Rating the Blast teams … Lancashire’s batting is better than it looks

I rated the county 20-20 batting in one hour of analysis. Reckon I need to understand 20-20 eventually.

My starting position: scoring quickly is good but getting out is bad. Thus the best teams will score quickly, with high “balls per dismissal”.

Here’s how that looks for this year’s teams (rated using the most commonly used XI this year):

Quarter final qualifiers in green, eliminated teams in red. Only the top eight batsmen’s SR has been included as the tail rarely bats, but the whole team has been included in the BPD calculation.

Averages matter

Surrey and Gloucestershire score just as quickly as Yorkshire and Kent, but with higher balls per wicket they are less likely to fail – so are more consistent and better batting units.

I had heard that averages don’t matter in 20-20: I think they do.

A team has to be confident of lasting 120 balls. I don’t know how many balls you need to expect the unit to survive before getting bowled out in 120 becomes unlikely – maybe 180? Only three teams on the right of this chart are at that level. Once all teams are there then wickets cease to be a limiting factor, and it’s all about strike rate.

Lancashire – skewed by strong bowling

Bottom right should contain bad teams: trundling to 140 and losing.

Yet Lancashire won five games this summer with a team where no-one has a four year SR over 135. They even scored 190 (SR 158) against Durham. What’s going on?

The key is that they are a strong bowling team that often have easy chases. They thus play within themselves to secure the win. This makes their players look like plodders. Yet batting first they score 177 on average over the last two years. While chasing that drops to 129.*

Lancashire’s true position on the chart would be somewhere up and to the left. Repeating this chart with first innings data would help.

Here’s my attempt at a Boston Consulting Group** view of T20 team batting:

Stars: good teams. Dogs: bad teams. Question marks: Could be bad teams, could be players looking slow from chasing small totals. Roller-coasters: Might score 200 one game, 105 all out the next.

I’ve only looked at the batting, but I feel like this view might have some predictive power. 2/6 Dogs qualified, 1/5 Roller-coasters, 2/3 Question Marks, 3/4 Stars. The three Stars were the three group winners.

*Data up to 19th Sept 2020.

** Boston Consulting Group suggested in 1970 that companies could consider any product as being one of four types in a market (Star, Dog, Question Mark, Cash Cow). I’ve ripped off their idea to try to look like I know about business as well as cricket.

Conferences: what we can learn from the 2020 Bob Willis Trophy

This year’s Bob Willis Trophy was entertaining. I’m glad the counties and the ECB made it work. It was the right format for a condensed season, and the Essex / Somerset final should get the attention it deserves.

The setup looks like it will be broadly maintained next season. The expected structure is ten games in three conferences to sort teams into three divisions, four further games within those divisions, and a final for each division.

While there are merits to this structure, there are also risks: specifically mismatches and the dilution of talent. I’m going to show you the key weaknesses in the format by looking at the 2020 tournament.

1. Mismatches

Two divisions ensures a smaller step from CCD1 to Test cricket. Yet under the new structure, a good chunk of the ten games at the conference level (ie. the first part of the season) will be against weaker teams.

I can show you this with data – comparing how players did this year versus their four-year domestic record. Because there was no mixing between groups, we can look at each conference separately:

Note that a negative impact for bowlers means you would expect them to record a lower average (eg. a bowler who would average 30 in CC D1 would expect to average 18.9 in the BWT North group).

I estimate the overall standard was 19% lower than CC D1, with conditions 22% harder for batting (perhaps pitches were understandably not in as good nick as usual, perhaps batsmen need more preparation than bowlers). That’s a big step up to Test cricket.

Is it sensible to establish a competition where Simon Harmer’s expected average is 14? This year was unusual; longer term the red and white ball England squads need to be available for county duty as much as possible, else the cricketing value of the championship will be diminished. My prediction – a year or two of the best bowlers averaging 10-15 would drive Test selectors to look to the IPL and CPL for performances against the best (if their heads aren’t already turned in that direction).

