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

A review of England’s bowling options

When England fans are nervous, hits to my summary of their Test batting options spike. This is the companion piece for bowling, allowing me to monitor a nation’s worries about replacements for Broad and Anderson.

We’ll start by looking at how performances since 2016 translate to expected Test averages, then discuss the implications of that.

Here’s my view of the expected batting and bowling averages of the leading contenders:

Fig 1- Expected Test averages of England’s leading bowlers, based on data since 2016. Note the reversed x-axis: an ideal player would be in the top-right, a weaker player bottom-left. Anderson stands head and shoulders above the other bowling options. For the second and third Ashes Tests, the attack of Broad, Archer, Leach, Woakes, Stokes is pleasing in that all five bowlers are from the best eleven available.
Fig 2 – England’s bowling options – those with expected average below 30 and selected others.
Note that Archer’s white ball record implies he will be more successful than recent red ball data indicates.
County Cricket performances won’t necessarily translate to Test Cricket – where pitches are flatter and games aren’t played in April/May/September in England. Stevens probably wouldn’t average 30 in Tests, but one should start with the data and adjust rather than the other way around.

Discussion

1. Older players & Succession

Five of the top 17 players are aged over 33. That means England need clear succession plans. Conversely, it also suggests Woakes and Broad might have more Tests in them than we think: Stevens, Anderson and Clarke have not diminished with age.

2. Ben Coad

Coad has consistently performed well in Division 1 for Yorkshire. Last three years: 50 wickets at 21 (2017), 48 wickets at 16 (2018), 36 wickets at 25 (2019). You know how Simon Harmer has been tearing up Division 1 and winning games for Essex? He has 156 wickets at 20 since 2016; comparable with Coad’s 135 wickets at 21.

It was a surprise that Coad came out so much better than all other bowlers bar Anderson. Consistency is key – for instance Broad and Woakes had a bad year in 2017 (averaging 36 and 51 in Tests respectively).

The next red ball Lions activity should feature Coad. It’s astonishing that he hasn’t played yet. England weren’t far off with the Lions attack of S.Curran, Gregory, Robinson, Leach, Porter- but they’ve got to find a way to look at Coad.

3. Division 2: Ben Sanderson and Ryan Higgins

I’d like to see Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire get promoted to Division 1, mainly as the neatest way to get these two playing the best standard of Cricket available. There’s a significant leap in standard between Division 2 and Test Cricket, so without ball-by-ball data it’s hard to be sure how good Sanderson and Higgins are.

If Gloucestershire don’t get promoted this year, I wonder if someone will have a quiet word with Mr Higgins and suggest he seek a Division 1 employer. Higgins is very good. I wrote about him here.

Sanderson is the wrong side of 30, so if he were to get a Test callup it would be following a lot of injuries to younger alternatives. Like James Hildreth he’ll be someone who could have made the step up from Under 19s to the full England side, but never got the chance.

4. Spin options

There’s only one viable spinner- Jack Leach. Even adjusting for the advantage he gets from playing at Taunton, he’s the best England have got. His batting’s not great, so in non-spinning conditions England should consider a batting all rounder instead. Maybe that’s harsh on Moeen Ali, but I think the “most wickets for England in the last 12 months” statistic flatters Ali – taking the longer view, his Test bowling average of 37 is nothing much to shout about.

5. Replacements

If Woakes or Stokes were unavailable: Gregory or Higgins are the best batting bowlers on the list, capable of slotting in at number eight.

If Broad or Archer were injured (and Anderson still out), Coad would be the logical replacement.

I don’t see Sam Curran as being ready for Test Cricket. His bowling average of 30 flatters him when his first class average is 29: expect it to go up if he plays more Tests. He’s only 21 – for now there are better bowlers out there.

Post-script: Methodology

To calculate expected Test averages, I took performances over the last three-and-a-half years in Second XI, County Championship, and Test Cricket adjusted for the relative difficulty of playing at each level.

I’m aware of two extra elements to add: weighting towards more recent performances and adjusting for age (young players should be getting better). These will take time to calculate, so will have to wait for the Autumn.

