Fatigue & the County Championship

Pace bowlers need rest. The County Championship structure begins with a rhythm of four days on, three days off. I think that’s too much and impacts performance.

Last week Ryan Higgins bowled 25 wicketless overs. So did Darren Stevens, going at over four an over. There’s more: Chris Rushworth, Jackson Bird, Ajeet Dale, Michael Hogan, Jamie Atkins. All had played three games in 18 days. In the third game their collective figures were 0-506.

Zoom out. I’ve looked at the pace bowlers who have played all three games this spring, and how they compare to the fresher bowlers that haven’t played all three:

Flipping heck. A 38% difference in average. This is much bigger than when I’ve looked at this before. But then those were just back-to-back Tests (7%), or for short recovery between List A games (5%). This is the harsher concept of back-to-back-to-back. It is, admittedly, just one week I’m looking at – adding the error bars we’re comparing averages of 25 (+/- 5) with 34 (+/- 7). I’d be surprised if the real variance is more like a (still whopping) 15-20%. 38% just feels too high*.

Let’s get into the implications of this:

Selection – if the above table is right, then Ryan Higgins (expected average 24) becomes a 33 averaging lump playing his third game on the trot. This means rotation is required. Puts the sides relying on one or two strike bowlers at a disadvantage (like Glamorgan, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire). Here’s the pace bowlers with the heaviest workloads so far – keep an eye on them next week***:

D1 – most overs from pace bowlers. Note the three Essex bowlers: Cook, Steketee and Snater. They can’t rest all three – so had better hope for some spinning pitches. Also the Hampshire trio of Abbas / Abbott / Barker**.

Season Structure – if four-days-on-three-days-off doesn’t work, what about four-days-on-four-days-off? Could start the first game on a Wednesday, the next the following Thursday etc, ensuring games still include weekends.

I’m a traditionalist, but if 14 games per season is damaging the competition, then maybe 12 (in the same window) is better. Standards must remain high. I’ll track and we’ll know more by the end of the year.

Scheduling – Looking ahead, there are four teams that play all the first six games. Then two (Durham & Leicestershire) are involved in all the seven April/May matches. Quite a disadvantage.

County Stats – is the failure of many recent batsmen to make the step from county to Test because batsmen are having things too easy against fatigued bowlers? Maybe it sounds far fetched, but worse suggestions have been provided.

Next steps – The hypothesis is that the knackered bowlers will underperform next week. We’ll see what an extra week’s data says. If I’m right, Essex and Hampshire may struggle.

* Yes, there were lots of top quality fresh bowlers deployed for the third round of games, but this only explains 3% of the gap.

** Lovely weather we’re having. It might be that there’s normally rain and cloud around, giving bowlers more helpful conditions and more rest. Thus (as The Leading Edge Cricket Podcast point out), the Top 6 batter average stands at 40 this year, up from last year’s 31.

***Not all games are equally tiring. Winning by an innings in two days, you get two rest days. A rain affected game is probably as good as a week off. When Hampshire scored 652/6 Abbott and Abbas had their feet up. I still need to think about who has had the best chances to recover.

County Championship previews: 2022

I’ve put together previews for each county. Since I’m better at statistics than writing, I’ll let the charts speak for themselves. The only thing to add is that I did these before the first round of games (honest!)

If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or find me on Twitter @edmundbayliss.

Now here’s Division 2:

Joe Root: four is the magic number

No more no less. It’s the magic number.

England’s red ball batting doesn’t have much going for it. But it has Joe Root.

Given that, it kinda makes sense for England to Put Root First when picking a team – then work out who should average 29 in the other six slots.

But word on the street is that Root wants to bat at three. At first glance that’s brave – Root’s data at face value says he’s best at four or five.

First, let’s bang some error bars* on those averages. Root at three averages 39 (+/- 11). At four that’s 51 (+/- 10). He’s probably better at four, but it’s possible the difference is just chance. Even after 53 innings at three, raw averages can’t prove to us that he’s a better three than four.

What about other batsmen? Is there a theme: is it easier to bat at second drop? There are fourteen batsmen who’ve batted more than 20 innings at both positions this century. Not that many people, so it’s open to interpretation. My reckoning: if you’re good at four you’ll be fine at three.

