July 8, 2014

All about Alastair

Cook averages much more against spin than he does against pace. Whatever could it mean?

"Ratio of average what? Did Warne put you up to this?" © PA Photos

I understand that one or two articles have already been written which preview the England v India Test matches, both on these esteemed virtual pages and elsewhere. The Confectionery Stall will therefore make a series prediction, then concentrate on one stat and various accompanying sub-stats, that may be of relevance to a crucial sub-contest that could shape the series: Alastair Cook (or, as he seems to have been renamed, The Under-Pressure Alastair Cook) versus the Indian seamers.

England 2 India 1.


If India can continue the England captain's cold streak, and expose the rest of England's still largely unproven top order, they will have a good chance of victory. If Cook dominates them, as he did in 2012-13, they will have a very bad chance of victory. That said, last time India came to the undisputed home of European cricket (take that, Germany, and shove it up your football semi-final), they restricted England's then skipper Andrew Strauss, as well as Cook himself, to one innings of over 40 each in the four Tests, and were still hammered like an uncooperative tent peg at a speed-camping competition.

Amidst all the verbal kerfuffles that have accompanied England's spectacular involuntary toboggan ride back down Mount Cricket, one question that is seldom, if ever, asked is this: Is Alastair Cook a natural opener?

The obvious answer is: Yes. Of course he is. He looks like an opener. He bats like an opener. He even talks like an opener. He battles, accumulates, deflects and grinds. He was born an opener. His first words, at the age of nought days old, were: "Middle and leg please, midwife." He is as much as opening batsman as Monty Panesar is a No. 11 - he could bat somewhere else, but it would seem absurd for him to do so.

However, for such an apparently dyed-in-the-wool opening batsman, Cook generates one unusual statistic.

PART 2, SUBSECTION 2: THE STAT In Tests, Cook averages 40 against pace bowlers, and 66 against spinners.

You would not necessarily expect openers to have especially stellar averages against pace, as they have to face the new ball, and fresh bowlers. Often having had an unhealthily large breakfast. Or whilst suffering from a massive hangover. (The latter two difficulties, I admit, may be less prevalent at international level than in the village game.) Also, when openers do face spin, they will generally have played themselves in.

However, the discrepancy between Cook's averages against pace and spin is strikingly conspicuous when compared to the performances of other batsmen.

ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball records began in May 2001. Since then, 22 players have scored 2000 runs as Test match openers. Taking all their innings in the recorded period (i.e. including when they have batted down the order, not just their innings as openers [for Statsguru-related logistical reasons]), Cook's overall average of 46.1 places him sixth out of 22. His 40 average against pace puts him 14th; and his 66.0 average against spin is the best of the 22. Collectively, the other 21 average 43.4 against pace, and 47.1 against spin.

So, compared with his peers, the other regular openers of the millennium, Cook has been 8% worse than average against pace, and 40% better than average against spin. Furthermore, the ratio of his average against spin compared to his average against pace - 1.65 - is the highest of the 22 batsmen.

The two openers who most closely replicate Cook's relative excellence against spin are Michael Vaughan (38.7 against pace, 62.7 against spin), and Chris Gayle (39.2 v pace; 60.4 v spin). Proving that style and statistics do not always go hand in hand. At the other end of the scale, David Warner averages 52.5 against pace (top of the 22), but only 33.8 against spin (21st). Perhaps surprisingly, Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya is one of the other five with a superior average against pace (along with Graeme Smith, Simon Katich, Andrew Strauss and Herschelle Gibbs).

Cook has the best record against spin of any recent England batsman. Of the ten specialist batsmen or allrounders who have batted most often for England during the span of his career (Cook himself, Pietersen, Bell, Strauss, Prior, Collingwood, Trott, Flintoff, Root and Vaughan), Cook has the highest average against spin, but only the fifth-best against pace (Pietersen, at 46.2, has comfortably the best stats against opposition seamers).

There are contributory factors that help explain Cook's relatively unimpressive record against pace compared to his stellar numbers against the tweakers. He has frequently opened the batting in English conditions, has suffered a recent pace-aggravated slump, and has played some of his biggest innings in and against India. However, when judged against his English and international peers and contemporaries, Cook fares better against spin than against pace by a remarkable margin.

What can be concluded from this? Possibly nothing. Such is the way with stats. Jonathan Trott (40.8 against pace, 62.3 against spin) has a similar statistical profile in this matter; perhaps these numbers are a simple result of them playing at a time when England have faced several potent pace attacks but few highest-level spinners.

There has been little questioning of Cook's batting over the course of his career. His stellar debut in India, and a strong first home Test summer in 2006, meant that his place in the team has seldom been under threat, even though for the best part of four years, until his fleeting selectorial crisis point against Pakistan in 2010, he generally performed usefully rather than outstandingly against the leading teams.

Then, after a scratchy Oval hundred, came his abacus-melting 2010-11 Ashes, followed by a bumper series against the 2011 Sri Lankans, and a mammoth 294 against Dhoni's disintegrating India. His place in the team has never been questioned since, although his performances in the past three years have been fitful (other than in that 2012-13 series in India). His captaincy began well, faltered a little, and then crumbled. His batting has followed a similar pattern, as it has with many captains before him. He is young enough and good enough to recover his form, although such things are not inevitable, and his troubles against pitched-up swing and seam bowling are not a recent development.

So should Cook consider batting in the middle order? As an almost impregnable repeller of the world's tweakers and twirlers, perhaps it is a move that he, and England, should one day contemplate. Sooner or, more likely, later. Or, more realistically, never. England have struggled enough to locate a long-term replacement for Strauss, without voluntarily making themselves find someone to step into Cook's position as well.

You could argue that Cook is an opening batsman in everything apart from statistics. He could be England's Shivnarine Chanderpaul - a middle-order grindmeister, using the craft and skills honed over years of Test cricket to bind his team's batting together, away from the menace of the new ball. (Since 2006, Chanderpaul has averaged 58 against spin and 63 against pace. Suggesting that he could also be West Indies' Alastair Cook.)

* Out of (possible) interest, some other batsmen with a distinct Cook-like preference for spin over pace (figures refer to Tests since May 2001): Rahul Dravid (44.7 v pace - 83.8 v spin); Jacques Kallis (51.7 - 90.9); Younis Khan (43.2 - 81.8); Mahela Jayawardene (43.3 - 72.6); MS Dhoni (30.7 - 60.1); Stephen Fleming (36.3 - 71.6).

And some batters who, like Chanderpaul, buck the overall trend by averaging more against pace than spin: Mohammad Yousuf (61.3 v pace - 55.1 v spin); Ashwell Prince (48.3 - 34.0); Andrew Strauss (42.7 - 37.2); Herschelle Gibbs (50.4 - 37.2).

* England's much-trumpeted lack of a front-line spinner is unlikely to be a significant factor. In India's last four away series, which have resulted in 10 defeats and two draws from 12 Test matches, the home team's spin bowlers have taken 30 wickets at an average of 50, whilst their pace bowlers have taken 200 wickets at just under 23.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer