What can we learn from England Lions tours?

England Lions have three First Class games in Australia, starting on 15 February. Here I look at the merit of a Lions tour, and what we can learn from them. I’ll start by busting a couple of common myths, and then consider the current squad.

Myth 1: Lions performances as auditions before Test squad selection

Only a genius or a fool would pick a player based on one performance. There are very few geniuses.

Consider the stand out performances in Lions history: 11 players have registered 150+ scores, including Michael Yardy, Chris Read and Eoin Morgan. These gentlemen didn’t have the batting to thrive in Test Cricket – so don’t assume that anyone getting a daddy hundred is the next Ollie Pope.

Nobody should be given the message that a big red ball score on tour will secure them a Test place. Even if that’s what might happen…

Myth 2: Lions performances are a predictor of Test batting success

There are very few Lions First Class matches. Just nine players have more than ten games under their belts. That means Lions averages are poor indicators of Test average. Look how scattered the plot is:

Appendix 1 – Lions vs Test batting average for players dismissed ten or more times in each

The below charts show how First Class records are more reliable for Test selection than Lions stats.

Appendix 2 – FC vs Test average, same players as Appendix 1.

Without ratings for every player the Lions come up against, any batting data is of limited use. Ideally one would combine Lions data and county stats to enrich the picture we have of a player.

A healthy average over three games doesn’t tell you a lot. A few fifties in a Lions tour doesn’t necessarily make a “horses for courses” selection next time England tour there. No matter how tempting.

Not entirely myth: Lions performances as a predictor of Test bowling success

We’ve seen that you can judge a bowler on fewer matches than a batsman.

Lions stats are almost as good at predicting Test performances as First Class Cricket (Appendix A). Consider those with 15+ Lions and Test wickets: the two highest averaging Lions found Test Cricket the hardest (Plunkett and Rashid). However, they also averaged over 30 in First Class, so they’d be expected to struggle in Tests even if we didn’t have Lions data to go on.

OK MR SMARTYPANTS … WHAT IS THE POINT OF LIONS TOURS? OTHER THAN RATING BOWLERS, A BIT.

There are five reasons I can think of to include someone in a Lions First Class squad. Three are in the following table; the other two are “getting a good look at players outside the county 1st XI” and “keeping on some white ball players that are around anyway”.

Let’s look at the red ball squad:

Lewis Gregory doesn’t tick any of the boxes, as captain I think his role is slightly different: a senior player, just falling short of the Test squad. It may be harsh to label the three “White Ball Player Kept On” players as such – Abell and Kohler-Cadmore are better than some players in the original squad. Still, that’s been their route to selection – being retained as many of the group will leave early to join the Test squad.

The Lions XI that takes the field against a Cricket Australia XI on February 15th will reveal something about the ECB’s goals.

The strongest XI? If played in English conditions it would be Sibley, Jennings, Northeast, Kohler-Cadmore, Lawrence, Bracey+, Gregory (c), Bess, OE Robinson, Overton, Gleeson.

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A final word on a similar theme- the recent U19 World Cup has drawn a few optimistic predictions about players based on a handful of games. Note that only two players have scored three centuries in U19 World Cups. Shikhar Dhawan is a success story, yet Jack Burnham still a work in progress.

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Appendix 1 – Correlations with Test performance

Appendix 3 – Lions vs Test bowling average for players who took 15 or more times at each level.
Appendix 4 – FC vs Test average, same players as Appendix 3.

Appendix 2 – Kookaburra red ball blues

In a recent Cricinfo article, Saqib Mahmood described the challenges of switching from the Dukes ball in England to the Kookaburra ball overseas. I was hoping for some predictive data- showing that some players struggle with the Kookaburra ball with the Lions, and those struggles would continue at Test level. The results are inconclusive.