County Championship 2021 preview (II) – teams

With six days to go until the County Championship begins, here’s my view of how each county will fare, based on player by player ratings. Analysis of conditions is in part I which is here.

Expected Standings

  • Expect Division 1 to comprise Essex, Warwickshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
  • Note that Group 2 is the toughest: Somerset or Middlesex would probably qualify if they were in Group 3.
  • Warwickshire’s depth means I rank them second in Group 1 – even though Durham and Nottinghamshire have a better first XI.
  • Other than last place in each group, and Essex winning Group 1, the tournament is pretty open.

Group 1

Essex: Obviously the best team in Group 1. May be beatable in the spring, before Harmer is effective. Khushi may be able to displace Walter or ten Doeschate. Good pace bowling reserves

Warwickshire have the best chance of joining Essex in Division 1, with a tasty pace attack and the Brookeses, Lamb & Miles waiting in the wings. The batting may rely on Sibley, Rhodes and Malan. Hopefully Mousley (age 19) gets a good run in the side.

Nottinghamshire have a strong starting XI, with three all-rounders providing balance. They’re better than the 2019 and 2020 tables say. I like the number of above-average players who’ll be playing 2nd XI. Impressive team that Peter Trego might not get into the best XI.

Durham: I like their top five. They also bat deep. My analysis says their batting’s as good as Essex’s(?) At 25-1 I like those odds. Hopefully Borthwick can bounce back on his return from Surrey. Weak in the spin department, but Durham in April doesn’t really call for it. Expect they’ll finish fourth but they are underrated.

Worcestershire are asking a lot of Mitchell’s batting. RHB vulnerable to LS/SLA. Good enough bowling; a bit more in reserve/spin options would be nice. 2nd bottom in Division Two in 2019 (last full season); not expecting too much from Worcestershire this year

Derbyshire are a young team. Did well last year. Historic data may not do them justice as the core of the team reach their peak. Abbott and Reece mean just three specialist bowlers needed. Lots of unknowns: Just need a couple of them to come good.

Group 2

Surrey: should win Group 2. Huge & talented squad; availability better than last year. Just the Currans & Roy missing from the Group stage. Burns and Pope should find the lack of spin to their liking after a challenging winter. Can Surrey keep the momentum up in Division 1 without Burns, Pope, Foakes, Roach?

Hampshire: Division 1 beckons. Batting depth covers slight shortage of quality (with apologies to Vince and Northeast). Openers have previously exposed the middle order too often. Good signings Abbas/Abbott. Opponents will be hoping one of those two is resting when they face Hampshire.

Somerset‘s bowling ensures results, but batting not at the same level. Lammonby’s three 2nd inns Bob Willis Trophy hundreds tell us he can bat. Only one batsman aged between 24 and 33; Hildreth & Davies may find age catching up with them. de Lange a brave choice of Overseas: I’m not certain he makes their strongest red ball XI.

Middlesex are by no means a bad team, but much to do to reach Division 1 from a tough group. No big weaknesses for April/May conditions. An opportunity for Walallawita (22) to become the side’s premier spinner (or for Middlesex to be bold and play without a spinner in conditions that don’t necessarily need one). Harris ensures a short tail (if selected!)

Gloucestershire – Higgins, Brathwaite and Dent are class. The rest of the relatively young top order will have to find a way to make runs. Gloucestershire are normally competitive, but a top two finish is likely beyond these bowlers. Would be good to see Howell play this year.

Leicestershire are a bowler light. Second best openers in the group. Best chance is if Azad/Harris can wear down the opponent’s pace attack. Look out for Rishi Patel, don’t let the First Class average of 17 fool you. Average age 25: this is a squad that could grow together.

Group 3

Lancashire: Best batting in the group. Two very good bowlers will miss out when Anderson plays. Will be interesting to see how Lancashire balance their XI around Parkinson: will they go with five specialist bowlers if they want to include a spinner?

Yorkshire are good enough for Division 1. Bess and captain Patterson are by no means guaranteed a place. Jordan Thompson is worth looking out for. Heck of a lot of youth players in the squad.

Kent have a nice attack. Podmore will be a handful early in the season. Stevens has still got it, even though he’ll be bowling to a keeper half his age. The Crawley-Denly axis may decide whether Kent can pip Lancs/Yorks for a D1 spot. Can Crawley improve FC avg of 32? Denly’s LS mean Kent can go with four pace bowlers. Should they be worried about the size of their squad?