Of course, exceptional circumstances meant squads were unusually depleted (no overseas players; many foreign-based cricketers were unavailable until the Blast; England’s red and white ball teams were otherwise engaged). Surrey’s squad was often just a list of their available players. Even without that, the mixing means the best aren’t playing the best as often.

2. Dilution of talent

Generally, Test batsmen have been drawn from CC D1. They’ll face a variety of top bowlers there. There are still great bowlers in D2 (James Anderson and Mohammad Abbas, for example), but it’s less consistent.

An example- this summer’s Central group was definitely light in the spin department. Here’s the top 10 spinners by wickets taken:

Nothing against these players – but would a summer in the Central division give a batsman confidence he could tour India with reliable technique against spin?

The wider point – there’s no guarantee a conference structure will provide the rounded challenges to turn a good player into an great one.

**

County cricket has to serve three purposes: to maintain tradition, to entertain, and to help the Test team flourish. The two division structure wasn’t perfect, but ticked all three boxes. The new conference structure can’t afford to fall down on the last point. For a fuller appraisal, I recommend George Dobell’s piece in this month’s Cricketer magazine.

Top innings bowler in Tests

Cricket has quirks. Look at it through another lens; learn something new. Today’s angle is wicket-taking. What kinds of bowlers are the leading wicket takers in a particular innings, and what implications does that have?

Since 2010. First five bowlers used only

No surprises here. Let’s go deeper.

Pace bowlers by innings and by position

Since 2010. First five bowlers used only

Opening bowlers are the best pace bowlers. They also get a boost in the first morning on a fresh pitch. In later innings, they are still favourites among pace bowlers (though the spinners start to get a look-in).

First change bowlers are about two-thirds as likely to be leading wicket taker in an innings. Probably two factors – they aren’t quite as good as openers, and (more significantly), they don’t get the new ball, or first crack at the tail. In later innings their chances improve, probably because those innings are shorter, squeezing out the part time bowlers.

The fourth bowler is just as good as the third, until the second half of the match. The fifth bowler gets a reasonable go in the first innings, but not much action in the second. They are surprisingly unlikely to take the most wickets in an innings – it’s kind of a four horse race.

Pace bowlers by Ground

We haven’t the data to do much by ground, but one stadium gets two Tests a year: Lord’s.

Lord’s since 2010. First five bowlers used only

There’s a 75% chance one of the two openers is leading wicket taker in the first innings at Lord’s – batting is hard in that first hour. The change bowlers don’t really get a look in.

Until models are seriously good, they won’t always beat local knowledge. To get that I need domestic stats. Must build that database at some point.

Spin bowlers by Country by innings

Never cut a spinner. Or back one to be leading wicket taker in the first innings in the SENA countries (South africa, England, New Zealand, Australia). The general trend of a gentle increase in top-wicket-taker probability from 19% in the first innings to 26% in the last is not seen worldwide. In India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, a front line spinner should rarely be available at longer odds than 3-1 in any innings.

(Also a reminder that spinners go from pointless to prized over the course of five days in England).

Individual players

If ye grind yer [gunpowder] too fine, it’ll blow yer bloody head off, then nobody’ll know who’s best shot; thee or me

Sharpe’s Siege

Do bowlers have preferred grounds? Almost certainly. Does it show up objectively in the data? Maybe, if you know what to look for. I’ve checked just one example: Stuart Broad. Using the data since 2010, Old Trafford was clearly his favourite ground, while The Oval was a graveyard. However, look just outside this horizon, and in Broad’s only previous Old Trafford Test he took 0-79, while in his earlier Oval Tests returned 11 wickets at 19. Regression to the mean? Maybe.

What have we learned?

Nothing earth shattering – hints at how bowling position impacts performance, a reminder that grounds can have peculiar characteristics, another reminder that the usefulness of spin through a match varies by country, and my squeamishness about small sample sizes was reinforced when looking at Broad’s record.

Call this one “knowledge consolidation” – kicking the tyres of what I think I know, and nodding approvingly at the result.

