The case against Zak Crawley

Running England’s first innings (NZ vs Eng, 29th Nov 2019) through my model told me that Zak Crawley had a median first innings score of 12. Absurdly low.

Rather than just spout that opinion in a tweet, I’ll walk you through how the model got there, and we’ll see if there are any gaps in logic. Have England made a terrible selection?

Zak Crawley’s County Cricket Record – Average 31

County Championship Division Two: 2017-18 – Runs 830. Dismissed 30 times. Average 27.7

County Championship Division One: 2019 – Runs 820. Dismissed 24 times. Average 34.2.

Second XI Cricket: 2016-18 – Runs 708. Dismissed 22 times. Average 32.2.

Redballdata.com Ratings – Expected D1 Average 30 – Rating those performances, and placing more weight towards recent performances, Crawley’s expected Division One average next year is 29.6.

Adjusting for Age – Expected D1 Average 30.4 – Zak Crawley is 21. He gets a c.3% boost to his expected average because his average is based on runs scored when he was 18/19/20.

Adjust for this innings – Expected Average 19.4 – A Test Match, away, against a strong New Zealand attack is much harder than a county game. That has a severe impact on average.

Run all that expected average of 19.4 through the model, and it predicted a median score of 12.0. What you would expect from a number eight batsman, not a specialist.

Gaps and biases

Let’s look at this from England’s point of view – why is Crawley in the team? I can think of three reasons:

  • He was in the squad, they didn’t really expect him to play. (That links to home advantage getting bigger as a series goes on: in this case it’s because injury means that a squad player, there to gain experience, gets drafted into the team.
  • England selectors use a different age curve and/or bias towards recent matches – bumping up Crawley’s expected average (along with every other young player).
  • Something in performance specific data (that doesn’t show up in averages) makes the England selectors think he’ll be especially suited to batting in New Zealand.

What happened?

Crawley made one run before Wagner got him. That additional innings has moved his expected average down a little more.

Opening batsmen: the divergence of ODI and Test players

Before the Ashes Gio Colussi of The Cricket Academy analysed the two batting lineups and pointed out the White Ball bias in the England camp – they had picked batsmen who were stronger ODI players. He did not expect this to work out well for England. He was right.

Wind the clock back. The good old days. Specifically the noughties (or 2000s, or whatever). An opening batsman fulfilled the same role in Tests or ODIs. Hence their ODI and Test averages were similar, and you could use one to predict the other with a fair degree of confidence.

Fig 1 – Averages of openers to have played >20 innings in Tests and ODIs from 2000-2009

The correlation is so good that the names get all jumbled up on the straight line running from (20,20) to (50,50). Yes, there’s some Test specialists there (Cook, Strauss) but most of the 23 players that meet the criteria for inclusion behave as expected.

That correlation has broken down now.

Fig 2 – Averages of openers to have played >20 innings in Tests and ODIs from 2012-2019. Note the same axes as Fig 1.

There are three distinct types of player, reflected in the clustering in the chart:

  • Versatile elite batsmen (Warner, Iqbal) – just as good in either format, average over 40 in both.
  • Test specialists (Latham, Azhar Ali) – who are/were good enough to play in ODI Cricket, but averaged at least five lower in ODIs
  • ODI specialists (Hales, Guptill) – averaging under 30 in Tests.

I’m reminded of the film Titanic (1997) explaining the captain’s complacency: “26 years of experience working against him”. That line stuck with me – it’s easy to assume past trends will continue, and that you can use opening the batting in ODIs as a pathway into opening in Tests.

Not any more. Unless the player is good. And I mean really good, the best predictor I can see for successfully opening the batting in Tests is successfully opening the batting in red ball Cricket. Think about Jason Roy – ODI Average 43 as an opener, Test Average 19. I don’t think anyone is now expecting him to average 35 in Tests as an opener. Yet someone must have thought he could, else he wouldn’t have been picked.

redballdata.com – closing the stable door after the horse has bolted!

PS. This piece serves as another reminder to me to continually check that the trends I’ve seen still hold – else one day I could be the mug taking Fig.1 to a meeting, persuading everyone to pick the best ODI openers to open the batting in Tests.

