Mythbusting: Vaughan and Trescothick selected for England despite modest First Class Records

In the perennial debate “Selection: Art or Science”, one of Art’s arguments is that Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick had Modest Records* before succeeding in Test Cricket. In this piece, I’ll demonstrate that there was nothing in their early international red ball careers that couldn’t have been predicted by the right data.

Let’s start by looking at young Michael (born 1974) and Marcus (born 1975) developing in County Cricket.

Fig 1 – After an exceptional first few seasons note the unusual blip in Vaughan’s 1999 performance. This meant that rather than showing improvement with age, his career average hovered around 36.
Fig 2 – A more pronounced improvement with age. Three year rolling average consistently exceeds career average.

Using the three year rolling averages as a measure of current ability, and applying the current performance difference between County Championship Division 1 and Test Cricket (28%, see link), we would expect both players to average 28 in Tests. Adjusting for age (a 25-year-old is better than they were at 23, so would be expected to outperform their three year rolling average), the data driven approach says they had expected Test averages of 29.

I am interested in the predictive power of this data. The decision to elevate them to Test level in 1999 (Vaughan) and 2000 (Trescothick), should be judged on what they delivered by the end of 2000**. How did they get on? Between them 712 runs at 31***. That’s at the lower end of an acceptable average for a top order batsman, albeit two runs per wicket better than expected. If the “Art” camp would like to claim credit for left-field selections, I’m willing to give them credit for two runs per wicket.

Fig 3 – Vaughan and Trescothick 1995-2000 batting data. Limited to County Championship matches where possible (1995 and 1996 were the early days of the internet, so I could only find First Class information)

Discussion

If you judged a player on career County averages you would have balked at Trescothick’s selection in 2000.  We have seen that career averages are misleading: Trescothick played County Cricket aged 20; his career average took a long time to recover from playing while so young.

Career average is a blunt measure of ability. If the sample size is big enough, a better method is to use last three years’ average**** and adjust for age and the level they played at to give an expected Test average.

Conclusion

Vaughan and Trescothick had modest career records before their Test debuts. They also had modest starts to their Test careers!

Taking nuanced view based on age and recent averages, the Test career starts of Vaughan and Trescothick were entirely predictable- no hunches necessary!

Further Reading

Here’s the excellent Vic Marks discussing Vaughan and Trescothick’s records at the time. Gives a bit more context around other factors behind their selection (England U19 and ODI performances): https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2000/jul/30/cricket

*Google is full of classic examples of Modest Records. I like this one because it features one protagonist describing the other: Michael Vaughan, 2014: We have picked players in the past with poor county records, such as Marcus Trescothick, and they have thrived on the international stage.

** They averaged 52 and 41 in domestic Cricket in 2001, so my contention is that they would definitely have been ready by late summer 2001.

*** I’m keen not to be accused of cherry picking the data. By the end of 2000 they only had 23 completed innings between them. Extend the analysis to the end of 2001 and they averaged 36 after 32 Matches.

The other factor to ensure I’ve not rigged this is to note who they played against and where. Vaughan had four tricky Tests away in South Africa, then four easier games hosting the West Indies. England went undefeated in Trescothick’s six Tests against West Indies/Pakistan. Three were at home, three away.

**** Three year rolling average is a bit simplistic. An even better methodology would be to weight towards more recent innings. That’s a “nice-to-have”. Three year rolling average is good enough for our purposes.

Sibley or Roy?

Sibley or Roy

For the third Test I’d like to see Dominic Sibley open the batting. To subscribe to this line of reasoning, you’ll need to be persuaded of two things: firstly, it is not necessary to gain experience in “lesser” Test series to ensure peak performance in the Ashes. Secondly, that Sibley is one of the two best opening batsmen England have available.

Opening Up

There’s a school of thought that new players need to be “blooded” to succeed without first playing against weaker teams in the Test format. The data indicates that this is a fallacy.

The 96 openers to make their debut since 2005 scored at an average of 32. That is poor when compared to the average for all openers (36). However, that’s not the right comparative. Weaker players will play fewer Tests, so debutants are of lower ability than the average Test player.

A better way of assessing openers on debut is to compare performance with that player’s career average, adjusted for whether the debut was at home or away. Looking at it that way, players on debut scored three runs more per match than expected.

Why should openers do well on debut?

This is unexpected – often players will debut before their peak, their average will improve as they get better with age. It’s possible that openers are not thrown in at such a young age as middle order batsmen (because it’s a specialist position and no one wants to be 0-1).

Another option is that batsmen had an advantage when the bowler has to played against them before, and is yet to develop a plan. This may have been the case last decade, but is unlikely in modern cricket.

Note that debuts were evenly spread across opponents- it’s not like selectors wait for the weaker opponents before trying new players.

Sibley the Best?

