Tuesday 2 January 2018

Jonathan Agnew ruined my Christmas

Well, that’s not really true. I’m sure Jonathan Agnew is a lovely chap. He wrote an article on 6th Dec in which he suggested that some batters would need to look to their future, and also in which he wondered what the “true” England was. He suggested that the true England is the one that (occasionally) matches the Australians. Both of these ideas need unpacking.

The idea of the true England first. In my view inconsistency is the hallmark of the true England. Over the last few years, I have often heard commentators say after a bad match that England haven’t become a bad side overnight. I have never heard them say the opposite after a good match – you don’t become a good side overnight. In my view the inconsistency that we have seen over the last few seasons is the true England. That is a massive managerial and cultural problem, which I will come back to later.

But what piqued my thinking in that article more than anything was the idea that, whatever England's problems are, they might be solved at the level of individual players. I note that that form of thinking continues, with Trevor Bayliss saying we could try some different people for the last test. I think we need to try some different management.

That in turn made me focus on what I thought of as the staple of the cricketing year, the regular England Batting Collapse. I had thought that if the ECB could sort out the EBC, we might be much better off. Knowing that perception and reality are often two different things, I did a bit of statistic gathering over Christmas (hence the subject line). I defined a batting collapse as 5 or more wickets lost for 50 or fewer runs. I took the period 2013 (summer) to 2017-18, ending at the third test in Australia. I looked at the figures for England and Australia. I also looked at Bangladesh for comparative purposes.

My hypothesis was that England would have more and worse batting collapses than Australia. My second hypothesis was that England’s batting performance overall might well be closer to Bangladesh’s than to Australia’s.

I was not only wrong, I was wrong with spectacular precision. (Disclaimer: given that Christmas involves late nights, alcohol in various forms, and other general jollity, it is quite possible that there are some inaccuracies in my data. Please don’t hang, draw and quarter me if you find any.)

England have played 109 innings in 57 tests. They have had 37 collapses as defined above, at a rate of one collapse every 2.95 innings. The average loss is 5.7 wickets for 36.1 runs. The average starting wicket is 4.1 and the average starting score is 153.9.

Australia have played 99 innings in 52 tests. They have had 33 collapses, one every 3 innings. The average loss is 5.8 wickets for 40.5 runs. The average start wicket is 3.9 and the average start score 158.2.

Differences in any measure between the two are almost indistinguishable.

For comparison Bangladesh have played 38 innings in 22 tests. They have had 20 collapses at a rate of one per 1.9 innings. On average they lose 5.6 wickets for 36.3 runs. The average start wicket is  4.3 and the average start score in 164.7. Their collapses are very similar to England’s and Australia’s. They just have more of them.

There are lots of things I have not looked at – difference between home and away stats; how quality of opposition is related to collapses, for instance.

But it is safe to say I cannot draw any conclusions about England’s general performance from the statistics about batting collapses.

Despite my feeling that whatever prevents England reaching the highest level is not about individual technique or temperament, I looked at the players involved in these collapses. A lot of them are bowlers, for obvious reasons. Not too much to see there. But I do expect – as commentators, including Jonathan, have said over the years – that a tail-ender should be able to block and leave fast bowling and leave or smother spin. Our performance in that regard is, well, inconsistent.

Looking at the recognised batters, though, one curious statistic stands out. In the period that Ben Stokes has been in the side, he has been involved in nearly twice as many collapses as any other batter. During his time (excluding the current tour, as he is unavailable) there have been 79 innings during which there have been 25 collapses. He has been involved in 19 of them. The next highest are Bairstow with 11 and Root with 10. Of the 19 occasions, his has been the first wicket 6 times. We might suggest that he can’t really be blamed as being part of a collapse if he has put in a good shift before that. I did not collect the figures for his scores, so cannot go further with that. But, whatever he had done prior to losing his wicket, if he sees that his wicket sparks collapses so often, he should perhaps be more careful about selling it. (The comparative figures for Bairstow and Root are 3 each, which means that Stokes, Bairstow and Root are in the middle of a collapse 13, 8 and 7 times respectively.)

This blog is not about Ben Stokes, but he is perhaps a very useful case study for where English cricket needs to go. I do not know him, any more than I know anyone else in the team. What I see is a young man of enormous talent who is stupid. This is not surprising. He is young, he is at the height of his physical powers, he has had greatness thrust upon him with enormous demands being made. Individual attitude and responsibility matter a great deal, but I argue that they are not the final arbiter. The issue is not so much what Ben Stokes does with his situation, as how the England set up manages him, and all the others.

Managing an international cricket team is a very hard task. It is bad enough at home, and it is bad enough within the confines of a single match. You have to lounge around in the dressing room for hours and then suddenly be ready to perform when a wicket falls. Or you stand on the field doing nothing for six hours, and, just when your legs and your back have had enough, you have to sprint and catch the ball when the occasion demands. That takes a special kind of purposefulness. Being on tour is terrible. You take a bunch of fit, energetic and often immature young men away from home for three months or more. They have long, long, long periods of boredom in dismal hotel rooms, and in between those periods, they are expected to perform at the peak of their powers. Managing that is an extraordinary task, and one which, in my view, the England set up has not cracked. I do not refer to any individual or even any group. This is something for the entire set up – the players, the managers, the selectors, the board, the coaches, the physios, the analysts, the psychologists, the families and friends – everybody is involved in developing a culture. But the people with most power are the managers and they are the ones who must be in charge of the changes that are required to make more purposeful the culture within which the players live and perform. Is the ECB as currently constituted up to the task? I do not know. Australia do it better than we do. They are not as good at it as they were when they were the dominant force in world cricket, but they still have an attitude that letting down the team is not an option. David Warner is not a very nice human being and he is not afraid of a bit of a rumble. But, whatever marks he has overstepped, he does not let his team down. And that is not just because of David Warner, that is because of the team ethos that surrounds him.

It may be that there is something in British culture in general that is an obstacle to cold professionalism. The Thatcherite neoliberal culture of egotistical individualism (including drinking practices in which one or two gentle pints turn into a binge) remains strong in this country and it is difficult to swim against the tide. On the other hand, I have not seen a more individualist and hedonistic culture than white Australia. Their cricket set up manages to swim against that tide. Ours should be able to as well. Over to you, managers.