On the decline of Test Batting being driven by T20

This is a pretty basic three-card-trick, in which I’ll make the case that T20 batting has harmed Test averages.

In summary, batting techniques began to adapt earlier this decade so a T20 strike rate of 130 was low risk, then ODI batting adopted those techniques, and finally Test players became unable to adjust between three formats. It’s just one possibility, and I’m aware that correlation is not the same as causation. Don’t worry, there’s charts behind the opinions!

1.Evolution of T20 batting 2011 – 2018

Firstly, high-risk fast-scoring T20 batting has become lower risk. Wisden reckons it’s because teams are getting better value out of the same number of attacking shots (ie. cleaner hitting, not just playing across the line – see Kumar Sangakkara’s description in this video). A precis: “It’s never just wild swings”.

Fig 1 – Runs per wicket and Strike Rate by year in T20 International Cricket. Note how the Strike Rate in 2005 was 127, but batsmen needed to take risks to do it: averaging just 18 runs per Wicket. By 2018 that average was over a third higher.

2.ODI batting follows the trend 2015 – 2018

ODI Cricket batting then became more like T20. There’s good reason for this – the optimum strategy for maximizing runs in ODIs became to select T20 players and ask them to score a little more slowly, rather than pick Test players and ask them to score 50% faster.

Fig 2 – Runs per wicket and Strike Rate by year in ODI Cricket (Test teams only). The big jump came after 2014.
An aside – there has been focus on how England revolutionised ODI Cricket after their failure at the 2015 World Cup. The above chart shows that that is back-to-front: whatever revolution happened in ODI Cricket happened between 2013 and 2015, then England fixed English one day Cricket.

So far, so good. T20 batting has made ODI’s more interesting. What has it done for Test Cricket?

3.Test Cricket stumbles

Fig 3 – Evolution of Test and ODI averages since 2005.

Sadly, in all the upheaval, Test Cricket has lost its way.

2015 was the tipping point – it became easier to bat in ODIs than Test Cricket. The real slump has been 2018 & 2019- a paltry 27 runs per wicket.

Let’s explore the drivers behind Test batting’s malaise. Firstly, top order batting is the main factor – tail enders are immune:

Fig 4 – Evolution of Test and ODI averages, splitting averages between batsmen 1-7 and 8-11.

Remember the good old days when 38 seemed like a mediocre Test average? That petered out in 2016. Somehow averaging 33 over the last couple of years has been normal. Yuk.

The worst thing? Whatever this disease is, pretty much every team has caught it. Top order Test batting has fallen by the wayside. Test teams are scoring no faster, but averaging less. Hopefully that’s a short term effect caused by the 2019 World Cup. Hopefully.

Fig 5 – Top Seven batsmen, collective average 2005-2017 and 2018-19, plus the difference between the two. Congratulations to NZ for improving and an honourable mention to Bangladesh who have gamely stood their ground. Note that all teams played at least 11 Matches over 2018-19, so with over 100 completed innings for each team we have a decent sample.

Now, I’m not an expert on the technical side of batting – so I won’t try to cover it. A couple of examples though: seeing Jason Roy failing to cope with lateral movement in the World Cup final was alarming. Even more so, watching Bairstow shrink from a world class batsman to one that can’t seem to stop walking past the ball when defending.

Where do we go from here? Some Recommendations to turn the tide:

  • Be willing to separate Test and ODI/T20 batsmen*. Only some will naturally bridge the two squads.
  • Don’t combine ODIs and Tests in the same tour – these are now different disciplines, give players clear windows devoted to the red and white ball games.
  • Selectors at First Class and Test level would see benefit from picking ultra-low strike rate batsmen at the top of the innings. There will be white ball specialists in red ball teams (there aren’t enough red ball players to go round) – thus these players need to be protected from the best bowlers and the new ball. For example, County Championship winners Essex had Westley (Strike Rate 48) and Cook (SR 45) soaking up the tough conditions.

