Can England and English Counties Understand Age Curve Profiling Better?

26th January, 2020.


On Thursday, England's Under 19 cricket team were eliminated from the Under 19 50 Over World Cup group stage following a last-ball defeat against Australia, and a prior loss to the West Indies.  Saturday's win over Nigeria - albeit a resounding one - was rather more predictable, and shouldn't be held up as anything more than completely expected.

Despite the match against Australia being shown live on Sky Sports, social media fallout from England's failure to qualify barely registered, on my rather cricket-focused timeline at least.  I'd suggest that an out of form England Test batsman getting dismissed while playing a loose shot would have generated more debate and criticism than England's Under 19's struggles against their age group peers.

The difficulties suffered by the current England Under 19 team aren't hugely dissimilar to the past, as well.  There have been 12 Under 19 World Cups prior to the current one, with England winning the second edition in 1998.  However, as the table at this Wikipedia link would indicate, England's match win percentage at Under 19 World Cups as a whole doesn't compare well with other leading Test nations.  According to that table, England have won less than 60% of their matches, with India, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and Bangladesh all winning in excess of 70% of their matches, which leads me to think that there might be some long-term reasons as to why England have struggled more than rival leading Test nations at Under 19 World Cups. 

Do we know that this is the best group of Under 19 cricketers that England can choose from?  From a statistical point of view, it's absolutely impossible to say.  

As I have commercial arrangements which at least in part rely on successfully profiling young players with a view to establishing their future potential, I can confidently state that I have spent a great deal of time assessing how a player's career is likely develop, given general rates of improvement.   The problem is with much of this current group of Under 19 players is that their data sample size is just far too small to be able to make even an educated guess as to how their careers may eventually pan out, and this is one area where I think England have a problem.

In their warm-up defeat against Afghanistan, England faced opposition who had considerably more first-team experience.  More than four times as much, in fact.   Afghanistan's players used had in excess of 200 first team appearances in first class, List A and T20 cricket combined.  Ibrahim Zadran has played all three formats for the national team, and has played more first class, List A and T20 matches than the entire England team put together (England combined to manage fewer than 50 with three players - Ben Charlesworth, Jordan Cox and Hamidullah Qadri - managing the vast majority between them).  Perhaps entirely coincidentally, this trio were three of England's better performers in the group stages of tournament...

Not only this, but it is clear that several other countries give players greater exposure to professional cricket at an earlier age.  India's Under 19's contain players with lucrative IPL contracts, while Pakistan have even fast-tracked 16 year old Naseem Shah into their Test team.  Noor Ahmad, the teenage spinner from Afghanistan, was shortlisted in the recent IPL auction. 

I'm not necessarily suggesting that talented 17-19 year olds should be dramatically fast-tracked into county first teams, but they should certainly be playing regular second XI cricket in the second XI leagues at the very least, in my view.  We can use second XI data to then profile the current ability of players with a view to trying to translate this initially to first team level to try and understand when they are ready for the opportunity in professional cricket, and then also to try and work out career peak levels assuming general rates of improvement.  This would then enable the England selectors to pick a squad who would have both current ability and future potential - the work I have done profiling young English cricketers would suggest that there are a few that the selectors have missed.

Despite what some people of influence in English cricket have stated in recent interviews, my statistical analysis does indicate that county cricket is a solid predictor of whether a player will be likely to be good enough to play for England.  It's not a perfect science, and nor is there certainty - but what is?  However, what we can confidently state is that it is extremely rare for a batsman to be able to improve their current county average in the Test arena, which is completely logical given the higher quality of bowling in general in Test cricket.  Again, perhaps entirely coincidentally, the three batsmen who have performed superbly in county cricket over recent years - Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and Ollie Pope - have all started their Test careers in solid fashion.  Jos Buttler, whose first-class record is less impressive, is currently struggling at the time of writing.

Another area where I also have concerns is the 'pathway'.  In my analysis of younger players, I find that there are a number of players in their early 20s who are quite considerably undervalued by county teams (both via their game time at existing counties but also awareness from an acquisition perspective from rival counties), and the common denominator that I find applies to many is that they never featured at age group level for England.  Quite possibly, these players are late developers, but because they haven't got the reputation and profile of a young future superstar, they have flown under the radar somewhat.  It is also possible that these players have had less resources invested in them - imagine how good they'd have been if they got to attend the spin camps and leadership courses that some of their peers have been able to.

