An Overview of English Domestic Cricket

19th March, 2018.


With the English domestic counties fine tuning preparations for the upcoming 2018 domestic season, and the England national team (with the exception of the ODI squad) in utter disarray following an Ashes thrashing and a poor T20 tri-series, this seems an appropriate time to give an overview of the English domestic cricket scene.

In addition, with the overhaul of the outdated selector system taking place last week, without doubt, something that needed to occur - albeit with the negative caveat that it still appears that a statistical analyst has no input on the selection panel - it seems that this in an opportune moment to publish this article.

Previously, in our article 'Why England's batting will fail in the Ashes 2017', we demonstrated that it was extremely rare for an English player to improve their batting average in Test cricket, from their first-class average during the years they were selected to play Test cricket, and that expecting players such as James Vince to do so was both unrealistic, and also, unfair.

Moving on from this, we can illustrate some deeper analysis which shows the gaps between various levels associated with English cricket.  What we did was split English orientated red-ball cricket into three levels (Test, County Championship Division One, County Championship Division Two) and look at players who played more than one of these levels, from the 2015-2017 seasons.  This could have been Division One and Tests, or Division One and Division Two, or even, in some rare cases, Division Two and Tests.  

Red Ball Batting Analysis:

Division One vs Division Two:-


Division One

Division Two




Completed Innings

2483

1968

Runs

76298

67385

Balls Faced

145502

119941

Average

30.73

34.24

Strike Rate

52.44

56.18


Here we can see that there was a huge sample of data for players who batted in both Division one and Division two cricket across these three seasons (over 100,000 balls faced across each division), and when players dropped down to Division two, both their batting average and strike rates improved.  While a rise of 3.51 (batting average) and 3.74 (strike rate) sounds small, it's actually not inconsiderable in percentage terms, with the average division two player reducing their average when playing in division one by a ratio of 0.90 and strike rate by 0.93.  

Putting this in real terms, based on these numbers, let's imagine a Division two player who has averaged 40 in this time period, at a strike rate of 60.  He'd then - assuming average deterioration from Division two to Division one - roughly expect to average 36 in Division one (40*0.9) and strike at a lower 55.8 (60*0.93), so there is a reasonable drop off in standards for the average player.  

Division One vs Tests:-


Division One

Tests




Completed Innings

1045

660

Runs

34883

20158

Balls Faced

65313

39401

Average

33.38

30.54

Strike Rate

53.41

51.16


Looking at the data above, we can see that there was a slightly smaller reduction in the average player's numbers from Tests to Division One (average ratio 0.91, strike rate ratio 0.96) than from Division One to Division Two.  

In effect, this would demonstrate that there is a marginally smaller gap between Division One and Tests compared to Division One and Division Two, but also again illustrates why it is difficult for English batsmen to translate their records to the international arena.  Australia, for example, have much greater success in improving their batsmen's numbers when selected for Tests, than England have historically been able to.

Division Two vs Tests:-


Division Two

Tests




Completed Innings

285

372

Runs

11630

10839

Balls Faced

19831

20826

Average

40.81

29.14

Strike Rate

58.65

52.05


While this has a slightly smaller sample of data (around 20,000 balls faced for both levels), the sample size is still pretty solid, and it can be seen that there's a huge gulf in class from Division Two of the County Championship, and Test cricket, with the average Division Two batsman expected to average 0.71x their Division Two average in Tests, and strike at a rate of 0.89x their Division Two strike rate.

However, even these strongly negative ratios are not necessarily indicators that Division Two batsmen should be ignored by England selectors, but certainly, they should be focusing their attention on those batsmen who have shown the ability to average in the high 40s, at the minimum, in Division Two cricket.

Another problem with ignoring Division Two players is the lack of an effective transfer system in cricket.  In football, Championship (effectively Division Two) players are not considered by the England team, on the whole, but this is due to the fact that any Championship player perceived to be good enough for England selection would almost certainly have been bought by a Premier League team already.  In cricket, with no transfer fees, it's more difficult for players to transfer, and harder for Division One teams to pick off the premium talent in Division Two, and so there is a more level (although as we've seen, still a decrease) standard between the two divisions, compared to football.

Red Ball Bowling Analysis:

Division One vs Division Two:-


Division One

Division Two




Overs

24559

19448

Runs

74227

66112

Wickets

2407

2108

Average

30.84

31.36

Economy

3.02

3.40


Initially, you could look at the above table and think that it's easier to bowl in Division One than Division Two, but the dynamics are slightly different for each division.  However, I've previously written about the fact that strike rates are lower in Division One, with teams seemingly wanting to take less risks, fearing relegation, compared to Division Two, which has no relegation, only the upside of promotion, and I think this is reflected here.