*I use the word batsmen deliberately: none of this analysis has included the women’s game, therefore there is no evidence to suggest the same conclusions are appropriate.

Appendix

A query comes from @mareeswj on Twitter – “Are test match bowlers getting better or the batters getting worse

To assess how bowling has changed in recent years, one needs to look at the same players’ performances in multiple formats over time. Like in astronomy where having stars of known brightness (“standard candles”) reveals other properties of those stars.

Fortunately, there are 15 bowlers that have taken 15 wickets in ODIs and Tests both up to Dec-2017, and since Jan-2018.

Fig 6 – Comparing All bowlers that have taken:
i) 15+ Wickets in Tests up to 31/12/17
ii) 15+ Wickets in ODIs up to 31/12/17
iii) 15+ Wickets in Tests from 1/1/18 to 28/9/19
iv) 15+ Wickets in ODIs from 1/1/18 to 28/9/19

Pretty consistently, they have recently averaged a lot less in Tests (mean reduction in average of 7.6). It’s a slightly more mixed view on ODIs (mean increase in average of 2.8 runs per wicket).

Trying to keep an open mind, what are the possibilities?

  1. Bowlers have focused on red ball cricket
  2. Batsmen have focused on white ball cricket
  3. Pitches are becoming flatter in white ball cricket and spicier in red ball cricket
  4. Ball / umpiring / playing condition changes.

Personally, only #2 feels plausible to me, with the others being secondary effects.

Impact of “Not Outs” on Averages

A campaign will consist of many skirmishes and a handful of battles. I’m a combatant in a (meaningless) long standing disagreement with an old friend about the value of Chris Woakes. Today’s battleground is whether Woakes’ Test batting average is artificially inflated because he get a lot of “not outs” batting at eight. My opponent believes Woakes is “Bang Average” and therefore clutches any straw which supports that case.

I’d read this in Cricinfo back in 2013 and drew the conclusion that if not outs do make a difference, it’s so small I could ignore it for modelling/gambling purposes. As an aside, generally I like to look at things myself before concluding – for some reason the Cricinfo piece sufficed. Possibly because the author was trying and failing to make the case for adjusting averages to reflect not outs.

As counter-arguments go, I couldn’t rely on picking holes in someone else’s argument, I needed some data. Time for Statsguru!

Batting at seven vs eight

Players who have occupied both batting positions will give us the best data on the impact of those positions on average. I took players who had at least 15 completed innings in each role since 1990 and compared performance.

Fig 1 – Averages batting at seven or eight.
Fig 2 – Impact of additional not outs on average for players batting at eight rather than seven. Note the wide spread of results – there’s no clear trend. Excel’s trendline says the extra not outs from batting at eight do not boost average.

There’s no clear difference between batting at seven rather than eight.

Six versus seven is where it gets more interesting…

Batting at six vs seven

Fig 3 – Averages batting at six or seven. There seems to be a general benefit to batting at seven, but some outliers in Dhoni, Watling, Whittall.
Fig 4 – Impact of additional not outs on average for players batting at seven rather than six. Now we have something. The players with more not outs tend to get a higher average. Excel’s trendline agrees – cutting from bottom left to top right.

Discussion

Let’s take stock after that whirlwind of charts. Generally, players that batted at seven got a boost to their batting average, relative to batting at six. This benefit correlates with increased proportion of not outs when batting lower down.

There is no extra benefit from batting at eight rather than seven. But – that is not to say that there’s no overall benefit to batting at eight rather than six: it’s just that batting at eight has the same benefit as batting at seven rather than six.

I’m no fan of the proposals put forward so far for punishing players for being not out. Yet being not out is correlated with higher averages.

A suggested mechanism: Outrunning Bears

Remember the old joke: two guys, out in the forest, chance upon a bear. The bear starts wandering towards them, and one chap starts tying his shoelaces. Second guy asks “what are you doing – that won’t help you outrun the bear?” First guy answers “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you”.

In nightmarish batting conditions, the top order have next to no chance of protecting their average. Only one batsman outruns the bear to be not out. There’s an advantage of being the last good batsman in the lineup – you just have to survive while the tail gets blown away, and it’s like the barrage never happened – your average is unscathed.