Going back to Root, is there something specific that means he’d struggle at three? Firstly, it’s worth noting that 60% of his dismissals at three were against India or Australia (at four, that figure is 48%), so there’s a bit of mitigation for his lower average one place up the order. Now, here’s Root’s record by over:

Data from Cricmetric.

Joe Root is very good at batting. Averaging 40 in the first ten overs? He could be an opener. What makes that average even better is that if he’s batting early in the innings, chances are conditions are tough – because at least one wicket has already fallen.

So we’ve seen that Root should be fine at three. He’s good early in the innings. Others who’ve batted well at four have done fine at three. But is three his optimum position? No. He averages 44 against pace, 69 against spin. At four, he’ll get more spin**.

Does that mean that Root at three in the West Indies is a mistake? Well, he might be missing out on his favourite bowling: when West Indies play at home, spin makes up 23% of overs (England in England: 20%). My conclusion: if West Indies play a spinner, Root should bat at four. If West Indies are pace-heavy, then Root at three to try to meet the West Indies head-on is a gamble, but not an unreasonable one***.

*Error bars based on number of completed innings in each position.

**There’s a case for batting at five, but then you lose some runs due to being left not out. Plus England have plenty of lower-middle-order batsmen.

***Though, of course, nobody needs to know England’s batting order until the first wicket falls. Knowledge is power.

Ashes 2021-22 Preview

Welcome. On average I think Australia are 79 runs per innings better than England, so a result like 3-0 is on the cards. Here I’ll rank the players and draw out some of the themes to expect.

Expected averages for each batsman this series. Starting lineups are estimated, though plausible changes don’t materially impact the analysis. Home advantage, bowling strength, matchups and hunches incorporated into the ratings.

It’s too easy to overanalyse. Let’s start simply. Two very good bowling attacks. Lots of OK batting. So without weather, expect results. In terms of the stronger batting, Warner/Smith/Labuschagne for Australia all average >70 at home in the last four years. As good as Root/Stokes are, England are outgunned. Australia are the better team, they are at home, and so they are favourites.

Probabilities My model says the odds should be 64% Aus, 22% Eng, 14% Draw (at Brisbane, excluding weather). If anything, I think that’s a bit generous to England. Oddly the bookmakers give England a 19% chance in Brisbane, when that game is likely to be rain affected. I wouldn’t be backing England…

Home Advantage Australia have a great home record. If you’re thinking 5-0, that’s not outrageous. They’ve whitewashed their opponents in five of the last thirteen series of three or more Tests. And Australia have won all eight day/night Tests they’ve hosted, so even the possibility of two D/N matches might not help England (who have lost three of their four pink ball games).

Spin is generally ineffective in Australia. Lyon is freakishly good there though: (avg Lyon 32, others 60). Another edge to the hosts. Note Lyon averages 40 vs RHB, 24 vs LHB in the last four years. England are heavy on RHB, which makes sense. If I were picking the squad, I’d focus on picking RHB that are best against pace, and rely on their right-handedness to blunt Lyon a bit. Look for Lyon to be into the attack early if Burns (LHB, avg 27 vs OS) is still there after 20 overs.

PS. Good to see England went for Pope over Bairstow. Bairstow averages 29 vs pace, 43 vs spin (Pope 36 / 25). I’d want the better batting against pace. A spin specialist won’t help you after you’re bowled out for 210 on the first day.

Ground characteristics. Gabba / Adelaide are Australia’s best recent grounds, with 80% home wins. Others are more like 60% home win. Might be something to do with spinners struggling:

Conditions are favourable to pace bowling in Australia. There’s more variety for spinners: Perth and Melbourne relatively helpful, while runs flow at the Gabba

England’s attack vs LHB – might be overrated on the strength of Broad’s reputation. Anderson averages 10 more against LHB recently, Leach averages 56 against LHB. Lots of pressure on Broad as the specialist LHB muncher. With Warner, Head, Harris and Carey batting backwards, it will be interesting to see England’s plans.

