An English Cricketing Carol
Russell Degnan

Almost a decade ago, as Australia reeled from back-to-back Ashes losses, I put together a piece that put Australia's historical batting performance in context. The conclusion, that while those losses were below recent peaks, they were consistent with Australia's historical performance and what you'd expect to see given a largely random availability of elite talent within their talent pool.

As England reel, not from back-to-back Ashes losses, but an historically poor batting performance from the top-order that is not Joe Root, it is worth re-examining those statistics from the other side. They show that, while England is not performing wildly below expectations, there are underlying issues that are making it increasingly difficult for England to compete with Australia regularly.

It is odd, in one way, to look at England's Test performance, because the underlying definition of "Test cricket" is "how good is a team, relative to England". England are the base case, the stable comparative, always armed with some capable seamers, technically correct batters and one or two all-rounders who are neither, but win the odd game. They have had good and bad sides of late, but they haven't tended to reach the highs or lows of other teams.

The ghost of cricketing past

Historically, by which I mean, across the entire history of Test cricket, England and Australia have been well matched, with Australia having a slight edge. That said, the periods that England have been dominant have got shorter and less frequent over many decades. The graph below looks at this through the lens of my ratings, highlighting in blue where one team would be rated high enough to win both home and away, and tracking a decadal average gap relative to home advantage (100 rating points or 50 runs) between the teams in green.

A trend line would show Australia getting more dominant, but that would be driven somewhat by the relative performances of England at the turn of the 20th century and Australia at the turn of the 21st. Across a decade Australia has averaged more than home advantage on only four occasions: immediately after World War I, the age of Bradman, the age of McGrath and Warne, and the last five years. England have not done so since 1886-1895 but they got close in Australia's slump from 1978-1987. About 36% of the time the two teams have been evenly matched, such that each would be expected to win at home, and lose away. You could reasonably conclude from this graph though, that England have, largely been a reasonable side, but sometimes inferior to a great side.

That perception that England have been a consistent side is largely borne out in the batting statistics. Here I have taken the three year average of each position in the order, to eliminate the vagaries of selection changes, and the immediacy of who they play.

In the post-war period England have consistently averaged slightly above 35 with their top-six. That average was a little higher in the 1950s and 1960s, and has had a little bit of variability, especially with the team from 2009-2011. The last four years have been below that historical average, but the markedly poor outcome in 2021 includes only one year of data, and a regression back to the mean is likely. England though, are a team that has always had a solid and consistent top-6, with perhaps fewer names hitting the heights above 50 than other nations.

Not having looked at the bowling, and it is the bowling that wins games, this only loosely translates to results, but those results - being slightly worse than Australia across a long period - are consistent with the same graph for Australia.

In this case, a higher level of variability, marked by an average typically above 40 for most of the past 30 years. It is worth noting here too, that England is a more difficult place to bat, generally, than other parts of the world, and that is likely to impact England's batting averages. This was particularly true last year, when they played the three top sides in Test cricket. For the most part I'll be comparing the trajectory of change, not the absolute values of averages.

The ghost of cricketing present

It's here I'd like to talk about player production. It is easy to focus on the Test side and lose site of the broader context, but think of a cricketing nation from the base: hundreds of thousands of players, normally distributed in terms of talent, the worst playing for some hack village side, the best couple of hundred playing first-class cricket, and the best six batting for their country. That tiny tip of the distribution is the selection quandary, but it is the big broad base that defines who will be available for selection.

In the graph below (from 1945 to 1972) you can see the probability that in any particular year, that position in the top-6 averaged that amount. Averages over 50 were quite rare with around 15% of players for both Australia and England; the median average was around 40, and then it drops off. Some small percentage of years, a position would average less than 20, but with relatively few Tests each year, that could happen, as performance itself will be somewhat randomly distributed.

There are three other things worth noting from this graph. The first is the idea of a "replacement player". That is, if you picked the next best player out of County Cricket, what would the average in the Test side: the seventh best player, in other words. In practice, the seventh best player in the nation is probably about as good as the sixth best. The normal curve of talent distribution gets fatter as you go along, and while any individual may underperform in any one year, their true talent is going to be roughly where this line ought to cross the 100% mark if you projected the first 50% up. Assumign this is about the 80th percentile, for Australia, across all post-war players, that historical replacement player will average about 33. For England about 30, and for New Zealand, about 23.

The second thing to notice about this graph is that England close the gap to Australia. Fewer players averaging over 50 than anyone other than New Zealand but more players averaging 35 than anyone other than Australia, and closing that gap to them. There is an ongoing question in English cricket about the number of County sides, and this graph supports why that is, in my opinion, misplaced.

Consider the career arc of an average Test cricketer. They come out of school at 18, struggle to find a place at first-class level for several years until 22 to 24, reach their prime and the Test side around 27 years old, get dropped around 30 years old, then play a few years at first-class level, passing on their experience to the next generation.

