Why England's Batting Will Fail in the Ashes 2017


28th October, 2017.

Today, England's players fly out to Australia for their Ashes 2017 campaign, and the media frenzy is beginning, not least with the current omission of Ben Stokes from the England squad.  

My short summary of the loss of Stokes is that he offers little (apart from a superb batting strike rate) over the average international batsmen, and nor is he a better than average bowler, but what he does offer England is balance and options.  With Stokes in the team, the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes are able to bat one spot lower and give England a very solid lower order and tail indeed.  Without him - particularly if another bowler is selected - the tail immediately looks much longer, although numbers would indicate that Steven Finn (data much prefers him over the likes of Jake Ball or Craig Overton) would add value over Stokes with the ball.  Despite this, I expect Overton (the best batsman of the trio) or Ball (selectors favourite) to be picked over Finn.

Given England's top-order frailties with the bat, having a strong lower-order is mandatory, and such a luxury has got England out of numerous tough spots in the last couple of years, and numbers certainly expect England's top-order woes to continue.  In my article last month 'England's Batting Options for the Ashes' I looked at the options that England had, and made the point that James Vince in particular looked a truly bizarre selection, with our algorithms giving him a Test expected average of just 24.75.  Sam Northeast, Liam Livingstone and Rory Burns were just three uncapped players who had a higher Test expected average than many of those selected.

At this point, it's worth me mentioning that previously, I was heavily involved with the online poker world, which in short, is effectively just maths.  I also coached quite a few players who were finding it difficult to move up from the lower stakes, and a frequent complaint I received from many struggling with lower stakes was that they were sure they'd be able to beat a higher level better as there were 'better players' at the higher level.  

Unfortunately, it doesn't work this way.  In poker, as well as with any sport, if you can't beat opposition of lower ability then you are even less likely to be able to beat those of higher ability - although I accept that there's a reasonable argument to be made that by playing against better players you can improve yourself by learning from better players (as long as your confidence isn't shot to pieces by this stage due to repeated defeats).

This analogy is very similar to the 'reasoning' behind Vince's selection - there is an anticipation from the selectors that he will be able to improve in the brutal environment of Test cricket, but logic - and historical data - would suggest that if he can't consistently get the better of the average division one bowler, then he won't be able to do so against Mitchell Starc and company. 

For some reason, Michael Vaughan is often mentioned as a player who improved his average in Test cricket and closer analysis of data shows this to be true, but not nearly to the extent mentioned.  The former England captain played Tests between 2000 and 2008, and in that time averaged 42.02 with the bat in Tests, while in those years for Yorkshire in Division One, averaged 39.35.  So while it's fair to say, Vaughan did exhibit some improvement on the biggest stage in cricket, it was far from dramatic.  In addition to this, Vaughan averaged 49.78 in Division One in the year of his first call-up, so the idea that he was plucked from obscurity to become one of the best Test batsmen in the world is an utter fallacy.

In total, from the year 2000 onwards, 40 players played at least 10 completed innings for the England Test team as either a top-order batsman, wicket-keeper or batting all-rounder, and as the table below illustrates, just nine were able to have a better Test average than their Division One County Championship average during the years that they were active Test match players (Test/Division One Ratio Greater than 1).  Realistically, Eoin Morgan and Moeen Ali's small sample of Division One batting data makes this a total of seven players from reasonable data samples.