Before the summer, I rated Dominic Sibley as a decent opening batsmen, impressive for a 23 year old, but some way short of Test standard. His expected 2019 First Class average (based on Championship and 2nd XI matches from 2016-18) was 36. That made him at best seventh on the list of possible Test openers. For fans of lists, Burns (51), Stoneman (44), Jennings (42), Mitchell (40), Hales (39) were ahead of him on merit, and Hameed (expected average 36) was also ahead because of his fame.

Fast forward to August 2019. Reflecting Sibley’s spring/summer return of 940 runs in my ratings, his expected Division 1 average jumps to 42. Tied for second place with Stoneman.

Adjusting for age, Sibley would expect to average 34 in Tests.

If one limits the search to red ball cricketers, there could be few complaints with Sibley opening the batting for England.

However, there’s this Roy chap. Top ODI player- averages 43. Can he make it as a Test opener? Leaving his white ball record to one side (because I’ve not looked at the predictive power of white ball results on red ball expectations), in First Class Cricket he averages 38. He has performed better recently: averaging 43 in Division 1 over the last three seasons. However, in those three-and-a-half-seasons he barely played: 32 completed Test/Championship/2nd XI innings while Sibley has 73. Roy didn’t open in either of his games last year.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to give an opener a debut if their record says they are capable.

A reasonable scenario is that Denly (expected Test average 31) picks up 60-80 runs over the course of the Lord’s Test this week, and is dropped on the back of averaging 24 after ten innings.

Sibley to open, Roy slots in at four? Could work.

Do Hundreds Matter?

Ambivalence: having two opposing feelings at the same time, or being uncertain about how you feel.

Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge University Press)

Yesterday (2nd August 2019) Rory Burns scored his first Test century.  It was a struggle. It was error strewn. But he got there. In the evening the twitter consensus was that the important thing was that he did it, not how he did it.

Fig 1 – Twitter Screenshot.

What didn’t I like about Butcher’s point*? I’ve always thought that you can learn more from a lucky long innings than a duck. Someone gives a chance first ball, gets out – so what? Another player hacks their way to thirty, regularly playing and missing or chopping the ball past the stumps – well there you have some useful data – the bowler is dominating the batsman with a decent sample size.

But a hundred? I’m conflicted. You can’t use a hundred as evidence that a player is no good. Can you?

You are surprisingly unlikely to get more than a hundred if you average under 25

Fig 2 – Theoretical Probability of scoring a century in a single innings vs average.
Fig 3 – Theoretical Probability of scoring at least one century over fifteen innings

Over his first seven Tests, Burns averaged 22. A batsman with that ability only has a 1% chance of getting a hundred in any innings. Does that mean that Burns was lucky? That depends what you believe: either he is a twenty-something averaging batsman who had some fortune, or a thirty-something averaging player who is performing as expected. County data says he’s the latter.

One can get lots of runs at a decent average without a hundred.

In the appendix I’ve listed the top run scorers in Test Cricket who didn’t get a century. Was Chetan Chauhan any less of a batsman because he scored 2,000 runs averaging 32 but never made more than 97? No, the data says there’s a 5% probability that it was just chance that meant he didn’t get a hundred, with no psychological flaws or lack of stamina at play.

That’s all lovely – but DO HUNDREDS MATTER?

Joe Root’s hundreds don’t matter. He has played a lot of innings, so his average is the one metric you need. 49.03.

Rory Burns’ hundred doesn’t matter to me (other than to say there’s no reason to over-rule my analysis– expect him to average 39 over the long term in Test Cricket). Burns scoring a century matters only if Test scores are all you use to appraise batsmen. You would rate him significantly more highly after scoring a hundred than before (though, knowing it was an ugly hundred, you would probably rank his expected average somewhere from 25-35).

One example where I think hundreds matter is when there’s very little to go on. Dan Douthwaite scored a hundred against Sussex when playing for Cardiff University. As he wasn’t on my radar at that point, that 100* meant that I could safely assume he would average more than 25 in Division 2.

I’m thus ambivalent about rating players based on scoring hundreds: most of the time I’ll take averages over hundreds. When there’s noting else to go on, a big score can tell you that someone’s not bad.

Appendix:

Fig 4 – Test records of batsmen with no hundreds. Final column shows the probability of a player with that average not scoring a hundred in the number of innings they played.

*I should add that Control Percentage isn’t a metric I value as highly as False Shot Percentage. To my embarrassment, I’ll admit I misread Butcher’s original tweet as criticising False Shot Percentages. Still, serendipity – if I could read, I’d never have worked out whether I care about hundreds.

The Ashes: A tale of two spinners

I wrote an Ashes preview. It was boring. You won’t be subjected to it. Fortunately, when researching that I noticed a strange feature of Nathan Lyon’s bowling: he is great in the first innings of a Test.

