Six opening partners tried and rejected in three years – a turnover of one opening batsman per Test match season. The inability to find a player to rise to the challenge of opening the innings alongside Alastair Cook is the most prominent of the selection problems besetting England. This post does not venture a solution (although I have provided a mathematical response), it looks at the impact on those six selected, then rejected batsmen.
The impact of playing with Cook and then being dropped is assessed in a narrow, statistical fashion. The first graph shows the ten innings batting average in first class matches before and after each player’s brief career as a Test opener. (NB Adam Lyth’s post-Cook average is based on the six first-class innings he has played to date)
Across the group, there is a reduction in batting average of 40 runs per completed innings (56%). Joe Root has the sharpest reduction. He and Trott are the only members of the group who played Test cricket before opening with Cook; and Root is the only member of the group who played Test cricket after opening with Cook.
Three of the players (Compton, Root, Robson) may have harboured hopes that their Test opening careers would continue when they returned to first class cricket. Compton, for example, played four innings (including a century and a fifty) before his supplanting by Joe Root was made clear by the selection of an England side for a warm-up match. Selecting ten innings from his return to the Somerset side or from his official relegation from the England side makes little difference to this ten innings average (48.2 v 47.6).
We should not be surprised that players’ first class averages drop after a tough period as rookie Test match openers. They had been picked as form players – all six had short-term averages exceeding their career average when brought into the team – and their strong form had been interrupted by the stiffer challenge of Test cricket. In Trott’s case, his return to first-class cricket involved more than just re-finding form with the bat, but psychological health, too. The fall away in their performance, however, is noteworthy for its abruptness and consistency across the group.
To test whether it is a short-term effect, I have also compared their batting average for the last full season of first-class cricket before their selection as Cook’s partner and the first full season of first-class cricket following their demotion from the captain’s sidekick. In all cases except Root’s, the seasons assessed were England county seasons.
In this analysis the average fall in batting performance is less severe and is less consistent across the group. Root, the only player to remain in the Test team, maintained his pre-selection season average and Carberry’s varied downwards by fewer than five runs per completed innings.
All of the six players struggled for most of the innings they opened alongside their captain in Tests matches. Once out of the team (or in Root’s case, batting lower in the order), they were unable to regain their earlier productivity.
Alex Hales is strongly favoured to be Cook’s next opening partner. His current 10 innings first-class batting average is 36.0 – lower than all of his predecessors (although Hales may have further innings in the County Championship and in the UAE to improve on this before the Tests against Pakistan). Hales will, of course, be aiming to repel the curse of Cook that leaves batsmen under-performing when dropping back into county cricket. The surest way of doing this is by scoring so many runs for England that he stays in the team, opening alongside the captain.
There’s much to be commended in going out and celebrating your team’s victory. Soak up the success; prolong the elevated mood by reconstructing the achievement, bouncing favourite moments off fellow fans.
At home, not quite alone, I am looking forward, as much as backwards. Like the anxious, partisan football fan, who sees his side take an early lead, I think, “No. Too soon. So much time for that other team to mount a come back.” There’s basic psychology at work: a lead means there is something to be lost. Being defeated, without ever being ahead, doesn’t have the discomfort of dashed hopes, the humiliation of squandering an advantage – particularly when, before the contest began, as is the case with England in this Ashes series, I held very slender hopes.
I wanted England to compete, to push the Australians. I hoped this summer that a new bowler of international class would emerge, and two of England’s fresh batsmen would solidify their places. I wanted Cook’s captaincy to be resolved (by which I mean, ended).
Now, though, a vista of opportunity has opened up. But the broader the vista, the deeper the holes into which we can fall. All because of this early lead.
What really complicates things for me is England’s new positive approach to, in particular, batting. Clinging to a one-nil lead throughout a five Test series is not feasible. It used to be. India achieved it in 1982/83 over a six match series: wrangling a first Test victory on a poor pitch and holding out for draws for the rest of the series on pitches where “conditions were so heavily weighted in favour of the bat” (Wisden, 1983). This series will have at least two more results.
I would like England to bat conscious of their lead. I want to see consolidation and conservation applied to their innings. I want context to be recognised and respected.
At the moment, the England middle-order (and one of the openers) seems to believe that attack is the answer to each and every challenge. It worked at Lord’s against New Zealand, and again in both innings at Cardiff.
And it did a thrilling job in the ODI series with New Zealand. But playing without fear isn’t a tactical choice, but a necessity, when it becomes obvious that scoring at seven runs per over is what’s needed to win the game. That’s not the case in Test cricket. While England have found success from playing audaciously on a few occasions, on others they will not.
So far, they have benefited from surprise. If it becomes the default response to the loss of a few early wickets, the Australians will be ready for it and England will show all the calculation of the gambler who doubles his stakes after every loss. England have also been lucky, notably at Cardiff. Root played and missed, edged and squirted the ball past the close catchers. Bell, excluded from the ODI jamboree, appeared determined to show he belonged. His innings featured his classy off-drives – none of which we would have appreciated had any one of his early shots that looped past fielders fallen to hand.
