In the midst of a red-ball batting crisis, Australia are refusing to turn to the extreme talents of Matthew Renshaw and Glenn Maxwell. Ben Jones considers these decisions, and what they say about Australian cricket in 2018.
There were two notable absences from Australia’s squad announcement for the series against India. Whilst the selection of youngster Marcus Harris has been met with universal approval, the choice to retain Travis Head has drawn mixed responses, both in Australia and further afield. Seemingly, Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Renshaw, two players who have been in-and-around the team over the last few years, were seemingly nowhere near the squad.
Drawn together by their presence on the periphery of the Australian set-up, what’s intriguing about this situation is that Maxwell and Renshaw are very different cricketers. One is a white-ball magician, capable of doing things to required run-rates that young children shouldn’t be allowed to see, whilst the other is a defensive technician of the old school, of the type we thought was gone. Maxwell is among the most attacking, fluent batsmen to play for Australia in modern memory, while Renshaw is among the most defensive. They exist at the extremes of what Test cricket can give us.
Stylistically, they stand apart from most others to have worn the Baggy Green. The question is, how can both of these players, of such differing styles, not fit into Australia’s best side? How can a team built with a clear strategy in mind not want either of these players in their XI?
First, let’s consider their individual cases. Constructing an argument that Maxwell should be in the Test side is easier than some might think, on the relatively straightforward grounds of weight of runs. In the last three Sheffield Shield seasons, 35 players have scored more runs than Glenn Maxwell; only six of those men (Shaun Marsh, Ed Cowan, Peter Handscomb, Matthew Wade, Marcus Harris and Joe Burns) have both scored more and averaged more than him. Very soon, it appears that Maxwell will be the only one of those players never to have played in a home Test match.
What’s more, Maxwell hasn’t made those runs with streaky performances. In the last three Shield seasons, only seven players have batted with lower ‘risk’ (false shot percentage) than Maxwell.
Of those players with a lower false shot percentage than Maxwell, none of them play more attacking shots than him. He bats with more attacking intent than everyone else in Shield cricket, but only seven men are able to match his level of control. That is the sign of someone with considerable red-ball pedigree.
It’s important to re-assert that false shot percentage has a predictive quality. It is a simple analytical tool, but it is effective and intuitive; a batsman who plays a false shot just 5% of the time, but who is averaging just 25, is likely to improve, whilst one averaging 50 whilst playing 30% false shots is likely to fall away. That is not radical, and it can be broadly relied upon as a measure of predicting future cricketing performance.
Yet if anyone still needed convincing of Maxwell’s worth, we can also look a bit deeper. Using CricViz’s Contact Average measure, it’s possible to see something like the ‘true’ value of a player. The measurement gives a heavier weighting to shots that the batsman is in control of, like a drive through the covers for four, and gives a lighter weighting to shots that are not controlled, like edging it through the slips for four. A standard batting average places the same importance on those two boundaries; intuitively, we know that one is more indicative of batting ability than the other.
In this context, Maxwell’s performances are thrown into a different light. Hopefully, this also helps us to tease apart two different narratives that exist around Maxwell. One is that he is too attacking; the other is that he plays with too much risk. This analysis helps us see that whilst the first may be true (indeed, nobody else is more attacking, so if anyone’s too attacking, it’s Maxwell), it’s pretty clear that the second is false. He is significantly less likely to edge or miss the ball than the vast majority of his peers in Shield cricket. In this light, it is difficult to construct a case that Glenn Maxwell is a worse option in Tests than Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne.
The case for Matthew Renshaw’s inclusion is more complex. The main criticism of him – that he scores too slowly – is difficult to refute. Of the last 22 men to open the batting in a Test match for Australia, only two (Greg Blewett and Ed Cowan) score more slowly than Renshaw. Yet this scoring issue isn’t quite as apparent at domestic level; of those to open 10 times in the Shield over the past three seasons, only four score more quickly than Renshaw, and one of those men is David Warner. At domestic level, Renshaw has an attacking shot percentage of 24%; in Tests, it’s 17%. Against better bowling, in bigger matches, Renshaw scores more slowly.