Northamptonshire can trouble any batting order, I think they are under-rated. Ben Sanderson the star player. Wayne Parnell and Tom Taylor add batting depth. An overseas all-rounder was definitely the right choice.

Sussex: I’ll disagree with the bookies here – I think Sussex will struggle. Wiese, Archer and Jordan are hard to replace. Overseas players and Ben Brown will hold the batting together. Lots of young reserves – which I may have under-rated (see the Notes section)

Glamorgan: Labuschagne could win them some games in May. But will it be too late by then? Neser, Hogan, van der Gugten will concern openers, but lower-middle-order batting will get an opportunity as they tire. Will need to see more from the batting of Selman, Lloyd, Root, Carlson.

Notes

  • Bat rating = expected batting average
  • Bowl rating = expected bowling average
  • The lack of 2nd XI games and abridged Bob Willis Trophy mean 2020 has less weighting than most years. This is likely to adversely impact the rating of young players where their data is mostly from when they were less experienced. Don’t get angry if the numbers under-rate your favourite 23-year-old.

County Championship 2021 preview (I) – conditions

This preview is in two parts. Below is analysis of the expected themes from the season. Part two will use this insight, plus my ratings of every player, to predict how each team will fare.

Format: the group stage sees three groups of six; each team playing ten games. The top two qualify for Division One, next two Division Two, and the bottom two go into Division Three. These divisions play a further four games. The winner of Division One is the County Champion. The top two teams in Division One compete for the Bob Willis Trophy.

Group stage timing – Spin: Eight of the ten group stage games are in April and May. That means spinners will be relatively unimportant: they bowl only 19% of the overs while averaging 46% more than pace bowlers. Expect teams to pick one spinner (to get through the required 96 overs per day, and they can still be effective in the fourth innings). It will be the quality of pace attack that matters.

Fig 1 – County Championship data from April and May 2019

Group stage timing – Run scoring: Batting isn’t significantly tougher in April. Expect maybe the first two weeks of April where we’ll see some carnage. That’s the best time to cause an upset against the favourites in your group. Fortunately for Worcestershire, they play Essex twice in April.

Scheduling – Selection: Weekly fixtures, starting on a Thursday, should limit the need for rotation. Three rest days between games should suffice. With 13 players shaking their money-makers at the IPL, and England players likely unavailable for the last three Group stage games, it’s good that teams won’t be further weakened by rotation.

Scheduling – Overseas: The IPL means a much reduced overseas player pool. With two overseas players allowed per team (post Kolpak), this is an area where teams can differentiate. Would you rather have Kyle Abbott and Mohammed Abbas (Hampshire) or Marchant de Lange and TBC (Somerset)? Odd that there haven’t been more Pakistani players recruited (they don’t participate in the IPL); maybe budgets are tight and post-COVID many counties don’t have the funds to lure the players they want.

Divisions timing: There’s a gap after the Group stage. The four matches that make up the second stage of the competition start on 30th August. While September’s overhead conditions feel like they benefit pace bowlers, the Test data says otherwise. August and September are as good as it gets for spinners in England.

We might find an all-pace attack sails into Division One, but then struggles on wickets that demand two spinners.

July & youth players: Hopefully the opportunity to win Division Two or Three appeals to counties that start the season slowly. And it’s not just the games in September where teams may refocus onto development. What about a team that after May realises they won’t be winning the County Championship, and so rather than risk their best players for the two July fixtures, rests them to keep their focus on T20? I hope I’m just being pessimistic, but those July Championship games are going to look decidedly inconvenient to the teams hunting a Blast quarter final spot.

Impact on England: In April and May 2019 just under half of the overs were delivered by Medium or Medium-Fast bowlers. Which makes sense: Harry Podmore hooping it is a handful. But more than half the games being played at a time that suits the medium pacer is not great preparation for Test Cricket. To predict which players will thrive at Test level needs data beyond raw averages. Dom Sibley’s County Championship average of 70 against spin might not be as strong as it appears (who did he face, and in which months?) I’ll have to start a County Championship ball by ball database.

Eight points for a draw – Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic: With low value for draws, the County Championship was decided by wins. It was hard to finish above a team that won more than you. Now there’s eight points for a draw, you can pick up 16 points in a dull draw, while a win is worth at most 24 points.

There’s an incentive for inferior teams to bat time, and force the better team to attack to move the game along. I prefer teams to be chasing wins. If the new system had been in place in 2018 and 2019, 32 of 38 placings would be unchanged. Just three pairs of mid-table teams would swap places.