To win a five Test series, a team needs to master a variety of tempos. As a batting line-up, England seem enthralled by a pacey approach, that will soon speed them to defeat, if not used selectively. That’s what I believe – just as I believed in 2005 that Vaughan was reckless and should consolidate gains in that famous Ashes series. My approach to Test cricket was stuck in the past then and maybe similarly out of date now. There’s only one thing for it: can someone take me out to celebrate?
343-7 (88 overs)
Australia’s day: the pitch is benign and conducive to heavy run scoring; seven wickets taken on a day when the bowlers lacked focus and looked only intermittently threatening.
England’s day: took the attack to Australia’s bowlers, scoring at nearly four runs per over across the whole day; Root reinforced his status as the key batsman and Ballance demonstrated he can battle to make runs.
Add to the mix the selective punctuation points of 43-3 and 280-4 and more arguments can be made in favour of one team or the other.
Our keenness to call the first day of the Ashes series suggests it has meaning: setting the tone for cricket to be played across England and Wales over the next seven weeks; establishing advantages and inflicting inferiorities that will recur in the twenty-odd days to come.
Is that the role of the first day of an Ashes series – to create patterns of play and relative position that predict its outcome? I have looked at day 1 of the last ten Ashes series.
2013/14 Brisbane: Australia 273/8 (Warner 49, Haddin 78*, Johnson 64, Broad 5-65)
Day 1 did not foreshadow Australia’s dominance or England’s horrors. In retrospect, it seems a day belonging to the preceding series, rather than the one it started. Haddin’s salvage job on the Australia innings from 100-5 was to become a feature of the series. Johnson, it is often said, bowls better when he has scored runs and that association proved, in this case, true.
2013 Trent Bridge: England 213 (Trott 48, Siddle 5-50), Australia 75-4 (Smith 38*)
It could be argued that day 1 at Nottingham fairly summarised a series where England’s worst could be outdone by Australia’s; or more generously, Australia would be unrewarded for periods of fine cricket (in this case Siddle’s bowling). The only major player on that first day to go on to have distinguished series was Anderson, who took two of the wickets to fall, including Clarke bowled with a gem.
2010/11 Brisbane: England 276 (Bell 76, Cook 67, Pietersen 43, Siddle 6-54), Australia 25-0
England’s disappointing first day of the series (second and third days, as well) were poor indicators of this contest’s ultimate direction. Some of England’s batsmen showed form that was to develop into great richness. Siddle took almost half of his wickets in the series on that first day.
2009 Cardiff: England 336-7 (Pieterson 69, Collingwood 64, Prior 56)
A closely contested day’s play, with the initiative swinging between the sides and no dominant individual performance was a fair microcosm of the 4 and 4/5 Tests that followed.
2006/07 Brisbane: Australia 343/3 (Ponting 137*, Langer 82, Hussey 63*)
It wasn’t the first day that summed up this series, but the very first ball: Harmison’s wide delivered straight to his captain at first slip. Australia cruised to a big total on the first stretch of their cruise to a 5-0 whitewash of England.
2005 Lord’s: Australia 190 (Langer 40, Harmison 5-40), England 92-7 (McGrath 5-21)
This thrilling day was a fitting overture for ‘the greatest series’. It suggested however that England’s best would not be quite enough to topple Australia. The day also impressed on all the importance of McGrath, though noone was thinking about the impact his absence would later have.
2002/03 Brisbane: Australia 364/2 (Hayden 186*, Ponting 123)
Day 1 was one of many in the series that Australia won by a distance. Hayden and Ponting scored heavily while England toiled. Simon Jones’s injury, sliding in the field, was the most serious of a number than hampered England in the matches that followed.
2001 Edgbaston: England 294 (Stewart 65, Atherton 57, Caddick 49*, Warne 5-71, McGrath 3-67), Australia 133/2 (Slater 76*)
A rambunctious first day saw runs scored at almost five per over. The hints on this day of close competition were misleading as England failed to reach 250 in another innings until the fourth Test when the series had already been lost. Warne and McGrath – 8 wickets on the day – kept up their early momentum, sharing 63 wickets in the five Tests.
1998/99 Brisbane: Australia 246/5 (S Waugh 69*, Healy 46*, Taylor 46)
Australia emerged on top after a tightly fought opening day. England could only attain that level of competitiveness sporadically across the series that followed.
1997 Edgbaston: Australia 118 (Warne 47, Gough 3-43, Caddick 5-50), England 200-3 (Hussain 83*, Thorpe 80*)
England had a first innings lead before the end of the first day. It was an aberration, although not one Australia could correct until the second Test (England bowled out for 77). By the fifth of the six Test series, Australia had a 3-1 lead.
Five of these first days proved to be fair indicators of the direction the series would ultimately take. There were too many false clues laid, however, for any reliance to be placed on the first day as a predictor of the cricket that follows.
700 runs in the day
McCullum: coiled and ready to spring, but again not quite launching. Receiving more plaudits from a local crowd than anyone visiting here since a young Brian Lara. Admired for what he’s done for New Zealand and now drawing out of England.