There’s a third factor I’d like to look at – the link between ODI and Test performance. Since not all players will perform equally well in red and white ball Cricket, I’m at present unsure how I’d quantify such a measure (eg. X averages 26 in ODIs, therefore is expected to average 32 bowling in Test Cricket).

Further reading

Wisden tipping Coad for greater things: https://www.wisden.com/stories/county-cricket/ben-coad-yorkshires-late-bloomer-englands-potential-wildcard – no doubt I’m not the first to notice that Coad is rather good.

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/

Fantastic boundaries and when to find them

Using a ball-by-ball database of 2019 ODIs, I’ve looked at boundary hitting through the innings. This was to refresh my ODI model, which was based on how people batted in 2011.

Fig 1: Boundary hitting by over. ODIs between the top nine teams, Q1 2019

Key findings:

  • First 10 over powerplay: 10% of balls hit for four, c.2% sixes. Just two fielders outside the ring.
  • Middle overs 10 – 40: c. 8% balls hit for four, c. 2% sixes. Four fielders outside the ring limits boundary options. Keeping wickets in hand mean batsmen don’t risk hitting over the top, though if wickets in hand the six hitting rate starts to pick up from the 30th over.
  • Overs 40-45: Six hitting reaches 5%. No increase in the number of fours: five boundary riders give bowlers plenty of cover.
  • Overs 46-50: Boundary rate c.18% with boundaries of both types picking up.

These probabilities have been added to the model, which now makes some sense and isn’t claiming a 6% chance England score 500!

An early view of what the model thinks for Thursday’s Cricket World Cup opener – if England bat first 342 is par. 69% chance England get to 300, 20% chance of England getting to 400. I can believe that, it is The Oval after all.

England aren’t picking bowlers based on First Class performances

Looking at 2016-2018 Test, County Championship and Second XI bowling data, and adjusting for the relative quality of that Cricket, we can rank the England qualified players.

I’ll use this for a 2019 preview a bit closer to the start of the season.

In the meantime, here’s a look at England selection. Given that County Cricket mainly takes place in April, May, August and September, it doesn’t necessarily replicate the conditions for home Tests in mid-summer (let alone away games).

2016-2018 Bowling records, selected England bowlers. Ranking amongst England qualified bowlers, 45+ Wickets.

It’s surprising just how far down the list Wood, Curran, Rashid and Ali are. While it’s hard to find good English spinners, the case for picking Wood and Curran (77 D1 Wickets at 33) is weaker.

There’s also support for Stokes taking on a greater share of the bowling, just as he did in the West Indies (sending down 29 overs per game).

England Lions – red ball doom and gloom.

I’ve always been critical of selectors. Even as a little boy who couldn’t pronounce Sri Lanka (Scarry Lanka), I couldn’t get my head round Graham Gooch not being picked for England ‘A’ when he was dropped by England. My father said that the ‘A’ team was only for young players. That didn’t make sense to me.

I was reminded of that as England Lions got trousered by India ‘A’ this week. Having said nice things about England picking their best batsmen in the Test team, that praise won’t be repeated for Lions batting choices.

This piece showed expected Test averages based on the last three years of First Class and Second XI cricket. Using the same data, we can see where the Lions top seven rank among England’s batting options, and what they would expect to score at Test level.

The data shows Duckett and Pope are solid choices, who could easily find themselves playing in the 2019 Ashes. Billings and Mullaney are slightly left field based on 2016-18, but with stronger career records. Fair enough.

Holden and Gregory? Max Holden was England U19 captain, and is only 21 years old. Gregory has solid white ball numbers, and it could be that the one dayers were the main focus of this tour. I’d suggest that Holden and Gregory wouldn’t be in this squad based on domestic red ball performances.

Sam Hain is 248th on the redballdata.com ranking of England’s batting options, eight places below Toby Roland-Jones. Since 2016 his First Division runs have been at an average of 20 and Second Division runs at 33. Yes, he has a List A average of a stonking 58. Is he Joe Denly’s understudy for the number three role? No. Let’s just say he won’t be in my Fantasy Cricket team next year.