Best case scenario this change makes no difference. I think it’s a change for the worse.

Weather: The Met Office’s long range forecast for the first half of April looks cautiously optimistic.

At the start of this period, unsettled and changeable conditions are likely to continue across northwestern areas. However, high pressure may spread northwards through early April, which will bring a period of settled conditions for most. Following this, drier than average and brighter conditions may prevail, with areas away from the far northwest of the country receiving below average rainfall. Temperatures will mostly be around average or above, with any cooler periods likely to be short-lived, and mostly across northern areas.

India vs England Preview February 2021

Test probability: India 62%, England 24% Draw 12%.

Series probability: India 72%, England 11%, Draw 17%. India are more likely to win 4-0 than England are to win the series.

Or at least that’s what my model thinks. Betting markets have England as low as 18% for the first Test. That’s reflecting low expectations of England’s batsmen against spin, and higher home advantage that my reckoning.

Hereafter are some notes that inform my thinking:

Country – Spin takes 60% of wickets in India. For England, that means Root will probably bowl a bit to support Leach and Bess. However, since 2011 overseas spinners average 43 in India, for the hosts that figure is 25. India seems a tough place to crack.

Grounds – Chennai has only had two Tests since 2011, Ahmedabad has been rebuilt since it last hosted a Test. So not as much to go on as usual. What I can tell you is that in the last seven FC games at Chennai only twice has a team gone past 350. If I’m awake, it’ll be interesting to see how the wicket plays (and how CricViz rate the batting conditions).

Batting Talent – India are 10% stronger than England. Add 15% home advantage that becomes 25%.

Bowling Talent – adds a further 9% advantage to India. There’s no area of the game where England are stronger than India in India. That doesn’t mean they can’t win, it would just be an upset.

Matchups

  1. India’s current lineup are really good against spin (Pujara averages 76, Kohli 71). England’s batsmen mostly have better stats against pace. Ashwin averages more batting against the twirlymen than Ben Stokes. Bairstow’s skills in this area will be missed (1,685 at 46). England may need someone to Make Things Happen with the old ball.
  2. Ravi Jadeja is injured. Thus England’s right handers benefit from facing two off spinners (Ashwin and Sundar). Ashwin averages 31 against RHB (SR 60), 20 against LHB. So while England’s right handers might have a good series, expect to see Ashwin into the attack early when Stokes comes to the crease, and if Burns starts well.

Format – back-to-back Tests at Chennai, and back-to-back Tests at Ahmedabad. One silver lining for England is that Anderson and Stone can rotate in for Broad and Archer. Bumrah is harder to replace. England may benefit from the 7% increase in a bowler’s average playing back-to-back Tests.

Home advantage – 15% (lower than the usual 21%, might flatter England as they won in 2012 with peak Swann and Panesar, which distorts the stats). Maybe I’m being generous to England putting 15% into the model.

Sri Lanka vs England “Preview” January 2021

Here’s some brief notes written ahead of the first Test. I really should have put this up before the Test started. Anyway:

I give England only a 31% chance in the first Test. The betting markets say 39%. Why the difference? The toss is vital and England’s batting isn’t at full strength.

  • Batting first is key. SL are W7 L1 D1 batting first, W3 L4 D0 batting second recently. Batting first is worth 148 runs (runs per wicket by innings over the last 10 years: 40, 28, 29, 26). A 400 pitch becomes a 280 one after the successful tossers have had their fun with it.
    • Note spin is no good in first innings (average 42, SR 77). If you field first and get nowhere in 20 overs, you are in very deep trouble.

  • England have a lot of right handers. A tasty matchup for a leg spinner or SLA bowler. There are two in the Sri Lanka squad: Lasith Embuldeniya averages five wickets per FC game, PWH de Silva is more an all rounder who averages two per game. Embuldeniya averages 40 after seven Tests, but with a FC average of 25 in Sri Lankan conditions, he has a great opportunity. Surprised to see Embuldeniya’s odds 25-1 for Man of the Match. Oh, and he’s Sri Lanka’s leading wicket taker over the last two years.

