Ben Jones considers who the Australian selectors should be
calling ahead of the Sri Lanka series.
In the coming days, Australia are expected to announce their Test squad for the home series against Sri Lanka. As a series in isolation, it shouldn’t represent the toughest challenge for Tim Paine’s side, but the Tests will be as much about finalising Ashes preparation as they will be about victory in Brisbane and Canberra. Because Australian batting is in a bit of a state.
Two of their last three series have seen no centuries from Australian batsmen, and the collective batting average they recorded in 2018 is the lowest for any calendar year since 1978. India were better than them in pretty much all departments throughout the four match series, but ultimately the series was lost in the final two Tests with the Aussies unable to respond to India posting substantial first innings totals. Broadly, the batting was to blame.
And it’s because of this that the team Australia choose for the Sri Lanka series is a big deal. With the potential addition of Steve Smith and David Warner, this side will form the guts of the touring party for next summer’s Ashes. True, the conditions at the Gabba will be rather different to the greentops England will prepare at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, but this is as close to a rehearsal as Australia will get. They need to get it right.
Some players will be retained. Marcus Harris has the highest average of any player to appear more than once, and has generally shown a level of control at the crease that suggests he can maintain his moderate success, and improve on it. Tim Paine has had a decent summer – though perhaps his rise has been overstated given what preceded him. There is little case for him remaining in the side from a cricketing perspective, but he seemingly has the backing of the players, and in a disrupted period for the side that has significant value. Usman Khawaja is one of very few senior players in that side, and whilst his form dipped briefly in this series, he is clearly a good player.
But the others’ places should be up for discussion. Travis Head may have top scored but an average of 33.85 is not substantial. Shaun Marsh failed to step up when younger, less experienced teammates needed him to. Peter Handscomb’s technique is still questionable. They are not out of contention, but their place should not be assumed.
The question of who to replace them has been a hot topic in the past weeks, and one phrase has come up time and time again. Many have complained that ‘nobody is banging the door down’, the selectors frustrated that they can’t simply call upon batsmen averaging 75 over three Shield seasons.
But if a player is performing in this manner then, frankly, a selector’s job is all but unnecessary. Picking a player in that sort of form doesn’t require any skill or judgement. Weighing up relative strengths when a player has weaknesses as well is quite literally the job. To suggest that a player must present a perfect case before they are allowed into the team is perverse. Particularly when that team has won just one of their last nine Test matches.
Sure, no player is banging down the down, but plenty are knocking pretty damned hard. You’ve just got to know what you’re listening out for – and that’s where data can help.
So many names have been bandied about in the past few weeks that it pays to keep an open mind, so let’s start with a big pool of candidates. Our shortlist of 24 Sheffield Shield players possesses a wide variety of skills and experience; there are classical red ball performers in there, T20 specialists, youngsters and veterans. We’ve then looked at their data for the last three Shield seasons, including this current season, to try and work out the merits of their case for selection. The data we have included extends beyond the raw numbers of runs and averages (though they are included), offering a more in-depth assessment of each player’s relative quality.
Welcome to the CricViz selection meeting.
Runs and Balls Faced
Firstly, let’s look at the most basic statistic available – how many runs these chaps have scored since the start of the 2016/17 Shield season. It’s a measure which rewards those to have been consistent across a prolonged period of time, accumulating runs not in clumps or purple patches but just as standard. It penalises players to play international cricket of any form, given those matches eat into the Shield season.
Of course, it’s not all about runs – as Australia have seen in this series when bowling to Cheteshwar Pujara, occupying the crease is key. The ability to face lots of deliveries is just as important as being able to score off them.
If we rank each player on our shortlist by their position in these two charts, then average out their ranking, then we can make an overall ranking. Kurtis Patterson was ranked 2 for runs scored, then 1 for balls faced, so his average ranking is 1.5. Thus, our table looks like this.
