On the decline of Test Batting being driven by T20

This is a pretty basic three-card-trick, in which I’ll make the case that T20 batting has harmed Test averages.

In summary, batting techniques began to adapt earlier this decade so a T20 strike rate of 130 was low risk, then ODI batting adopted those techniques, and finally Test players became unable to adjust between three formats. It’s just one possibility, and I’m aware that correlation is not the same as causation. Don’t worry, there’s charts behind the opinions!

1.Evolution of T20 batting 2011 – 2018

Firstly, high-risk fast-scoring T20 batting has become lower risk. Wisden reckons it’s because teams are getting better value out of the same number of attacking shots (ie. cleaner hitting, not just playing across the line – see Kumar Sangakkara’s description in this video). A precis: “It’s never just wild swings”.

Fig 1 – Runs per wicket and Strike Rate by year in T20 International Cricket. Note how the Strike Rate in 2005 was 127, but batsmen needed to take risks to do it: averaging just 18 runs per Wicket. By 2018 that average was over a third higher.

2.ODI batting follows the trend 2015 – 2018

ODI Cricket batting then became more like T20. There’s good reason for this – the optimum strategy for maximizing runs in ODIs became to select T20 players and ask them to score a little more slowly, rather than pick Test players and ask them to score 50% faster.

Fig 2 – Runs per wicket and Strike Rate by year in ODI Cricket (Test teams only). The big jump came after 2014.
An aside – there has been focus on how England revolutionised ODI Cricket after their failure at the 2015 World Cup. The above chart shows that that is back-to-front: whatever revolution happened in ODI Cricket happened between 2013 and 2015, then England fixed English one day Cricket.

So far, so good. T20 batting has made ODI’s more interesting. What has it done for Test Cricket?

3.Test Cricket stumbles

Fig 3 – Evolution of Test and ODI averages since 2005.

Sadly, in all the upheaval, Test Cricket has lost its way.

2015 was the tipping point – it became easier to bat in ODIs than Test Cricket. The real slump has been 2018 & 2019- a paltry 27 runs per wicket.

Let’s explore the drivers behind Test batting’s malaise. Firstly, top order batting is the main factor – tail enders are immune:

Fig 4 – Evolution of Test and ODI averages, splitting averages between batsmen 1-7 and 8-11.

Remember the good old days when 38 seemed like a mediocre Test average? That petered out in 2016. Somehow averaging 33 over the last couple of years has been normal. Yuk.

The worst thing? Whatever this disease is, pretty much every team has caught it. Top order Test batting has fallen by the wayside. Test teams are scoring no faster, but averaging less. Hopefully that’s a short term effect caused by the 2019 World Cup. Hopefully.

Fig 5 – Top Seven batsmen, collective average 2005-2017 and 2018-19, plus the difference between the two. Congratulations to NZ for improving and an honourable mention to Bangladesh who have gamely stood their ground. Note that all teams played at least 11 Matches over 2018-19, so with over 100 completed innings for each team we have a decent sample.

Now, I’m not an expert on the technical side of batting – so I won’t try to cover it. A couple of examples though: seeing Jason Roy failing to cope with lateral movement in the World Cup final was alarming. Even more so, watching Bairstow shrink from a world class batsman to one that can’t seem to stop walking past the ball when defending.

Where do we go from here? Some Recommendations to turn the tide:

  • Be willing to separate Test and ODI/T20 batsmen*. Only some will naturally bridge the two squads.
  • Don’t combine ODIs and Tests in the same tour – these are now different disciplines, give players clear windows devoted to the red and white ball games.
  • Selectors at First Class and Test level would see benefit from picking ultra-low strike rate batsmen at the top of the innings. There will be white ball specialists in red ball teams (there aren’t enough red ball players to go round) – thus these players need to be protected from the best bowlers and the new ball. For example, County Championship winners Essex had Westley (Strike Rate 48) and Cook (SR 45) soaking up the tough conditions.

*I use the word batsmen deliberately: none of this analysis has included the women’s game, therefore there is no evidence to suggest the same conclusions are appropriate.

Appendix

A query comes from @mareeswj on Twitter – “Are test match bowlers getting better or the batters getting worse

To assess how bowling has changed in recent years, one needs to look at the same players’ performances in multiple formats over time. Like in astronomy where having stars of known brightness (“standard candles”) reveals other properties of those stars.

Fortunately, there are 15 bowlers that have taken 15 wickets in ODIs and Tests both up to Dec-2017, and since Jan-2018.

Fig 6 – Comparing All bowlers that have taken:
i) 15+ Wickets in Tests up to 31/12/17
ii) 15+ Wickets in ODIs up to 31/12/17
iii) 15+ Wickets in Tests from 1/1/18 to 28/9/19
iv) 15+ Wickets in ODIs from 1/1/18 to 28/9/19

Pretty consistently, they have recently averaged a lot less in Tests (mean reduction in average of 7.6). It’s a slightly more mixed view on ODIs (mean increase in average of 2.8 runs per wicket).

Trying to keep an open mind, what are the possibilities?

  1. Bowlers have focused on red ball cricket
  2. Batsmen have focused on white ball cricket
  3. Pitches are becoming flatter in white ball cricket and spicier in red ball cricket
  4. Ball / umpiring / playing condition changes.

Personally, only #2 feels plausible to me, with the others being secondary effects.

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