Fig 5 – Batting position of the not out batsman when a Test team has been bowled out for less than 100 since 1990 (top six Test teams only)

There we have it – number seven is having his average flattered because when the going gets tough, the number seven gets red ink. Well, 13% of the time anyway.

Extend that to all tricky batting situations, and there is likely to be a real impact to averages: the top six rarely get a not out in tricky conditions, that benefit belongs to numbers seven to eleven.

Conclusion

Let’s go back to the original question – is Woakes’ batting average benefiting from coming in at eight? I think so.

Can I quantify it? Not yet. All I’ve shown is that the lower batsman are more likely to survive in bad conditions, yet how often do they miss out on the best batting situations? If a team ends 400/4 declared, numbers seven and eight don’t see any of that action.

Does it matter? If comparing two players who bat in the same position then there’s no impact on their data. If comparing a seven and a six’s record, then yes – a rule of thumb would be:

Average adjustment = -70 * (additional not out % from batting at seven not six)

Which works out as about -1.5 runs in moving from seven to six.

Further reading

The Institute & Faculty of Actuaries know a thing or two about risk. Their take is here. I didn’t find it persuasive.

Appendix: Detailed Data

Fig 6 – Full list, batsmen with more than 15 completed innings batting at seven and eight in Tests since 1990.
Fig 7 – Full list, batsmen with more than 15 completed innings batting at six and seven in Tests since 1990.

Anderson vs Woakes

When I was at university there was a rumour that one of the Geology professors was about to predict a massive earthquake in South America. This would have been a career limiting move if nothing happened.

In the end neither the bold prediction or the earthquake materialised.

I thought of that professor’s reputational gamble when I had the idea of asking whether Chris Woakes might be preferred to James Anderson for the Fourth Ashes Test. To misquote Nasser Hussain, “No Ed Bayliss, you cannot do that.”

The scenario

If you are reading this years from now, Sir James Anderson is currently England’s best bowler, though he doesn’t bat very well. Woakes is a decent batsman, and almost good enough to get into the England team as a bowler. Woakes shores up a mediocre top seven and gives the team balance, especially as Jack Leach is a non-batting spinner. Anderson pulled up during the first Test with a calf injury. He missed the next two Tests and has been added to the squad for the fourth. The series is level 1-1 with two to play. Current speculation is that Woakes might make way for Anderson.

Fig 1 – Career Test records

When weighing the merit of the two players, I’ll look at two factors: England and Australia’s expected runs. To do this, I’ll run my model using each player’s career record as the input* and see how the different teams fare.

Batting

If Woakes were dropped, England would have Broad, Leach and Anderson as a long tail. That means a higher probability that a good batsmen gets left stranded and not out. The following table shows the impact on expected runs over the course of a match of replacing Woakes with Anderson and rejigging the batting order:

Fig 2: Comparing modelled runs scored per Match by batting position in the two scenarios. Note that Bairstow would expect to score two runs fewer per game as a result of more frequently running out of partners.

England would expect to score 29 runs fewer per match with Anderson rather than Woakes.

Interesting that Broad batting at ten outscores Leach in that position by so much – I think it’s because the likely partnerships with Leach at ten (9th wicket: Broad-Leach, 10th wicket: Leach-Anderson) won’t last long.

Bowling

From a bowling perspective, Anderson has an average that’s four runs per wicket better than Woakes. Their strike rates are similar (Anderson 56, Woakes 59). It’s likely this gap is narrower in English conditions (both average 23 at home), but let’s use the raw data rather than run the risk of flattering Woakes.

Note that England have a solid fifth bowler in Ben Stokes, (unlike some teams that would need to use a part-timer if they are bowling all day).

Running this through the model, adjusting for home advantage and Austalia’s brittle batting order, the benefit of Anderson’s bowling over Woakes is 13 runs per match. Not enough to offset the weaker batting.

That seems a little low to me, four wickets per match at four extra runs per wicket would be 16 runs – I think it ends up lower because Australia are away from home and aren’t that strong at batting.

