Attempting to Solve England's Continuing Test Batting Problems - August 2018

21st August, 2018.

Across a number of previous articles such as here and here, I've discussed England's potential batting issues in Test cricket and in particular, the lack of potential players who have expected averages (based on my algorithm) of over 40 at Test level.  

Indeed, I stated in one of these pieces that 'England have a lot of good, but not great batsmen at this level, and expectations - from the fans and the media alike - need to be managed as such.  With numbers at this level, it is likely that many batsmen will experience a bad run of 'form' - also known as negative variance - and will face calls for them to be dropped'.  

This situation has continued to manifest itself, with the latest example being Keaton Jennings being re-introduced to the team and immediately struggling again.  Ollie Pope - who I previously highlighted as a player of high potential here and here (and indeed, was also part of a presentation I made to several counties at the end of last season, where I discussed players with high potential who weren't playing regularly) has also been fast-tracked into the team.  As I'll discuss below, this is a move I like, but it seems bizarre that he's batting at four for England when he's not done so regularly for Surrey.

After today's play at Trent Bridge, England are hanging on to the Third Test by their fingernails, requiring Adil Rashid and Jimmy Anderson to bat an entire day to avoid defeat, or alternatively an un-forecasted deluge of rain.  We can assume that England will go to the Fourth Test next week with a 2-1 lead in the series.

If you'd have offered England a 2-1 lead at this stage prior to the series, they'd probably have taken it, and with this in mind, some could argue that the series has been a success for England.  However, this would be quite a naive argument, given the continued batting issues that England face.  Regardless of whether they win this series - and they might, if they perform well with the ball - it doesn't hide the fact that England's batting has been misfiring for a long time now and hardly stands the team in good stead for future series, particularly away from home this coming winter.

Earlier today, ex-England captain Michael Vaughan stated on TMS that when England's opposition score 300+ in the first innings in recent years, England have a terrible record.  Effectively, when the opposition have scored around par or better batting first, England have had major issues replicating such efforts.  Funnily enough, I had also looked at similar data when researching this piece prior to today's play, and there are some further far from flattering stats that can be mentioned.

From the start of 2012 to coach Trevor Bayliss' appointment, England's record when conceding 300+ in the opposition's first innings (when batting either first or second) was W5/D9/L8, which isn't really a disaster - they only lost 36.4% of these matches when the opposition batted well.

Under Bayliss, things have deteriorated markedly in this department.  Assuming England lose this Test, their record under him with this scenario will be W4/D4/L20 (lost 71.4%).  

In addition, from when he took over as coach, when England conceded 300+ in the first innings of the match (e.g. the opposition batted first), their record is W1/D2/L9 (and will be W1/D2/L10 if they lose tomorrow).  In short, when they fall behind in a Test match, or their bowlers don't fire, their batsmen struggle to bail them out of losing situations.

However, while my data and algorithms have frequently disagreed with Bayliss regarding team selection, it wouldn't be fair to lay the entire blame at his door.  The continued emphasis on T20 around the world promotes an attacking mindset which is often ill-suited to Test cricket (although Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler showed admirable adaptability today to try and grind out an innings) and furthermore, the County Championship is hardly full of players making a concrete case for success at Test level - there are no consistently glaring omissions from the County Championship in England's batting line-up.  

As I've often done in the past, I ran my Test batting algorithm (if you are interested in understanding more about the methodology, please click here) following the close of play tonight.  This illustrates my expected Test batting data for those players competing for the England batting spots, and the results are below:-  


Test Expected Batting Average

Joe Root


Alastair Cook


Jonny Bairstow


Ollie Pope


Rory Burns


Sam Northeast


Nick Gubbins


James Hildreth


Moeen Ali


Ben Foakes


Joe Clarke


Keaton Jennings


Mark Stoneman


Ben Stokes


Joe Denly


Jason Roy


Liam Livingstone


Ben Duckett


Gary Ballance


James Vince


Alex Hales


Jos Buttler


Dawid Malan


Tom Westley


Sam Robson


Dan Lawrence


As has been the case in previous analysis, England have three consistent players with a Test expected average of over 40 - captain Joe Root, Alastair Cook and Jonny Bairstow - although it's worth noting that my algorithm has reduced the expected average of all three batsmen since I last discussed it in an article, which is a nod to their mediocre summer batting performances so far this year - none of the three average over 35 this English summer so far.  Cook in particular has taken on a 'hero or zero' approach, when greater consistency is required.  

Based on my numbers, Ollie Pope definitely deserved his call-up, although perhaps it would be both fairer and more effective to bat him at six as he tends to for his county.  The problem here is England's line-up contains Stokes (an all-rounder), Bairstow (a keeper) and Buttler (a keeper not keeping wicket and batting at number seven).  Possibly a better approach would be to bat the non-keeper out of Bairstow and Buttler at four and move Pope down to at least number five.  I'd debate whether an all-rounder with an expected Test average of 32.62, in Ben Stokes, should be batting at number five himself.  

This neatly moves us on to Buttler, England's centurion today at Trent Bridge.  No doubt, this performance will have bought him some considerable time before the media debate his inclusion in the team, but it's worth mentioning that prior to today's innings, he was averaging around 32 in his Test comeback this year, and my expectations is that his average, long-term, will settle around this figure.  Whether this makes him a justifiable inclusion when not keeping wicket is also debatable.

Looking at the other players on this list, it is absolutely clear that England do not possess players in county cricket with the ability to take Test cricket by the scruff of the neck.  However, I pushed Rory Burns' inclusion before the series against Pakistan and the Surrey man has continued to improve his numbers since, and he looks the logical candidate to replace Jennings at the top of the order (my algorithm asserts he should have been picked ahead of Jennings anyway).

As for the spin options, data shows that England's spinners consistently have considerably less impact in home conditions, compared to pace bowling.  Adil Rashid has performed pretty admirably so far (albeit with the caveat that he didn't bowl in the second Test) and is actually averaging below 30 with the ball this summer, but picking a specialist spinner in English conditions against a team who play spin particularly well seems an un-necessary luxury.  I'd advocate the selection of a batsman who can bowl spin just to add that extra depth to England's batting line-up, another safety net to protect the frail batting.

Step forward Moeen Ali, who did his cause no harm with a superb current performance (including a double century) this week against Yorkshire.  He was one of the highest-rated batsmen prior to the Pakistan series (ranked 8th based on my algorithm) and he's rated similarly still now.  A left-field option worth mentioning in this area, particularly given the necessity for batsmen who provide spin options this winter, would be Joe Denly.  The Kent man has improved significantly with the bat, and who has developed into a very useful spin bowler in the last 12 months or so.

Pace bowling-wise, I expect England to continue with the same choices in the fourth Test, although some will be calling for the recall of Sam Curran.  If we assume Jonny Bairstow is fit for the fourth Test, and England continue with Buttler (which they 100% will), my team for the match would be:-

Alastair Cook
Rory Burns
Joe Root
Jonny Bairstow
Jos Buttler
Ollie Pope
Ben Stokes
Moeen Ali
Chris Woakes
Stuart Broad
Jimmy Anderson

This gives England a very deep batting order with a recent Test centurion, Chris Woakes, at number nine.  Due to the continued batting woes of England in Test cricket, such depth is absolutely required at this point in time - they need to start scoring 300+ in an innings consistently in order to win matches at Test level, particularly away from home, where their excellent pace bowling will struggle to have as much impact as in home conditions.

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