England's Test Batting: An Enduring Problem

14th August, 2019.

Last night I was having a discussion with several people about England's batting and I mentioned a previous article I wrote, in October 2017, titled 'Why England's Batting Will Fail in the Ashes 2017'.  

Re-reading this article reminded me of the quandary that England's selectors often must have - how can they find a player in County Cricket who can improve in the Test arena?  The historical data mentioned in that piece illustrated that examples of this are extremely few and far between and anyone who expects a player to improve at a higher level of cricket is taking a rather illogical stance.

I mention this simply because between the time that article was written and today, not a great deal has changed with England's batting.  From the date of that article (28th October 2017) onwards, England are averaging 26.67 with the bat, which ranks them fifth among Test teams in that period, behind New Zealand, Australia, India and Pakistan.  The chart below illustrates the batting and bowling averages of Test nations (minimum 10 matches) from the date of that article onwards:-

Here we can see that England's numbers are clustered towards the left hand side - poor batting average, and with their bowling average almost five points higher than their batting average, their performances have been below-average, at least from a basic numerical perspective.  New Zealand, India and Australia are closest to that 'ideal' bottom right-hand corner (high batting average, low bowling average) while England look a touch behind Pakistan and South Africa in the battle for 4th-6th spots.

These rankings aren't hugely dissimilar (although a bit) from the ICC Test rankings, which takes into account a bigger sample size of matches across a longer period of time, so it seems a reasonable guide to the current level of each team in Test cricket.

On 20th April, England appointed Ed Smith as Chairman of Selectors, and it's interesting to see how this chart would look from this date onwards, until today:-

There are two main observations we can draw here.  Firstly, under Ed Smith's tenure, England's team bowling average - despite their issues against Steve Smith in the First Test at Edgbaston - has markedly improved, and the other point worth making is that their batting - at least using these basic metrics - hasn't improved, with their team batting average barely changing.  However, Smith should be credited in at least getting England to a point in Tests where their bowling average is below their batting average (admittedly by just 0.03 runs), compared to being considerably above it for recent spells prior to his appointment.  

My perception is that it would be very difficult to lay any criticism at Smith's door for England's current batting woes.  I identified a lack of red-ball domestic batting talent in another piece in May 2018, and while it's fair to suggest that a number of England players have underperformed their expected averages in the time period from when that I wrote that piece onwards, it's also pertinent to point out that the vast majority of Test teams have struggled with the bat while Smith has been Chairman of Selectors - as evidenced by India, with a team batting average of around 31 runs per wicket, being ranked second for Test batting teams during that time period.  In addition, his left-field pick, Jos Buttler, who had little red-ball exposure in recent years prior to his Test call-up, has performed reasonably well for England since his recall, averaging just shy of 38.  While these numbers certainly wouldn't rank Buttler highly in a list of Test greats, it's worth reinforcing the point that this figure is considerably higher than the overall Test cricket average since his recall.

Despite all this, based on the data above, it appears pretty evident, however, that England's batting issues still do exist from the piece I wrote almost two years ago.  Whether they are best served by an aggressive batting approach is probably an argument for another day, although it's also probably reasonable to mention that a more balanced, or defensive strategy enabling potentially more miles to be put into the Australian bowler's legs might also be viable in a five-Test series spanning around just seven weeks.

So - how to move forward?  

Unfortunately, at least at this current time, there doesn't seem to be another player of the ilk of Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen or Jonathan Trott currently being unfairly sidelined by the selectors.  As mentioned previously, Ollie Pope has potential but has had injury problems this season, while Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley have been mentioned by some as potential inclusions at the top of the order.  Sibley, who turns 24 in September, has improved rapidly - and according to my algorithm, has a current expected Test batting average of 40.55 based on performances from 2018 onwards, although this falls to 34.25 if performances from the 2017 season were also included.  Crawley, still only 21 years of age, has a current expected Test batting average of 26.92 although is clearly on a strong upward curve - he's averaging more in Division One this year than he did in Division Two last year, for example - and could well be a long-term option for England in the not too distant future.  There are also additional batsmen who are even younger than Crawley which my age curve analysis perceives to have considerable potential, but I'd prefer not to mention these in the public domain currently.