James Anderson and the timescales of chance

Cricviz put out a tweet recently showing how James Anderson’s Expected Average has steadily improved over his career. That consistency is in contrast to volatility in his actual average. In this piece I’ll explore why Expected Average may be more reliable than actual averages.

Background

It’s worth recapping what Expected Average is. Cricviz use ball tracking to build a database of many deliveries, so know for a given ball (perhaps an 82mph full away-swinger) how many runs would on average be scored, and the likelihood of taking a wicket. Expected Runs divided by Expected Wickets is Expected Average*.

Why is Expected Average compelling? It captures that which is under the bowler’s control. The trajectory of a ball, its seam position, pace and spin are controllables. Everything else is outside the bowler’s sphere of influence (who are you bowling to? Do they edge it to first slip, edge it for four, or miss it completely?) Expected Average always rewards good bowling, unlike the fickle real world.

Expected Average beats actual average

Returning to Anderson: looking at his bowling average year-by-year you’d say he blows hot and cold. Seven years averaging under 24, but five years averaging over 30. Contrast that with his (very stable) Expected Average. Using xA the volatility disappears – it tells a different story: Anderson has been a consistent bowler, improving steadily to become the player he is today. I find that easier to believe.

The two metrics (actual average and Expected Average) can be reconciled by assuming that actual average is a function of Expected Average and luck. Using my formula for error bars [1 standard deviation = xA * xW(-0.5)], we get the following chart, which shows that Anderson’s ups and downs might be quite normal (ie. two thirds of the time the blue line is between the grey lines).

How can we get past the impact of luck? Look back at the formula. Uncertainty scales with the inverse square root of wickets. More matches, more wickets, less of a look in for Lady Luck. Let’s consider a rolling four year horizon, where luck is corralled into a +/-2 impact on average (below). Average and Expected Average nicely aligned. Expected Average bypasses the need for luck to iron itself out over time: it’s a better metric. Everything wrapped up in a neat little package.

Limitations of Expected Average

So far, so predictable. Now the fun part. Here’s a hypothesis for you: Expected Average is incomplete as it misses the impact of “setting a batsman up”.

A googly pitching on the fourth stump is a fine ball. But isn’t it better after a sharply turning leg break that beat the outside edge? Or an inswinger after four well targeted outswingers?

Did you notice how Anderson has outperformed his Expected Average on a rolling four year basis recently? What if that’s not noise, but rather a master craftsmen conditioning a batsman to play the last ball rather than the next one? And knowing from experience just what to bowl? That would manifest itself as Anderson taking wickets with balls that are better than they appear in isolation on a highlights package.

There could be a number of other causes (attacking fields / batsmen playing him on reputation), and it’s a bit rich me trying to throw shade on Cricviz’s metrics by mining the jeepers out of the data in one tweet. Still, food for thought. I’d give you something concrete, but that will take much more hoovering up the trail of breadcrumbs Cricviz leave through their twitter account and blogs.

The future of Expected Average

Cricviz will take their time building trust in Expected Averages. They have a tough concept to sell if they want xW xA xR to enter the lexicon: most of what we see (and debate) is noise. Signal takes years. People won’t want to hear that because it’s boring, counter-intuitive and at odds with standard narratives.

Expect them to make the case for luck’s impact slowly. They’ve done the right thing having strong communicators on board. Here’s an example, suggesting that Anderson’s ups and downs this summer were just luck. That’s something we can believe: a run of fortune ruining a week. The harder message to land will be impact of luck on a series or even a year. Discretion being the better part of valour, Cricviz didn’t actually state Anderson’s xA in the piece, just that it was better than his actual average. They waited until the numbers aligned before quoting xA.

The data revolution will be televised. It just might take a while to convince everyone it happened.

*I can’t be sure this is their exact definition, but it’s close enough.

Using judgement when rating cricketers

Yesterday Zak Crawley scored 171*. 

Before the West Indies series I said “he would be a bold and wrong selection, going against the publicly available data… If he succeeds, I will give them credit.” Time for me to issue a credit to the England selectors.

