England’s current Test batting, in the context of the last 20 years

England’s top 7 that will face the West Indies are 40 runs an innings weaker than their strongest 21st Century lineup (Ashes 2010-11). The current team is good, but hopes of becoming World no.1 in red ball cricket are optimistic.

In this post I consider the evolution of England’s batting – how it steadily improved through the 2000s, peaked in 2010-11 (as England became World Number 1), tailed off from 2013, and is only recently recovering.

The Data

I took the career averages of the top 7 batsmen for each England Test since 2000, and adjusted them for the age of the batsmen (I’ll cover how I do that in a later post). To eliminate artificially low results, Nightwatchmen are excluded. Where someone only played a few Tests, I made a judgement about what their long term average would have been had they played more Tests.

To bring out the trend, the chart above is smoothed with a moving average of the last five Tests.

Evolution: 2000 to 2019

Weakest Team: 29th June 2000, vs West Indies (Home) – Age adjusted Average 218

Atherton, Ramprakash, Vaughan, Hick, Stewart, Knight, White

If you don’t want to remember how bad England used to be, I suggest you skip to the next paragraph. Don’t worry, we’ll be talking about 2005 soon enough.

Let’s reel off why this team was the weakest this century: England had no batsmen in the top 10. Over five tests the highest total England could manage was 303. Only Trescothick and Atherton averaged over 29. Ramprakash and Hick never settled at Test level. By 2000 Hick was 34 and Stewart was 35. The weakest link was White – averaging 25 in 30 Tests is not enough for a number 7. The need for “the next Botham” was real.

That England won that series 3-1 was down to Cork, Gough, Caddick and White dominating with the ball rather than England imposing themselves with the bat.

England vs West Indies in 2000 marked a watershed for West Indies cricket: this was their first series defeat in England since 1969. Their record in Tests in England since is W1 D2 L13. England were on the up.

2005 Ashes Winners – Age adjusted Average 268

Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan, Bell, Pietersen, Flintoff, Jones.

That’s more like it. Five of the fifteen England batsmen in the modern era to average over 40. This was a good batting side (rather than a great one), with room for improvement at 6 and 7. Flintoff was a proper all-rounder – a luxury England had not had for a long time. He was an all-rounder with a career batting average of 32 however. Geriant Jones was carried that summer, averaging 25 (in line with his career average of 24).

Strongest Team: 26th December 2010, vs Australia (Away) – Total Average 305

Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Prior

It’s too soon for many to realise just how good this team was: World no.1 from August 2011 to August 2012, with a strong enough four man bowling attack to confidently play six specialist batsmen.

In the 2010-11 Ashes series six of the top 7 averaged over 40; they accrued nine hundreds in only five tests.

But the side was aging: Collingwood 34, Strauss 33, Pietersen 30. The eldest (Strauss & the retiring Collingwood) needed to be replaced in 2011. As it was, Strauss stayed on for 18 more tests, but would pass 100 only twice more, averaging 31 in the period after the 2010/11 Ashes.

After a decade of continuous improvement the team had peaked. They remarkably managed to have a top 7 who all had career averages over 40. These are hard to replace: a Test team are doing well if they can unearth someone every other year who can average 40.

What happened next?

As players retired they were, predictably, hard to replace. England were also unlucky in that KP and Trott didn’t go on to play full careers with England.

By March 2014 England’s ICC Test Rating had slumped to 100: they went from best in the world to bang average in 38 months. In May 2014 they lost a home series against Sri Lanka. That’s not to say England were bad – they were average. Some stars (Cook and Root), some young players being played too early to succeed (Ali and Buttler) and Bell had gone on a bit too long.

Current Team: 23rd Jan 2019, vs West Indies (Away) – Expected Average 268

Jennings, Burns, Bairstow, Root, Stokes, Buttler, Foakes

Not bad, probably the best selections we could have made, and should be too strong for the West Indies.

It’s important to see this side for what it is: lacking in stars, yet well balanced with three all-rounders. With Ali bolstering the batting at 8, this team are likely to continue the trend of winning at home but losing away against the top 6.

Verifying the Data

To check this model (age adjusted batting average) against reality, I compared this to the ICC rankings. The correlation is clear. Worth noting that since the Age adjusted Batting Average is smoothed using a 5 point moving average, there is a time lag in the orange curve. This correlation is surprising as the ability of the top 7 batsmen makes up less than half of the strength of a team (the remainder being bowling ability and tail batting strength).

Conclusion: England 2019 are at about the level of the 2005 Ashes side, by having no weak links rather than being packed with world-beating batsmen.

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