Shortly after noon on 27 May, as Joe Root and his team trudged from the field after crumbling to a summer-opening defeat against Pakistan’s seam wizardry at Lord’s, England fans would have been nervously contemplating a nostalgia-fuelled return to the anti-glory days of the late 1980s, when a Paraguayan Navy Select XI would have fancied their chances of pinching a victory against the sport’s founding nation.
A drably predictable 4-0 Ashes defeat had been followed by a seismic mega-collapse to 27-9 on the first morning of the series in New Zealand, when police called to investigate curious noises emanating from a cemetery in south London concluded that they were caused by WG Grace screaming a cocktail of batting tips and obscenities in his long-occupied grave.
Had you told those trembling England supporters that, on the impending tour of Sri Lanka, James Anderson and Stuart Broad would take one wicket between them, their fellow long-term lynchpin Alastair Cook would amass a grand total of zero runs, and England would churn through four different number three batsmen in three Tests, they would have sobbed quietly into their suddenly unappetising sandwiches, and assumed another humiliating whitewash was soon to be added to the recent catalogue of English overseas drubbings.
As it transpired, only the whitewash of those forebodings has come to pass, with England enjoying the rare sensation of being the iceberg rather than the ship in another Titanic Test series.
A new, Rootian team, of many and varied talents, are emerging. The selectors, who are due considerable credit after achieving a strikingly high hit rate, are now faced mostly with difficult decisions over whom to leave out.
England end the year on a high
England ended the year with a record of eight wins, one draw and four defeats, with all the victories coming in the past nine matches.
Their 2018 win percentage (61.5%) is their eighth highest of the 74 years in which they have played at least seven Tests.
Extraordinarily, for a country with such cricketing and financial resources, 2018 was the first year since 2013 in which England have won more Tests than they have lost.
The art of sixes and singles
In Sri Lanka, England’s batsmen achieved a collective strike-rate of 58.9 runs per 100 balls.
Looking at England’s series over the past 40 years (essentially the period for which complete details of balls faced and boundaries hit are available, encompassing 129 series, including one-off Tests), this was their highest batting strike-rate in any overseas series, their seventh highest overall, and their highest in a series anywhere since 2011.
How they scored these runs illustrates much about England’s approach of positive accumulation and well-chosen whackery (facilitated, as argued last week, by Sri Lanka’s tactics).
England’s percentage of runs off the bat scored in boundaries – 41.6% – is unusually low, their fourth lowest in 66 series since 2001.
The percentage of runs scored with fours – 32.6% – is their second lowest since 1980; the percentage scored in sixes (9.0%) is their highest. They cleared the ropes 27 times in Sri Lanka, endangering spectators and passers-by on average once every 119 balls (19.5 overs), smashing their previous best of one per 130 balls, in the 2005 Ashes.
Counting only deliveries which were not hit for boundaries, England achieved a run-rate of 36.5 per 100 balls – their highest non-boundary run-rate in a series of three or more Tests.
Jos Buttler, who arguably had one of the most influential series ever by a specialist batsmen without passing 65, registered his highest series strike-rate of 72, but his lowest percentage of runs in boundaries (36%), and, off balls which he did not hit for four or six, maintained an extraordinary strike-rate of 49 per 100 balls (his previous best was 32).
Tail bails England out
The depth of England’s batting, both against India this summer and in Sri Lanka, was hugely impactful.
Counting only runs off the bat, England’s numbers one to five made 55% of the team’s runs in 2018, while numbers six to 11 contributed 45%.
In the 95 calendar years in which England have played at least five Tests, this is the second highest proportion the tail has scored in a year.
Counting only the 45 years in which England have played at least 10 Tests, 2018 is top of the list, 2016 is second (44.7%) and 2017 is fourth (39.4%), highlighting how England’s middle- and lower-order batsmen have been an enormous strength during their troubles at the top of the order.
This is also only the sixth year of the 95 years in this statistical sample in which England’s numbers six to nine have collectively averaged more (32.5) than England’s top five (30.2). The previous years were 2016, 1989, 1972, 1935 and 1934.
England edge the tight contests
Given England won by 31 runs at Edgbaston, 60 runs in Southampton, 57 runs in Pallekelle and 42 runs in Colombo, lower-order runs – generally scored from perilous positions – were of match-winning, series-transforming value.
By way of contrast, England had only four wins by fewer than 70 runs in their previous 243 Tests over almost 20 years.
Buttler, Sam Curran and Ben Foakes were especially prominent, with significant and consistent productivity also from Adil Rashid.
All 12 team totals in the Sri Lanka series were between 200 and 349. Only once before had there been a three-Test series with as many as 10 innings in that bracket.
Given that only 11 of the 432 Tests played in the 10 years preceding this series had featured four innings between 200 and 349, for three matches in a row to nestle into this numerical niche reveals how balanced the battle between bat and ball was in Sri Lanka, when England won all three tosses.
All in all, it has been a fascinating, thrilling and transformative year for Root’s side.
We have seen a team emerge who have been able to win close matches.
Yet the true implication and context of England’s recent successes will only be revealed after we have seen what happens over the next couple of years, as the quality of opposition improves and Root’s current mastery of the spinning coin diminishes…