England vs West Indies (July 2020) – Preview

I recommend you read this back-to-front. Like a newspaper: skip to the tables at the end, digest the stats, make your own mind up – then read my words and see if we’ve reached the same conclusion.

On paper this series is a mismatch – the fourth ranked team hosting the eighth. West Indies averaging 23 runs per wicket over the last three years, facing English bowlers in English conditions. Yet there are reasons to believe in the tourists: eight of their expected top nine are peaking, aged between 27 and 30. They could have the best Test opening bowlers right now in Kemar Roach and Jason Holder. Roach averages 22 over the last four years; Holder 23.

Talk is cheap. It’s easy to argue this either way. What does the data say?

By my ratings, England are 50 runs per innings stronger, a 59% chance of winning (West Indies 29%, Draw 12%). Bookmakers only give West Indies an 11% chance. Intriguing.

Do people underestimate this West Indian side? The difficulty of batting in the West Indies Regional Four Day Competition is roughly comparable with County Championship Division 1 – so the last-six-year domestic records of Brathwaite (avg 45), Hope (57) and Chase (46) indicate their underwhelming Test records are misleading. Note Hope hasn’t played a domestic game in three years. He averages 52 in ODIs, but it looks worryingly like he’ll never fulfill his Test potential. Modern cricket.

Some thoughts on the optimum makeups of the sides:

Holder is best at eight. West Indies’ strength is in bowling; their weakness in batting. With canny selection they can paper over the cracks. Jason Holder, Raymon Reifer and Rahkeem Cornwall could feasibly be 8-9-10 giving West Indies the best of both worlds. However, the lure of picking the best bowlers would lengthen the tail with a batsman being displaced (Holder, West Indies’ highest placed batsman in the ICC rankings, moving up to six as part of a five man attack). That would be a mistake – the West Indies win probability would drop by 4%.

West Indies only have one other decision to make: do West Indies need a front line spinner? This decision should be based on reading the pitch. If not, Roston Chase covers those overs. If they do, then J Holder, Cornwall, Reifer/Gabriel, Roach is logical. Cornwall isn’t the Test prospect he appears: expect a mid-30s average. While he has a fantastic domestic average (23) over the last four years, this is flattered by spinning domestic conditions. Remember that Chase also averages 24 in that period, but 42 in Tests.

The hosts’ shaky top order means England have to pick a number eight that can bat – which limits their choices. If Jack Leach plays, then one of the batting bowlers (likely Chris Woakes) needs to play. Woakes loves bowling at home: in the last four years he averages 21. Alternatively, Moeen Ali could play: this is Stuart Broad’s best chance of joining Archer/Anderson/Stokes as England’s pace quartet. Broad may not make the cut– he’s played every home Test since 2012, but is sliding down the pecking order.

Leach (SLA) is the best slow bowling option. West Indies’ middle order is packed with right handers. Leach & Parkinson turn the ball away, so have an advantage. Leach also has the best county average over the last four years (23). Meanwhile Ali averages 40 against right handers. If Ali plays (for his batting), the West Indies should focus on seeing off the new ball, because favourable conditions await.

It doesn’t really matter which ‘keeper England choose. The gap was marginal when I looked at it before [link]. This just isn’t a debate that excites me- it’s a judgement call, and no criticism should be levied at selectors if it fails. Unlike Zak Crawley, who would be a bold and wrong selection, going against the publicly available data. His best first class season saw an average of 34. If he’s picked and fails, it’s not his fault- blame the selectors. If he succeeds, I will give them credit.

Both teams impress with the ball. The batting will decide the series. England at full strength are better than the West Indies. Most of that advantage comes from Root and Pope. Neither team has much in the way of batting reserves. With Root unavailable for the first Test, England have a lacklustre choice of alternatives. Ballance and Kohler-Cadmore aren’t in the squad. The replacements are c.14 runs per innings weaker than Root.

While the West Indies batsmen are at their peak, England are looking to the future. If England go 2-0 up (which is perfectly plausible), they could have six players aged 24 or under (Sibley, Lawrence, Pope, Bess, Curran, Mahmood) in the dead rubber to ensure the old farts don’t break down with three tests over 21 days. Need to keep something in the tank for Pakistan.

Look out for bowler workloads. Tests on the 8th, 16th, 24th July. James Anderson is 37 years old. Roach and Holder are easily West Indies’ best bowlers. This might have some anti-cricket effects: if the opposition are 200-1 chasing 260 on the fifth day, do you take your best bowler off the field to rest for the next Test? Don’t want to risk them in a lost cause. No problem to fatigue (not injure) Reifer or Archer, but not the star bowlers.

And a left-field hypothesis, which I don’t really believe: Stokes will fail with the bat because he needs a crowd. He feeds off it. Away from thousands of fans he isn’t the same player. In six years of county cricket he averages 25. In the UAE he contributed 88-6.

PS. I’ve cut home advantage in my model to 10% (from 20%) to reflect the lack of crowd. No idea if that’s the right thing to do. The Conversation reckons it’s nil for crowd-free football. Betfair podcast thinks it’s also nil.

Appendix – Data tables

I had these spreadsheets in front of me as printouts when I appeared as a guest on three recent Betfair “Cricket only Bettor” podcasts, which you can listen to here, here and here.

West Indies Batsmen

West Indies Bowlers

England Batsmen

England Bowlers