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.

Chart 1

Age at debut-page-001

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.

Chart 2

Experience and average-page-001

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.

Chart 3

average and selection type-page-001

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.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

8 responses to “The Root route or the Compton climb”

  1. Tony Bennett says :

    Excellent and thoughtful piece. The truth seems to be that there is no proven pattern that guarantees Test success. Some of the routes taken these days are different to when I first followed cricket in the 60s and 70s – “A” Tours spring especially to mind. But it may be that central contracts make it more likely that the route taken doesn’t really matter.

    it would be interesting to analyse whether the selectorial hunch approach (eg Vaughan, Trescothick) – followed by Test success for those so selected – occurs more in the modern period. I think of David Steele, whose albeit brief by very successful Test career in 1975-76 came after ten or so years of unspectacular and solid performance at county level. People even then were asking how many other such players there were out there.

    • chrisps says :

      Tony, I’ll have a think about how to compare hunch selections now with those of the pre-central contract era. It’s an interesting question. I do think there’s greater commitment to players given debuts, so even if they are hunches, they aren’t whims. David Steele is an interesting case, from right at the very beginnings of my cricket consciousness. Your comments are very much appreciated.

  2. Andy Powell says :

    Perceptive analysis as ever Chris, and greetings from Melbourne
    Two points spring to mind:
    1. The true greats (Tendulkar, Warne, Cook, Lara) are always young debutants – their excellence is instinctive, apparent and needs little tempering in the first class game
    2. Of what might be called the “second tier” (examples Hayden, Swann, Langer, Gooch – I’m sure there are others I’ve missed), many are young debutants who are tried, fail, are dropped, remodel/refocus in domestic first class competition and return to be successful.

    In my view this represents a separate class of player to those you’ve analysed here, and may support an argument that first class domestic cricket has a greater role in shaping top test players than we think

    • chrisps says :

      Andy, the role of domestic first class cricket is the question that interests me. During the ’80s and ’90s county cricket was blamed for England’s poor performance. The county game was shaken up and by 2002 the English team was in the ascendancy – but there seemed no causal link as the international side had separated itself from the reformed county game; the players performing well at international level (Vaughan, Trescothick, Flintoff, Harmison, Jones) had indifferent county records. I agree that the separation can be overstated as there are few players who have successful test careers without 2-5 years of prolific run-scoring or wicket-taking for their counties.
      Great to hear from you. Hope you continue to undermine the received wisdom that English finger spinners cannot thrive down-under.

  3. Brian Carpenter says :

    Interesting stuff, Chris. Re the specific question of Compton v Root, Dean Wilson (of the Mirror, I think) made a comment during one of the TMS lunchtime pieces towards the end of the tour which rang true with me. He said that Compton, while he was slowly picking up runs, looked like a player operating at the very limit of his ability. As a Somerset and Middlesex follower I’ve seen plenty of Compton and he’s always struck me as a decent player, but short of the class to be a success at the very top level. However, it was encouraging that he was picked on the weight of his runs in county cricket last season as it showed that the seletors are still open to the older debutant from outside ‘the system’.

    Time will tell. I assume that Compton will open in New Zealand but I suggest that he’ll need at least one hundred or several big fifties at much higher strike rates than he’s managed so far to retain his place in the side beyond the tour.

    I happened to see the early stages of Root’s first innings and there was an absolute coolness (batting well out of position, don’t forget) about him which marked him out as someone who’ll be around a long time. I’m sure Flower and the rest think that too.

    My guess is that come the first Test of the summer (and possibly before) England’s opening partnership will be Cook and Root, but I would be happy to be wrong.

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, I think you’ve summed up the Root v Compton contest that will take place over the next few months. Compton’s partnerships with Cook were an important ingredient in England’s success although his limitations seemed to be shown when he moved out of defensive mode. His forays down the track ended in bottom-handed hacks. However, in NZ there’ll be many more opportunities to score with openers’ default shots: cuts and glances.

  4. backwatersman says :

    I’d say they chose Compton for this tour because they didn’t think Root (or the other candidates – Hales, for instance) were quite ready and Compton would be a safer choice (and would be disposable if he failed). I suppose the problem comes if NC.scores a lot of runs against NZ (who look to me to have a fairly average attack), but – like Brian Carpenter – I’d be surprised if he was still there come next year’s Ashes Tests (though I don’t know whether Australia’s bowling is really all that strong either).

    Fletcher’s big idea was that county cricket was corrupting in some way and that the thing to do was to identify talented players as early as possible and remove them from that environment – though I wouldn’t say that his hunches were exactly wildcard selections – Trescothick, Vaughan and Flintoff all captained England Under-19s – and some of them – Mahmood? Plunkett? Afzaal? – didn’t really come off.

    I don’t know what the stats say, but I’d surprised if there were many players who had a successful Test career in the pre-Central Contract days if they hadn’t been chosen by their mid-twenties. Steele was chosen for a particular quality – he wasn’t bothered by very fast bowling – whereas Dennis Amiss could play big innings at Test level (a thing Steele couldn’t do) but couldn’t cope with the real quicks (Lillee and Thomson) – or not until he remodelled his stance.

    I think the problem in those days was that they’d give a promising youngster a chance and then discard them if they failed, but on the other hand give a couple of games to some old hand who happened to be in particularly good form in County Cricket. The post-Fletcher advance is really consistency of selection – though the current situation at no. 6 suggests that the revolving door isn’t entirely a thing of the past.

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