How did this top order perform? Between them they contributed 229-7 and 187-5 in the first “Test” and 99-7 & 145-7 in the second. A collective average of 19, which is just slightly worse than their expected average of 24 – this wasn’t an aberration, the England Lions are light on batting.

Why don’t teams pick their strongest ‘A’ team? Especially in the off season when it’s not like counties are being deprived of their best players. Are these two red ball games just an afterthought? The current selection should be so much better.

Revisiting predictions for West Indies vs England, 2019.

Putting predictions on this blog allows testing of prediction against results. In this post I’ll look back at what I said before England’s tour of the West Indies in 2019.

I was surprised how few concrete predictions were included in previous posts. Next series I may include player by player predictions, so there are more data points.

1.No reason to model Jennings’ expected Test average as anything other than 33. 

❌ Jennings averaged 16. Though it was only four innings, it’s hard to see that prediction as a success! The extra data takes his expected average down to 32.

2. One spinner is the right choice

✅ Rashid’s match figures of 26-1-117-0 with the ball and 12 & 1 with the bat showed England the error of their ways.

3. History says expected average by bowing type Spin 32 Pace 26

✅ Actual averages: spin 35 pace 21, which reflects the quality of bowing on display – both teams have better quicks than spinners.

4. West Indies’ best chance will come if their fast bowlers can keep England under 225 in one innings

✅ Both West Indies victories included innings where England scored under 225. England won the third Test scoring 277 & 361-5. I don’t really like this kind of prediction though: Cricket is won by taking 20 wickets and scoring more runs than your opponent. How you do that is unimportant.

5. England 2019 are at about the level of the 2005 Ashes side, by having no weak links rather than being packed with world-beating batsmen.

❓Most would say that England’s batting was stronger in the past, but the current team has huge potential. My view is that England’s current batting is fragile because it is not that good, while some pundits would have you believe that England are afflicted by “amazing-but-collapse-too-often syndrome”.

6. England have a one in three chance of Whitewashing the West Indies.

⚠️ I stand by this prediction- though hard to appraise the success of this. Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean there wasn’t a 33% chance of it. Equally if it did happen that wouldn’t tell us much from one prediction.

I’ll make more testable predictions next series.

Should Jennings’ expected average be reduced after the Bridgetown Test?

There has recently been interest in Keaton Jennings’ average against pace. Two failures in Barbados have stoked this discussion. His average (26) in 16 Tests is below his expected average (33) based on County performances over the last three years. Generally, I would choose the big sample size (County Cricket) over the smaller sample size (Tests), and so rate his expected average at 33, not 26.

But – can we learn anything about technical flaws from Jennings’ Test performances to change that view? Specifically his average against pace:

Keaton Jenningsaverage against pace (16.90) is the lowest of any opener to have played more than 15 Tests, for games in which ball-by-ball data is available.

Wisden (Jan 26th 2019, via Twitter)

I’ve had a look at his performances over the last 3 years on the county circuit. The hypothesis is that there are some very good pace bowlers in County Cricket, and as an opener Jennings will face them (a middle order batsman might be able to make hay without facing much of the best bowlers).

The data supports this hypothesis – 68% of the time he faces at least one opening bowler with Test experience.

Keaton Jennings has played two of the last three seasons in Division 1, scoring 11 hundreds, and making runs in a variety of conditions (including April and September- when the deck is stacked in the bowler’s favour). His three year average isn’t amazing, but the key point is that one can’t look at the above data and conclude that Jennings has a problem against pace bowling.

As an aside, this piece is a reminder that I need to build a way to combine the Test performances to the First Class performances to ensure I’m using every available data point in appraising batsmen.

Conclusion: There is no reason to model Jennings’ expected Test average as anything other than 33. Plenty of people will disagree with that!

West Indies vs England: Preview

West Indies can beat England against the odds, but they’ll need their pace bowlers to perform.

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The blueprint – Bridgetown 2015. 1-0 down in the series, with a first innings deficit of 68, the West Indies were about to be batted out of the Test. Hearing a wicket fall, a reveller in the Party Stand asked “Was that Trott or Cook?” and was baffled to learn that it was in fact Root, and England were 28-4. The new ball had done the damage, and by the time 20 overs had been bowled it was 39-5 and the game was back in the balance.

