In the Test match in Mumbai, there was a lot said about the fact we played four seamers and two spinners… [but] if we’d caught our catches, we wouldn’t have been talking about our combination; we’d have been talking about how we probably had a chance of winning a game of Test cricket. But consistently, we’ve missed chances – and you can’t afford to do that against the best teams in their home conditions.”
Paul Farbrace – Assistant Coach (speaking after 5th Test at Chennai)
The focus on England’s dropped catches in the series in India is understandable given that, in four of the five Tests, one or more of India’s first innings century makers was dropped early in their innings. Vijay, Kohli (twice), Jayant Yadav, Karun Nair accumulated a combined 649 runs from five innings after an initial escape. England committed seven drops in those five innings and a further eleven across the whole series. Understandable but, in the round, is it justified?
Using ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary, I have recorded each chance of a catch given during the series. I have included any chances that went to hand (or body) and those described as passing between two adjacent fielders. Excluded are balls that looped out of reach, or fell short of, fielders making reasonable attempts, as well as those that passed where one might have expected there to be a fielder, but there was not.
The raw results are shown in the table below. India committed 26 drops compared to England’s 18 and converted a lower proportion of chances into catches.
In October 2016, Charles Davis published in The Cricket Monthly a summary of the results of his analysis of almost 15 years of fielding errors in Tests – Tracking the Misses. Courtesy of Davis, it is possible to put into context the numbers from the India v England series (NB Davis included stumpings in his data, which I have not).
Davis found around 25% of opportunities were missed in the field – an average of seven per Test match. In this series, 31% were missed – 8.8 per Test. Both sides under-performed their recent record: England 24.8%; India 27.2%. This comparison does support the view that fielding errors were a feature of the series. But is it simply losers’ regret that has the England team pointing at missed opportunities? They did, after all out-perform India in terms of the proportion of catches taken.
England, as hinted at above with the roll call of India’s century makers who were dropped, bore a higher average cost for the chances they missed. The mean number of runs scored by an Indian batsman after a drop was 44 (median 22). The equivalent figure for England was 28 (median 21) [footnote 1].
The contrast is most acute when looking at the two captains. Cook was dropped six times (the most of any player) but only added 134 runs. Kohli made 282 runs after the three misses he benefited from.
The two captains were also the most frequent offenders. Cook shelled four of his seven chances; Kohli could not hang onto five of his ten catches.
This analysis supports the conclusion that England, had they taken their opportunities, would have shifted somewhat the balance of the series. However, I believe there are associated conclusions that are probably more profound about the cricket England and India played.
India’s ability to limit the damage of their fielding errors was a great strength: their bowlers were able to continue to create opportunities. England’s bowlers, on the other hand, lacked the penetration to keep their opponents under the kind of pressure that would, sooner rather than later, lead to another wicket-taking opportunity. Moreover, England were significantly more reliant on their fielders for taking wickets. 72% of the wickets taken by England in the series were catches. India’s equivalent figure was almost twenty percentage points lower (53%). Ashwin and Jadeja, in particular, threatened the England batsmen’s stumps to an extent unmatched by the England attack.
The argument that England’s fortunes were hampered by their inability to take the catching chances that came their way obscures the greater insight that England were over-reliant on snatching any opportunities falling to their fielders because they were unable to trouble India’s batsmen often enough and in a sufficient variety of ways.
Footnote 1 – in calculating the number of runs scored by a batsman after a drop, I have subtracted the score when dropped from either their innings end score, or in the case of batsmen dropped more than once in a single innings, from the their score when they were dropped again.
Devendra Bishoo flights the ball down the line of Steve Smith’s off-stump. Smith advances to drive back past the bowler. The ball pitches feet in front of where Smith was expecting it to, grips and turns past his wafted bat. The ball careers into Ramdin’s gloves and the keeper completes the stumping before Smith can even turn to try to regain ground.
Bishoo floats a ball under Brad Haddin’s nose, as it descends it swerves to his legside. Haddin is waiting to lean on the ball, killing it dead. But the ball zips past his outside edge and clips the top of off stump.
Two of Bishoo’s wickets in the first Test at Roseau – archetypal leg-spin dismissals.
Bishoo is a very typical leg-spinner. He’s short, slight, loose of limb and can look vulnerable alongside his towering teammates and heavily padded, big bat waving opponents. He turns the ball just the one way and even when bowling well, as he has against Australia, on a helpful pitch, he offers long-hops, full tosses and batsmen are not intimated into staying in their crease. He is a risk-reward bowler: 4 for 177 in the first innings of his previous Test against England.
Just over twenty years ago, Shane Warne’s career took off. With it, we hoped would come a revival of leg-spin bowling – certainly in those parts of the cricket globe where it was dormant. In many respects, Warne managed that feat. Leg-spin bowling was attempted by thousands of children who may only have wanted to bowl fast, if play cricket at all. It was a positive, aggressive choice.
Yet all the imitators have failed to mature into emulators of Warne’s achievements. For years after his retirement, Australia struggled to find a spin bowler, let alone a leg-spin bowler. Was Warne a case of the best being the enemy of the good? Warne wasn’t an archetypal leg-spin bowler. He combined the control of an off-spin bowler (Test career economy rate of 2.6 rpo) with the big and unpredictable turn, flight and pace of a leggie. Maybe he set the bar too high.
Bishoo is a bowler that leg-spinners at all levels of the game will identify with: mixing unplayable balls with deliveries that batsmen can stroke at will to the boundary. He seems to have an equanimity about being bashed for four or six that is an essential part of the leggies’ make-up. Not for them the standing with hands on hips, before ordering a close fielder out to sweep the boundary that’s just been breached. Successful leggies simply challenge the batsman again, this time with a little more flight, or a slight change to the angle of rotation.
Legs-spin bowler, Adil Rashid, sits on the verges of the England Test team. Another typical leggie risk-reward bowler – although mitigated a little by his batting. Can the England selectors find space for this attacking option in the team? Coming off a Test series with New Zealand, when runs were conceded at over four per over, I think it unlikely. All the more reason to appreciate Bishoo – certainly on days like today when he foxed the best of Australia’s batting, but also on days when the pitch doesn’t help, the outside edge isn’t threatened and his major mode of dismissal is the other typical of leg-spinners: caught at deep midwicket.