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether we’ll see Moeen Ali vs Nathan Lyon as the opposing spinners in the 2019 Ashes – Ali’s batting has been poor of late, so it’s hard to justify his selection. Easier to make seam-friendly wickets and neutralise Lyon. Career averages show why that’s tempting:

Fig 1 – Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali’s Test bowling records (as at 30/7/19)

That data masks two things – firstly, since 2017 both bowlers average 29. Secondly, and interestingly, how they perform through a match.

Fig 2 – Lyon (Yellow Triangle) and Ali (Green Square) by Innings of the match. Axes are the same in all four charts.

Let’s walk through that quartet of charts. In the first Innings, Nathan Lyon is about as good as it gets. An average of 32 is 11 runs per wicket better than the average for all spinners. He’s right up there with Ashwin & Jadeja. Moeen Ali is, frankly, awful. Averaging 16 more runs per wicket than Shane Shillingford. That Green Square is poles apart from Lyon’s Yellow Triangle.

Through the second and third innings, Nathan Lyon stubbornly refuses to improve. The chasing pack catches him, then outshines him by the third innings. Ali is comparable with him at that point (and within touching distance of the rest).

Now it gets weird. If anything, Lyon is worse in the fourth innings. A bowling average of 34 is now ten runs worse than that for all spinners since 2010. The control is still there, as his economy rate is unaffected. The sample size is fine (58 wickets in the fourth innings). Odd.

Meanwhile, the fourth innings is Ali’s playground. 59 wickets at 22, he’s right up there with the big boys. Go Green Square, go!

Let’s end with some practical uses for this, before it becomes pub trivia.

  • Nathan Lyon can be part of a four man attack for Australia – he can bowl effectively in the first innings, so Australia don’t need to play four quicks to have sufficient firepower early in the match.
  • Moeen Ali shouldn’t bowl in the first innings for England. Stokes can play the role of fourth bowler, and Ali should bowl no more than ten overs per day. Save him for later in the game.

Further Reading

Cricinfo independently noticed this back in 2017 (ie. I haven’t copied them, honest!) Unfortunately for them, they attributed the difference to the Asian continent. That quirk has now been ironed out.

Could Woakes open the batting in Tests?

My thinking was akin to some shambolic calling when running between the wickets: No. Yes. Wait – No!

No – Jonathan Agnew suggested that Chris Woakes was a potential opener a few years ago. To paraphrase, Woakes was someone that could do a job, perhaps on tour if an opener got injured.

This sounded ridiculous- fast bowling all rounders don’t open the batting, especially when they normally bat at six or lower. Presumably this was just a case of a commentator getting carried away during a long stint at the microphone.

Yes – And yet, as time went on, with Cook appearing to struggle and Strauss’ shoes unfilled, maybe there was some sense to it. With Root refusing to move up from number four, England had two top three places to fill (soon to be three once Cook retired).

Wait – Hang on. Easy to have wild ideas from the sidelines, would anyone really pick an untested all rounder to open the batting when they could pick from an assortment of county openers? One would have to be pretty desperate. Best to give Ali, Burns, Buttler, Compton, Denly, Duckett, Hales, Hameed, Jennings, Root, Roy, Stoneman a go before doing anything rash!

And maybe England do see something in Woakes’ batting – he batted at three against West Indies in the World Cup. Time to look at this properly.

No – While I can’t see any record of Woakes opening the batting, we can see performances against the second new ball. Not a bad proxy for performance at the top of the innings. Soon I’ll build a County Championship ball by ball database, for now his Test record will have to suffice:

Chris Woakes’ overall batting average is 29 in Tests, 35 in First Class. While he has only been dismissed nine times when batting during overs 80-100, averaging 26 in that period says that if anything Woakes would average less than his career average if he opened the batting.

Also, moving a weaker batsman up to open moves everyone else down one place. That increases the chance a batsman runs out of partners. Not ideal.

Not an especially interesting conclusion: Woakes could but shouldn’t open the batting for England.

Preview: England vs Ireland Test Match

Hot on the heels of the 10 team World Cup, Ireland get a chance to prove they deserve a place at the table by giving England a scare in a Test Match.

I’ll admit, apart from the bigger names, I’m not all that familiar with the Ireland team. What does the Cricinfo preview say?

Nothing yet. I imagine that feed is automated and thrown by the lack of data.

How to appraise the Irish players who don’t have a Test track record yet? Will try two methods, and clumsily fuse them together to give a sense of how this Test might go. Firstly, there have been plenty of ODIs between Ireland and the World Cup teams. Secondly, most of the Irish players have some County experience. Many players have only played a handful of ODIs against the best teams, or county matches, so will take a weighted average of the two formats.

Now this is not a serious piece of work – it’s a one hour attempt to have some sense of what will happen in a one-off four day Test match. Hopefully it’s good enough for those purposes.