Player

TEST

TEST

TEST

Div 1

Div 1

Div 1

Test/Div 1


Completed Innings

Runs

Ave

Completed Innings

Runs

Ave

Ratio









EJG Morgan

23

700

30.43

6

109

18.17

1.68

GP Thorpe

59

3145

53.31

53

2171

40.96

1.30

PD Collingwood

105

4259

40.56

18

562

31.22

1.30

BA Stokes

68

2429

35.72

41

1155

28.17

1.27

JP Crawley

10

471

47.10

40

1684

42.10

1.12

MM Ali

66

2288

34.67

7

227

32.43

1.07

MP Vaughan

134

5631

42.02

52

2046

39.35

1.07

GO Jones

49

1172

23.92

16

376

23.50

1.02

AJ Strauss

172

7037

40.91

16

650

40.63

1.01

MJ Prior

102

4099

40.19

54

2184

40.44

0.99

ME Trescothick

133

5825

43.80

19

839

44.16

0.99

IJL Trott

87

3835

44.08

66

3127

47.38

0.93

MA Atherton

39

1438

36.87

21

835

39.76

0.93

A Flintoff

111

3645

32.84

57

2088

36.63

0.90

AN Cook

251

11629

46.33

22

1141

51.86

0.89

JC Buttler

25

784

31.36

19

675

35.53

0.88

TR Ambrose

15

447

29.80

20

686

34.30

0.87

MA Butcher

77

3115

40.45

61

2945

48.28

0.84

GS Ballance

40

1498

37.45

59

2764

46.85

0.80

A Lyth

13

265

20.38

12

315

26.25

0.78

C White

31

886

28.58

38

1399

36.82

0.78

IR Bell

181

7727

42.69

91

5027

55.24

0.77

SD Robson

11

336

30.55

17

674

39.65

0.77

RS Bopara

18

575

31.94

13

550

42.31

0.76

AJ Stewart

57

2056

36.07

22

1056

48.00

0.75

JE Root

99

5323

53.77

14

1004

71.71

0.75

OA Shah

10

269

26.90

28

1038

37.07

0.73

N Hussain

82

2846

34.71

10

502

50.20

0.69

KP Pietersen

173

8181

47.29

18

1273

70.72

0.67

JM Bairstow

71

2824

39.77

47

2824

60.09

0.66

CMW Read

15

322

21.47

48

1569

32.69

0.66

JWA Taylor

12

312

26.00

85

3516

41.36

0.63

NRD Compton

27

775

28.70

99

4712

47.60

0.60

RWT Key

25

775

31.00

82

4427

53.99

0.57

MA Carberry

12

345

28.75

40

2014

50.35

0.57

JM Vince

11

212

19.27

14

473

33.79

0.57

AD Hales

21

573

27.29

21

1035

49.29

0.55

MR Ramprakash

25

649

25.96

34

1849

54.38

0.48

KK Jennings

12

294

24.50

24

1548

64.50

0.38








* Graeme Hick did not play Division One cricket during his spell as an England player

Many England players struggled in Test cricket this century having performed decently domestically, including James Taylor, Nick Compton, Rob Key, Michael Carberry, Alex Hales, Mark Ramprakash and Keaton Jennings, so we can see that there is an extreme bias towards underperforming at Test level compared to the lower standard of Division One - as is completely logical.  

We can also see that being able to record an average of 50 or greater in Division One is almost a pre-requisite for Test success - all three of England's world-class batsmen - Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow - have performed at this level while being in the Test side, and historically, so did Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell.  It's certainly not a guarantee, as the likes of Key, Carberry and Ramprakash proved, but it does seem to be a minimum standard required.

Of those with a half-decent sample of data, only Graham Thorpe, Paul Collingwood and Ben Stokes - THREE PLAYERS - were able to significantly improve their division one batting average in Test cricket since the turn of the century, so the chances that the previously mentioned Vince, as well as likes of Dawid Malan or Mark Stoneman, can do so too, is simply unrealistic.  

In Stoneman's case, it's fair to state that at least his Division One data in the last year or two has been dramatically improved, so he might stand a better chance than Vince or Malan, but as the table below shows, of the those whose positions in the squad were up for debate, it's actually back-up wicket-keeper Ben Foakes who has the best career Division One batting data.

Player

Div 1

Div 1

Div 1


Completed Innings

Runs

Ave





BT Foakes

34

1439

42.32

DJ Malan

118

4424

37.49

MD Stoneman

232

8074

34.80

JM Vince

118

3642

30.86


Given that Foakes is the only one with a Division One average above 40 (he also has plenty of age-related upside as well), it is clear to see why the three others are likely to struggle - although Stoneman might have a chance if he continues his dramatic improvement.  It wouldn't be a shock if he ended up getting picked as a batsman, or keeps with Bairstow batting higher, by the end of the tour.

Vince in particular looks destined for failure at Test level.  Aesthetically, his batting might please many, but if he's averaging barely 30 against county pros, he's not going to succeed in Test Cricket.   His first-class average of 38.81 is considerably boosted by 83 Division Two innings (averaging 50.12), and makes him look like a much better longer-format player than he realistically is.  As mentioned before, he and Malan are much better white-ball cricketers and this is where the selectors should put their faith in him.

As I've mentioned in previous articles, the split between Division One and Two should be noted in a player's averages.  It's like a footballer scoring 50 goals in the Championship one season, and then 10 in the Premier League the next - is it fair to say he averages 30 a season?  It's certainly pretty misleading.  Analysis shows that there's a bigger step up from Division One to Tests, than between Division One and Division Two.

Concluding, I won't make any predictions for the Ashes, apart from saying that unless at least two of Root, Cook or Bairstow have the tours of their lives, England won't be able to consistently post decent scores with the bat.  

This doesn't necessarily mean England will lose the series - Australia have plenty of frailties themselves, although data analysis shows that they are very strong in home conditions - but it wouldn't be a huge shock if the ball dominated the series, particularly in Australian hands.  Unless there's a lot of rain in matches, with the expected batting line-ups, don't expect draws.



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