last first class game at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, site of the first Test, 23 of the 32 wickets to fall went to spin. In the last game at the second Test venue that figure was 18 out of 25, and at the third Test venue 20 out of 31. Three matches, 61 of 88 wickets going to spinners. Where pace once ruled, spin is now king.

That hasn’t translated to West Indies’ Test cricket though. Since England last played Tests in the Caribbean, they’ve been through a number of spinners, but essentially, five main contenders. Three still contend: Benn, Bishoo, and Permaul. This domestic season, the first extended one, has brought to light three other serious contenders yet to play international cricket: Warrican, Jacobs and Khan.

The two to have dropped out of the reckoning are Shane Shillingford and Sunil Narine. Both have dealt with suspect actions and both are reduced with their new actions. Narine will continue to play in the limited overs teams, but Shillingford needs greater domestic form to push his way back in.

The man who replaced Shillingford - Sulieman Benn - is the West Indies’ number one spinner currently, having taken 34 wickets at 32.05 in Tests since he returned to the team in mid-2014. However, if you take out the two matches against Bangladesh where he harvested 14 cheap wickets, he’s struggled to be incisive, with 20 wickets at 45.80. Still, it would be uncharitable to discount the matches against Bangladesh, a team who usually play spin well. Benn deserves to keep his place… for now.

Pushing him for the spinner’s slot, and likely for a second spinner if needed, are the Guyanese spin twins, Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul. Both have previous Test match experience, Permaul’s the more recent, and Bishoo’s the more extensive. Both have had a fantastic First-class season. Permaul sits atop the wicket-takers list with 63 at 14.49 and Bishoo is not far behind with 57 at 17.59.

On the surface, with five spinners heading the wicket-takers list (Veerasammy Permaul, Devendra Bishoo, Imran Khan, Jomel Warrican and Damion Jacobs), spin bowling looks rosy in the West Indies, but all isn’t quite as it seems. Despite at least five years of spinners dominating, batsmen still haven’t figured out how to counter them. Any spinner able to spin the ball reasonably hard and hit a consistent line and length is almost guaranteed an average in the low 20s. Guile barely required. Stats should be adjusted accordingly.

West Indies selectors have quite rightly not put too much stock in these inflated (or deflated really) figures, but with Benn being nearly 34, it’s time for them to look to the future. Beyond Bishoo and Permaul, two other spinners have come to the fore in the last year.

One is Barbados’s Jomel Warrican. A slow left arm spinner who bowls with an economical action, the young bowler harvested wickets as part of a decent Barbados team. 49 wickets at 14.98 was quite a statement, and pushed him ahead of Ashley Nurse by the end of the season as the team’s number one spinner.

The other was Jamaica’s Damion Jacobs. Continuing the trend of success for spinners taking the ball away from right handers, the fifth placed of the top bowlers is a late-developing leg-spinner. Jacobs just turned 30, yet only made his First-class debut a year ago. With Nikita Miller and Odeon Brown to get past, it’s understandable that he didn’t get a chance sooner.

Despite his age, Jacobs shouldn’t be discounted for future higher honours. Clarrie Grimmett to name one, only made his Test debut at the age of 33 (although, to use two conflicting examples, Bryce McGain made his debut 36 and Bob Holland at 38). Leg-spinners can take longer to develop, and have some of their best years (Shane Warne in 2005) at older ages than other bowlers.

Returning to the figures, spinners averages are significantly lower than what they’d get in a country with better pitches and batsmen. Take Sunil Narine’s domestic FC average as a benchline. He’s scalped wickets at a barely believable 11.54. That needs adjusting upwards get his true worth.

One way of doing this is calculating the overall average of all spinners in the Regional 4-Day competition. A long evening with Cricinfo and a spreadsheet later, and I worked out that the average of all spinners who bowled relatively often (either at least 10 wickets in the season or more than 0.5 of a wicket a game in their FC career) this season was 23.28.

That’s pretty low. Compare it to  So spinners figures in the West Indies should be taken as relative to this low bar. Slip under it and you’re performing above average, above it and you’re below par.

Applying this metric and we see that the likes of Permaul and Bishoo are well under par averaging in the teens. Permaul and Warrican lead the way with averages around 14, Jacobs and Bishoo are a little further back around 17, but still impressive, and Imran Khan’s figures suddenly look not as great, only slipping marginally under the average, taking his wickets at 21.89. With four spinners performing better than him, Khan slips out of the equation for now.

Having benchmarked West Indies’ spinners against their peers, I also wanted to see what their figures would look like in a country where spinners find it harder. In the 2014 County Championship Division 1 season, the average spinner (calculated in the same way as before) would have taken their wickets at 39.63. That is a factor of 1.7 higher than in the West Indies, so to compare spinners across competitions, we times West Indies’ averages by that.

Permaul and Warrican’s averages adjust to 23.96 and 25.50 respectively. That gives them lower averages than the likes of Jeetan Patel and Adil Rashid, the best performing spinners in an seemingly unusually spin unfriendly year. Bishoo and Jacobs’ averages adjust to 29.05 and 30.32, giving them better averages than the likes of Simon Kerrigan and George Dockrell.

If you do the same with the Division Two figures (a division much friendlier to spinners with an average of 32.71), Permaul beats all comers, Warrican and Bishoo had a year similar to Gareth Batty’s 2014, and Damion Jacobs compares favourably with Monty Panesar and Danny Briggs.

In the end, these stats are instructive but not conclusive. Bishoo is currently the first in line behind Benn, jumping above Permaul probably due to more extensive Test experience and the selectors reluctance to go into a Test with two left-arm spinners. Warrican and Jacobs now need to show they can repeat or better their seasons. If they can, West Indies’ spin stocks may be healthier than they have been for a long time.