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Why are England’s openers being targeted with spin?

By: Andy Cooper

In three successive World Cup games, England’s opponents have chosen to open the bowling with spin.

This tactic paid dividends for South Africa and Pakistan, with Jonny Bairstow falling to Imran Tahir in their opening game and then Jason Roy being dismissed lbw sweeping to Shadab Khan at Trent Bridge.

The two openers went on to share 128 for the first wicket in the victory over Bangladesh, however it is worth remembering that the first three overs of Shakib Al Hasan’s opening spell went for just eight runs without a boundary being conceded.

Collectively, 60% of all the deliveries bowled by these spinners in the opening six overs of each England innings were dot balls, with a boundary being scored only once every nine deliveries.

It is obvious that teams have identified this as a potential chink in England’s armour, so what does the data tell us about each opener’s possible shortcomings against spin?

More wickets are falling early in an innings to spin

Before getting into the finer details, it is worth taking into account that whilst utilising spinners early has been a common tactic in T20 cricket for a long time, the trend of using spin in the first six overs of an ODI innings has also increased substantially since the last World Cup in 2015, with a noticeable jump in the number of wickets falling to spinners early on.

In the period between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez was by far the most common spin bowler used in the early stages of an innings, bowling a total of 43 overs and taking 5-159. In comparison Afghanistan’s Mujeeb Ur Rahman has bowled almost double the number of overs (83) in the last four years, claiming 18 scalps.

Reducing the boundary count

Returning to Bairstow and Roy, when we look at their respective ODI and List A careers opening the batting since 2012, we can see that the Yorkshireman is noticeably less destructive when facing spin in the first six overs.

In the matches where he has opened he has enjoyed a strike rate of 98.5 against seam, however when facing spin this drops to 76.9.

Bairstow scores a high proportion of runs in boundaries – 68% against all types of bowling – but his balls per boundary scored against spin is far higher compared to seam. Most of his runs against spinners are scored in front of square through mid-off and the covers (the numbers tell us he doesn’t sweep early on) and 67% of the deliveries he faces are dots. However whilst not being as productive in run accumulation, prior to his dismissal against Tahir he had only been dismissed early on to spin once.

Roy is the opposite of his opening partner – his strike rate is lower against seam than spin, where he looks to accumulate more runs in singles and by rotating the strike. Fewer than half of his deliveries against spinners are dots and 40% of his runs are a result of push or defensive shots through mid-off and mid-on. However he is more prone to false shots against spin compared to Bairstow.

Whilst neither opener had been dismissed regularly to spin in the initial overs prior to the World Cup, spinners have accounted for over 30% of all Roy’s dismissals when you take into account an entire innings.

Based on all this evidence it would suggest that the tactic of opening with spin against the England openers has two purposes: to stop Bairstow from scoring quickly by starving him of width outside off stump; and to try and force an error from Roy, who instinctively looks to be more productive against spin.

The tactic has proved successful for England’s opponents so far and it leaves Jason Holder with a dilemma over whether or not to continue with his utilisation of hostile pace bowling, which has reaped huge rewards for the West Indies so far, or to consider throwing the ball to Ashley Nurse early on, a player who remains wicketless in the competition so far.