Andy Zaltzman column: Bowlers dominating batsmen in modern era

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The sight of bails flying was a common one for England’s batsmen in the Caribbean

England clambered from the wreckage of their pummellings against West Indies in Barbados and Antigua to achieve a face-saving victory in St Lucia which, if not entirely hollow, was certainly not exactly loaded with significance.

They were aided considerably by a belated realisation among their batsmen that when a ball with your name on it is flying towards you from the bowler, there is no absolute obligation to try to scrub your name off that ball with the edge of your hopelessly flailing bat.

Mark Wood’s pyrotechnic five-for provided the only genuine, certifiable positive of the series for England – he took as many wickets in eight overs as he had in the four previous Tests he had played since 2016 – and they at least avoided a scarring 3-0 whitewash.

Nonetheless, this series was a major failure for England against a West Indies team playing its best cricket of the millennium.

The rise of the fast bowler

South Africa fast bowler Kagiso Rabada took 52 wickets at an average of 20.07 in 2018

The struggles of England’s batsmen in the relevant phase of the series added further to the recent trend of bowlers’ dominance in Test cricket.

In the series, the two teams’ bowlers had a combined average of 26.1.

Since the start of 2018, there have been nine Test series of three or more matches played and the bowlers have collectively averaged less than 30 in all of them. Previously this millennium, bowlers averaged under 30 in just 23% of such series.

The two teams’ collective first-innings series batting average of 19.9 was the eighth worst in Test history (out of 500 series of three or more matches).

England contributed with impressive consistency to this stat – their first-innings average of 16.4 was their second worst in 225 series of at least three Tests, and the outstanding West Indian attack’s first innings strike-rate of 38.6 was the best such figure by any team against England (fractionally ahead of the fearsome, bone-splintering West Indies pace attack of 1985-86).

Overall in Test cricket since the start of 2018, the bowlers’ collective average is down 19% on the figure for 2001-2017 (27.6, down from 34.0), with pace bowlers down 23% (25.4, from 33.1) and spinners down 13% (31.1, from 35.5).

The improvement has been particularly marked within the first 20 overs of innings, when pace bowlers have been 29% more effective in terms of average (24.7, down from 34.9), highlighting how top-order batting since the start of last year has been like trying to watch the news without throwing a brick at your television – not impossible, but more difficult than it used to be.

How the rankings bear this out

The world bowling rankings give further evidence of the difficulties facing Test batsmen today (exactly how these rankings are calculated is one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the known universe. It is rumoured to involve a shady sub-committee of the Bilderberg Group comprising 100 warlocks, an escaped scientist, and an infinite number of walruses, based inside a fake volcano somewhere near Antarctica. They do, however, give a reliable indicator of form and contextualised performance).

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