Moving swiftly on, with Crawley and Ben Stokes outperforming their ratings it’s time for a rethink. There’s qualitative data I’ll start using: the judgement of others. We’re in uncharted waters; we’re Going Beyond Stats.

I appraise batsmen based on four years of data (six if they rarely play). It’s a stable method. I don’t have meaningless volatile opinions (like a certain former England captain). There are limitations though. Injuries, new techniques, changing roles can all have an effect. My ratings system is too slow (look at Bairstow – his stellar 2016 is still boosting his rating).

Adding the 171* to my database would boost Crawley’s expected Test average by three runs (going from 26 to 29). Is that enough? Is he better than that?

Rob Key previously said “Crawley is young and his numbers will improve. You just have to watch him bat to know that.” Actually I can’t: I don’t trust my eye. But if people I respect are saying a player is better than their stats, maybe there’s something in that.

With a base average of 29, your chances of 171* (in the first innings, at home, against a strong attack) are around one in 150. In other words, yesterday shouldn’t have happened. Much more likely for a player with a base average of 35 – it’s a one in 60 shot.

After a finite number of innings there is uncertainty about how good a player is. I can tell you roughly how good a player has been, give or take a bit. Luck is a factor, moreso the less data you have. Error bars give a range of possible ratings for a player, with a 95% chance their level of ability lies somewhere in that range.

Let’s jam those two concepts together to add a third step to my ratings framework:

  1. Rate player based on stats
  2. Add error bars to that rating, based on the number of dismissals.
  3. NEW: Adjust the rating within the plausible range based on the views of people you trust.

Oh, and “the views of people you trust” can include selectors. For instance, if someone had rubbish data but is batting at four, then selectors are implicitly telling us the person is better than their stats. We should use that information.

What does that mean for Crawley?

  1. Rating 29
  2. Margin of error +/- 7 (after 83 dismissals in the last three years).
  3. Boost rating by 5.0 to reflect the excitement and that England choose to bat him at three.

Crawley is now expected to average 34 in Tests. This recognises that he is probably at the upper end of the range of plausible averages (22 to 36) because he is trusted to bat at three, and is highly regarded.

I will do the same exercise with all county cricketers to redefine their red ball ratings to incorporate the role they are given. However, there are about to be several meaningless games in the Bob Willis Trophy, so that may have to wait for next year.

I’ll also do that with England’s Test batsmen. For instance, Stokes at 40 +/- 12 might be re-rated at 44 (based on two year record, and pundit judgement).

One innings doesn’t change everything, but I’ve seen enough outliers to want to try something new. Where does this leave us, now data is being tinkered with, and we lose the safety of being moored to pure stats? I draw the parallel with the astronomers maintaining the Earth as the centre of the solar system, as more data made that harder to believe. Models became contorted to fit the data, before being binned. Is that happening here? Time will tell. #OnOn.

Test bowling averages by month in England

Spinners averages are influenced by time of year and innings number. I’ve had a go at quantifying these effects, and looked at the (smaller) impact on pace bowlers. Along the way I’ll make a couple of observations on fourth innings chases.

Starting with spinners, it won’t surprise you to hear that early season English conditions are unfavourable. The first innings average for spinners before August is 59. Spinners are little use in May and June, when pitches are damper and less worn. Twirlymen are generally passengers in the first innings of a match.

Spinners since 2010, first five bowlers used. Later innings have lower averages, likewise for later in the summer.

Spin bowlers average 15% less in August/September than May/June. While spinners are generally more effective in the fourth innings, it’s July when they are matchwinners. Averaging 22, with 49 wickets (so a decent sample size). Next consider the same view but for pace bowlers:

Pace bowlers since 2010, first five bowlers used. Fourth innings has lower averages, likewise for later in the summer.

Much less variation with the seasons for quick bowlers; this graph is much greener, pace bowlers are always a good thing. Averages dropping about 10% from spring to summer. A pronounced dip in the fourth innings (23) against averaging 30 in the first three innings. The sweet spot data point, again, is that fourth innings in July.

