• Sporting Chance

Ashes 2019: An Analytical Look At The Batsmen

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

By Oliver Fitzpatrick

After an incredible World Cup, it feels too soon to move onto a historic Ashes series which marks the beginning of the World Test Championship. 



I will certainly have no complaints however, once the players are back in whites and the first ball is bowled. This series is intriguing not only for the on-field contest but also for the storylines. There are many questions that remain unanswered. How will the English play after their dramatic World Cup success? Will Bancroft, Warner, Smith find redemption in their first Tests since that thing with sandpaper happened? Can Australia win in England for the first time since 2001? And while it would be fun to speculate on these matters, I am more inclined to focus on who will win the series. On the field, the combatants seem to be two evenly matched sides with both bowling line-ups appearing stronger than the batting on offer.


With this in mind, let’s take a statistical look at the main batsmen of each team and examine their styles to see where this series will be won and lost. This analysis will only look at batsmen — as well as bowlers who can ‘bat a bit’ — to have played at least 30 Test innings. I have included Starc and Cummins in this analysis even though they aren’t frontline batsmen, because they are likely to bat in similar positions to England’s Woakes and Ali and as such, they should be compared with these players. (Not to mention the fact that every time Cummins walks out to bat a commentator is bound to say ‘this bloke can bat a bit’.)


Rather than simply using batting average and strike rate to compare the batsmen, the analysis breaks down each player into the four key aspects of batting:

  • Starting reliability (starting rating)

  • Runs scored to get “eye in”

  • Making the most of a start (eye-in rating)

  • Ability to go big (cash-in rating)

There is a previous post about how the ratings for each of these skills are determined, so we won’t get bogged down in the detail of each of these ratings. All you need to know for this article is that a rating of 0 is the average of all players (past and present) in the system, which currently includes all retired Test players with at least 3000 runs in Test cricket. The rating system is normalised, so a rating of +1 means that player is 1 standard deviation better than the average player for that skill (or in the top 33%), +2 means a player is in the top 5% and so on, which makes Bradman’s eye-in rating of 4.5 outlandish (but expected.) 


Using this rating system, we can compare the key batsmen for each team to see how where this upcoming Ashes series might be won or lost…


Starting Reliability

Starting reliability refers to how capable a player is at getting through their first few runs or whether they are very susceptible to getting out cheaply. All batsmen are most vulnerable at the start of their innings, so having a high starting rating means the player is less susceptible than average at being dismissed early on. This could be critical in preventing batting collapses, as getting through the initial difficult period would stymie the bowler’s momentum and enable a partnership to form and make a quick succession of wickets less likely. Both teams have been shown to be susceptible to collapse as recently as last week with England being bowled out in a session by Ireland and the intra-Australian practice match being very low scoring. 


Runs To Eye-In

The time it takes for a player to get set is also important because it means that some players only need to get a few runs before they are comfortable at the crease. For these players, the bowling team needs to focus on attacking within the first few runs, whereas a player who takes a longer time to get their eye in can be attacked for longer and is vulnerable for a longer period of time. This should be looked at in conjunction both with a player’s starting reliability and a player’s eye-in rating, because if a player is a poor starter then this problem is exacerbated by taking a long time to get settled. In contrast, players with good eye-in ratings who get in quickly are at an advantage as they only have a short period of time at the start of their innings where they are vulnerable before being a consistent performer.


Making The Most Of A Start

The rating which correlates most strongly with a player’s batting average is their eye-in rating. This rating is basically a player’s consistency at making sizeable scores once their eye is in. This is what separates quality players from the rest, because once a player’s eye is in, they have much more control over their innings and are less likely to throw their wicket away than players with lower eye-in ratings.


Ability To Go Big

Ability to go big (cash-in rating) is similar to eye-in rating but refers to a player who not only makes the most of a start but often goes on and gets a daddy’ hundred. These innings are rarely made by players on the losing side and can single-handedly put a team in a winning position. Obviously, the opportunities to make a big score are rare because of the difficulty of starting and factors mentioned prior, but making a big score in this series could win a Test in its own right.


How Do The Squads Compare?


