Ben Jones analyses the cases of England’s Ashes potentials.
England announce their squad for the Ashes today at 11am. They do so off the back of a World Cup victory and a dramatic yet ultimately comfortable win over Ireland at Lord’s, but there is no sense of gathering momentum. England got away with this performance, and the sort of shake-up which would have followed a loss could still be in waiting.
England have struggled to bat well in Test cricket for a long time, and this needs to be fixed. In the last 18 months, only West Indies’ top three averages less than England. That is the area which England need to sort.
Jason Roy might be a solution, he might not – but he needs to be given a run. He is a proven international player and that counts for a lot. England can fix their top three in a number of ways, but first they need to identify the best talent that’s available to come into the side, then decide whether to promote from within (i.e. bat Root at three, the best option in all likelihood) or bring in a player from the domestic circuit.
There are roughly eight men right now who should be being considered for selection, including those already in the side: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Sam Northeast, Ben Foakes, James Vince, Dawid Malan, Gary Ballance, and Dominic Sibley. They’re all good at different elements of batting, all talented in different ways. The skill is in bringing it all together to determine the best all round player – so let’s have a go.
In terms of raw numbers, Burns really has earned his chance by dominating county cricket, for a long time – and his average in the last two seasons particularly reflects that. The same is true of Sibley, and even the unfashionable Ballance. Vince, whilst being the player with the highest ceiling of the lot in terms of technique and class, struggles, averaging just 37.70.
Essentially, you judge whether a batsman is someone scoring his runs briskly (a positive thing), or whether he’s an occupier of the crease (also a positive thing). Within the dismissal rate metric, Sibley excels – he’s dismissed only every 114 balls in the last two years, and seems the most able to sit and take up deliveries. That’s huge, against the new ball, because getting through that early period unscathed has an amplifying effect on the rest of the batsmen. The same is true of Burns, and is emphatically not true of Vince and Foakes, the latter excused by being a lower order player.
Of course, that control comes at a price, and with Sibley it appears to be scoring rate. He’s comfortably the slowest of our group, the only one to score at less than 3rpo. Not inherently a bad thing if it’s matched with high scores, but it does put pressure on the batsman, particularly when facing the superior bowling that is present in Test cricket. Fewer bad balls on show is only going to bring that rate down. The fluency of Denly and Vince is of value, because even if at the crease for a brief time, they do score – hardly a caveat you want to be considering, but it’s important to be pragmatic.
FALSE SHOT PERCENTAGE
Sibley has excellent control in red ball cricket, recording comfortably the lowest false shot percentage of our eight candidates. This is even more impressive when you consider that he is consistently facing the new ball, when false shots are more frequent given the extra lateral movement available, as shown by Burns’ poor showing. Foakes matches Sibley’s figure, but has typically done so whilst batting against the older ball – still a challenge, but different.
We can assess control with a little more deftness though. CricViz have a metric called “Contact Average”, an adjusted average which values runs from edges as being worth less than runs from shots with a controlled contact. It rewards secure, stable batting more than streaky play. Of our eight, Northeast has the highest Contact Average, emphasising that he is a classy player who makes consistently good contact with the ball, a skill which suggests he could translate his domestic prowess into the international arena. Denly and Sibley both struggle by this measure.
If we combine all the rankings of these players, in all these different areas of batting ability, then we can see who averages out as the broadest, most balanced player.
What that shows is that Sam Northeast should absolutely come into the squad, and probably the XI. It shows that Dominic Sibley should be given a chance, at the very least, even with the concerns about his technique. They’re the two that England can bring in, if they want to.
That gives them a few options, bringing in another opener and a top order batsman. They could leave Roy in the opening pair, bat him with Sibley, have Northeast at No.3 and then leave that middle order, packed with all-rounders and white ball guns, untouched.
It’s just an option, but if England are going to bring in anyone new, then assessing their credentials across a range of abilities is all that Taylor and Smith are doing. We’ve just put some numbers next to them, to help. It’s no guarantee of success – Sibley in particular looks flawed, technically – but it’s a decent base to start from.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.