West Indies were eventually set 192. Darren Bravo marshalled the batsmen to the target with five wickets in hand. The hosts had accrued only three scores over 30 in the Test, but somehow pulled off an unlikely victory, and drawn the series 1-1.

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With that surprise firmly in mind, let’s make some informed predictions for the upcoming series.

1) One spinner is the right choice. This decade the average is 32 for spinners, 26 for pace bowlers. It may be that pitches are turning more than they used to, and it’s true that spinners get 37% of wickets in the Caribbean, but this turn hasn’t delivered cheaper wickets. That said, if a team can reliably judge a pitch as more spin friendly than the average West Indian pitch, then they should go with two spinners – selectors just need to be sure there will be more in the pitch for spinners than quicks before making that decision.

2) West Indies’ best chance will come if their fast bowlers can keep England under 225 in one innings. Turning pitches or not, the West Indies have no elite spinners. If they are going to win this series it will be through devastating fast bowling.

They are unlikely to amass buckets of runs – so Holder’s bowling unit needs to neutralise England’s batting. Specifically, if England score fewer than 225 in one innings, that sets up a target within the range of the West Indian batting.

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Taking all factors into account, modelling suggests the probabilities for the first test are: 24% WI. 7% Draw. 69% Eng.

That translates to a one-in-three chance of England managing back to back whitewashes away from home. The last time England achieved that? 1889.

West Indies will probably lose: their batting and spin bowling is inferior to England’s. But if we’ve learned anything from the 2015 series, it’s that home advantage is real, and the new ball could do some serious damage, leaving mystified England supporters to ask “was that Burns or Jennings?” as Stokes returns to the pavilion.

35 is the new (and old) 40

Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather then to pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.

Moneyball (2003)

In the last 35 years England have had just 15 batsmen who averaged more than 40 over their career. Expectations should shift: aspire to players averaging 40; accept batsmen averaging 35.

The chart below may surprise you – it surprised me. How could barely any recent English batsman reach the benchmark set for them? Averaging 40 (at least in my head) was a minimum, not an elite average.

The data speaks for itself- 45 isn’t the new 40. 35 is the benchmark, and has been for a long time.

We, the red ball loving hordes (and our journalist generals) need to help the selectors by having realistic expectations.

The selectors should return the favour: stick with players that are good enough, even if they aren’t stars, and even if pundits are piling on the pressure.

Next time someone is 10 tests into their career, averaging 34 and with the data saying they would average 35 long term, let’s not call for a change because they aren’t scoring enough. Only remove them if a better prospect comes along – not someone with similar numbers who we might want to gamble on.

There’s a great case study: Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, and received wisdom is that he is yet to be replaced as an opener. We wanted the next Strauss. We should have been looking for the next Rob Key (15 tests averaging 31 between 2003-2005 while we waited for the next star batsman to come along).

Instead Cook was partnered by Compton (average 31) – Root (42) – Carberry (28) – Robson (31) – Trott (12) – Lyth (20) – Ali (14) – Hales (27) – Duckett (23) – Hameed (32) – Jennings (27) – Stoneman (28) – Jennings

Remember who Carberry got his runs against? An away Ashes series in 2013: Harris, Johnson, Siddle, Lyon, Watson. Those 281 runs were well earned.

With hindsight, pretty much every pick between Robson and Jennings was an error. England had viable alternatives for Strauss 3 times: Compton, Carberry and Robson. Having rejected them, playing people out of position (Trott / Ali) and gambling on youth (Duckett / Hameed) as the next cabs off the rank as England moved ever further down the list of possibles.

England chose weaker options because they weren’t willing to settle for a batsman averaging in the low-30s. That cost England runs- and since the selectors’ are employed to pick the best team possible, this is a failure. One they don’t get criticised enough for. Fear not, dear reader, we know England’s best batting options– and will collectively tut if the selectors deviate from them!

Conclusion: England should hold their nerve, even if Burns and Jennings are only averaging 33 coming into the Ashes.