Ben Jones analyses how selection works in the current English game.
1548 red ball runs in a single season, at an average of 64.50, all while opening the batting in Division One of the County Championship. They are appealing numbers, an irrefutable case to open the batting for England in Tests, at a time when the only constant in England’s top-order is a sense of instability.
Of course, those numbers aren’t Dom Sibley’s in 2019 – they’re Keaton Jennings’ from 2016.
Dom Sibley, Warwickshire opener, is flavour of the month. His performance in the 2019 County Championship has been excellent, churning out tons and double-tons like he was stockpiling them for the winter.
His average this season, a giddy 69.68, is the second highest for a Championship opener over the last decade, trumped only by Marcus Trescothick’s golden summer of 2011. The last man to make more double-tons in a Championship season was Brad Hodge in 2004; the last Englishman to do so was Mark Ramprakash in 1995, before Sibley was even born. This isn’t a gentle achievement; this is a modern classic.
In a time of concern in English red ball batting, such a performance was never going to go unnoticed. Fans of county cricket have been calling for Sibley to be promoted to the Test team for the majority of the summer, and yesterday those calls were answered. Deservedly, Sibley has been called into the Test squad for the tour of New Zealand.
It’s a performance which has not come out of nowhere. At the end of the 2018 summer, he made a technical change which immediately brought about the rich vein of form which he’s continuing even 12 months on. He stands squarer now, his right foot skewed more towards the offside, the alignment of his feet and hips pointing towards third man and midwicket. It’s opened up that latter zone for him, as shown by his scoring areas, meaning he now scores more heavily through that zone than ever before.
His case for selection has come off the back of an undeniably elite season, but he has no claim on sustained success. This is the first season in his career that he’s played a proper amount of cricket, and averaged over 40 in the Championship.
Some might reasonably say that this is irrelevant, or even a positive. This is a player who has clearly unlocked an extra level of ability, reached another level in terms of his own potential, and what we are seeing this summer is the true Sibley. Even the more pessimistic members of the English cricket community may say that whilst Sibley may regress a little, 2019 something of a purple patch for him, it still makes sense to push him up a level while he’s in good form, a point only more pertinent given how soon the New Zealand tour is going to come around.
The more pessimistic fan could then, equally reasonably, turn around and say – have we learned nothing?
On that list of highest averaging seasons for openers, Sibley is keeping some impressive company that should encourage those who believe he’s locked in to perform at Test level. Equally, he’s also rubbing shoulders with some seasons that might cause England to pause.
In 2016, Keaton Jennings made 1548 runs in a Championship summer. He had never previously averaged over 30 in a season, but suddenly blossomed, and had put forward an irrefutable case for Test honours. He was picked for England, and within a year had become a faintly comedic figure. In no other Championship season, before or since, has Jennings made even half the number of runs he did in that year.
It’s a pattern there throughout. After that remarkable 2014 season, Adam Lyth was picked, and failed; ditto for Mark Stoneman in 2017, ditto for Ben Duckett in 2016, for Haseeb Hameed in 2016.
At its core, international selection is considering which players are able to “bridge the gap” between domestic and global cricket, calculating by any means necessary which players’ skills will survive the jump in class. Thw wider that gap, the tougher the job – which is why it’s a regular topic of discussion. Former England coach Trevor Bayliss spoke in the last week of how the gap between county and Test cricket was too great. In an illuminating interview with George Dobell for Cricinfo, Bayliss said:
“Again and again, we’ve picked the best players in the county game. And again and again, they’ve found the gap too large to bridge. Our top players come back from county cricket and they’re not complimentary about the standard. They don’t think it helps prepare them for international cricket.”
Distilled to its essence, this is the challenge of selection, viewing achievements with the appropriate respect or scepticism. It is a skill which can be acquired through a number of different methods: experience, a cabal of county eyes and spies, analytics.
