England's obsession with the sweep

England had cricket’s greatest sweeper, and to try and win the match, he brushed his favourite shot aside. 

England's obsession with the sweep
England had cricket’s greatest sweeper, and to try and win the match, he brushed his favourite shot aside.

England have cricket’s most prolific sweeper; no one is like Jimmy Anderson. He will reverse sweep first ball, and while Ben Duckett says his reverse is as good as a block, Jimmy thinks it’s better. He sweeps more than 60% of his runs from spin.  

But obviously, Anderson and his nervous reverses are not the greatest, that would be Joe Root. He has the most runs ever playing sweeps in Test cricket. Maybe, before we counted this, another player had more. But in the years we are counting, no one has more than Root. And being that he has the tenth most runs ever, I think we can say he’s probably scored more runs from this shot than anyone else. 

The last five years, he’s been sweeping the ball 37% of the time. But being that he is the only player with 1000 runs with the shot, it tells you just how important it has been for him. 

The only thing is, sweeping has never been this deadly. England are the most sweepingest team ever, just at the time when sweeps are getting more dangerous. 

England believe more in sweeps than the characters in Mary Poppins

Think about this fourth Test, Bairstow gets a ball outside offstump from Ashwin, gets down on one knee and slog sweeps it away for six. Ashwin was over the wicket, and Bairstow had a free swing. As the ball was being retrieved, he moved around the wicket. 

Ashwin landed one on leg stump, and it was given out on review. All he did to Bairstow was give himself a chance if he missed one. He knew Bairstow would sweep. Because he always sweeps. Because England sweep. 

Picture Credit - BCCI TV

England as a team have fallen in love with the sweep. In the first Test of this series, according to CricViz, England broke the record for the highest percentage of sweeps in a match. This means they have played the game with the most bouncers, scored at the quickest rate and also now played the most sweeps. When England does something, they spam the hell out of it. 

England as a team sweeps like nothing we have ever seen before in cricket. They currently sweep twice as much as any other side. Shots have only been tracked in recent times. But when you look at old cricket footage, the shot was never more prevalent than today. As covered wickets come in, players outside of Asia lost many skills to play spin, and the shot takes off. Limited overs make it even more critical, you need to be able to hit boundaries everywhere off good balls. 

Even before Bazball, this was happening. Of course, we are looking at total runs here, remember England play more than other teams. So let’s look at the percentage. 

England still sweeps the most, but Zimbabwe gives them a run. Ireland sweeps an awful lot too, but clearly, these two teams don’t play as much. But outside of them, New Zealand is the next best team, and they sweep way less than England, they are not even close. 

Since Bazball there is a spike, but not that much. But what England do now is take an advantage and press it as much as possible. Think about a video game player who just smashes one button. 

They are not the best at it. Nor even close. Bangladesh and Pakistan are much better. Pakistan has always been a good sweeping team, especially compared to India. The difference is probably the consistency of bounce and speed of the bowling.

For instance, one of the greatest players of spin ever, Rahul Dravid, didn’t sweep. But also he is India’s coach. And even he was so obsessed with England's usage that he told Kevin Pietersen that he wanted his players to sweep more. He believed that modern Indian batters are not relying on it enough. To be truly rounded, you need all options.

The sweep is a disrupter shot, which makes it perfect for modern England. 

If you have ever bowled spin, a sweeper brings up new challenges. A player who employs it a lot will disrupt you from normal plans. You can’t just land the ball where you want. Some spinners handle it, and then there is Embuldeniya and Craig, who never worked it out. You could throw in Moeen Ali as well. 

Axar Patel is interesting here, up near Joe Root. People are scoring when sweeping him, but they can’t stay in. But when you look at Ravi Jadeja, he has a decent average, but also is economical. He is the opposite of Axar, in that one slides through and one bounces over, but both work. 

