With the end of the Ashes comes, what feels like, the end of an era. The current England team has been the most successful of the last 25 years and reached the pinnacle of cricket, briefly becoming the number one Test team in the world in 2011. The core of the Test team has remained largely the same with the likes of Cook, Broad and Anderson being the mainstay. However, performances in the last year have never replicated their best form and culminated in the recent 5-0 whitewash that reflected the worst ever Ashes tour and has left England with lots of questions to answer about its future.
England had entered the winter Ashes off the back of a successful reverse summer series, but even then questions were being asked about the form of the England team. The productivity of Ian Bell with the bat – top run scorer in the series with 562 runs, averaging 62 and included 3 centuries – rescued England at critical points. Although all round a poor performance, it was notably the performance from England’s senior batsmen that fared the worst. It was the first time in history that England lost all 100 wickets in a 5 match Ashes Test series, and five times during the series England’s top 5 batsmen were out for a combined total of less than 20.
The missing form-ula
Was it inevitable that England would perform so poorly with the bat this winter given their form over the last year? Although cricket is a sport rich with statistics, one thing it doesn’t measure is a player’s form with bat or ball. Examples of form can be found in other sports – in golf’s Ryder Cup, Europe select 9 places using ranking point lists which are meant to reward in form players.
There are an endless number of statistics used in cricket to analyse performance, but these tend to focus on short or long term achievements. Here we show how using statistics with a bit of innovation can be used to analyse batting form.
The standard measure of a batsman’s calibre is career batting average, but this doesn’t always reflect the current form of a player. For example, a high batting average doesn’t represent the form of a player if they hit a large amount of runs in the early stage of their career and recent innings have seen a low return.
How can recent performances be used to represent form? A comparison can be drawn here to the financial world, and in particular the use of moving averages to support traders in tracking the trend of asset performance. Much like the performance of a financial asset, a batsman’s run of form can see fluctuation in scores – including the occasional large deviation – and trends can be found in performance over time.
In order to calculate a batting moving average, we need to consider over what period form should be measured. The last 8 innings provides a sensible measure as this is equivalent to the number of innings in a 4 match Test series. A simple moving average is sensitive to lags, but this can be reduced by giving weight to more recent scores. An exponential moving average with a 5% reduction in weighting for each innings will indicate the trend in form and react faster to changes in scoring.
We’ll look at England’s regular top order batsmen: Cook, Trott, Bell, Pietersen and Prior who have been familiar figures in the England line up since 2010.
Boom and bust
We can see that the form of a large number of England’s top order batsmen peaked in 2011 – which coincided with them reaching number one in the world. Off the back of a hard fought draw away to South Africa in 2010, England went on to win 6 test series in a row, including retaining the Ashes away to Australia. Cook showed exceptional form, peaking during the home series against Sri Lanka which followed his record breaking efforts against Australia in the preceding series.
England’s batting form hasn’t reached the same heights since. The landmark away victory in India at the end of 2012 preceded a steady decline in form, including the recent back-to-back Ashes series. This suggests that even though England won their third consecutive Ashes series, England’s batting form had been in steady decline. It could be claimed that Ian Bell almost single-handedly won England the summer Ashes – certainly from a batting perspective. Making England favourites before the start of the last Ashes may not have been a good bet given their batting vulnerability at the time – and the chart shows performance in the series wasn’t a one-off.
With senior batsmen out of sorts, with the exception of Bell, it might have been advisable for England to arrange more tour matches prior to the series to try reverse the trend by playing themselves into form. However, this may not have prepared them for the pace of Mitchell Johnson, who bowling at over 90 mph, tormented the English batsmen taking 37 wickets – and the mental fatigue of back-to-back Ashes may also have been a factor.
There also appears to be something of a 2 year cycle with two expansions and contractions of form in the 4 year period. Drawing comparison again to finance, this follows the ‘Boom and Bust Cycle’ which pertains to a capitalist economic cycle. If this trend is true, then we can expect England’s form to begin picking up in 2014, starting with the home series against Sri Lanka in June, but it could be another year (or summer 2015 with the current Test schedule) until England start to peak as a batting unit again.
The future of Pietersen?
In the aftermath of the Ashes, certain sections of the media are questioning Pietersen’s future in the team. England’s flamboyant batsman has divided spectator opinion, as well as dressing rooms, during his career. His aggressive batting can quickly take a game away from an opponent, but the manner of his dismissals often provokes criticism. In situations when England need to steady the ship following the quick loss of early wickets, Pietersen has on numerous occasions been guilty of trying to dominate bowling attacks and got out playing attacking shots, normally pulling or playing something that resembles a slog to leg side. A number of his dismissals in the last Ashes series fit this category.
It’s not only the number of runs that makes a batsman valuable, but the consistency in which they produce them. Calculating the standard deviation will tell us how much scores deviate from their average, and dividing the average by this gives us a batting index that offers batsmen with a higher average more scope to be inconsistent.
Although Cook has averaged highest, he has also been the least consistent batsmen. This is explained by the number of exceptionally high scores during 2010/11, and as an opening batsman facing the new ball he is more culpable to low scores.
Pietersen should not be dropped from the Test team having been the leading England batsman when taking a balanced view of scoring contribution and consistency. And his form during the last two Ashes series has not been out of line with the rest of England’s senior batsmen.
It’s not just on the pitch though that Pietersen will be judged. If his personality is disrupting morale in the dressing room then, no matter how well he contributes with the bat, his place in the team will not be tenable.
Rebuilding for the future
We’ve learnt that England’s recent batting slump wasn’t a one-off and followed a steady decline in form. It’s not the first time in the last 4 years that England have hit such a low with the bat. Emotions may be running high because England have lost an Ashes series for the first time since 2007, but in a similar slump in batting form at the beginning of 2012, England rebuilt themselves using the same core team of batsmen to deliver an impressive victory in India a year later. The evidence suggests that wholesale changes aren’t required – although England will want to start transitioning in younger blood – and in a year’s time we can expect to see an England batting unit back on top form.