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Ashes clashes: Smith v Root – who’s better?

by Freddie Wilde 5 minute read

CricViz content manager Freddie Wilde evaluates who’s the best of the best.

Among players currently playing, none has a higher Test batting average than Steve Smith or Joe Root, and in this winter’s Ashes their respective teams’ hopes rest more than ever on their shoulders.

Career record

Smith’s Test average doesn’t just stand out by current standards – his 59.66 is the sixth-best of all time (minimum 20 innings), and his record is all the more impressive when you consider that figure rises to 63.09 if you discount the five matches he played before his reinvention from a leg-spinning all-rounder to a specialist batsman. Root’s average (53.76) does not quite hit the same lofty heights as Smith’s but it surpasses any English batsman of the last 50 years.

Who will be holding the urn come the end of the series?

Smith’s and Root’s averages in their respective homes are more similar – Smith averages 61.77 to Root’s 59.46 – but away from home Smith’s is far superior – 53.94 to 46.34. The Australian’s average facing fast bowling is also much better, 63.87 to the Englishman’s 49.23. Where Root has the edge is facing spin, against which he averages 64.24, while Smith averages ‘only’ 54.63 against the turning ball.

Same same but different

While Smith’s record is undoubtedly superior, there is a startling similarity between Smith’s and Root’s career so far. Smith has scored 5,370 runs to Root’s 5,323, while Root has faced just 3 fewer balls across his Test career. They have an identical boundary-ball percentage of 6.6 per cent, and a very similar dot ball percentage, with Root not scoring off 71.4 per cent, and Smith 71.1 per cent.

Root is predominantly a back-foot player

However, how they accumulate those runs is very different. Smith’s unorthodox technique is demonstrated by the fact that he either doesn’t move his feet or moves across his stumps to 19 per cent of his deliveries – while the global average is 9 per cent, a figure shared by Root. Root is a markedly back-foot player, as illustrated by his average contact point against pace of 1.56m from the stumps when scoring boundaries – 20cm closer to the stumps than the global average and 16cm closer than Smith. Smith frequently uses his feet to spinners, coming down the pitch 17 per cent of the time, well above the global average of 5 per cent and Root’s 3 per cent. This eagerness to move his feet is reflected in Smith’s boundary heatmap, with a high concentration of his boundaries scored down the pitch.

Root is known as a ‘busy’ player and he looks to score off 57 per cent of balls compared to 51 for Smith, turning the strike over 7 per cent more often, and while Root’s false shot (edged and missed) percentage of 11 is excellent – 3 per cent lower than the global average – Smith’s, at 8 per cent, is phenomenal.

Smith tons up a lot

Both Smith and Root show themselves to be excellent players of the swinging ball, with records far superior to the average Test batsman against all degrees of movement. Smith’s average of 79 against deliveries that swing more than 2° is particularly impressive, especially given the struggles Australian batsmen have had against the moving ball in recent years. From an English point of view, slightly worrying will be Root’s average against balls which swing less than 1°, which is just 47.76. Australia is the country in which the ball swings least of any in the world.

Consistency v conversion

Root can claim to be slightly more consistent than Smith, reaching 50 in 41 per cent of his innings compared to Smith’s 39 per cent. But the Australian has a far better conversion rate, turning 49 per cent of his fifties into hundreds, while Root’s oft-discussed figure is a low 29 per cent. If he can dominate this series, rather than just consistently contribute as he has done, it will go a long way towards helping England retain the Ashes.

This is an adapted version of CricViz content manager Freddie Wilde’s piece in the first issue of the Wisden Cricket Monthly, which you can buy here for just £1.

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