Rotation – 25 days’ play out of 42. Rule of thumb: add 7% to a pace bowler’s average in back-to-back Tests. There are two ways rotation can impact a team through a series: bringing in weaker bowlers, and failing to rest tired ones. I think the latter is the bigger risk in this series.

Adelaide is the obvious game for a rest (there are reasonable gaps between the other Tests, so a pacer could play four out of five). Australia have four excellent pace bowlers for three slots, so can merrily rotate (though Cummins being favourite for leading wicket taker indicates that he’s expected to play himself into the ground). Would England dare rest Broad or Anderson while the series is alive? Maybe. Wood and Woakes are adequate replacements.

If Stokes looks peaky, England may have to play Bess ahead of Leach to rebalance the side. Then they’ll really be in trouble.

The Toss. Teams tend to bat. Note the increased chance of draw if Aus bat first. Just as Leamon/Jones suggested in Hitting Against the Spin – it’s harder to force a win batting first.

Last ten years, Tests in Australia

PS. Hope the above wasn’t too disjointed – the series starts a day earlier than I’d thought. As a reward for making it to the end, here’s the details on some bets I’ve made:

  • Australia to win 3-0 (decimal odds 14.0)
  • England not to win the first Test (lay 4.6)
  • Starc Australia leading Series wicket taker (5.5)
  • Pope England leading Series run scorer (13)

Appendices

Australia 2-0 up after two?
Averages vs Lyon, Hazlewood, Starc & Cummins. Buttler & Bairstow are a cause for concern: five out all out?
Bowler stats, last 4 years. Note how good Cummins is vs RHB. 99 wickets at 18 over the last four years is remarkable.

How good is James Bracey?

James Bracey (FC avg 37) is now in the England squad. That surprises me, so I’m going to take a closer look.

37 is a very good average. But players with better averages are a long way from Test honours (his captain, Chris Dent, averages 38). Their stats are based on facing second division bowling. Thus I was expecting Bracey to average in the low 30s this year in the more challenging conference system.

Actually, Bracey has started 2021 brightly, with 478 runs in five games. That’s enough to boost his expected* Test average to 29 (+/-7)**. Here’s his record:

James Bracey in County Cricket. Note that prior to 2021, the 2017 performances look like the outliers, including the 156 against Glamorgan which was shoring up his average.

That +/-7 is important. England rate Bracey highly – with Lions tours already under his belt. Thus you might presume he’s doing better in the nets than in the middle – and put him at the upper end of the range, with an expected Test average of 33/34.

Context 1: batting in the top three. When cricket was a summer sport, it would be odd to pick a batsman averaging under 40. But top order batting in England in the spring and autumn is hard. Comparing Bracey to a selection of his peers (five number three batsmen in D2) from 2017-19, they averaged 30 and he outperformed them by 21%. Looking at this season, the top three clearly get the worst of the conditions. We should adjust expectations accordingly.

Context 2: Other bright young things. It looks like England are picking players on potential. If we look at the best batsmen born after 1997, most of them are in or around the squad.

NameAgeExpected 2021 FC AvgTests
OJ Pope235017
JJ Bohannon2440
H Hameed24393
DW Lawrence23385
Z Crawley233512
R Vasconcelos2335
SM Curran223421
JR Bracey2431Squad
TC Lace2230
DM Bess233014
GA Bartlett2330
Best U24 batsmen in County Cricket. Note that if England are looking at players with upside as they move up the age curve, Josh Bohannon (averaging 46 this year) and Ricardo Vasconcelos (70) might be worth watching.

Context 3: First Class vs Test. I thought Zak Crawley (FC avg 32) made his Test debut far too soon. Yet he’s averaging more in Tests after 20 innings (34) than FC. It could be that performances against medium pace and junk spin should be excluded when working out who has international potential. I’ve started a ball by ball county database to get more detail – here’s the limited data so far, and yes – strip our the medium pacers and Bracey looks great. Watch out for his performances against off-spin though.

Bracey vs Bowler matchups, 2021 County Championship to 22nd May.

James Bracey is young, and bats in the top three – so his ability won’t be reflected in his average. He’s not (yet) a star, but it’s not inconceivable that in future he could average 35 in Tests and earn England’s troublesome number three spot.