The question is, whether this should be seen as a flaw. If he was being forced into his shell by Test-quality bowlers, unable to keep out the good deliveries, then that would be a cause for concern, but that is far from the case. Renshaw has no issues regarding his defensive technique; in fact, his defensive abilities are elite. The average Test match opening batsman is dismissed every 71.3 defensive strokes, but for Renshaw, that figure is 103, roughly 50% more solid than your standard opening batsman. That isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be a gun opener for a decade, but it is a good measure that suggests he has the ability to keep out threatening deliveries. It also casts him in a favourable light when compared to the other openers Australia have tried in the modern era.
Furthemore, CricViz’s Wicket Probability Model (explained here) allows us to explore to what extent Renshaw’s defensive ability outperforms what we’d expect. Essentially, the model uses ball-tracking data to assess the likelihood that any given delivery will take a wicket. It suggests that the deliveries which Renshaw has faced in his Test career, were they delivered to the average batsman, would take a wicket every 60.1 deliveries; we refer to that figure as Renshaw’s xDR, his Expected Dismissal Rate. We can compare this to his actual scorecard dismissal rate to assess whether he overperforms or underperforms, considering the deliveries he’s faced. Such is Renshaw’s defensive capability, he significantly overperforms.
Essentially, Renshaw lasts 30% longer at the crease compared to what we’d expect, a very valuable assessment when looking at opening batsmen. If we compare Renshaw’s record to Maxwell’s in this regard, the Queensland opener compares even more favourably.
Reassuringly, what this condenses into a figure is something that we all suspected, having watched these two players in red ball cricket. They are both above averagely skilled in one respect, and well below average in another. Maxwell is remarkably gifted in terms of scoring quickly, Renshaw in terms of resisting good deliveries.
This invites the question of whether you’d rather have a player be solid in all disciplines, or have an unbalanced skillset, with prominent strengths and weaknesses. Which profile of player, given the choice, would a coach prefer to work with?
It also returns us to the broader issue in play here, which is bigger than simply assessing the merits of either Maxwell or Renshaw. Just as it is possible to construct an argument for why Maxwell should be in the team, it’s equally possible to construct the opposing argument. A clear strategic rationale for not selecting Maxwell is clear; were you determined to play attritional, traditional cricket, one where length of innings and security at the crease is paramount, then you could understand why Maxwell would not be an obvious fit. But that rationale is the one you would offer as reason for selecting Renshaw, and vice versa. The fact that neither of these players in the side shows that Australia’s selection criteria is unclear. Maxwell’s too attacking, Renshaw’s too defensive; it’s Goldilocks’ Paradox.
What’s more, arguably more than any other cricketing nation in the modern era, Australia has had a habit of identifying players with extreme skills, and trying to bring them through into the highest form of the game. Of course, not all are unqualified successes. Mitchell Johnson took almost a decade to hit his stride, Shaun Tait was beset by injuries, and David Warner by disciplinary issues, but there was always a willingness to thrust those at the margins of typical performance into the spotlight and see how they got on. Excellence achieved through unorthodoxy is an Australian cricketing trait.
This isn’t only about who plays for Australia in the first Test at Adelaide. This is about the direction in which Australia are trying to take their cricket. Traditionally, they are a sporting culture that has embraced the unconventional, and maintained a healthy number of dissenting voices in the dressing room. Perhaps, for whatever reason, they are moving away from that policy. But the ferocity of this Indian attack means that, in all likelihood, one of the two will walk out to bat for Australia this summer. Then, the Australian set-up will be hoping that Maxwell and Renshaw explore the outer reaches of their extreme talents; for now they remain outsiders, banging the door down with rare talents, unsuited to traditional measures.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.