Combining spinners and pace bowlers, over the last decade the fourth innings yields 19 runs per wicket in July, compared to 28 in other months. The reason is somewhat counter-intuitive – pitches start out best for batting in July. The higher averages in the first three innings at that time of year mean the fourth innings in July start on average 20 overs later than at other times of year. Cracks, footmarks, the works. Just 3 out of 21 fourth innings chases were successful in July. Conversely, batting last in May/June was successful 5 times out of 13: a 250 chase is achievable.

***

Here’s a handy guide for captains of when to bowl spin in England. When do spinners average less than pace? (Or “Should I bowl my spinner if I have a fresh pace bowler?”)

In England, since 2010, performances of first five bowlers used.

I’m being somewhat glib (pace is less effective with an old ball and July 31 is not magically different from August 1), but teams do get this wrong. Just because spin is most effective in the fourth innings doesn’t mean any spinner is the best option. West Indies failed to defend 191 in the fourth innings in May 2012. Marlon Samuels (off spin, part time) bowled ten overs for 51 – Fidel Edwards only got eight overs.

What about the middle overs of the fourth innings? We can have a go at “spin or pace in the fourth innings with an old ball,” by comparing outcomes for spinners to the fourth bowler used (if they are a pace bowler). On this measure spin wins with an average of 25 against 27 for the fourth bowler used. Meanwhile opening bowlers have more fun in the fourth innings in England, averaging 22.

***

When slow bowlers look ineffective (early in the summer and early in every match), that’s because they are ineffective. They are still helpful in the fourth innings, but don’t give them the new ball. Spinners are probably overused and overselected in Tests in England.

Keeping things topical: Yasir Shah (Test average 30) should seldom bowl overs that could be Mohammad Abbas’s (Test average 21).

England vs Pakistan Preview – August 2020

An impressive batting unit supported by an exciting bowling attack versus an impressive batting unit supported by an exciting bowling attack.

What will decide the series? Here’s my usual pre-series ramble, with stats on the Pakistan squad at the bottom.

  1. All rounders. England are running out fast. Debateable whether England will even have an all rounder for the first Test. Some names to mull: Ben Stokes (is he fit to bowl?), Joe Denly (dropped), Moeen Ali (dropped), Chris Woakes (struggling with the bat), Sam Curran (is he good enough at either discipline)? As for Pakistan, Shadab Khan averages 34 with the bat from five Tests, but only 27 in First Class – more a number seven than a six. Pakistan will be gambling either way: a five man attack lengthens the tail, an inexperienced four man attack has nowhere to hide.
  2. Pitch preparation. England would be stronger if they could confidently not pick a spinner (Bess didn’t contribute a lot with the ball against West Indies). Pakistan are itching to play two spinners. Why would the Old Trafford groundsman produce a deck that turns? Worth noting in the two Manchester Tests this summer, spin averaged 52 while pace was around half that at 27.
  3. Naseem Shah and Kashif Bhatti. Pakistan’s batting is solid, enough talent that they can cover if any one of them goes full Shai Hope. For all the excitement, I’m uncertain about their bowling. Mohammad Abbas is a banker (Test average 21, and the same average in two devastating seasons at Leicestershire). Shaheen Shah Afridi has 30 Test wickets, so has some track record. Yasir Shah has a proven record – it’s just a bit mediocre (averaging 34 in the last four years). One of Naseem Shah or Bhatti thus has to step up. The signs are good – both average 17 in domestic cricket in the last four years (Bhatti has 125 wickets, the younger N. Shah has only 26).
  4. Rest. West Indies clearly don’t read this blog (or The Daily Telegraph), else they wouldn’t have knackered their bowlers playing three back-to-back Tests. A three Test BTB series is more like a tournament than a traditional Test series: you’ve got to manage bowler workload. The easiest way to do that is to pick the best team for the first game, then half the pace bowlers miss the second Test, and the others miss the third. Sohail Khan is good enough to rotate in – but are the other Pakistan squad bowlers Test standard? With England’s squad depth, their edge will get bigger as the series goes on.
  5. England’s Ashes tunnel vision. Picking Crawley and Bess with an eye on December 2021 is silly. When the West Indies series got real, Crawley was dropped and Bess didn’t get a chance to bowl. Pakistan will be only too happy if England’s team sheet has a number three with a First Class average of 31, and an off spinner for Pakistan’s right handed middle order to milk. Bess isn’t a bad player, it’s just that England would have a better chance of winning playing an extra pacer.