Conclusions

Bringing Anderson into the team for Woakes would be a mistake. Maybe there’s a case for such a change in a must-win match (as the odds of a draw are reduced), but the model does not support such a change for the fourth Test.

It’s important to put this analysis into context. I’m not saying that all specialist bowlers should be replaced by all-rounders. Nor am I saying that Anderson shouldn’t be in the team because he can’t bat.

The head-to-head between Woakes and Anderson is considered in this specific scenario where England have a high quality fifth bowler (Test average 32), but two weak batsmen in Broad and Leach.

James Anderson is England’s best bowler. If fit he should play. If Anderson is fit one needs to reframe the question: you can pick two of Woakes, Broad and Archer. Just make sure one of them is Woakes. Whatever you do, don’t bring in Anderson for Woakes.

*This might be slightly contentious. Any debate on this topic (though the participant may not realise it) will boil down to whether they believe that career record is the right input to use. For example, I’m not making an adjustment for Woakes’ unusually strong home record, nor am I adjusting to reflect more recent performances (which would boost Anderson’s bowling). Nor am I adjusting because Woakes hasn’t scored many runs this series.

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.

Sibley or Roy?

Sibley or Roy

For the third Test I’d like to see Dominic Sibley open the batting. To subscribe to this line of reasoning, you’ll need to be persuaded of two things: firstly, it is not necessary to gain experience in “lesser” Test series to ensure peak performance in the Ashes. Secondly, that Sibley is one of the two best opening batsmen England have available.

Opening Up

There’s a school of thought that new players need to be “blooded” to succeed without first playing against weaker teams in the Test format. The data indicates that this is a fallacy.

The 96 openers to make their debut since 2005 scored at an average of 32. That is poor when compared to the average for all openers (36). However, that’s not the right comparative. Weaker players will play fewer Tests, so debutants are of lower ability than the average Test player.

A better way of assessing openers on debut is to compare performance with that player’s career average, adjusted for whether the debut was at home or away. Looking at it that way, players on debut scored three runs more per match than expected.

Why should openers do well on debut?

This is unexpected – often players will debut before their peak, their average will improve as they get better with age. It’s possible that openers are not thrown in at such a young age as middle order batsmen (because it’s a specialist position and no one wants to be 0-1).

Another option is that batsmen had an advantage when the bowler has to played against them before, and is yet to develop a plan. This may have been the case last decade, but is unlikely in modern cricket.

Note that debuts were evenly spread across opponents- it’s not like selectors wait for the weaker opponents before trying new players.

Sibley the Best?

Before the summer, I rated Dominic Sibley as a decent opening batsmen, impressive for a 23 year old, but some way short of Test standard. His expected 2019 First Class average (based on Championship and 2nd XI matches from 2016-18) was 36. That made him at best seventh on the list of possible Test openers. For fans of lists, Burns (51), Stoneman (44), Jennings (42), Mitchell (40), Hales (39) were ahead of him on merit, and Hameed (expected average 36) was also ahead because of his fame.

Fast forward to August 2019. Reflecting Sibley’s spring/summer return of 940 runs in my ratings, his expected Division 1 average jumps to 42. Tied for second place with Stoneman.

Adjusting for age, Sibley would expect to average 34 in Tests.

If one limits the search to red ball cricketers, there could be few complaints with Sibley opening the batting for England.

However, there’s this Roy chap. Top ODI player- averages 43. Can he make it as a Test opener? Leaving his white ball record to one side (because I’ve not looked at the predictive power of white ball results on red ball expectations), in First Class Cricket he averages 38. He has performed better recently: averaging 43 in Division 1 over the last three seasons. However, in those three-and-a-half-seasons he barely played: 32 completed Test/Championship/2nd XI innings while Sibley has 73. Roy didn’t open in either of his games last year.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to give an opener a debut if their record says they are capable.

A reasonable scenario is that Denly (expected Test average 31) picks up 60-80 runs over the course of the Lord’s Test this week, and is dropped on the back of averaging 24 after ten innings.

Sibley to open, Roy slots in at four? Could work.