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Zak Crawley v Data

Ben Jones analyses how while old-fashioned stats may not have predicted Crawley’s innings, detailed data gave hints.

The thing about records is that the more you hold, the less they mean.

As the statistics mounted up today – and my, how they did – we were dangerously close to collectively, as a cricket community, missing what was happening before us in a sea of Mosts and Bests and Sinces. People love to sit and look at the scorecards from county, look at the big numbers and think that remembering the cluster of initials alongside them means they Know The Game. The neat little lines of records that will adorn tomorrow’s papers comfort those who relish the history books.

The highest score by an England No.3 since the 1930s, sure. 

The highest English partnership for any wicket since 1965. 

Crawley, the fifth youngest player to score a 250  in Test cricket. 

The most something by an England anything since whenever.

These records show you what’s happened. But the way Crawley played in this innings showed what England have to look forward to.

There was a fair bit of sly criticism of data-driven selection on Day 1. Crawley’s first-class batting average is low, and so many in one group of the media and punditocracy have questioned his right to be in this side; yesterday, a different group (though one containing a fair few members of the first) have criticised an overtly statistical approach to selection. If a player this good can average around 31.27 when they make their Test debut, then perhaps data is unhelpful. 

It’s all a bit intentionally ignorant. Suggesting that “data” means “batting average” is certainly an interesting approach. But let’s take it at face value, and have a look at the data which shows a little more than the raw figures can offer.

Crawley was clever, and strategically intelligent. His average impact point against Mohammad Abbas in this innings was 1.82m, the furthest down the track that anyone has ever batted against him. Crawley swaggering down the pitch and setting up outside of his crease, a 22 year old with no record to speak of asserting himself on a veteran with one of the best averages in history. Ignore the scorecard, this was data to respect. 

There have been 25 centuries from England No.3s in the CricViz database, and only two of them (one from Joe Root, one from Gary Ballance) has seen a higher attacking shot percentage than the 32% Crawley recorded in this knock. It’s what we’ve quickly become accustomed to; Crawley’s overall attacking shot percentage in the top three for England is 28%, the highest of anyone in the last decade. 

Crawley represents something like the “strokeplayer” that Trevor Bayliss spoke frequently about wanting in his top three, a player who if they face 200 balls is going to take the game out of reach of the opposition. In domestic cricket, Sussex’s Phil Salt is the only opener to attack more often than Zak Crawley in the last three seasons of County Championship cricket. If you were picking a player not simply on record, but style, then Crawley would be a clear choice as an attacking top order player. The data gave you a clear pointer.

There’s limited information to be found in the raw head-to-heads, but enough to say that he might have struggled against the absolute cream of Test cricket. In County Championship cricket, he averages 53 against Duanne Olivier; 40 against James Pattinson; 39 against Lockie Ferguson;60 against Jake Ball. Yet he’s struggled against Mohammad Amir, Kyle Abbot, and Mohammad Abbas, with four dismissals in 29 balls against those stars. However, as we’ve seen over the last two days in Southampton, at least one of those foes has been vanquished.

In his First Class career, Crawley loves the sweep shot. He averaged over 50 when playing it against spinners, his lanky frame not getting in the way of getting low, and slicing across the line with a horizontal bat. Canterbury is not Chennai, but he has developed a method that works for him at the level below this one.

No other member of England’s top order passed 30 in this Test, but Crawley is used to battling it out on tough surfaces, when others aren’t stepping up and offering their bit. In the last four seasons, he’s averaged comfortably more than the rest at Canterbury, a pitch notoriously rubbish for batsman in recent times. His performance, in tough conditions, illustrated an underlying ability.

Data doesn’t show you everything. It can predict some things, but not everything. It can illustrate the skills of many a player, in many a situation, in a way that many people with the naked eye could not. But it will sometimes fall short because, ultimately, players are people. The vagaries of being a person, of being a human, of changes in mindset and personal circumstance, are one of the handful of things that data, even in its most advanced form, cannot capture. 

That’s fine. It’s more than fine – it’s cricket.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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