Ben Jones analyses the structural issues hampering England’s T20 side.
In 12 months time, England will begin their T20 World Cup campaign. Broadly, they are in good shape. They have numerous excellent opening options, from Bairstow, Roy and Buttler, to Hales, Vince and Banton. They have all-rounders, spin options, guys who can swing the ball at the top and nail their yorkers at the death. They aren’t the best side in the world, but they are certainly in the conversation.
However, there is one obvious hole in England’s T20 side; they don’t have any finishers. The elite late-innings hitter, playing at No.6 or No.7, able to accelerate from the first ball faced and hit sixes, is a player England don’t have. What’s more, it’s not just that they don’t have an Andre Russell, a Hardik Pandya, a David Miller or an Asif Ali – it’s that they don’t really have any players like them.
Trevor Bayliss has had a good look down the back of the sofa for one, over the last three years. Since the 2016 World T20, England have played 23 matches; in that time, 14 different players have batted at No.6 or No.7. The most appearances in that position for any one player is David Willey, who has still only batted eight times.
Rotation, and apparent uncertainty, is fair enough. For three years, the other two formats have (rightly) taken priority and the IT20 series’ have been an opportunity to rest key players. Yet this isn’t a case of England resting a gun finisher because they play ODIs and Tests – they don’t seem to have anyone locked on for the role at all.
There’s a good reason for this, and as is so often the way with international issues, the causes can be found in domestic structure. The main reason for England not having a death overs hitter, could well be because the Blast isn’t very high quality.
Reasonable crowds and a good competitive balance ensure the Blast is watchable, often quite exciting, and fun. However, data analysis of the all the T20 leagues around the world reveals that, fundamentally, the Blast is not an elite competition. That is a poor indictment of the only domestic T20 tournament in one of the biggest – and wealthiest – cricketing nations in the world.
The Blast suffers by two measures – the number of teams which compete in it, and the number of overseas players involved compared to other leagues. An 18 team format based on the existing county structure ensures that there is a geographic spread from team to team, and that a high proportion of the country has a competing team nearby. Equally, it insists that there must be a certain percentage of players in each team who are far from elite. A tournament with 293 players (the number used in the Blast this season) is logically going to struggle for an even spread of talent, compared to tournaments like the CPL and PSL who have just six teams, and four overseas players in each. For some, that’s not relevant. They follow cricket and their county, not for the appreciation of elite sport but for the history of their side, the tribalism of old rivalries still being played out. The talent pool in the Blast is diluted; for them, this dilution is a necessary evil.
The knock-on effects of this mediocrity are wide-ranging. For now though, let’s focus on the effect this has on batting orders. When the quality of batting in a league is high, and competition for places is strong, it follows that players end up in positions which suit them. When the quality is low, the cream rises to the top of the order.
In the Blast, if you are a good batsman you bat in the top four, almost to a point. There is, to be clear, nothing inherently wrong with this. The opportunity for an exciting young batsman to come into a Blast side and immediately be opening the batting – such as happened with Tom Banton this summer – is fun. It gives good stories, it feels hopeful, it’s joyful. However, it significantly affects the kind of white ball cricketers that the Blast can produce, nurture, and ultimately prepare for international cricket, because players don’t get experience down the order. Teams are desperate to optimise the usage of their best players – i.e. get them to face more deliveries – because the difference in quality from best-to-worst players is wider than elsewhere.
If England put out a job advert for the role of T20 finisher, the criteria might read:
- Must be able to to score quicker than average at the death, proven over a prolonged period
- Must be able to do so without complete disregard for their wicket , proven over a prolonged period
- Must be accustomed to batting six or seven in their domestic team/s
We can test if anybody would be fit to apply for the position. True Scoring Rate, and True Dismissal Rate, compare any player’s actual Scoring Rate and Dismissal Rate with the average figures based on the overs they have batted in. Right now, there are only four English players who manage to both score quicker than the average at the death, and bat with less risk – those in red, on the graphic below.
Of those four: Laurie Evans bats first drop for Sussex, Jos Buttler bats top four for Lancashire, Tom Curran is a bowling all-rounder who you’d ideally want at No.8 in an international side, and Bopara was so keen to bat up the order for Essex that he joined Sussex midway through the season. If, in an international context, you are elite when batting at the end of the innings, the Blast pushes you up the order.
Of the reasonably established late-innings hitters around the world, England doesn’t do well when compared to other nations, in terms of producing elite death hitters. Just 19% (four from 21) of the established English hitters recorded positive True Scoring Rates and True Dismissal Rates; that’s the lowest proportion among major cricketing nations.
The sprawling nature of the tournament does help in some ways, allowing players to rise to the top through atypical routes. Bopara can decide midway through a season to be a hitter, do well, and is now arguably the best death hitter in the country. Somerset all-rounder Lewis Gregory has developed a reputation as a hard hitter in the last few years, scoring rapidly at the death, but earlier in his career he was batting as low as No.9. The Blast being such an elongated competition, giving opportunities to coaches to try new things/demand that they do so, allows these sorts of stories to unfold. Yet as soon as Gregory’s talents have been recognised (England selection and widespread acclaim) he’s been moved up the order, just as we would expect. This season, he batted at number four, five, and six.
Dawid Malan is a good case study. A superb hitter of spin (his True Scoring Rate of +1.1 against it since the start of 2017 is the third best of any Englishman, min 40 matches), he is ideally suited to batting in the middle overs, entering the fray while the slower bowlers are mainly in operation. For his first 30-odd games for Middlesex he batted at the death, then became a four, and now opens the batting. Equally, Ross Whiteley is, numerically an elite hitter in the domestic game. Yet coaches write him off as a “Blast bully”, and that label is brutally effective in diminishing achievements, perhaps unfairly. The standard of the Blast is mediocre-to-low, and once you’ve got a reputation as a guy who can only dominate on these shores, it’s hard to shift.
Plenty have questioned the need for a new format, but the most important innovation around The Hundred is not the number of balls, but the number of teams. Some critics have focused their arguments on the idea that if only the new competition had been T20, they would have supported it. Whilst the tone and ferocity of the general discourse would suggest otherwise, it does get to the core of what was necessary with the new tournament – fewer teams.
Concentrated talent means that players will be forced into their best positions. Players with skills suited to batting at the death will find themselves in that role, developing those early inclinations, refining them to the point where they can challenge the best in the world. The projected playing standard of The Hundred would see it the third best competition in the world.
In terms of the problem at hand – the lack of an established, elite hitter to play in the World Cup next year – England have a few options. They could try and convert one of their middle order guns into finishers, with either Morgan, Moeen or Stokes dropping down. However, each has their issues: Morgan struggles to hit from ball one, Moeen’s strength is hitting spin which is used more rarely at the death, and Stokes’ T20 batting record is not as elite as you might think.
If the reduction in the number of teams in Britain’s main short-form competition can produce a hitter, then it will have served a tangible cricketing purpose. For some, that will be enough, for some it won’t, and many will have already made up their minds.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.