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.

Mythbusting: Vaughan and Trescothick selected for England despite modest First Class Records

In the perennial debate “Selection: Art or Science”, one of Art’s arguments is that Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick had Modest Records* before succeeding in Test Cricket. In this piece, I’ll demonstrate that there was nothing in their early international red ball careers that couldn’t have been predicted by the right data.

Let’s start by looking at young Michael (born 1974) and Marcus (born 1975) developing in County Cricket.

Fig 1 – After an exceptional first few seasons note the unusual blip in Vaughan’s 1999 performance. This meant that rather than showing improvement with age, his career average hovered around 36.
Fig 2 – A more pronounced improvement with age. Three year rolling average consistently exceeds career average.

Using the three year rolling averages as a measure of current ability, and applying the current performance difference between County Championship Division 1 and Test Cricket (28%, see link), we would expect both players to average 28 in Tests. Adjusting for age (a 25-year-old is better than they were at 23, so would be expected to outperform their three year rolling average), the data driven approach says they had expected Test averages of 29.

I am interested in the predictive power of this data. The decision to elevate them to Test level in 1999 (Vaughan) and 2000 (Trescothick), should be judged on what they delivered by the end of 2000**. How did they get on? Between them 712 runs at 31***. That’s at the lower end of an acceptable average for a top order batsman, albeit two runs per wicket better than expected. If the “Art” camp would like to claim credit for left-field selections, I’m willing to give them credit for two runs per wicket.

Fig 3 – Vaughan and Trescothick 1995-2000 batting data. Limited to County Championship matches where possible (1995 and 1996 were the early days of the internet, so I could only find First Class information)

Discussion

If you judged a player on career County averages you would have balked at Trescothick’s selection in 2000.  We have seen that career averages are misleading: Trescothick played County Cricket aged 20; his career average took a long time to recover from playing while so young.

Career average is a blunt measure of ability. If the sample size is big enough, a better method is to use last three years’ average**** and adjust for age and the level they played at to give an expected Test average.

Conclusion

Vaughan and Trescothick had modest career records before their Test debuts. They also had modest starts to their Test careers!

Taking nuanced view based on age and recent averages, the Test career starts of Vaughan and Trescothick were entirely predictable- no hunches necessary!

Further Reading

Here’s the excellent Vic Marks discussing Vaughan and Trescothick’s records at the time. Gives a bit more context around other factors behind their selection (England U19 and ODI performances): https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2000/jul/30/cricket

*Google is full of classic examples of Modest Records. I like this one because it features one protagonist describing the other: Michael Vaughan, 2014: We have picked players in the past with poor county records, such as Marcus Trescothick, and they have thrived on the international stage.

** They averaged 52 and 41 in domestic Cricket in 2001, so my contention is that they would definitely have been ready by late summer 2001.

*** I’m keen not to be accused of cherry picking the data. By the end of 2000 they only had 23 completed innings between them. Extend the analysis to the end of 2001 and they averaged 36 after 32 Matches.

The other factor to ensure I’ve not rigged this is to note who they played against and where. Vaughan had four tricky Tests away in South Africa, then four easier games hosting the West Indies. England went undefeated in Trescothick’s six Tests against West Indies/Pakistan. Three were at home, three away.

**** Three year rolling average is a bit simplistic. An even better methodology would be to weight towards more recent innings. That’s a “nice-to-have”. Three year rolling average is good enough for our purposes.