CricViz analyst Ben Jones casts his eye over Ed Smith’s first squad as England selector.
The most eye-catching inclusion in England’s Test squad is white-ball specialist Jos Buttler. Currently tearing it up in the IPL, with five half-centuries in his last six innings, Buttler is in extraordinary form, but his absence from the red ball arena (he’s only played 10 first class games since December 2016) has raised eyebrows. The response to his selection has been that it represents a move away from Smith’s purported data-led approach.
Yet this does assume that Buttler’s statistical record adds no weight to his selection, and that his inclusion must be purely based on gut-instinct. His Test average of 31.36 is underwhelming, but there are numerous analytical points which show that Buttler’s mixed record in Test cricket is surprising. For example: the average number of defensive shots per dismissal in Tests (over the last five years) is 69.7. Buttler’s figure is 116.7, meaning that his defensive strokes are more effective than the average Test player. Alongside this, he scores at 8.73rpo when attacking, compared to the average of 8.07rpo. As far as a statistical record goes, being able to defend more resolutely than most, and attack more effectively than most, suggests that you can play Test cricket. More than any hunch, sound analytical metrics suggest Buttler can cope.
BESS IN FOR INJURED LEACH
The selection of young off-spinner Dominic Bess is a curious case. It’s likely that Jack Leach and Mason Crane would have been selected ahead of Bess if fit, but the junior Somerset spinner has an impressive statistical case to attract the selectors’ attention. Over the last three seasons, no spinner to take more than his 50 Championship wickets has played fewer games than him. Equally, what England have certainly lacked in recent times is a bowler to build pressure at one end, and whilst such calm, patient qualities are usually associated with experience, Bess has the highest dot-ball percentage of any spinner to bowl 300 balls over the last three seasons. He’s also ideally suited to bowling at Pakistan’s top seven, which will likely contain at least three left-handers, given that Bess averages 14.04 against left-handers in the County Championship.
One issue is Bess’s reliance on home conditions. Taunton has encouraged spin bowling in recent years, the lowest bowling average for spinners of all grounds across the last three seasons, including this year. Yet more so than his bowling partner Leach, Bess needs these conditions. In the last three seasons, Leach averages 23.18 at Taunton, and 23.20 away from home; Bess averages 22.87 and 30.00 away. This is not a criticism of Bess, but those conditions are unlikely to be replicated during English Tests. Selecting a young spinner who thrives in helpful conditions is more of a punt than picking Buttler – but there is a statistical basis for the decision, and it does reflect a certain flexibility in Smith’s thinking.
In many respects, the oddest decision of the three major calls Smith has made is the retention of Mark Stoneman at the top of the order. Stoneman’s Test average of 30.17 doesn’t convince, but there are also numerous metrics which you’d expect a Test quality opener to meet, which the Surrey man doesn’t. Oddly for an opener he has a much better record when attacking than defending, a dismissal rate of 52.4 and 60.7 deliveries respectively. In other words, he’s almost as likely to get out when defending as when attacking. He also plays more false shots than the average opener, 17% compared to 11%, suggesting that the success he has had has benefited from some good fortune. Indeed, since he debuted, no opener has played a higher proportion of false shots in Test cricket.
So why has he been retained in this team? Well, perhaps this is where the idea of “instinct” versus “analytical selection” blurs, or rather where the similarities become clearer. Buttler feels like a gut-instinct pick, because he plays with flair and abandon, as does Bess because he’s so young. Stoneman feels like the opposite, a guy who’s dug in, guts-ed it out against Australia this winter, and proved his red-ball credentials in numerous early seasons at bowler-friendly Durham, but is yet to present a storing case as a Test opener.
By Smith’s own admission, he’s “had two weeks in the job…[there’s no] whizzy analytics system”, so to a broad degree these are all gut picks. However, from the outside it’s tough to distinguish the instinctive from the informed; and perhaps even more importantly, it’s more important to remember that all selections are a blend of both.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz. @benjonescricket