Ahead of England's Test series in Pakistan, Richard Mann reflects on last summer and ponders what betting lessons can be gleaned for this tour.
Improved England Test match bankers?
England began last summer with much to prove and many questions to answer, but ended it with six wins from seven Tests, series victories over New Zealand and South Africa, and a captain and coach combination that could yet take them to the top of the world rankings.
It was a remarkable turnaround. Many of the summer's stars are the same players who struggled so badly in the latter stages of Joe Root’s captaincy, as he battled with the impossible job of holding the fort through a pandemic in which England’s cricketers undoubtably suffered more than their international counterparts.
With the world getting back to normal, crowds having returned and bio-secure bubbles seemingly a thing of the past, England’s players have thrived under the new, empowering leadership team of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
And that confidence has been mirrored in the betting, with England hovering around the even-money mark in the build-up to the final Test of last summer against South Africa at the Oval, just as they were when taking on India in their rearranged Test at Edgbaston in July.
Much of that confidence came off the back of the three stunning run chases England produced in their series whitewash over New Zealand and, on results alone, it’s hard to argue with England being chalked up as strong favourites in the near future – though in Pakistan conditions will be much different.
England displayed some frailties in the summer, too, and the Stokes/McCullum ride is very much a rollercoaster experience.
It’s worth remembering that they were a long way behind in all three Tests against New Zealand before turning those matches, and the odds, upside down, while things weren’t looking too rosy when Rishabh Pant and Ravi Jadeja took them to the sword in the first innings against India at Edgbaston.
Even in the series win over South Africa, the three one-sided Tests – two won by England and one by the tourists – saw plenty of ups and downs for Stokes’ men, along with notable market fluctuations. England were matched at 3.95 when South Africa were going well in their second innings, before the hosts eventually went on to seal a facile nine-wicket victory.
England had only managed 158 in their first innings of that match, and only 165 and 149 at Lord’s when conditions were tricky for batting in the series opener.
As such, while betting England at home proved profitable business in the summer, something which might well continue, the way this side plays its cricket suggests those willing to chance their arm at big prices in-running might enjoy even greater rewards.
I do think conditions are crucial to this team, too. The bowling is very solid, and if and when the likes of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood return to provide some genuine pace, the depth and variety in the fast-bowling department will match any side in the world. The need for a world-class spinner remains, but there's variety among the quicks.
The batting is more interesting. When the going has been good, like at Trent Bridge and Headingley, England’s aggressive batting line-up was unstoppable. When the clouds rolled in for three of their four innings at Lord’s this year, and the ball swung, they were found wanting and collapsed badly.
When conditions allow, England’s batting should continue to be very, very good. When the going is tough, it might make for grim viewing.
England begin a three-match Test series with Pakistan this week, and we should learn more in the coming weeks, but Australia pulled off a brilliant series win on these shores only a few months ago and, surprisingly, it was with pace and reverse swing that they prospered, less so spin.
With the likes of Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf in the home attack, reverse swing should provide England with a stern examination, much the way conventional swing did against New Zealand at Lord’s, so don’t be surprised if wickets fall in clusters and we see the odd low score – particularly in the second innings when conditions start to deteriorate.
That’s what makes this current England side so interesting and such a dilemma when it comes to playing the outright match market.
Where is the top batsman value?
As I argued all summer, the value in the top batsman markets was with the middle and lower order.
New Zealand’s Daryl Mitchell made three centuries in as many Tests from number five, while Jonny Bairstow made four in four Tests before tailing off against South Africa and then missing the Oval due to injury.
Joe Root’s summer went the same way, but he top-scored for England four times in seven Tests, (first and second innings included), Bairstow thrice, while there were wins for Ben Foakes and a two-way dead-heat success for Stuart Broad.
England’s middle order has been its strength for a long time, and its drop in productivity from five down was a big reason the side struggled at the end of Root’s era.
The return to form of Bairstow was a big plus, while Stokes insisting Root stays at number four is another, and when next summer comes around, I’ll want to be with the middle order again, given how challenging it is facing the new Dukes ball in England.
But what about in Pakistan? In that aforementioned home series against Australia, it was actually the top order who dominated, making best use of some flat pitches before reverse swing and spin became a factor later in the piece.
Openers Usman Khawaja and Abdullah Shafique were the top two runscorers in that series, making three centuries and three fifties between them, and coming into the series in fine form, middle-order rocks Travis Head and Fawad Alam made little impact.
That suggests we might have to change our approach to betting England’s batsmen in Pakistan, and don’t overlook Zak Crawley who came through a testing home summer with an impressive 69 not out at the Oval, giving him two wins in the top England batsman market across the seven Tests.
Crawley has had little respect from the layers all year, but it has been sideways movement that has caused him problems, and he might just have the game to prosper when getting first crack on wickets that are generally good for batting early in the match.
His struggles India in early 2021 might put people off, but I don’t think he has as much worry about on that score as Ollie Pope, the latter appearing to have no plan against first Ravi Ashwin and then Nathan Lyon in the Ashes.
Root is an excellent player of spin, but his price is rarely big enough to warrant a bet, while reverse swing promises to prove a big test for others in the England line-up. Crawley's strong leg-side game should help him in that regard.
As such, the Kent man could represent the value.
Muddied waters in top bowler market
The top England bowler market is hard to get a handle on, particularly with attentions now turning to Pakistan.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad once again confirmed last summer that they remain potent forces despite their advancing years, with Anderson finishing the summer with 27 wickets at an average of 17.66, Broad 29 at 27.17.
After a slower start, Broad claimed three two-way ties in the top first innings England bowler market to underline the point that even when he isn’t at the top of his game, he will always take wickets.
However, in claiming 12 wickets in only two matches, twice winning the top England bowler market, Ollie Robinson returned with a bang, and he might well be the man to back going forward particularly if the market continues to favour Anderson. Broad misses this series having welcomed his first child in accurate days.
Pakistan will provide a different challenge for Robinson, and we’ve yet to really see him bowling reverse swing, something Anderson appeared to have mastered when outstanding in India and Sri Lanka the winter before last.
Wood’s extra pace and low trajectory will be very handy in Pakistan, but he missed the T20 World Cup final because of injury and remains under a cloud, while Jack Leach has questions to answer given he will start the series as England’s number one spinner despite only picking up two wickets in three Tests against South Africa.
Plenty will be expected of Leach, by his captain and traders alike, but aside from his Man of the Match display at Headingley, he made little impact in what was a particularly dry spell in England, and it’s worth noting that Stokes, with one outright win and two two-way ties, claimed more wickets than Leach last summer.
Stokes is an excellent exponent of reverse swing and is set to play as the third seamer in England's starting XI, meaning the big prices usually on offer about him in this market might be worth taking.
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