In this interesting interview here - including a fair chunk with which I disagree with - it was stated that in 2018, 73% of England's debutants had played for the Under 19s and England Lions.  This sounds impressive, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the right players were invested in, because players who weren't on that pathway could potentially have been, or could potentially still be, even better.  It also doesn't consider whether players being involved in that pathway was a relevant selection factor for the full international team - for example, if there is a line call between one player who has been a late developer until their early or mid 20s, but then subsequently thrived in county cricket, and another player who has been on the pathway since they were a teenager and had considerable investment in and is well-known to high profile coaches, would that have an influence.  I'm not saying it necessarily is an influence, but it wouldn't be hugely difficult to imagine how this could potentially be a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

It's also not difficult to imagine why there might be quite a few late developers among players in their early-mid 20s in English cricket.  The chart below demonstrates the average number of appearances for non-overseas players based on age in the 2019 county season (dates correct at 21st January, 2020) across all three formats:-


This highlights a potential issue with the six age brackets having an average of 20+ appearances being all in the 30+ age bracket, which essentially is the group of players which England aren't really looking at with a view to finding new players for their national team.  Not only this, but if we compare England's county cricket to Australia's state cricket it is interesting to note that across England's three county formats, 15.8% of player appearances featured players aged 34 or greater (age-assessed dates as above) while in the two state formats in Australia (Sheffield Shield and the Marsh One-Day Cup), this figure was almost half, at 8.6%.  Given this, it would appear that Australia are more efficiently maximising the realistic player pool available to their national selectors.  It is also worth noting that Australia's players do not have as many first-class matches scheduled for them, somewhat scuppering the argument of many traditionalists who claim that not playing enough first-class matches hinders the England national team.

Certainly, if a player is playing 20+ matches for their county across formats in their early 20s, they are playing much more than their age group rivals.  It would appear that there is a reticence from some counties to give players a great deal of playing time until they reach the age of 25, at least, with quite a few 'stockpiled' but getting little opportunity.  It is also rather apparent to note that young players are treated rather differently by county cricket teams compared to how they are in football.  With there being little in the way of player trading market in cricket (with regards to transfer fees), most player movement tends to be performed at the end of a player's contract.  Young players in cricket - even those who I perceive to be of high potential - frequently only get one-year contracts to tide them over until the next season, while young players in football are treated much more as an asset.  Forward-thinking counties are already taking advantage of this market inefficiency.

If we look at the age which England's players made their international debut, it also provides further insight into the problems the above chart illustrates.  The chart below demonstrates the age which the 39 players who have represented England from 2019 made their international debuts:-


Here we can see that the majority of these 39 players (87%) had made their international debuts when aged 25 or below, and only three players made their debuts at 27 or older.  No current England player made their international debut at the age of 30 or older.  It varies a little across player type and format, but interestingly, my research shows that the general peak age of a player is around 29, so England look like they are doing this aspect of selection pretty well - getting players international experience before peak age and allowing them to develop.

With this in mind, there looks like there could potentially be some disconnect between what the national team should be trying to achieve (finding young players with high enough potential to succeed in international cricket) and what the counties are currently doing (giving a higher number of appearances to players aged 30+).  The chart below is interesting, and looks at the age vs 2019 appearances dynamic for non-overseas players having moved from one county to another next season:-


When working with counties I generally try and advise them to avoid retaining or signing players close to or around this bottom right corner (high age, low appearances) but it seems that with four players signed by counties, as well as a further two players extremely close to this section as well comprising a third of total signings, some counties are unaware of the dangers posed by signing older players potentially in decline who haven't been used much by their previous county.  Interestingly, two players - George Scott and Jake Libby - come from the top left hand corner, the ideal area along with the bottom left corner, which might contain high potential future prospects or players affected by injuries who haven't had much game time at their previous counties.  Of this bottom left hand corner Hamidullah Qadri, Haseeb Hammed and Reece Topley in particular look reasonable examples of players who have the potential to be decent signings for their new counties.

A final area I want to assess is the age distribution of players played by the 18 English first-class counties, to look at the teams who are giving more or less game time to young or older players.

Looking at county specific data, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Surrey, Durham, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire gave players aged 23 or below the most game time last season - in excess of 100 total appearances, while Middlesex lagged behind at the bottom of that specific age bracket.

Moving on to utilisation of players aged 29 or below (before or at general peak age), Warwickshire lead the way, with Durham, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire also featuring strongly.  Sussex and Essex had the lowest number of appearances of players in this particular age group.

Finally, I looked at the selection of players aged 32 or greater.  Somerset, Lancashire, Surrey and Sussex gave the most game time to players in this age bracket, while Northants and Warwickshire played the least.  Interestingly, Warwickshire had the most appearances of players at general peak age or below, and the least for players aged 32+.  While injuries probably played a part in this situation, this dynamic could well have long-term benefit for the county in the future.  

The balance between a counties best interest and the national team's best interest can sometimes be a tricky one, but it seems reasonably apparent that counties giving more game time to players in their early 20s, and less game time to players in their 30s, would be to the long-term benefit of the national team.  Giving teams requirements to play a certain number of 'home grown' players is relatively commonplace among sports, but I wonder whether it might well be worth incentivising counties to play as many players at ages before peak age as possible.


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