If these two squads competed in Division 1 of the County Championship in 2019, this is how I think they would fare:

Ireland squad for the Test vs England, 24th July 2019. Player descriptions are from Cricinfo.

Ireland have very little batting. This team would surely be the one to go down if they were playing in Division One. Note how Balbirnie and Stirling come out as the strongest batsmen – which wasn’t what I expected. I’d thought Porterfield / O’Brien / Wilson were the best they had. Good to know.

The middle overs should be a good time to bat for England. Beyond Murtagh and Rankin, Ireland will need to find 50 overs from the other bowlers. Might be some tough and wicketless spells, and a tough call for Porterfield about whether he can afford to let England pile the runs on before using his best bowlers when the second new ball is due at 80 overs.

If Ireland would average 220 odd playing in Division One, while conceding 360 when bowling, how would England get on?

Pretty much double the runs. Woakes is a better batsman than any of Ireland’s players. England can also call on seven competitive bowlers.

Roy vs Murtagh / Rankin would be a useful indicator of whether Roy can play Red Ball Test Cricket. It’s only one match, but it’s marginally better than a sample of no matches before the Ashes.

Here’s my conclusions:

  • Ireland are 55-1 on Betfair to win the Test. I’ve not run the above through the model, but a <2% chance sounds about right.
  • Before considering Ireland’s Test fixtures, this kind of analysis should be completed so we know what to expect. My personal view is that every effort should be made to give teams like Ireland more ODI matches against the best teams (they average four games per year against the best nine countries). Ireland might be better served playing the weaker Test nations until they have closed the gap with the top eight teams.

I don’t mean to belittle Ireland or come across as someone that’s against the development of Test Cricket – it’s just hard to expect a good contest based on the data.

Further Reading

Showing what a Phyrric victory gaining Test status was, there’s a piece in the Telegraph. It also has biographies of the Ireland team. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/cricket/2019/07/23/irelands-test-status-has-failed-deliver-celebrations-promised/

Ryan Higgins: winning fast and slow

Readers may be familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s book on human nature and how we evolved with two ways of reasoning – fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. What kind of logic are we using when we notice cricketers? We love the quick seizing of initiative, the moment when the tide turns. Think of that Flintoff over in the 2005 Ashes. Here’s a link to Youtube.

Today (18th July) Gloucestershire beat Leicestershire by six wickets. A thrilling win finishing in the last over of the fourth day. Ryan Higgins deserved his praise for taking 5-71 in the second innings. What is less notable is his first innings contribution. Used as the fourth bowler, not brought on until the 21st over, he removed two of the top seven and finished with 2-44 from 17 overs. Unremarkable, and yet vital.

That two-fer is a typical Higgins return. On his County Championship debut in 2017 (for Middlesex against Yorkshire), his match figures were 26-8-61-3. A great support role – yet he didn’t get a mention in Cricinfo’s writeup of the game. After all, where’s the narrative in mid-innings wickets and a miserly economy rate? We tend to underappreciate players who nudge the odds their team’s way. Had the three wickets been a hat-trick, it might (literally) have been a different story.

A move to Gloucestershire meant more first team Cricket in 2018 and more success. Two five wicket hauls in friendly April conditions got Higgins noticed. Skip to 2019, and the weight of numbers start to look persuasive.

Fig 1- Higgins and Archer career red-ball Cricket records. Higgins has the better batting and bowling average, while Archer has a greater impact, with a whopping 4.7 wickets per game. Who would you prefer in your team?*

Did I mention Higgins can bat? Coming in at 131-5 against Leicestershire last month, he put on 318 with Chris Dent for the sixth wicket. This year he has 632 runs, averaging 70. Quite an achievement when he has bowled the sixth most overs in the Division (with a game in hand).

To support the theme of the unseen, I submit a niche event to highlight Ryan Higgins in 2019 – Gloucestershire’s other red ball win this summer (against Durham). Match figures of 4-48. I could go into more details, but that’s not the point. Four wickets at 12 runs each is what matters, everything else** is just noise. It takes 20 wickets to win a match, it’s a great help when you have a middle order batsman who can be relied on to cheaply take one fifth of them.

I’ve never seen Higgins play. Am off to Cheltenham for the festival tomorrow – looking forward to finding out what the lack of fuss is about.

There’s two points I hope you take from this. Firstly, Ryan Higgins is a very successful twenty-four year old cricketer. Secondly, look past the headlines and pivotal moments, and put the right value on each player’s contribution throughout the game. You’ll know when Ben Stokes wins a match. Make sure you know if Ryan Higgins wins Gloucestershire promotion.

*Admittedly Archer is an excellent three-format Cricketer.

**Well, who the wickets are also matters. Three wickets of top seven batsman, and one tail-ender, if you were wondering.