Ed Smith cited “non-Test FC averages” on several occasions during yesterday’s squad announcement, and for good reason. The performance of Test players when they drop down a level is rather revealing of the gap which Bayliss, and Smith himself, have been wrestling with in recent times. Since Moeen Ali made his debut for England, he’s averaged 28.97 in Test cricket, and during that time he’s averaged 50.80 in domestic red ball cricket. For Joe Root, those figures are 47.91, and 66.80. For Jonny Bairstow in the second half of his career, it’s 37.25 and 66.25. Rory Burns averaged 49.02 for the four seasons before his Test selection, and averages 29.25 in Test cricket.
This is a blunt comparison – without question – but one which suggests a rough difference, between international and domestic red ball cricket, of 15-20 runs per dismissal. Rather than “making a step up”, what you are asking of a domestic player being promoted into Test cricket is to resist the tidal wave of bowling quality which has swamped many a man before them; it is less about rising, but rather not falling.
One way of trying to distinguish which seasons are indicative of quality and which are not – that is to say, to make that judgement of which players won’t fall away – is to further interrogate quite how the runs have been made. CricViz use a metric for analysing batting in this way called “Contact Average”. The figure functions in the same way as a traditional average, but places more weight on runs from shots played with a good connection, and thus less weight on runs from edges and mis-timed shots. An edge through the slips that runs away to the fence is not as indicative of batting quality as a shot middled through cover for four. Contact Average attempts to make that distinction.
The difference between Contact Average and Actual Average is generally of interest. If your Actual Average is significantly higher than your Contact Average, over say a season, then your level of performance may be unsustainable.
For instance – if you look at Sibley’s average this season (69.68) and subtract his Contact Average (29.7), you are left with 39.98, his ‘Contact Difference’. That is, well, quite the gap. Indeed, since the start of 2012 of all the players to score 1,000 runs in a Championship season, only three players have recorded a higher Contact Difference than Sibley has done this summer.
An opener with an aesthetically curious technique, who plenty thought could never succeed at the top level – it’s a case with which English cricket is rather familiar. Rory Burns, the Surrey captain who put up 1,000 runs for four consecutive summers before finally getting the call. He proved himself, then proved himself again, and then again, then again.
Burns has forged a mixed career in Test cricket to date. One Test ton from 12 matches is a reasonable if gently underwhelming return, an average of 29.25 is solid if not superb. Yet overall, there has been a general and fair consensus that this is a player capable of hacking it in Test cricket, because of how he has performed in his fourth (technically) series at this level.
Just as in domestic cricket, Burns has benefited from being given a prolonged chance to prove himself, and it has worked in everyone’s favour. Since Andrew Strauss retired, the only non-knighted player to open more often for England than Burns is Jennings. He has been given a significant opportunity, 12 cricketing months, to prove himself – and he seems to have just about done so.
There is a cycle of desperation which has begun to dominate the selection of the England team, a cycle which precedes the current panel but one which has not been avoided under it. The relative dearth of red ball talent has limited the chance for selectors to tell players who’ve done well in one season to go away, back it up, do it again for one, two, three more seasons. Given the shortage of quality, it’s an understandable process, but picking someone performing above their ability, then dropping them when they regress has become to familiar.
It is a cycle which not only misrepresents the talent at its disposal, but may well be destroying it. Just one (KJ) of the openers England have tried post-Strauss has returned to the Test team after being dropped. Over-promotion following brief success has, largely, lead to skills plateauing and performances dropping off. There is, skirting around the edges of this process, a duty of care that is perhaps in question. The casualties of these selections aren’t the selectors, the coaches, the pundits and writers who endorsed them with the fleeting certainty of a summer romance. It’s the players.
As with every young man to have been given the opportunity at Test level – as with Keaton, Mark, Ben, Adam, Sam, Alex, Haseeb – Sibley has done all he can in the immediate season before he was selected to make his ascension appear natural, the utterly reasonable promotion of talent ready for the next challenge. Not one of them can be criticised on the grounds they were picked on whims or hunches, but instead all put up seasons of undeniable quality. And yet, each of these young men fell away, young men who in the moment of their promotion were the clear and obvious choice. Let’s set low expectations for Sibley, realistic expectations, and hope he surpasses them.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.