Batting Averages and Dismissal Rates
Of course, runs and balls faced only measure some things. They measure quantity, but not always quality, and focusing just on that area unfairly penalises international players, whose commitments with Australia mean they miss out on matches. So of course we consider batting averages.
We can also look at the average length of innings for all of our players. The average dismissal rate takes the number of balls faced and divides it by dismissals – what you’re left with is a good measure of a batsman’s ability to occupy the crease over time.
When we factor in the rankings for Batting Average and Dismissal Rate, our list changes.
False Shot Percentage
The way that a batsman makes his runs is also important to consider. If a player is edging or missing the ball a lot, they could be riding their luck with an average of 40, whilst a player with an average of 30 could be suffering a run of poor fortune.
We can try to understand a bit more of what’s going on by looking at false shot percentages. This measures what percentage of a batsman’s deliveries does he miss or edge – essentially, a measure of control. The average false shot percentage for top-order players in Shield cricket is 13%, so anything below that is a sign of quality.
When we add in these rankings, our selection table looks like this:
Sometimes, averages aren’t always indicative of a player’s quality. If you play exclusively on friendly wickets, or in high-scoring games, there is a reduced value to your runs. As a result, it’s helpful to compare how a player has done relative to other batsmen who’ve played in the same game.
For instance, George Bailey has averaged 38.88 in Shield cricket over the past three seasons. Moises Henriques has averaged 42.18. But the average for all top seven batsmen in games where Bailey’s played was 32.53; for Henriques, that figure is 37.25. This shows that generally the pitches Henriques have played on have been more batting friendly, whilst Bailey has overperformed compared to others in the games he’s played. Bailey has averaged 6.35 more runs per dismissal than everyone else in his matches, whilst Henriques just 4.93 more. Henriques has averaged more, but Bailey’s been worth more.
We can find this figure for all of our contenders, and get a better picture of when they have made their runs.
When we add this to our table, the list looks like this:
It’s important to be able to play a wide range of bowling if you are to succeed in Test cricket. Often players can have exorbitant FC batting averages against either pace or spin, hiding a weakness against the other, and while players will always have a preference for a certain style of bowling, consistency across the game is a valuable asset.
When we add this to our table, it looks like this:
The CricViz selected five batsmen for the series against Sri Lanka would be: Joe Burns, Kurtis Patterson, Will Pucovski, and Matthew Wade, with Peter Handscomb as the spare.
It’s a mixture of a list. Pucovski and Wade are at different ends of their careers, representing both youth and experience. Handscomb has already been in and out of the Test side, whilst Patterson has never played an international match of any sort. This isn’t about “putting faith in youth”, or “trusting experience”. It’s about trying to take a more objective look at every player, and ignore irrelevant factors. This is a middle order picked on weight of runs, control, ability to perform in tough conditions and against all kinds of bowling. Those are pretty solid criteria.
It also has the benefit of being a relatively exciting group. Pucovski’s youth is alluring, and the story of Wade’s return alongside the man who replaced him is an interesting one. Patterson’s status as a relative unknown to those on the international stage makes him an interesting prospect; Burns is so clearly the best batsman in domestic cricket that giving him the opportunity to prove that is filled with anticipation.
Of course, this is just a suggestion. Data offers just one perspective, and this should not be read as a foolproof means of selecting talent. It’s important, as always, that these sort of assessments interact with cricketing judgement, in order for both perspectives to have the best chance of getting the decisions correct.
Equally, you can read this article and think that certain metrics should be worth more. Perhaps you think pure runs should be worth more than false shot percentage. Perhaps you think the opposite. There is scope to make this broader, or more specific, weighting certain skills ahead of others, but for now, this will do.
Regardless, Australia really do need to get this correct. Sri Lanka have some very talented batsmen, and if Langer et al take a wrong step then they could be punished both now and then again in England. It’s a hugely significant moment for the Australian selectors; will they get it right?
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.