Eng vs NZ, Lord’s 2021: Shortchanged or short memories?

The first of a series of first-person reflections on experiencing cricket in 2021.

“Home, home again. I like to be here when I can.”

Pink Floyd’s lyrics from The Dark Side Of The Moon were not, presumably, written about the Home of Cricket™, but after a nigh-on two-year pandemic-enforced exile from Lord’s, they seemed applicable. The last time was the incinerator that was the England vs Ireland match in July 2019; this year, same stand, different model: the new Compton stand.

The heat was there, though not to the same extent. (I still can’t understand why the new stands haven’t provided more than cursory cover.) So were the exceptionally friendly stewards. And so was, naturally, the criticism of the home team.

Poor old England. Battle away for ten sessions, keep a foothold in the game, and then find yourselves blasted for caution, for “shortchanging” spectators. I’ve checked my ticket and nowhere did it guarantee a result. Nor did it promise a run chase. (An issue more relevant to shortchanging relates to failing to get the minimum overs, one I’ve discussed elsewhere.) It promised, conditions permitting, a day’s Test match cricket, and a hard-fought day’s cricket was what we received.

More than anything, it reveals our short memory as cricket consumers; or maybe Stokes’ 135* has permanently spoiled us. The facts should, however, have spoken for themselves:

  • England had played 36 Tests in the previous 3 years. Of them, 31 ended in an outright result. Four, all rain-affected, ended in a draw.
  • Two Tests ago at Lord’s, England were bowled out for 85.
  • A successful chase of 276 would have been the third-highest of 38 at Lord’s. Had NZ set a target seven runs higher – as presumably they would have, had not rain intervened and an early lunch prompted Williamson to declare sooner than anticipated – 276 would have been the second-highest, only eclipsed by the Greenidge-powered outlier of 342.
  • Williamson’s action was not a “sporting declaration”, as revealed the the fact that immediately following it, England’s WinViz nudged upwards by just 4%, while New Zealand’s jumped by around 8%. This is no criticism of Williamson, but is meant to demonstrate that it was hardly the game-opening act of generosity that it might have seemed on the surface.

Scyld Berry compared this series to the 1945 Victory Tests (I’d have preferred the Vectory Tests, after the PM’s memorable and hastily withdrawn 2020 description of a cricket ball), and suggested that ECB management should have instructed Root to go for the runs. With all respect to the learned Berry, however, unlike the Victory “Tests” (which weren’t Tests at all) these weren’t simply high-profile first-class games. Real Test runs were being hunted; averages built or eroded; careers launched or perhaps concluded. Although they lay outside the World Test Championship, they counted towards ICC Test Rankings: a series win for NZ would have returned them to No. 1, while a 2-0 England win would have lifted them to No. 2. Furthermore, the captain and his team have to make their own decisions regarding the game: it would be quite unwarranted and unwelcome for the management to attempt to interfere.

As a spectator, naturally I was hoping that England would go for the runs, and even in hindsight there’s no question that it would have been more fun – but more because England would have, in all likelihood have been clinging on 7 or 8 down rather than 3 down. It’s odd that a team that does the former, despite performing measurably worse, is more likely to gain plaudits for demonstrating “character”, than a team that does the latter and avoids getting into such a situation to begin with.

It wasn’t thrill-a-minute action, but I found it heartening, in a perverse sort of way, that England dared to be dull. That the phrase “attacking brand of cricket” would be unlikely to feature in the press conference. That Sibley relentlessly accumulated, blocking out both ball and jeer from ostensibly England supporters. Come future overseas tours, we’ll be glad of his granitelike obduracy.

Most of all, though, by the end of the day, I was glad to be home.

All hail the Bob County Willis Championship Trophy

There’s something very English about the compromise that has been struck for the 2021 red-ball season. On the one hand, you have those who wish to preserve the two-division structure; one the other hand, those who wish to move to conferences and an end-of-season showpiece final.

In a triumph for the Department For The Simultaneous Retention And Consumption of Baked Goods, the ECB have come up with a solution that incorporates both the Bob Willis Trophy and the County Championship into one mega-cake. What’s more, it’s not actually too bad a wheeze.

Conference supporters are probably the happiest of the two camps. Yet defenders of the two-division format may also welcome the realisation that this set-up means that the Champion County, whoever it is, will have had to prove itself against a greater number of opponents. In a nine-team division, the Champions would play only eight other counties, a minority of all possible opponents; in this format, they will play nine, a majority. Arguably, then, they will have greater authority to declare themselves the foremost county that year.

