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India vs England series: the data discourse and that old problem of batting

The direction of sport is data-driven; the days of romantic selection are making way in favour of a more statistically driven approach to every minutiae. Despite my sporting Calvinism, I, and anyone else, can recognise the undoubted success of this across various sports, as discussed in my debut piece for Roar on the successes of Brentford. But in Cricket there are more foxholes in this process, exemplifying themselves clearly in England’s recent Test match in India, losing the series 3-1 and failing to qualify for a spot in the final of the World Test Championship.

England have struggled with batting, for, well… let’s just say a very long time. An inability to find an effective middle order, coupled with regularly inconsistent form of openers in Dom Sibley, Rory Burns and now Zak Crawley have led to feast and famine batting totals in Test matches, exemplified no clearer than in India- 578 in the 1st innings of the first test, 134 in the 1st of the 2nd just 8 days later. Captain Joe Root has come on leaps and bounds with his own batting form, but perhaps in an attempt to resolve batting issues has chopped and changed the order around him. Jos Buttler, a particularly dependable batsman, has been the biggest victim of this, in some occasions being cut from the squad altogether.

The discourse surrounding the matter seems to be pretty black and white; on the one side, traditionalists who believe in a consistent order to develop understanding and patterns; on the other tactical and data-driven to maximise runs in specific areas, at specific times, under specific conditions. People should be reticent to be too critical- India are, after all probably the best side in the world, yet given the failures of the series the discourse should logically have intensified and diverged yet further.

However, there seems to be a vague middle ground consensus- either way is fine, but a ‘don’t take the mick’ attitude seems most prevalent- tactical tweaks are fine, but not at the compromise of any sense of order cohesion, the (justified) main criticism of most of the old guard of cricket punditry. And, it surely gets the tails up of bowlers knowing how unlikely it is that the top-order batsmen will be able to get their eye in.

It was, probably, the main factor for the series culminating in such a humbling manner for England, especially the 3rd test. The joyous mood of the country at being able to sink into test cricket not behind a paywall, after being put on Channel4, quickly subsided back to frustration at a fairly inexplicable collapse. Axar Patel in England’s 2nd innings gobbled up Crawley and Jonny Bairstow with Sibley being dismissed for a pitiful seven, with Patel picking up a fifer by the end of the innings.

For future tests, hopefully Root can find the right balance.

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