*Expected Test average is calculated on the basis of runs scored, adjusted for difficulty, divided by number of times dismissed. Normally I’d use the last four years of data. It’s also adjusted for where they play: batting at Bristol is quite easy, I make it the fourth easiest ground for batting, inflating averages by 4%.

** Uncertainty: calculated with the formula Uncertainty = 2 * Average * (Times dismissed)^-0.5. This gives a 90% confidence estimate of someone’s ability, which gets more precise as the number of innings increases.

County Championship 2021 preview (II) – teams

With six days to go until the County Championship begins, here’s my view of how each county will fare, based on player by player ratings. Analysis of conditions is in part I which is here.

Expected Standings

  • Expect Division 1 to comprise Essex, Warwickshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
  • Note that Group 2 is the toughest: Somerset or Middlesex would probably qualify if they were in Group 3.
  • Warwickshire’s depth means I rank them second in Group 1 – even though Durham and Nottinghamshire have a better first XI.
  • Other than last place in each group, and Essex winning Group 1, the tournament is pretty open.

Group 1

Essex: Obviously the best team in Group 1. May be beatable in the spring, before Harmer is effective. Khushi may be able to displace Walter or ten Doeschate. Good pace bowling reserves

Warwickshire have the best chance of joining Essex in Division 1, with a tasty pace attack and the Brookeses, Lamb & Miles waiting in the wings. The batting may rely on Sibley, Rhodes and Malan. Hopefully Mousley (age 19) gets a good run in the side.

Nottinghamshire have a strong starting XI, with three all-rounders providing balance. They’re better than the 2019 and 2020 tables say. I like the number of above-average players who’ll be playing 2nd XI. Impressive team that Peter Trego might not get into the best XI.

Durham: I like their top five. They also bat deep. My analysis says their batting’s as good as Essex’s(?) At 25-1 I like those odds. Hopefully Borthwick can bounce back on his return from Surrey. Weak in the spin department, but Durham in April doesn’t really call for it. Expect they’ll finish fourth but they are underrated.

Worcestershire are asking a lot of Mitchell’s batting. RHB vulnerable to LS/SLA. Good enough bowling; a bit more in reserve/spin options would be nice. 2nd bottom in Division Two in 2019 (last full season); not expecting too much from Worcestershire this year

Derbyshire are a young team. Did well last year. Historic data may not do them justice as the core of the team reach their peak. Abbott and Reece mean just three specialist bowlers needed. Lots of unknowns: Just need a couple of them to come good.

Group 2

Surrey: should win Group 2. Huge & talented squad; availability better than last year. Just the Currans & Roy missing from the Group stage. Burns and Pope should find the lack of spin to their liking after a challenging winter. Can Surrey keep the momentum up in Division 1 without Burns, Pope, Foakes, Roach?

Hampshire: Division 1 beckons. Batting depth covers slight shortage of quality (with apologies to Vince and Northeast). Openers have previously exposed the middle order too often. Good signings Abbas/Abbott. Opponents will be hoping one of those two is resting when they face Hampshire.

Somerset‘s bowling ensures results, but batting not at the same level. Lammonby’s three 2nd inns Bob Willis Trophy hundreds tell us he can bat. Only one batsman aged between 24 and 33; Hildreth & Davies may find age catching up with them. de Lange a brave choice of Overseas: I’m not certain he makes their strongest red ball XI.

Middlesex are by no means a bad team, but much to do to reach Division 1 from a tough group. No big weaknesses for April/May conditions. An opportunity for Walallawita (22) to become the side’s premier spinner (or for Middlesex to be bold and play without a spinner in conditions that don’t necessarily need one). Harris ensures a short tail (if selected!)

Gloucestershire – Higgins, Brathwaite and Dent are class. The rest of the relatively young top order will have to find a way to make runs. Gloucestershire are normally competitive, but a top two finish is likely beyond these bowlers. Would be good to see Howell play this year.

Leicestershire are a bowler light. Second best openers in the group. Best chance is if Azad/Harris can wear down the opponent’s pace attack. Look out for Rishi Patel, don’t let the First Class average of 17 fool you. Average age 25: this is a squad that could grow together.