Guptill: drumming everything over-pitched back past the bowler. The same clean, straight swing lifting the ball aimed at his pads high over the legside.
Williamson: Speed of hands and control of angle produce crisp, neat shots around the wicket. Working the scoreboard harder than he seems to work himself. No hint of a preference of where to score, until Stokes over-pitches and an off-drive of perfect shape and proportion, and just a little flourish, sends the ball skittering away. Three times.
Taylor: beginning, I sense, to revel in the shade of his teammates’ growing reputations. Feeding singles to keep Williamson stretching England all around the ground. The stoop and bottom hand controlled drive convinces me there’s a resemblance to a player I never saw bat: Cowdrey.
Elliott: out of touch, dot balls, a thrashed six and a few singles, putting first 400, then 350 out of reach. Transferring pressure to Williamson, who finally plays and pays for a couple of inelegant shots. Elliott stays put and at last applying muscle and a good eye kicks the innings back on track.
Santner: edging and bunting the ball as the innings comes towards its close would serve his team best back in the shed. Rashid returns and bowls a ball from the front of his hand to the left-handed Santner who detonates with the first of five middled shots in the over. Huge, flat-batted sixes over the long leg-side boundary, bring 350 back into view.
Roy: ten balls and still on nought. I can’t look to see what it’s doing to the required run rate. Roy decides it’s time to advance and crunches a four and lofts a six. The tailwind from Hales, pulls him smoothly through the powerplay. Roy’s tactic is to charge. Henry drops it short and Roy batters it through mid-wicket, like you know who, but without kicking up his right foot behind him. Another skip forward next ball and Roy buries it in Williamson, just 20 metres away. Fortunately, given the damage it would have caused, finding his hands.
Hales: unlike his partner, he hangs back in the crease, pulling and hooking over and past the fielders behind square. The culmination of his powerplay assault is ball lifted from his pads with a full swing from the shoulders that soars into the deep midwicket stand.
Root: just like Wiliamson earlier in the day, he takes runs with ease wherever they come, at a pace that suits him. Scorching straight drives and a cover drive, with right knee on the turf, adorn deflections to third man, and straighter balls punched out of reach of the legside fielders. There are cuts that send the ball screaming square and glances too fine for the boundary rider to reach. Not a single shot played that I’d caution a young cricketer not to imitate.
Morgan: still, even serene, at the crease. UnMorgan like as the bowler approaches and in his run-scoring too. Barely a paddle or reverse. Straight driving with high elbow and strong top hand. Backfoot defence equally orthodox. McCullum leaves long-off empty for almost the whole of Morgan’s innings. He saves a fielder neck ache as Morgan lofts sixes over that vacant channel. Before the half-way point, in partnership with Root, Morgan brings the required rate below one run per ball, and that’s the rate of progress for a few overs. But Morgan won’t win it the risk-free way and makes room to pan the ball off-side. When he returns to hitting high and straight, Henry claws at his own head after a full delivery is driven in a shallow parabola and into the long-off stands. A few balls later and a towering hit to our stand at mid-wicket takes Morgan beyond 100.
700 runs in the day
In their run-making at Edgbaston against New Zealand today (9 June 2015), Joe Root and Jos Buttler shared a unique feat that involves the two players not sharing the crease. Root came to the wicket in the first over with England yet to score. He was out in the 25th over with the score at 180. Buttler replaced him at the wicket and batted until the 48th over.
Root and Buttler are the only example in ODI history of twin century makers in the same innings who did not bat together.
A very similar feat was achieved earlier this year by Rilee Rossouw and AB de Villiers. The difference is that South Africa’s innings featured triplet, not twin hundreds. On 18 January 2015 at the Wanderers, Amla and Rossouw shared an opening partnership of 247 against the West Indies. After Rossouw fell, de Villiers joined Amla, putting on 192. Rossouw and de Villiers both scored hundreds, but didn’t bat together.
The list of twin century makers in ODI innings for England is reproduced below, with the partnership the batsmen shared.
Gooch (117*) and Gower (102) v Australia at Lord’s, 3 June 1985, 202 (2nd wicket)
Trescothick (109) and Hussain (115) v India at Lord’s, 13 July 2002, 185 (2nd wicket)
Trescothick (114*) and Solanki (106) v South Africa at the Oval, 28 June 2003, 200 (1st wicket)
Strauss (100) and Flintoff (123) v West Indies at Lord’s, 6 July 2004, 226 (4th wicket)
Strauss (152) and Collingwood (112*) v Bangladesh at Trent Bridge, 21 June 2005, 210 (4th wicket)
Cook (102) and Bell (126*) v India at Southampton, 21 August 2007, 178 (2nd wicket)
Strauss (154) and Trott (110) v Bangladesh at Edgbaston, 12 July 2010, 250 (2nd wicket)
Morgan (124*) and Bopara (101*) v Ireland at Malahide, 3 September 2013, 226* (5th wicket)
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.