The Root route or the Compton climb
England gave debuts to two batsmen in the series in India: Nick Compton and Joe Root. They provide an interesting contrast in how to catch the selectors’ eye.
Compton’s call-up generated many approving comments from those keen to assert the continued relevance of the county game from which England’s elite players are almost completely detached. Compton had scored 1,494 runs in the season for Somerset, including over 900 before the end of May 2012.
So separate have the international and first class game become in England that there is a suspicion that the Team England decision-makers no longer rate county championship runs as evidence of a potential test pedigree. And there, alongside Compton in the squad, is Joe Root, with barely two full county seasons behind him, a first-class batting average of 38 and, we understand, very highly rated by Graham Thorpe, ECB lead batting coach.
This situation crystallised a phenomenon that has intrigued me since Duncan Fletcher took over as coach in 1999. Fletcher, supported by the ECB, separated his elite squad from the county professionals. Central contracts were the instrument of division; Fletcher’s authority to determine which England stars would play county cricket where – but always sparingly – a sharp prod to the rest of the professional game. And two things made Fletcher’s operation of this authority compelling: 1) he selected players who weren’t established stars; and 2) those players (in truth, some of them) excelled.
Could it be that Test and county cricket are so different, that players who are not outstanding at the latter could have the ‘right stuff’ to be champions on the international stage – if only the coach and selectors have the perceptiveness to identify those qualities.
Nasser Hussain, the first England captain to work in partnership with Fletcher, recalled:
In Marcus’ [Trescothick] case Duncan was vindicated from the word go, and Michael Vaughan had already arrived as another inspired pick from county cricket. Both Tres and Vaughany had an aura about them from the start, the right personality to succeed at the highest level. They took to Test cricket like ducks to water… Neither was setting county cricket alight when they were picked for England – which makes you wonder just how many others like them there are out there.
In the thirteen years of centrally-contracted cricketers, 22 batsmen have made debuts for England. What has been the pattern of selection: the short-cut Root route for talent-spotted youngsters; the steady Compton climb culminating in a volume of first-class runs that cannot be ignored; or, like, Trescothick and Vaughan, under-achievers in the county game, invited to find their true metier at the highest level of the game? And of the 17 batsmen of this era about whom conclusions can be drawn, is there any relation between their profile at selection and their effectiveness as Test batsmen?
The length of apprenticeship served in the first-class game by these players is depicted in chart 1. The median length is seven years (i.e. duration from first class to Test match debut), meaning that a debut in the mid-20s is typical. The outliers are Alastair Cook, Joe Root (both 2.5 years) at one extreme, with Chris Adams (11), Owais Shah and Samit Patel (both 10) at the other.
Checking Wisden, of the 22, the selection of 16 appears to have been justified by the volume of runs scored in first class cricket. So, ‘hunch’ or ‘right-stuff’ selections account for less than one-third. Each has a story.
Chris Adams and Michael Vaughan were in a group of six new faces selected by Fletcher and Hussain for their first tour after England’s established stars had bottomed out against New Zealand in 1999. Trescothick’s trick was to play a fine innings in a championship match on a pacy pitch against Glamorgan, in Fletcher’s last season coaching the Welsh team. Similarly Usman Afzaal had taken a hundred off a Worcestershire attack led by Glenn McGrath and so was invited to join a home Ashes campaign the following year. Andrew Strauss also drew attention with a county hundred against a Test bowler, in this case Flintoff, before rising to the occasion in the 50 over international game. The nerveless limited overs performances of Eoin Morgan also encouraged the selectors to set aside his first-class record and give him Test match recognition.
While the pre-selection records of the majority of these 22 batsmen should provide succour to supporters of the county game, another factor features in the records of many: the ‘A’ team, or England Lions. Many of the players in this group tasted this form of international cricket before getting a Test debut. Ian Ward, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Michael Carberry and James Taylor are examples of players who had their domestic first-class records validated by successful ‘A’ tours. Players with equally impressive county records have probably been ‘weeded out’ on these expeditions.
Eight of the players have had, or are pursuing, successful Test careers – batting average above 40 and repeated selection. Chart 2 plots their career Test batting average against the number of years first-class cricket they played prior to their Test debut. The sample is small, but none of the batsmen with averages above 40 waited longer than eight years – Trott had the longest wait. Four (45%) of those with averages below 40 had waited nine or more years.
The third chart looks at batting average and how the player came to be selected – weight of runs or hunch. Using this small sample of test batsmen there is no clear association. Three (50%) of the hunch selections have gone on to average over 40, as have five (45%) of the weight of first-class runs selections.
Neither weight of county runs, nor being identified by the selectors as being ‘made of the right stuff’ provides a guarantee of a successful Test career. Batsmen who have made the team by their mid-20s do, from this sample, have a greater chance of going on to thrive at Test level. The Root route does seem preferable to the Compton climb, but county cricket followers should be reassured that championship runs do count for something. With eight batsmen of the seventeen enjoying productive Test careers, my concluding thought is that the England selectors, with a 47% hit rate, have been earning their corn.