England start as favourites. Burns, Sibley, Root, Stokes are a fine core of a batting order, and there’s healthy bowling options. If Stokes can bowl, a balanced England team playing on increasingly familiar territory should be too strong.

Get to know the Pakistan squad: Stats

Batting:
Note through this lens Babar Azam isn’t the standout batsman.
Bowling:
Note the domestic four year averages of Abbas, N.Shah and Bhatti.

Bob Willis Trophy preview: part two

It’s the evening before the county season starts, and the squads have been announced. That means I can tell you which teams have the best chance of success.

Here’s a unique preview – data driven, based on each player’s red ball performances in the last four years. Most previews name a couple of stars, “one to watch”, and throw in some juicy facts and interviews. Redballdata.com sadly has none of this.

So how can I help you? Without the Test and overseas players, we’ll see lots of talent emerge from the 2nd XI. You and I may not know the names, but I’ve rated those players. The database uses the last four years’ data for Test, county, and 2nd XI Cricket, adjusted for difficulty. For each group, I’ve ranked teams in order of strength, and below the commentary you can zoom into each squad to see the individual rankings.

The North Group

Lancashire (Favourites): Have the bowling to force results. Livingstone, Vilas are two of the best batsmen in county cricket.
Yorkshire: Challengers, can they win their first game without the ODI players? Will Olivier come to the party? So far he hasn’t shone in the County game. Excellent top order, but will they miss Bresnan’s batting?
Durham: Raine & Rushworth are an effective pair. Deep batting line up covers the lack of stars. Having four home games helps. I’ve put a couple of pounds on Durham at 33-1 (Ladbrokes), if that sort of thing is of interest to you.
Notts: Best batting in the division: I’m baffled at how that unit struggled so badly last year. Worried about the bowling, especially if Fletcher is out for a while. Ball can’t do it on his own. Mullaney might bowl a lot this year, which is no bad thing.
Derbyshire: Hard to see this very raw attack winning the group. Batting’s not too bad mind (Godleman, Reece, du Plooy).
Leicestershire: On paper the weakest team. Maybe one of the younger bowlers will surprise us, otherwise 20 wickets is a tall order. Competitive top three batsmen (Azad, Slater, Ackermann) but not much after that.

The Central Group

Somerset (Favourites): Best attack of the 18 counties. Should win the weakest division.
Warwickshire: Will the batsmen let down the bowlers? Much depends on the ageing Bell, Bresnan and Patel. Better reserves than most.
Worcestershire: A couple of batsmen light. Moeen Ali and Ed Barnard are fine all rounders which help balance the side out. Banana skin vs Gloucestershire first up as Worcestershire won’t have Ali (England duty).
Northants: About three bowlers light. Can Sanderson repeat the magic of 2019 (60 wkts at 20)? If not, “definitely viewing it as a squad competition” might make for some weak teams by late August.
Gloucestershire: This campaign may be an awkward reminder that overseas talent is needed for Gloucestershire to survive in Division 1 next year. Dent and Higgins are clearly talented, but there are stronger squads out there.
Glamorgan: Cooke will need to deliver for Glamorgan to get enough runs on the board. The injury to Timm van der Gugten is unfortunate – Glamorgan are the weakest attack in the Central Division without him. This year could be valuable experience for the core of a fine future team- Selman (age 24), Carlson (22), Douthwaite (23), Carey (23), Bull (25).