Age and appearance analysis of the 23 players used in Tests since Ed Smith was appointed also provides some interesting discussion.  Alastair Cook has obviously retired, but there are a few players - notably Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson - who are well into their thirties.  Although Broad and Anderson have been incredible for England for many years, there will be a time where England need to replace the duo.  Regular spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid are also over 30, although there is perhaps more evidence of spin bowlers being able to prolong their Test careers than pace bowlers.  England also have a nice core of players (quartet of Root, Buttler, Bairstow and Stokes) all currently playing regularly and being of peak age:-

With Broad and Anderson being further along the age curve than the other England regulars and possibly won't be available in the medium-long term, perhaps one radical selection strategy could be implemented in order to try and alleviate England's batting issues.  Could England actually get themselves into a position where they only picked bowlers who could bat - almost as a pre-requisite - in an attempt to get additional batting stability and a higher team expected batting average?

Sam Curran would be an obvious candidate in this regard, while the likes of Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid are also competent batsmen.  Jofra Archer - who averaged in excess of 40 with the bat in Division Two for Sussex in 2017 and plundered a century last week in his high-profile second team outing - would also be useful in this regard, while in county cricket, Somerset all-rounder Lewis Gregory was in the England Test squad for Ireland, and has impressed with the ball this season, taking 44 Division One wickets at an average of below 14, while averaging 30 with the bat.

Essentially, the potential question which the selectors could consider - if they aren't already - is whether the likes of Curran (bat + ball) is better or worse than Broad (bat + ball).  If Curran, for example, could add for example 40-50 expected runs over Broad with the bat per match, would this make up for any potential shortfall (if one exists) with his bowling compared to Broad?  

Adopting a strategy whereby any bowlers who aren't competent batsmen are removed from selection discussion would be rather dramatic, and perhaps harsh on several bowlers, but given that there doesn't look like there's been much improvement with England's Test batting since the article I wrote in October 2017, it could be a potential left-field option for the selectors to consider.

The Test match starting today at Lord's, could be the start of such a strategy.  In nine Test matches from January 2015 onwards at Lord's, England's spinners have averaged just over 35, with the all-team spin average being slightly higher - a shade over 38.  This rises to just over 46 across innings 1&2 of the match (each team's first innings) and there's no improvement on that in the third innings of matches either, although the fourth innings spin average of 19.06 would suggest it gets easier to bowl spin as matches progress.

Considering these numbers, England picking Jack Leach as a specialist spinner - fine bowler as he is and is probably unlucky not to have been picked more already in his career - would be questionable given that they have no guarantee that they'll bowl fourth in the match.  In addition, the expected weather conditions look likely to benefit pace bowling more, and in any case, England have Joe Root and Joe Denly as potential spinners among batsmen as well.  

The question prior to selecting the squad could have been asked - is Moeen Ali, omitted from the squad for the Second Test after playing in the First Test (bat + ball) expected to be better or worse than Jack Leach (bat + ball)?  In these conditions at this venue, would Sam Curran (bat + ball) be expected to be better or worse than Jack Leach (bat + ball)?  

All told, it wouldn't surprise me at all if England picked Leach here despite the expected weather conditions and the mediocre first three innings record that spinners have at Lord's in recent years - they could well be seduced by the well-mentioned numbers discussed by many that Australia's star batsman Steve Smith has a lower batting average in red-ball cricket against left-arm spin than other bowling types.  However, the problem with this type of data often is that when mentioned, the sample sizes of such data isn't sometimes supplied, in addition to the context of it - for example, I'd not be particularly confident that the data was reliable if it was a sample size of say, a few hundred balls.  Furthermore, if many of the balls faced by Steve Smith against left-arm spinners came in subcontinental conditions, where spin tends to be of more assistance, then they'd also have limited relevance compared to a potential Test at Lord's where spin doesn't tend to get nearly the same effect.  Context is key in areas such as this, and I'm not sure that the discussion of these areas always has that required context.

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