Group 3

Lancashire: Best batting in the group. Two very good bowlers will miss out when Anderson plays. Will be interesting to see how Lancashire balance their XI around Parkinson: will they go with five specialist bowlers if they want to include a spinner?

Yorkshire are good enough for Division 1. Bess and captain Patterson are by no means guaranteed a place. Jordan Thompson is worth looking out for. Heck of a lot of youth players in the squad.

Kent have a nice attack. Podmore will be a handful early in the season. Stevens has still got it, even though he’ll be bowling to a keeper half his age. The Crawley-Denly axis may decide whether Kent can pip Lancs/Yorks for a D1 spot. Can Crawley improve FC avg of 32? Denly’s LS mean Kent can go with four pace bowlers. Should they be worried about the size of their squad?

Northamptonshire can trouble any batting order, I think they are under-rated. Ben Sanderson the star player. Wayne Parnell and Tom Taylor add batting depth. An overseas all-rounder was definitely the right choice.

Sussex: I’ll disagree with the bookies here – I think Sussex will struggle. Wiese, Archer and Jordan are hard to replace. Overseas players and Ben Brown will hold the batting together. Lots of young reserves – which I may have under-rated (see the Notes section)

Glamorgan: Labuschagne could win them some games in May. But will it be too late by then? Neser, Hogan, van der Gugten will concern openers, but lower-middle-order batting will get an opportunity as they tire. Will need to see more from the batting of Selman, Lloyd, Root, Carlson.

Notes

  • Bat rating = expected batting average
  • Bowl rating = expected bowling average
  • The lack of 2nd XI games and abridged Bob Willis Trophy mean 2020 has less weighting than most years. This is likely to adversely impact the rating of young players where their data is mostly from when they were less experienced. Don’t get angry if the numbers under-rate your favourite 23-year-old.

County Championship 2021 preview (I) – conditions

This preview is in two parts. Below is analysis of the expected themes from the season. Part two will use this insight, plus my ratings of every player, to predict how each team will fare.

Format: the group stage sees three groups of six; each team playing ten games. The top two qualify for Division One, next two Division Two, and the bottom two go into Division Three. These divisions play a further four games. The winner of Division One is the County Champion. The top two teams in Division One compete for the Bob Willis Trophy.

Group stage timing – Spin: Eight of the ten group stage games are in April and May. That means spinners will be relatively unimportant: they bowl only 19% of the overs while averaging 46% more than pace bowlers. Expect teams to pick one spinner (to get through the required 96 overs per day, and they can still be effective in the fourth innings). It will be the quality of pace attack that matters.

Fig 1 – County Championship data from April and May 2019

Group stage timing – Run scoring: Batting isn’t significantly tougher in April. Expect maybe the first two weeks of April where we’ll see some carnage. That’s the best time to cause an upset against the favourites in your group. Fortunately for Worcestershire, they play Essex twice in April.

Scheduling – Selection: Weekly fixtures, starting on a Thursday, should limit the need for rotation. Three rest days between games should suffice. With 13 players shaking their money-makers at the IPL, and England players likely unavailable for the last three Group stage games, it’s good that teams won’t be further weakened by rotation.

Scheduling – Overseas: The IPL means a much reduced overseas player pool. With two overseas players allowed per team (post Kolpak), this is an area where teams can differentiate. Would you rather have Kyle Abbott and Mohammed Abbas (Hampshire) or Marchant de Lange and TBC (Somerset)? Odd that there haven’t been more Pakistani players recruited (they don’t participate in the IPL); maybe budgets are tight and post-COVID many counties don’t have the funds to lure the players they want.

Divisions timing: There’s a gap after the Group stage. The four matches that make up the second stage of the competition start on 30th August. While September’s overhead conditions feel like they benefit pace bowlers, the Test data says otherwise. August and September are as good as it gets for spinners in England.

We might find an all-pace attack sails into Division One, but then struggles on wickets that demand two spinners.