The South Group

Essex (Favourites) are good. The best team in a tough league. Expect Harmer to deliver with the ball, supported by Porter & Cook. Sir A. N. Cook is the best batsman on show in county cricket.
Surrey … Imagine what they could do at full strength. Can hardly blame them if this year is a struggle. Adding Jamie Overton helps, an unexpected development.
Middlesex are my kind of team – enough batting and bowling to compete, maybe slightly under the radar. Lack of spin options may be exposed in their three away matches, if groundsmen play their cards right.
Hampshire: Ditto. No Abbott. No Edwards. Need to get through the games without the ODI players (Vince & Dawson), and see what happens. Mason Crane has an opportunity – there’s lots of right handers out there.
Kent: May do OK against Hampshire and Sussex’s attacks. The other three sides will take some withstanding though. Could do with Denly making an appearance.
Always up against it, Sussex have given a chance to lesser known players this year. A shame. Not sure where Wiese, Wells, Bopara and Beer are. I’ll give anyone sitting this tournament out the benefit of the doubt: I’m not playing cricket in a pandemic, so can’t expect them to.

Anyone can win. Don’t expect it to be the best team – it’s only a five match series. The bookmakers know this – there are 11 teams with more than a five percent chance of winning, yet no team has a greater than fifteen percent chance.

Tomorrow I’ll be following Durham-Yorkshire. A Durham win would make the North group so much more interesting.

Before you go, here are some trends we might see this year:

  • 0fers – there are bowlers that just aren’t ready for this level. They’ll go wicketless, and heap pressure onto captain and opening bowlers. Canny batsmen will get after them.
  • Clusters of wickets – inevitable when the standard is this variable.
  • The league won’t be won by stars – it’ll be won by the deepest batting lineups, and the bowling attacks that never let up. Hence Lancashire, Yorkshire, Somerset, Essex being favoured. Many won’t see it that way – they’ll talk of centuries and five-fors, but it’ll be “Not Collapsing” and “9-2-30-1” wot won it.

Bob Willis Trophy preview: part one

Strange times. This year’s County Championship makes the best of a bad situation by fitting in a five-match group stage across August and September. Here’s what I think will happen, based on the Playing Conditions; disrupted squads; and the weather. Part two of this post will look at which players and teams I expect to do well.

Playing conditions

  • A reduction from a minimum of 96 overs to a minimum of 90 overs in a day’s play.
  • Each county’s first innings of a match can last no longer than 120 overs
  • The follow-on will increase from 150 to 200 runs
  • The new ball will be available after 90 overs rather than 80 overs
  • Eight points for a draw
  • Three regional groups of six. Two group winners with the most points contest the final.

Impacts

Perversely, more draws. Fewer overs per day removes up to 24 overs from a match. Capping an innings at 120 overs limits a team’s ability to go big batting once. Add to that the increased points on offer for a draw, and canny captains (once behind in the match) may change focus to points accumulation. While there is need to win the group and outscore one of the other group winners, a defeat makes qualification very unlikely – so conservative cricket may dominate the first two rounds. The last thing you want to do is give your rivals a 20 point head start.

Mismatches – all 18 counties together for the first time since 1999 gives an opportunity for the stronger players in the second division to prove themselves. However, there is the potential for some mismatches. Gary Ballance against some of the weaker attacks in the North group, for example.

Lopsided groups. The South group is toughest, and thus we are obliged to tag it the “group of death”. Sussex and Middlesex are the second division teams in that group, but are better than that. It will be difficult to win the South group, and the winner may not even qualify for the final if their victories don’t yield sufficient points.

Nothing to play for. After two defeats, a team is almost certainly out of contention. With no relegation, I hope teams do the decent thing and give 100 percent. This will be difficult. “Come on lads, let’s do it for the fans streaming this whilst working from home!” Hopefully something resembling the best possible team is selected, though it would be totally understandable if this weren’t the case: players may have other priorities in a pandemic.

Spinners to the fore. A new ball after 90 overs favours spinners (who will have the ball in their hands more) and lower middle order batsmen (who get easier conditions for longer). Win the toss and bat, surely.

Timing and weather

August / early September matches should slightly favour the bowlers. Last year’s first innings scores were 20 runs lower in August/September than the rest of the season. The Test matches have offered turn, indicating what pitches might do given the dry summer we’ve had.