There’s one change I would make to the recipe (aside from renaming Group 1, 2, 3, to A, B, C to avoid confusion with Divisions One, Two, Three). As it stands, the Bob Willis Trophy final will inevitably be contested by the Championship-winning team and the Championship runner-up. This strikes me as both rather unimaginative and superfluous: it could easily result in a re-run of the final divisional game.

Why not instead make the Bob Willis Trophy Final a contest between the County Champions and the highest-placed team from the group stages? Or the County Champions vs the county with the most wins in the season, regardless of division? Or the most runs/wickets? Of course, if the Champions were also the highest-placed team, etc., then the opponents would be the next-highest-placed, etc. With two different qualification routes to the final, it would almost have something of the flavour of a World Series, or a Super Bowl.

If the first option were chosen, teams that started strongly would be rewarded with the chance of an end-of-season bonanza – even if they were to suffer a mid-season slump. This would be particularly valuable to sides that found themselves depleted through international call-ups during high summer.

Conversely, if one of the latter options were chosen, teams in Division Two (and possibly Three, although it would be unlikely that after such a poor start they would amass the needed number of wins/runs/wickets to pose a real challenge) would have added incentive, beyond mere prize money, to perform strongly despite their struggles in the first part of the season. The Championship pennant would be safeguarded for the strongest team across the season, but the Bob Willis Trophy would provide the chance of a knockout bonus for a plucky contender.

Obviously, despite either modification, the Bob Willis Trophy Final might still end up being County Champions vs runners-up. If nothing else, though, the run-up to the Final wouldn’t have been entirely straightforward and unimpeded. A bit like Bob’s run-up, in fact. How appropriate that would be.

Joe’s Averages

As cricket gingerly limbers up and takes its first steps into its brave new bio-secure world, one might wonder that Joe Denly is still in it.

Another Test, another underwhelming return of 18 from 58. He is now averaging under 30 from his 16 Tests. Compton, Malan, and Vince were all returning similar figures (Vince actually a smidgeon over 30) when they were dropped, terminally in the case of Compton.

It is the manner of his dismissals that invites particular scrutiny: this time, bowled through the gate. He has been bowled or LBW five times in his last seven innings, suggesting a technical weakness is surfacing fast. Similar charges have been levelled against Bairstow – now out of favour – and unlike Johnny, Joe does not have the excuse of an excess of ODI cricket.

Why, then, does Ed Smith persist with ? Is it merely a case of loyalty or a soft spot for his old Kent mucker?

The following table should cast some light on why Denly may be valued as he is.

PlayerInnsRunsHSAveBFSRAv BPI
AN Cook361343244*38.37279748.0178
JE Root69281022641.32533252.777
RJ Burns30100913333.63225244.875
JL Denly277989429.55201639.5875
BA Stokes572123135*40.05388554.6468
DJ Malan2672414027.84176241.0868
MD Stoneman205266027.68118844.2759
KK Jennings26573146*22.92136741.9153
JC Buttler44135610632.28227959.4952
JM Bairstow56153411927.89279254.9450
CR Woakes27586137*24.41105855.3839
MM Ali407618419.51148151.3837
SM Curran307117827.34107466.236
MJ Leach182209218.3355439.7131
SCJ Broad564635610.2877259.9714
JM Anderson4280125.3331525.398
England batsmen, 9 July 2017 – 9 July 2020 (minimum 10 Tests). Source: ESPNcricinfo Statsguru

The key metric here is average balls faced per innings (BPI). Over the last three years, no non-opener has faced more balls per innings bar Root. Denly, despite his low batting average, is adept at soaking up deliveries, and his position in the top order means that he can lay a foundation for the stroke-playing middle order – not in scoring runs, but in blunting the attack and aging the ball. With potentially free-flowing players such as Stokes, Pope, and Buttler down the order, the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

For comparison, Compton’s BPI was 72, Malan’s 68, and Vince’s 63, meaning Denly compares favourably to all the discards. Bairstow languishes at 50 over the 3-year timeframe; Buttler, hanging on, is little better at 52.

Denly’s USP – to use a trendy acronym – is also his vulnerability. The problem for him is that his strength should, in theory, be pretty easy to replicate: it should not be so unique. As soon as England have a batsman who can simply stay there, regardless of scoring, his “unique selling point” evaporates.

The problem for England is that this apparently simple task has been beyond their batsmen of late. The new men may buck that trend; Crawley has a BPI of 56 from 4.5 Tests, but Pope a BPI of 72 from 7.5 – with that important “1” in the centuries column. As soon as either or both of them manage to both survive and score consistently, Denly’s place will be close to unjustifiable, unless by then he’s started scoring serious runs as well.

To mangle an old expression: it’s not about how many, it’s about how many.