July & youth players: Hopefully the opportunity to win Division Two or Three appeals to counties that start the season slowly. And it’s not just the games in September where teams may refocus onto development. What about a team that after May realises they won’t be winning the County Championship, and so rather than risk their best players for the two July fixtures, rests them to keep their focus on T20? I hope I’m just being pessimistic, but those July Championship games are going to look decidedly inconvenient to the teams hunting a Blast quarter final spot.

Impact on England: In April and May 2019 just under half of the overs were delivered by Medium or Medium-Fast bowlers. Which makes sense: Harry Podmore hooping it is a handful. But more than half the games being played at a time that suits the medium pacer is not great preparation for Test Cricket. To predict which players will thrive at Test level needs data beyond raw averages. Dom Sibley’s County Championship average of 70 against spin might not be as strong as it appears (who did he face, and in which months?) I’ll have to start a County Championship ball by ball database.

Eight points for a draw – Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic: With low value for draws, the County Championship was decided by wins. It was hard to finish above a team that won more than you. Now there’s eight points for a draw, you can pick up 16 points in a dull draw, while a win is worth at most 24 points.

There’s an incentive for inferior teams to bat time, and force the better team to attack to move the game along. I prefer teams to be chasing wins. If the new system had been in place in 2018 and 2019, 32 of 38 placings would be unchanged. Just three pairs of mid-table teams would swap places.

Best case scenario this change makes no difference. I think it’s a change for the worse.

Weather: The Met Office’s long range forecast for the first half of April looks cautiously optimistic.

At the start of this period, unsettled and changeable conditions are likely to continue across northwestern areas. However, high pressure may spread northwards through early April, which will bring a period of settled conditions for most. Following this, drier than average and brighter conditions may prevail, with areas away from the far northwest of the country receiving below average rainfall. Temperatures will mostly be around average or above, with any cooler periods likely to be short-lived, and mostly across northern areas.

MalAnalysis

Could Dawid Malan make a Test comeback? Tim Wigmore at The Daily Telegraph thinks so.

I’d sort of written him off – his expected Test average is 29 (based on the last four years’ red ball data). Malan will be 34 by the time the next Ashes comes round, an age where most batsmen are on the way down.

But he is at the top end of English batsmen. To choose between this clump of high-20s-low-30s batsmen we need to ask ourselves who is most likely to perform in Australia?

You can be pretty sure of the attack (Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, Lyon). That means you need talented batsmen who are also confident against LF, RFM, RF, OS. You also need batsmen who would be suited to Australian conditions. Let’s measure Malan against those requirements:

Talent

Malan’s red ball numbers (1,005 runs at 48 in Div 2 2019 then 332 runs at 66 last year) are pretty good, but not indicative of a sparkling Test career (D2 is about 40% easier to bat in than Tests, the Bob Willis Trophy 30% easier). Malan is good enough that a summer averaging 50 might edge him past the competition.

Ashes Matchups

We can see his Test record, splitting bowlers by type. However, he’s only played 15 Tests. Ideally we’d have county stats to back this up. I don’t have that – so we’ll need to use something else.

This might be wrong, but I’m going to include Malan’s stats from T20/T20I to get a better view of his ability against different bowling types. Rather than measuring average for T20, I’ll use Strike Rate – since that’s what batsmen are judged on.

  • Left Arm Fast: A possible weak spot. Averaging 24 in Tests isn’t too worrying in isolation (it’s only four dismissals). But add in the 114 SR in T20 and there’s more than a hint of a weakness.
  • Right Arm Fast: Solid stats.
  • Off Spin: We know that as a left hander, facing offspin will be relatively challenging. After five dismissals Malan has done OK. But his T20 stats (SR 108) say it’s a relative weakness.

Australian conditions

Possibly a bit better than his overall record? 383 runs at 43 in Tests, but SR of 114 in the Big Bash last winter.

Overall, Dawid Malan would be a gamble for 2021 Ashes selection. A possible weakness against Left Arm Fast and Off Spin could leave him exposed.

But, there’s a summer between now and then. When we get closer to the Ashes we can consider who the best options are for each spot in the batting order.

Appendix

The most interesting thing about the above analysis is the hypothesis that matchups can carry over from red to white ball cricket. It doesn’t prove anything, but I had a look at a couple of other players.

