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this series to the 1945 Victory Tests (I’d have preferred the Vectory Tests, after the PM’s memorable and hastily withdrawn 2020 description of a cricket ball), and suggested that ECB management should have instructed Root to go for the runs.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.

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.

Cricket World Cup 2019: week 3, update #4—Don’t shoot the DLS

The fourth of an informal weekly (p)review of the 2019 Cricket World Cup – or, as I like to call it, the #Champ10nsTrophy.

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without some rain-rule controversy. South Africa still haven’t haven’t forgotten their 22-from-0.1 semi-final fiasco in 1992 (although, in truth, they didn’t deserve to win that game, after their excessively slow over rate; they’d had the better of the regulations up to that point).

Some may feel that Pakistan had the rub of the green against them (which will naturally happen, of course, if your ODI kit is that colour) in today’s game, whose Duckworth-Lewis-Stern adjustment left them needing 136 runs in 5 overs rather than 170 in 15. This simply isn’t the case. DLS yielded a sensible target, despite first glances.

It’s crucial to understand that Duckworth/Lewis does not calculate how many further runs the chasing team should have to score; it calculates the target. This may seem like a coat-of-varnish distinction but the difference becomes more understandable when one realises that the target is not affected by the batting team’s current score, only their wickets and overs remaining.

In other words, Pakistan would have had to chase 302 from 40 overs, regardless of whether they were 16-6, 66-6, 266-6, or, as it transpired, 166-6.

The par score—the score at which the two teams could be said to be neck-and-neck—for six wickets down at 35 overs was 252-6. Being 166-6 meant they were 86 runs behind the par score, and naturally enough, on resumption they therefore weren’t in any sort of position to chase 136 in 5. If the game had been abandoned without those 5 overs, they’d have lost by 86 runs.

After playing those 5 overs, Pakistan actually lost by 89 runs. Remember that they were 86 behind the par score. In other words, the target nigh-on perfectly preserved the teams’ relative positions. If they’d been up with the par score, and scored the same runs in those 5 overs (46, for the record) that they ended up scoring, they’d have lost by 3 runs —again demonstrating how well-balanced the DLS target was.

Don’t blame DLS for the faintly absurd conclusion. If you must blame something (and does one really need to do so?) blame:

  • Pakistan’s batsmen for being 86 runs behind the par score at the interruption.
  • The regulations that forced the teams to continue playing five futile overs.
  • Limited-overs cricket, that forces teams to go on playing when the result is a forgone conclusion. Talking of conclusions, this’ll do.