  • On the topic of Sri Lankan FC averages, there’s a gulf between Test Cricket and the Sri Lanka Premier League Tier A. It’s hard to estimate because there are few (if any) overseas players for calibration, but I make the increase in bowling average 70%: a 25 average in Tier A translates to a Test average of 43. Here’s the expected averages for Sri Lanka’s attack:
Expected averages for Sri Lanka’s attack. Lakmal will be missed in the first Test. Fernando looks useful.
  • Away teams pick too many spinners (over the last ten years away spinners average 35 at Galle) likely because teams pick more spinners than are Test standard. The relevant decision is “who will do better, our third spinner or our first change pace bowler”?
    • In England’s case they that’s not a question of spinning ability, more the balance of the side. With Ali unavailable, England don’t have the batting depth to pick a third specialist spinner. Expect Curran+Bess+Leach+Two Pacers+Root. Sri Lanka will know this, so have an incentive to prepare a spinning pitch and nullify England’s pace attack. Unclear what the pitch will be like as has to be good enough to take back-to-back Tests.

  • Curran and Bess may not offer enough in either batting or bowling to balance the team. Maybe in a couple of years, but today England look beatable.
  • Put all that together, England have the better bowlers, but the toss is so important that it’s a great leveller. Win the toss, bat, win the game.

Changing conditions

I hadn’t noticed this change – it used to be that the 2nd innings was the time to bat in Sri Lanka. Now it’s the 1st innings. See below the difference in runs per wicket from batting first/third versus second/fourth. A big advantage to winning the toss and batting.

Why should that change happen? Different groundsmen? Different grass? Playing at a different time of year? Either way it shows the importance of “live” queries feeding models rather than fixed assumptions.

  • PS. Reflecting after the first day’s play I need to think about specific matchups. Bairstow and Root are good against spin, even when it turns away from them.
  • PPS. There’s a lot of Test series happening right now – will December/January become the annual window of international red ball cricket?
  • PPPS. The comments about the importance of the toss look silly when spin took 6-85 in the first innings. Was I wrong or were Sri Lanka’s batsmen wrong? Hard to gauge without xW data.

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

Preview: England vs Ireland Test Match

Hot on the heels of the 10 team World Cup, Ireland get a chance to prove they deserve a place at the table by giving England a scare in a Test Match.

I’ll admit, apart from the bigger names, I’m not all that familiar with the Ireland team. What does the Cricinfo preview say?

Nothing yet. I imagine that feed is automated and thrown by the lack of data.

How to appraise the Irish players who don’t have a Test track record yet? Will try two methods, and clumsily fuse them together to give a sense of how this Test might go. Firstly, there have been plenty of ODIs between Ireland and the World Cup teams. Secondly, most of the Irish players have some County experience. Many players have only played a handful of ODIs against the best teams, or county matches, so will take a weighted average of the two formats.

Now this is not a serious piece of work – it’s a one hour attempt to have some sense of what will happen in a one-off four day Test match. Hopefully it’s good enough for those purposes.

If these two squads competed in Division 1 of the County Championship in 2019, this is how I think they would fare:

Ireland squad for the Test vs England, 24th July 2019. Player descriptions are from Cricinfo.

Ireland have very little batting. This team would surely be the one to go down if they were playing in Division One. Note how Balbirnie and Stirling come out as the strongest batsmen – which wasn’t what I expected. I’d thought Porterfield / O’Brien / Wilson were the best they had. Good to know.

The middle overs should be a good time to bat for England. Beyond Murtagh and Rankin, Ireland will need to find 50 overs from the other bowlers. Might be some tough and wicketless spells, and a tough call for Porterfield about whether he can afford to let England pile the runs on before using his best bowlers when the second new ball is due at 80 overs.

If Ireland would average 220 odd playing in Division One, while conceding 360 when bowling, how would England get on?

Pretty much double the runs. Woakes is a better batsman than any of Ireland’s players. England can also call on seven competitive bowlers.

Roy vs Murtagh / Rankin would be a useful indicator of whether Roy can play Red Ball Test Cricket. It’s only one match, but it’s marginally better than a sample of no matches before the Ashes.

Here’s my conclusions:

  • Ireland are 55-1 on Betfair to win the Test. I’ve not run the above through the model, but a <2% chance sounds about right.
  • Before considering Ireland’s Test fixtures, this kind of analysis should be completed so we know what to expect. My personal view is that every effort should be made to give teams like Ireland more ODI matches against the best teams (they average four games per year against the best nine countries). Ireland might be better served playing the weaker Test nations until they have closed the gap with the top eight teams.

I don’t mean to belittle Ireland or come across as someone that’s against the development of Test Cricket – it’s just hard to expect a good contest based on the data.

Further Reading

Showing what a Phyrric victory gaining Test status was, there’s a piece in the Telegraph. It also has biographies of the Ireland team. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/cricket/2019/07/23/irelands-test-status-has-failed-deliver-celebrations-promised/