There isn't a big difference in average data either, with the average player producing similar numbers across both divisions, so at this point, readers would be excused in thinking that it's not a big drop-off in standard from Division One to Division Two, for bowlers.

However, when looking at bowling strike rate (balls per wicket), this is where things change - Division One players in this sample took wickets every 61.22 balls, while when they played in Division Two, this fell to 55.35, a considerable decrease.  So when Division One bowlers dropped to Division One, they became more expensive but took wickets more regularly, and given the dynamics of promotion/relegation, combined with the likely drop in standard, this seems a fair way to assess the gap between the two divisions for bowlers.

Division One and Division Two vs Tests:-


Division One

Tests




Overs

10019

7217

Runs

32066

22805

Wickets

1033

682

Average

31.04

33.44

Economy

3.20

3.16





Division Two

Tests




Overs

3582

5541

Runs

11399

17032

Wickets

369

523

Average

30.73

32.57

Economy

3.17

3.07


I grouped these two comparisons together, because actually, there was very little difference between bowlers who played either one of the two divisions, as well as Tests.  Given that there was also a smaller drop-off in level for bowlers from Division one to Division two compared to batsmen, it would certainly appear that there is a more level standard for bowlers than batsmen across the three levels of red-ball cricket where England are concerned.

Certainly, England should be much more proactive towards looking at Division Two as a potential scouting ground for bowlers, than they should for batsmen, but without doubt, standout Division two batsmen should still be considered.  

T20 Blast:

The T20 Blast is a unique major domestic T20 competition in that it is split across regional lines, with four teams qualifying from the nine in the North group, and again, the same numbers in the South group.  The eight qualifying teams are then able to play each other with no regional restrictions, from the quarter-finals onwards.

Historically, the North group has been more successful, as evidenced by the table below, demonstrating the head to head results in matches between different group members, in recent years (since North group v South group was mandatory in all four quarter finals):-

Year

North Wins

South Wins

Ties





2014

4

2

0

2015

3

1

1

2016

4

0

0

2017

4

2

0

Overall

15

5

1


With 15 wins from 21 matches (plus the win in the tied match making it 16), North group teams have progressed in 76.2% of T20 Blast matches against South group opposition.  On this basis, it would be fair to suggest that the North group is stronger than the South group, but it would be important to also understand that a 21 match sample is very small, and subject to extreme variance.

Therefore, a perhaps fairer way of assessing the quality between the two groups would be to assess any difference in performance in players who have played in both groups, similar to the red-ball analysis above.

North Group v South Group, Batsmen:-


North Group

South Group




Completed Innings

205

156

Runs

5375

4000

Balls Faced

4110

2961

Average

26.22

25.64

Strike Rate

130.78

135.09


The table above shows the data for innings of players who played in both the North and South group across 2015-2017, and it can be seen that while batsmen averaged marginally higher in the North Group than the South Group, they struck at a lower rate.  Therefore, these batsmen showed that it was marginally harder to stay at the crease in the South Group (18.98 ball average innings duration compared to 20.05 ball innings duration in the North group) but quite a bit easier to score quickly in the South Group (higher strike rate).

The fact that it was easier for North group players to score quickly when they played in the South group shouldn't be a huge surprise.  Canterbury and Chelmsford, to name just several southern grounds, are have very small dimensions compared to the average English T20 venue, and are typically extremely high scoring venues.

However, certainly for batsmen, this data doesn't demonstrate a vast difference in standard between the North Group and the South Group - it's not like North Group batsmen move to a southern county and it transforms their data.

North Group v South Group, Bowlers:-


North Group

South Group




Balls

2658

1942

Runs

3496

2654

Wickets

131

99

Average

26.69

26.81

Economy

7.89

8.20


While North group batsmen found it easier to score quicker in the South group, North group bowlers had issues with economy when they moved to the South, again demonstrating that the South group is more higher scoring.  Certainly, if you are a South group bowler keen to improve their economy rate without any changes in bowling ability, a move to a northern county would be one way to do so.

What this data doesn't show, however, is that when North group bowlers moved to southern counties, they took wickets marginally more regularly (again, similar to the batsman dynamic), taking wickets every 19.62 balls in the south, compared to a wicket every 20.29 balls in the north.  

Effectively, all data points towards the south group being easier to score quickly in, but featuring more wickets, but there clearly isn't an overwhelming difference in standard between the two groups, making variance a very likely reason for North group success in the recent knockout matches against South group opposition.  It will certainly be fascinating to see whether (as long as all other variables stay the same) this success for the North group in recent years will revert towards the mean in the future.

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