The ratings are best used in combination with each other to get an understanding of the type of batsman a player is and how they score their runs. All the players analysed for this year’s Ashes are shown below:

Instead of going through each player individually, it makes sense to group similar types of players and compare the groups. To group players, we have used hierarchical clustering, which calculates the difference between each player, then continually groups the data based on the most similar points (and then calculates the new distances from this cluster and other points in a variety of ways — in this case we have used complete linkage). The advantage of using hierarchical clustering is that it doesn’t assume the number of groups in the data and allows the natural groups to be selected later. The results of this are shown below:

Hierarchical Clustering Using Complete Linkage

The basic way to read this plot is that the closer linked two players are, the more similar they are in batting characteristics. The red rectangles show the cutoff points for player groups  ( that we have determined based on the linkage). Let’s have a look at the groups...


STEVE SMITH

Smith tops every rating and is far and away the best batsmen once set. His eye-in and cash-in ratings approach +2 and as such, deserves to be in a group of his own. The one potential weakness is that he takes approximately 11 runs before reaching peak reliability. In reality, this will mean that the first 11 runs of each of his innings are likely to be the most important factor in deciding Australia’s fate in the Ashes. The English desperately need to take his wicket at the start of his innings or else they are likely to suffer a long day in the field because of Smith’s remarkable ability to convert starts to scores, and big scores as shown by his eye-in and cash-in ratings.


THE "GOOD" BATS

Root, Warner and Khawaja are the only other players to have positive eye-in and cash-in ratings, showing they are all better than average at making the most of their starts. They also all have positive starting ratings, but there are some differences within this attribute, with Warner clearly a very good starter and hence more difficult to dismiss early than most players. Noticeably, Khawaja is not a great starter and is vulnerable for his first 17 runs each innings. These players, along with Smith, are key players to dismiss early because of their ability to make the most of a start consistently.


Promising But Wasteful 

This group consists of players that are decent at getting a start and getting their eye in quickly, but are inconsistent at going on with it. Paine is particularly notable because of his runs to eye-in being zero — in other words he is as likely to be dismissed when on zero as any other time in his innings. This shows he is good at starting, but also that he is unable to improve and regularly capitalise on a start for whatever reason. This trait appears to be common among the English batsmen, with Stokes, Buttler and Bairstow all being very quick to progress to their peak reliability at the crease. Despite none of these English players having particularly good starting ratings, their increased vulnerability is only for a short period of time before they are as good as settled. This means that although these players are a decent chance to get a start, they are unlikely to go on with it and get a sizeable score, so focusing on dismissing them early in an innings is less important than the aforementioned player groups.


All-Rounders

It is interesting that these three players, all of whom would be picked at least as much for their bowling as their batting, are naturally grouped as similar batsmen. Basically, they are all not very reliable in any category . They all struggle to get a start and even when they do they are unlikely to go on to get a decent score. Woakes is slightly different to Marsh and Ali in that he is a better starter and is quicker at getting his eye in but is worse at making the most of his starts. If any of these players are picked inside the Top 6 or 7, then they will expose a very long tail and increase the chances of a lower order collapse. On the other hand, these players could be picked primarily for their bowling and while these ratings are poor for batsmen, they are not bad for bowlers and would add good depth to their team’s batting if batting in the Bottom 4.


Bowlers Who 'Bat A Bit'

Unsurprisingly, Starc and Cummins are nowhere near the level of the other batsmen analysed. They are probably unfairly compared to the other players, but their ratings illustrate the relative strength of the English tail when compared to Australia’s. Cummins and Starc will most likely bat at No.8 and No.9 (if picked) and as such will need to combat the contributions of Woakes, Ali or Curran who are clearly a class above Cummins or Starc with the bat.


Summary


The battle between the two teams’ batsmen seems to be a battle of styles as much as anything.


The English side is full of players who are relatively reliable starters but are unlikely to go on and make a big score. In contrast, the Australians have more players who are able to make big scores but less players that can consistently get a start and as such are likely to rely on Smith, Warner and Khawaja making enough big scores to win the series. Both teams appear to be on the light side with their batting and while the quality of the pitches remains to be seen, we are predicting a generally low scoring series.


Australia’s scoring appears more likely to fluctuate between low total collapse and big score than England’s which might be more consistent but less able to make really big totals.


There are many other factors in play other than those analysed, but the styles of these batsmen should provide some insight into the tactics used by each team and the varying importance of certain sessions throughout the series.


Oliver Fitzpatrick is a cricket tragic and Carlton FC (even more) tragic and can usually be found in the Members Pavillion at the MCG. When he’s not at the ‘G he’s studying a Masters of Statistics and Operations Research at RMIT and tweeting his thoughts @ocfitz1.

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