When I was at university there was a rumour that one of the Geology professors was about to predict a massive earthquake in South America. This would have been a career limiting move if nothing happened.
In the end neither the bold prediction or the earthquake materialised.
I thought of that professor’s reputational gamble when I had the idea of asking whether Chris Woakes might be preferred to James Anderson for the Fourth Ashes Test. To misquote Nasser Hussain, “No Ed Bayliss, you cannot do that.”
If you are reading this years from now, Sir James Anderson is currently England’s best bowler, though he doesn’t bat very well. Woakes is a decent batsman, and almost good enough to get into the England team as a bowler. Woakes shores up a mediocre top seven and gives the team balance, especially as Jack Leach is a non-batting spinner. Anderson pulled up during the first Test with a calf injury. He missed the next two Tests and has been added to the squad for the fourth. The series is level 1-1 with two to play. Current speculation is that Woakes might make way for Anderson.
When weighing the merit of the two players, I’ll look at two factors: England and Australia’s expected runs. To do this, I’ll run my model using each player’s career record as the input* and see how the different teams fare.
If Woakes were dropped, England would have Broad, Leach and Anderson as a long tail. That means a higher probability that a good batsmen gets left stranded and not out. The following table shows the impact on expected runs over the course of a match of replacing Woakes with Anderson and rejigging the batting order:
England would expect to score 29 runs fewer per match with Anderson rather than Woakes.
Interesting that Broad batting at ten outscores Leach in that position by so much – I think it’s because the likely partnerships with Leach at ten (9th wicket: Broad-Leach, 10th wicket: Leach-Anderson) won’t last long.
From a bowling perspective, Anderson has an average that’s four runs per wicket better than Woakes. Their strike rates are similar (Anderson 56, Woakes 59). It’s likely this gap is narrower in English conditions (both average 23 at home), but let’s use the raw data rather than run the risk of flattering Woakes.
Note that England have a solid fifth bowler in Ben Stokes, (unlike some teams that would need to use a part-timer if they are bowling all day).
Running this through the model, adjusting for home advantage and Austalia’s brittle batting order, the benefit of Anderson’s bowling over Woakes is 13 runs per match. Not enough to offset the weaker batting.
That seems a little low to me, four wickets per match at four extra runs per wicket would be 16 runs – I think it ends up lower because Australia are away from home and aren’t that strong at batting.
Bringing Anderson into the team for Woakes would be a mistake. Maybe there’s a case for such a change in a must-win match (as the odds of a draw are reduced), but the model does not support such a change for the fourth Test.
It’s important to put this analysis into context. I’m not saying that all specialist bowlers should be replaced by all-rounders. Nor am I saying that Anderson shouldn’t be in the team because he can’t bat.
The head-to-head between Woakes and Anderson is considered in this specific scenario where England have a high quality fifth bowler (Test average 32), but two weak batsmen in Broad and Leach.
James Anderson is England’s best bowler. If fit he should play. If Anderson is fit one needs to reframe the question: you can pick two of Woakes, Broad and Archer. Just make sure one of them is Woakes. Whatever you do, don’t bring in Anderson for Woakes.
*This might be slightly contentious. Any debate on this topic (though the participant may not realise it) will boil down to whether they believe that career record is the right input to use. For example, I’m not making an adjustment for Woakes’ unusually strong home record, nor am I adjusting to reflect more recent performances (which would boost Anderson’s bowling). Nor am I adjusting because Woakes hasn’t scored many runs this series.