In order for a player to push for Test selection in their late 20s they need to stay in the system in their early 20s. That means having professional contracts and support in a period when they probably aren't good enough for first-class cricket. Having more counties helps this, because it provides opportunities to keep talent around, particularly late bloomers. Greg Chappell had a theory, based on the trajectory of transcendent talents, that if a player was not showing by age 24 they should move out for someone else. The impact of this approach was to dillute the quality of the Shield competition (particularly the second XIs) and lose players before they reached their peaks. England's greater ability to find replacement level players who can average 35 is a testament to the larger system, and their ability to ensure that an 18 year old potential Test players are able to find opportunities within their first class system.

By contrast, Australia's tendency to pick undercooked 22 year olds in the hope they learn on the job does not always help the Test side. In more specialised positions, like spinners, there just aren't enough spots across the six Shield sides to provide a learning environment for young players, with Test spinners picked more in hope than anticipation. Introducing substitutes for the third innings would help get around this issue, but it remains a pipe dream.

The final thing to take from this graph is the proportion of players at each average for each nation, and the probability each team has of finding them. Australia and New Zealand have a reasonably consistent gap across the entire spectrum of averages, where Australia is roughly 2.5-3 times as likely to have a player in their side with that average than their smaller neighbour. That doesn't rule New Zealand out from getting a great collection of talent in any particular year. But it does mean, as a rule of thumb, that Australia will generally have a player averaging 50+ and a couple average 40+, while New Zealand are more likely to have one averaging 45+, and a couple averaging 35+. This is borne out in their historical averages, noting a gradual improvement over time.

The ghost of cricketing future

If we switch our focus to the last 25 years you see a quite different prduction function from the post-war period. Most obviously, there has been a general improvement in batting average across the world, with the notable exceptions of the West Indies (alarmingly!), and England.

Large parts of this period were poor for England results-wise, so much as Australia has been ahistorically strong, it could be argued England have been ahistorically mediocre. But they have shifted from being on par with Australia in the post-war period, to well behind, and it is reasonable to suspect there are greater headwinds than the vagaries of player development.

At the turn of the 20th century Australia looked to England as the paragon of quality cricket. They were a superior side, even when best amateurs didn't tour, but Australia was capable of producing great cricketers, and won plenty of games. England had a healthy demographic advantage though, and it showed, with almost 9 times as many people as their antipodean colony.

Australia has grown markedly faster (percentage-wise) than England across the last 100 years however. By 1960, that population ratio had dropped to 4.5. In cricketing terms, with Australia's broader cricketing popularity that crossed class barriers, 1960 also appears to be the inflection point, when Australia were consistently producing batters to match England. And while England had a period of relative superiority across the 1970s and 1980s, that merely masked that they were slowly falling behind.

As of 2020, England's population remains 2.3 times as large as Australia's, but adjusting for the relative popularity of cricket, Australia's production function is almost double England's. In other words, for every Joe Root England has in their side, Australia will have two (Smith and Labuschagne), for every Anderson, a Cummins and Hazlewood. Whereas Australia's replacement player averages around 36 across the last 25 years, England's averages 30.

While England will continue to look to the Ashes as their rivalry series, the modelling suggests that majority of the time, England will be competitive at home and flogged away. In fact, while the finances will say otherwise, the more interesting series is less likely to be the Ashes than that against Australia's smaller neighbour.

While England's population remains 10 times that of New Zealand, the latter is a much more efficient producer of cricketers, versus their population. There are fewer competing sports, and the smaller base of players has made recognition easier. When New Zealand entered Test cricket in the 1930s the production gap was around 3.5, but it is down to only 1.5 now, and their current side is one of the best in the world, and with some recent debuts playing well, expected to stay there for a while yet.

There are other reasons to suspect that England's future production will be worse than even this relative decline though. England's class gap has deteriorated over the past 15 years following the shift from Free-to-Air television. Cricket was always an upper-middle-class sport, but no amount of targeted advertising can make up for day-in-day-out cricket coverage over a summer, and it takes a lot of coaching to make up for young cricketers being able to emulate the players they see on television.

The ECB does not operate a census, unlike Australia, New Zealand and every associate nation, so we need to draw on alternate, and less consistent measurements for participation. Sport England has only been tracking participation since 2015, but this still showed a 20% drop to 2019, before a World Cup bump (of 15%) and a Coronavirus drop (of closer to 40%).

Where English cricket lands in the coming years in terms of participation remains to be seen. There is, at least, some acknowledgement that the current numbers are not adequately drawing on the resources of the nation. The next generation (those currently aged between 20 and 25) grew up with the 2005-2011 English team that was the best of any English side over the past 50 years.

But if that generation fizzles out over the next five years; if the opportunities that come with a successful team to build a larger base of participation for future success were squandered; then the post-Anderson/Root/Stokes team will be depressing viewing for English fans.

Which is not to say that England will not have good or even great teams in the future; New Zealand are the World Test Champions after all. But unless they can boost participation, which is a 20-year goal, not a short-term option, then it is increasingly likely that England will perform closer to New Zealand's test record in Australia (won 3, drawn 11, lost 20) and England's since 2000 (won 4, drawn 2, lost 22) than their record from 1970 to 2000 (won 13, drawn 14, lost 21) which will make series victories infrequent at best.

Idle Summers 2nd January, 2022 13:09:55   [#] 

Comments