Root is great against OS. He’s weakest against RF in all formats.
Bairstow does not like fast bowling.

Don’t give fast bowlers the new ball so often

Analysing the effectiveness of bowlers with the old ball, I think Fast bowlers should be used sparingly with the new ball, which should mainly be in the hands of swing/seam bowlers.

I was looking at the impact of the new ball in Tests, and how it varies by country*. The general trend is that once the ball is 20 odd overs old the pace bowlers get little help. But then Australia bucked the trend.

Enigmatic Australia. I couldn’t find a new ball benefit for pace bowlers, other than the first three overs.

Fig 1: Pace bowler average against batsmen that average over 30, since 2005, in Australia. Note that the green line is a nine-over-rolling average, while the blue line is how I see the trend.

If you knew nothing of cricket, and just went by the chart, you’d say overs 6-20 (average 37) are as hard to bowl in as any of the first 60 overs.

Why isn’t the new ball helping the bowlers in Australia? I think it’s because selectors pick fast bowlers who are best suited to the quick and bouncy wickets. Think Steven Finn rather than Chris Woakes. “Fast” bowlers are more consistent through an innings than other pace bowlers**. Here’s the performances of fast bowlers*** in all countries:

Fig 2: Fast bowler average against batsmen that average over 30, since 2005. All countries.

Figures 1 and 2 are very similar! Averages by over in Australia look just like those of fast bowlers generally. The pitches in Australia encourage fast bowling, so the graphs are basically the same. Putting it another way, the new ball effect looks small in Australia because most bowlers don’t rely on the new ball.

What about pace (not fast) bowlers? Contrastingly, they are deadly with a brand new ball, dangerous until the 20th over, but then rather ineffective – especially overs 60-80.

Fig 3: Pace (excl Fast) bowler average against batsmen that average over 30, since 2005

Pace bowlers are not a homogeneous group. From now on, my model won’t just look at spin vs pace, it will split pace bowlers into “fast” and “not fast”. The “fast” bowlers don’t need the new ball, but do get an edge in the first five overs as the batsmen aren’t set. Other pace bowlers get a boost through the first 20 overs.

Who should bowl and when?

A big question. The fielding team’s goal is to minimise the expected runs of the batting team. That means managing resources – 68% of innings last over 70 overs, so four bowlers are going to at least three spells. When should those spells be?

There’s a point in the innings when a fast bowler becomes more effective than a swing bowler. It depends on the ground, the relative quality of bowlers, and the weather.

On an average pitch, the crossover is in the fifteenth over. If you had an equally talented attack of three swing bowlers and one fast bowler, the fast bowler should be held back until after the crossover, and bowl as much as possible with the old ball.

The trend of the above charts (since 2005) still holds true: current Fast bowlers average 4% more in overs 20-80 compared to overs 1-19. The equivalent figure for other pace bowlers is a whopping 19%****. You don’t want to make Medium-Fast / Fast-Medium bowlers use and old ball.

Please forgive the absolutes above. Of course, there’s no sudden leap between “Fast” and “Fast Medium” bowlers. And if the old ball is reversing then by all means pass it to the swing bowler.

But – I think this kind of analysis is important. It’s only by codifying and quantifying we can get closer to understanding the game. The assumptions and simplifications can be ironed out later.

What’s next? Once someone (maybe me, maybe you) has the data on how spell length impacts performance, and a reliable way of combining specific (head-to-head) and general matchups (eg. OS vs LHB), we’ll have a model for the optimum bowler for the next over. From there it’s a small step to planning optimum bowlers for the next session.

Footnotes

*Methodology: Pace bowlers (career average under 35) against batsmen (career average over 30). That way we’re avoiding the effect of cheap wickets at the end of the innings, and just looking at the real contest between bat and ball. All my ball-by-ball data comes from cricsheet.org.

** Fast bowlers should be about as quick later in the day. Two bits of evidence for this- firstly the academic research implies it (link and link). Secondly the speed data for Jasprit Bumrah and Olly Stone from India v England, 2021.