The long range forecast from the Met Office is understandably vague, though hints at more weather disruption in the north than the south.

Confidence is low, but the second week of August is likely to see a mixture of dry and settled conditions, interspersed with occasional bouts of wetter and windier weather. The majority of the unsettled weather will most likely be in the north and west, though it may spread further south and east from time to time. Temperatures are likely to be around the average for this time of year, with any particularly warm weather being short-lived and generally towards the south or southeast. Looking further ahead into late-August, there are some tentative signs that conditions could become more widely dry and settled, particularly in the southeast.

Availability

These aren’t the county sides you’re used to. No overseas players. No England Test players. Won’t see much of the England white ball crew either. That means ignore the 2019 league positions and look at who will actually be playing. Are Hampshire a credible force without Vince, Dawson, Edwards and Abbott?

This is a great opportunity for the 200-250th best cricketers in England & Wales to get a run of five games. Let’s see how many of them can translate second XI success to First Class.

I’d normally end with a proper conclusion- but without analysing the squads that would be a mistake. Will save that for next time- once the teams announce their squads, I can pull in the ratings from my database to see who is best on paper.

For now- my hunch is that the Central group is the best one to be in. Can’t wait to run the numbers on Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset and see who is best placed.

Pace bowlers struggle in back-to-back Tests; Pope Catholic.

No sensational claims today – just quantifying what you already know. Bowling pace across two Tests in quick succession makes a player tired and less effective.

I took all match performances this century, comparing data against the next game that player bowled in. Then cut the data by the number of days between games. For instance, in this England vs West Indies series, the first game started on 8th July, the second on the 16th July – eight days apart. Any gap of nine days or under between start dates, to me, is “back-to-back” (BTB).

What did I find? Pace bowlers in the second of a pair of back to back Tests average 7% more than in the first game.

With more number crunching we can get closer to understanding why this happens:

•            Are there more long hops, driving up averages as bowlers leak runs? No – Economy rates don’t significantly rise.

•            More fielding errors? No – there’s no effect on spinners – so it’s probably not fielding causing it.

•            Pace bowlers must just be less potent when tired. Interestingly, at higher workloads the effect is bigger – pace bowlers bowling over 40 overs in each match of BTB Tests add 8% to their average in the 2nd Test.

Conclusion: this is significant – I’m adding it as an input to my Test match model. Front line pace bowlers add 3.5% to their average if a quick turnaround from the last Test. This rises to 4% if they bowled over 40 overs in the prior Test. Reduce expected average by 3.5% if this match isn’t BTB.

In case you’re wondering why it’s only 3.5%, and not the 7% I quoted earlier, during the first BTB Test, the bowler will be well rested, so 3.5% better than usual. The second Test they’ll expect to be 3.5% worse than usual, giving a 7% gap between performances.

PS. We finally have a mechanism for why home advantage gets bigger as a series goes on – hosts have a huge player pool to draw from, tourists are drained by practice matches.

PPS. This nugget of trivia will make you feel tired just reading it: 38 year old Courtney Walsh delivered a mammoth 128 overs across two BTB Tests in March 2001. It was six months after Ambrose retired, so Walsh was asked the impossible. West Indies lost the series 2-1. To his credit, he took 9-216 across the two games. Understandably, he almost immediately retired from Tests.

Implications for the July 2020 England vs West Indies series

While for most participants the sample size is too small, England’s veterans have kindly left a trail of data over the years: Anderson averages 25 in non BTB, 27 in the second Test of BTB. Broad averages 27 in non BTB, 29 in second Test of BTB (bear this in mind if Broad is picked for the third Test).

Notes:

•            Third Test is back-to-back-to-back – WI will be out on their feet unless some of Raymon Reifer, Rahkeem Cornwall, Chemar Holder get rotated in. Expect Cornwall & one other.

•            What the heck were West Indies thinking fielding first at Old Trafford? The betting markets thought it was a mistake at the time. If they’d planned to field first, why didn’t they bring a fresh bowler into the team?