But Ashwin is the one, he is the most successful bowler against the sweep in terms of having the third-best average and also the second in runs per over. He is interesting because he is tall, but his release isn't huge. But he does have a small advantage there. But it is how he plays the angles. 

That Bairstow wicket we talked about at the top. He came around so that if he pitched on the stumps he had a chance of the LBW. But this isn’t a big spinning ball. It slides on, but even then, it does enough so that if Bairstow misses, Ashwin gets him. 

Picture Credit - JioCinema

This is the list of the most runs from sweeps in the last ten years, and look at all the English players on it.

Jimmy Anderson is here, despite only 1300 career runs. Ben Stokes is third on the list as well, and this is again a massive amount of his total runs scored in Tests. His slog sweep is probably one of the more automatic shots in cricket. 

Bairstow is number ten, so Ashwin knew he would probably keep sweeping. But look how many English players turn up further down. Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook. That is four very different players, but all on here. You can even see Keaton Jennings, who doesn’t even have 800 runs in Tests. 

My favourite on this list is Ben Duckett, he scores more than 50% of his runs in Tests against spinners while playing the sweeps. And you can see I have split them up here, usually, I would put them all together when looking at sweeping stats, but with Duckett you can see he plays all four of the options. Sweep, paddle, slog and reverse. 

The only England player who doesn’t sweep much is Ben Foakes, and actually sweeps less than most players. But he stands out just because of how rare he plays it. And it’s still over 10% of his runs. 

So why do England sweep so much? If you look at old clips of English batters, their players used their feet a lot. But their cricket changed because the wickets did. As covered pitches came in, there was less help for the spinners and England weren’t developing their batting in the same way. 

It wasn’t just them, Australia also lost a lot of spin overs when the pitches got covered. But Australian players kept using their feet, and England went to the sweep. And the difference is probably in the bounce. On Australian wickets playing the sweep you are a constant threat of a top edge, that isn’t the same in England. 

However, in Australia the sweep actually goes okay. But over the last decade, the only place it averages more is England. The sweep actually works better there than anywhere else. But look at where it is the worst, India. 

There is a chapter in the book Hitting Against The Spin, where the authors talk about how Australians turn up to India with more left-handers than other teams and then struggle because of the fact India that has endless offspinners. 

That is not exactly what is going on here, but England are bringing a weapon with them that doesn’t work well in Asia in general, and especially India. But while the Indian bowlers are used to being swept, they are not used to it on this level. England players are down on their knee more than people who work for royalty. 

Whereas, Virat Kohli takes the knee for no spinner. Almost all of these are slog sweeps too, from the traditional, lap and reverse, he has a combined two runs. He and England are playing two different sports. 

In this series Ollie Pope tried a reverse sweep after charging down the wicket. Virat would never. Whereas Joe Root would do almost nothing else if he could.

And he’s not wrong, he is scoring at an incredible rate with the shot, and also one of the best averages. Being that he does it at a rate like no one else, to keep this number is incredible. 

Root has managed to be the most prolific sweeper in Tests from England. He’s got over 10% of his career runs in Tests playing this shot, that is including his runs against seamers. One in ten runs to a shot you can only play against spinners, is just another level. 

But sweep shots aren’t what they used to be. Bowlers are better at handling them now, perhaps because of white ball cricket. Or just more players use it as an option now coming down the wicket is so rare. 

So how does that impact the best sweeper in the game? Well, in the last couple of years he has also started struggling. In fact, that is a massive drop. He’s gone from one of the best to play the shot to closer to a tailender on it. 

But in the fourth Test, Root played four sweeps in total. He just pulled the Sachin Tendulkar at the SCG and put away a shot trick. It is different because the cover drive is more instinctive. But even so, Root just turned off his favourite shot completely. 

He did that in a must-win match, against the best spin attack in the world, on a wicket with cracks that gave uneven bounce, and put his side into a position to win the game. 

England had cricket’s greatest sweeper, and to try and win the match, he brushed his favourite shot aside.