Data from India vs England 2021, screengrabs from the BCCI website

And, because it’s interesting I’ll give you two more footnotes to this footnote:

  1. According to this there is a speed decrease of around 4kph from bowling in heat on consecutive days
  2. Jofra Archer had a tendency to decrease in speed through the innings in India. He might not be like other fast bowlers. That’s not necessarily a criticism – being able to switch from RF to RFM might allow him to bowl more overs.

***Note this is 20 Fast bowlers, among the leading wicket takers of the last 20 years. Not quite the top 20, as I tried not to have too many from one country (Australia).

****Based on cricinfo’s classification of bowlers (F, FM, MF). Only includes balls when bowling to batsmen who average over 30. The population in question are the 25 leading pace wicket takers from March 2019 – March 2021.

Adjusting averages (Lyon vs Ashwin)

Pick a big enough sample size and conditions should average out… At least that’s what I’d always assumed.

Let’s disprove that conceptually and then with numbers.

Is it fair to directly compare the averages of these two players? Bowler A plays his home Tests in Sri Lanka, ending his career with a bounty of Bangladesh wickets. Player B is part of a four man attack. Bowls a lot against the top order, and his home games are in Australia. He never gets a sniff of the tail – less than 10% of his wickets are batsmen averaging 10 or less.

No matter how big the sample size, A and B aren’t on a level playing field; there is a bias in favour of A.

How would we expect A or B to perform against a batsman that averaged 30, on an average pitch? Our best bet is to adjust their stats for:

  1. Ground
  2. Batsmen bowled to
  3. Innings number
  4. Specific pitch condition
  5. Ball age (maybe)
  6. Match situation (eg. Team playing for draw / declaration)

Here, I’ll do the first two, looking at the players with 50 wickets over the last four years. Will assume that factors 3-6 average out over a career.

For “Ground” take a weighted average of spinners’ averages at the stadia where each bowler has taken wickets (ie. Mehidy Hasan Miraz’s 29 wickets at 19 at Dhaka are still valuable, but worth more like 29 wickets at 21).

For “Batsman bowled to” each run conceded is worth one run – but the wickets are awarded a value based on who was dismissed – so getting Virat Kohli gives you more credit than Ishant Sharma.

Data is the four years to 17th Feb 2021. Note positive adjustments to averages are bad; negative is good.

The mean adjustment is really interesting: increasing spinners’ averages by 4%. This indicates that just looking at raw averages flatters spinners. Why is this? I think it’s a function of when spinners bowl. If they don’t get much action in the first 30 overs, three wickets will already be down. Thus they’ll disproportionately dismiss the (weaker) lower middle order.

Lyon vs Ashwin

The similarity of their adjusted records looks striking when compared to raw averages. Let’s take a closer look and see if it stacks up.

Firstly, who they dismiss:

It’s not like Ashwin is getting an easy ride, but 30% of Lyon’s wickets come against batsmen who’ve averaged over 40, while for Ashwin that figure is 20%.

Again, Ashwin plays on a mix of pitches, while Lyon has taken over half his wickets at grounds where spinners traditionally struggle.

Overall, Lyon has done amazingly well to average under 30 over the last four years given where he has bowled and to whom.

Other observations

While Ravi Jadeja’s raw average of 24.6 is flattering, he’s still right up there.

Moeen Ali can feel aggrieved not to be ahead of Dom Bess as England’s second spinner.

Roston Chase is better than his average would say – but with relatively little data the error bars get large (60 wickets means his rating is 37 +/- 5).

Nathan Lyon is the best current spinner – we adjust his average down by 11%, of which 8% comes from where he plays. He also gets a boost from who he bowls to: as part of a four man attack, Lyon does feature more against the top order.

Where do we go with this? Extending this to pace bowlers is harder, as strictly one should adjust for when in the innings they bowl (the new ball is helpful). This would need a model of wicket and run probability by ball bowled, and then to compare each player’s actual results to what the average player would achieve.

PS. This would be easy to check… if you had CricViz data. Expected averages would tell the story. Especially comparing head-to-head for the games in which both Lyon and Ashwin played. And splitting LHB and RHB so there was no bias driven by matchups.