Eeny meeny miny moeAnon, Pre-1820
Whinging about selection is part of how I traditionally spend the days leading up to an England Test. It’s my habit, and I’m probably not alone in that.
With the new(ish) England selection panel of Ed Smith, Trevor Bayliss, and James Taylor, whinging about batting selection has been more difficult.
Burns in for Cook? The logical choice. Moeen Ali recalled? Makes sense. Buttler plucked from White Ball obscurity? Not what I would have done (Hildreth or Livingstone), but OK.
Looking for some whinging ammunition ahead of England’s first warm up game against a West Indies Board XI on 15th Jan*, I did some analysis of England qualified batsmen. Specifically, their records in the last 3 years of all Red Ball Cricket (Test to 2nd XI, adjusted for difficulty).
What I expected to see was a clear hierarchy of players, with some of my favourites at the top, and England’s sub-optimal picks somewhere down the list. Actually, the selectors’ choices are supported by the data, and England have a big group of players who are of very similar abilities.
Below I’ve grouped players by expected Test average, based on the last 3 years:
World Class (Expected Average 42+) – Root & Bairstow
Test Regulars (Expected Average 35-42) – Pope, Burns, Ali, Stokes
Plausible Selections (Expected Average 30-35) – Stoneman, Roy, Buttler, Westley, Wells, Jennings, Livingstone, Gubbins, Brown, Ballance, Foakes, Clarke, Hales, Denly, Woakes, Duckett.
Wildcards (Data says Expected Average >30, but reasons to be suspicious)– Northeast: mostly driven by 2016 scores in Division 2. A poor run at Hampshire lately. Hughes: scored 425-3 in 2nd XI last 3 years. Didn’t play a first class game in 2018, only made 209 runs at 23 in the 2018 North Staffs Premier League, so probably safe to rule him out of Ashes contention.
From a batting perspective, England have chosen well. They’ve picked all the World Class and Regular players (apart from Pope, who only has 32 completed innings, and is on the fringes of the squad). All their other batsmen are from the Plausible Selections bucket. England have a lot of Plausible Selections; it doesn’t really matter which of them they pick. Dropping Buttler for Hales would be worth about 4 runs over the course of a Test. As long as the selectors keep picking players that are amongst the best available, I’ll cut them some slack.
- England’s batting is weaker than at the start of the decade. England were spoiled by a team with 7 batsmen who averaged over 40 – like this side that beat South Africa by an innings in Durban in 2009. Pragmatically, they use 2 or 3 all-rounders (Stokes, Ali, Woakes) and often use 8 batsmen to do the job that 7 did at the start of the decade.
- A number of players have been tried that currently average under 30 in Tests: Stoneman, Westley, Jennings, Duckett, Hales, Pope. This analysis indicates that these were good selections, and much of the underperformance is due to chance. An example: Stoneman averaged 28 in 11 tests, against an expectation of 34. But 11 tests is a small sample size, and 7 of those tests were away, including an Ashes series.
- Bairstow is one of England’s two best batsmen. Dropping him would be an error.
*England’s Squad to tour the West Indies (Batsmen only):
Joe Root (Yorkshire) (captain), Moeen Ali (Worcestershire), Jonny Bairstow (Yorkshire), Rory Burns (Surrey), Jos Buttler (Lancashire), Joe Denly (Kent), Ben Foakes (Surrey), Keaton Jennings (Lancashire), Ben Stokes (Durham), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire)