Lies, Damn Lies, And High Performance Reviews

Sir Andrew Strauss’ review into how to improve the performance of men’s international and domestic cricket is nearing its end, and has released its consultation document to the public. This unusual transparency from the ECB allows us to consider data given to county chiefs before they vote on the issue, and also gives us an insight into the current decision-making process within English cricket.

The actual report itself was written by consultants Twenty First Group, who call themselves a “Sports Intelligence Agency” (I assume this is an allusion to the Central Intelligence Agency, although I cannot fathom how that would be a helpful comparison), with input from a panel of experts across cricket, other sports, and business.

This appears at first glance to be very open, transparent and collaborative, particularly compared to the ECB’s usual modus operandi. However, it should be pointed out that various tricks have been used to direct readers to what you might assume to be the authors’ preferred outcomes.

People Only Read The Title

One very simple trick is just to use the title or description to state the point you want to make, even if the evidence doesn’t necessarily support it. Take this, the first page of evidence in the review:

Now look at just the location of the black dots. According to this graph (and confirmed by a quick check on Statsguru), England have the fourth-best seam unit away from home. They travel better than New Zealand or Pakistan, for example, who both have the reputation of being very good pace attacks. If this graph was presented without comment, what would someone take from it?

I can easily explain why the difference is so great between England’s home and away bowling averages in two words: Chris Woakes. Despite having a very poor record away from home, he has played in 20 Tests abroad (The 4th most amongst English pace bowlers behind Anderson, Broad and Stokes) since 2014. He averages 51.88. No rational person would select him, and even Ed Smith would find it a stretch. The reason he has played so many games in conditions that don’t suit him is because there was often no alternative. Everyone above him on the ‘Test bowlers suited for bowling on a flat/dry pitch with an unresponsive ball’ list was injured. In the same period, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone combined have played in 19 Tests. It’s not that England don’t have pace bowlers capable of thriving in foreign conditions, it’s that they are almost always unavailable due to injury.

By happenstance, one of the High Performance Review panel members is ECB Performance Director Mo Bobat. His job for the last three years has been to oversee the fitness of England players, the bridging between county and international cricket through the Lions and other development programmes, and the Loughborough academy. If talented cricketers are spending more time on the physio table than on the pitch, you could argue that he is the one to blame.

Too Specific

One trick the ECB likes to use, as I have covered in two previous posts regarding The Hundred (HERE and HERE), is showing very specific statistics but using it to present a broader point which the data doesn’t support.

Take this chart, for example:

On the face of it, this looks terrible. Spinners get fewer domestic opportunities in England than the other 8 cricket boards, so how can the England team be expected to develop spinners who can prosper in Asia? Except that this isn’t what this chart actually shows. Instead of (for example) total spin overs bowled, it is a percentage of total overs. To answer why the panel chose this specific measure to illustrate their point, consider this chart:

So England has the lowest percentage of spin bowling, but also the highest number of days’ play for every team. If you take these two numbers and multiply them together, you get this chart:
England are still in the bottom half, but by no means the worst. And, just to be clear, these are values per team. There are only six first-class teams in both Australia and New Zealand, and so the total volume of spin overs bowled in England is almost certainly three times that of the other two countries. No one would argue that English cricket shouldn’t do more to develop spin bowling, particularly in the longer formats, but this data in the report doesn’t provide a convincing argument either for what the problem is nor what the solution should be.

Framing

It is very simple to alter the appearance of a graph in order to accentuate differences between figures. All you have to do is start the numerical axis at a number other than 0. Here’s one example:

Notice how the chart begins at 30 rather than 0 days. This means that the shortest bar is 6 days whilst the longest (England) is 17 days. To a casual observer, it would seem like England played almost three times as much cricket as New Zealand and India. To compare, here is what the chart would look like if it began at 0:

Seen at this scale, the differences between countries seem far less pronounced. English players play 30% more days than those from India or New Zealand according to this data, or 10% more than in South Africa. It suddenly becomes a less obvious factor for why English players might underperform.

Another related trick you can use is taking advantage of the page orientation to maximise or minimise the variation in a chart. Take this example:

As well as beginning at 0 and having a title which calls the averages “consistent”, it is also one of just two bar charts in the report which the bars are vertical rather than horizontal. On pages or screens in landscape orientation, vertical bars are shorter than horizontal ones due to a lack of space. This reduces the apparent differences between two bars even more than before. Here is the same data, but presented as a horizontal bar chart and a shortened X-axis (most other charts in the report are shown this way):

All of a sudden, you would face an argument that first-class cricket cannot be held in August or September. Considering that the rumours are that this (and April/May) is the panel’s favoured time for the Championship to be played, you can see why they made their style choices.

Read The Fine Print

If there is some data which you want to include for completeness (or perhaps to cover your arse, so you can prove you told someone at a later date) but it doesn’t support your argument, you can just hide it using formatting or perhaps hidden in an appendix. If we take another look at the first graph from the previous section, you can see a set of figures written in grey to the right of the chart:

If you put these numbers in a chart, it looks like this:

The major thing that this does is move India from joint last to joint second. India are currently ranked first in both the ICC Test and T20 team rankings, so you would be foolish to argue that the number of matches the best Indian cricketers were in was a detriment to their development.

Conclusion

I found myself utterly unimpressed with the outcome of this review. It’s light on detail and has very little in terms of actual recommendations from the panel itself. Instead, it largely seeks to ask the counties which changes they would make based on the information provided. Although the various manipulations which I have detailed above might point the counties towards certain proposals (fewer matches with greater rest, red ball games during The Hundred, a smaller Division 1), the actual suggestions from the panel are small and largely meaningless.

The one which makes me genuinely angry is ‘Understanding What It Takes To Win (WITTW)’. It say the ECB should “research into WITTW (red + white ball)” in order to produce a “Definitive WITTW report”. Maybe I was being naive, but I thought that was what the High Performance Review was supposed to come up with. Why would you have business leaders and people from other sports on the panel, including famed ‘win at almost any cost’ advocate Dave Brailsford, if not to provide an expert insight into how to succeed? I have to assume that this panel was not cheap to assemble, nor the consultancy firm who collated the report, and yet one of its key recommendations is that you should assemble another panel (and perhaps the same consultants) to answer the question that was basically the whole point of the original exercise? What utter nonsense. But nice work if you can get it.

There are three massive elephants in the room which the report has totally ignored. One is The Hundred. It is hand-waved through with the rather optimistic description of “The Hundred is committed through to 2028, and is a clear best vs. best competition”. How they square “best vs best” with the existence of Welsh Fire as a team is frankly beyond me. The Hundred apparently exists as a giant monolith in the middle of the English season, around which everything else has to fit. The cricket calendar in 2019 was far from perfect, but even the tournament’s biggest fans can’t deny that the domestic schedule is even worse now. The Hundred does aid the development of English cricketers, but almost exclusively towards entering other T20 leagues around the world rather than playing for England.

The second is the county youth system. Development of players ultimately depends on counties hiring those with the potential to play at international level, and it’s not clear that this is currently happening. I’ve written previously about how counties often seem to ignore talented youngsters if their face doesn’t fit or they can’t afford to fund their own training. You can see the almost immediate success of the ACE Programme and the South Asian Cricket Academy in identifying multiple cricketers outside the county system who are arguably better than those currently with contracts as evidence of this. Comparing schedules between countries does not matter if English clubs aren’t capable of identifying the best players available.

The third is how players improve (or don’t) whilst under the direct care of the ECB. It is a tale as old as time: A promising player has a breakout season in county cricket, gets called up to play for England, or a training camp at Loughborough. They start well, but over time their form declines. If they’re a batter, it’s usually their technique which is changed by the specialist coaches into a mess of neuroses where they now can’t keep out a delivery bowled by a twelve year old. They re-enter county cricket as a broken husk of a human being, and are never heard from again. If they’re a bowler, they are typically transformed from a colossus who bowls 90mph thunderbolts to someone with the skeletal structure of a 90 year old with osteoporosis who has trouble tieing his shoelaces. Ironically, this often occurs because the coaches want to alter the bowling action to ‘prevent injuries’. A lucky few become T20 specialists, more or less able to handle 4 overs every few days. Those less fortunate are chucked in a pile behind the bike sheds at ECB’s training centre in Loughborough.

All in all, the report is almost entirely without merit. How it took three months or more to come to this point when the data used in the charts would take an A Level Statistics student about a day to compile and the resulting ‘evidence’ is a mess of conflicting numbers which don’t really suggest any clear ‘solution’ to the problems at hand. As worthless a use of time and money as I can imagine, in all honesty. A fitting tribute to the end of the Tom Harrison era at the ECB.

If you have any comments about the post, England’s Test win, or anything else, please leave them below.

England v South Africa – 2nd Test Preview – Peaks And Troughs

It’s easy to fall into the trap of hyperbole when considering where the England Test team stand right now. In the last Test match, they lost all ten wickets for fewer than 200 runs in both innings. In the first half of the English season, they won four consecutive Test matches against two of the top teams in the world. Before that, they went 16 months without winning a single Test series.

It seems like there is no middle ground for this team. They seem unable to grind out a close win, or lose a tightly contested arm wrestle. They will either blow their opposition away like a hurricane hitting a matchstick factory, or collapse like… Well, like an England Test team.

England have announced a single change to their lineup, with Ollie Robinson replacing Matthew Potts. It is precisely what you would expect from England. Dropping a bowler after the batsmen embarassed themselves is textbook ECB practice from the last decade. Zak Crawley is visibly struggling, as is Alex Lees, but let’s instead get rid of the bowler who took more wickets than Anderson in the first Test. Classic.

At the same time, it would be foolish to discount England’s chances of drawing level in this series. South Africa are not a great Test side, and none of their batters currently have a Test average above 40 (unlike England’s Joe Root). It really wouldn’t take much for England to win by almost as big a margin as they lost the last game. If they had an X-factor bowler such as Jofra Archer, they’d possibly be favourites.

In other news, it has been announced that several Test grounds will host women’s internationals in 2023. This is a huge step forward. Since the sold-out 2017 Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s, the ECB have only played a single match (a 2018 ODI at Headingley) at one of the eight largest cricket grounds, in the seven largest cities in England and Wales. You might remember that the ECB’s reasoning for The Hundred included the idea that holding it in smaller grounds, smaller towns, would limit its potential growth and profitability. The logical extension of that would be that they were actively attempting to sabotage women’s cricket in this country by refusing to let them play in the largest markets. It is perhaps no coincidence that this announcement only came three months after Tom Harrison quit.

If you have any comments about the Test, women’s cricket, or anything else, please leave them below.

England v South Africa Preview – Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball

As England prepare to play Test cricket in August, perhaps for the last ever time, there is only one word on people’s lips. Coined by Andrew Miller, ‘Bazball’ is used to describe England’s freewheeling attacking style under new coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum which has led to the Test team winning all four matches under his leadership so far.

I don’t personally like the term Bazball but, when both Baz and the entire South African cricket team seem to loathe it, my contrarian side insists that I use it as much as possible. South Africa’s coach, Mark Boucher, has even said that any cricket journalist using the term “has to” have a shot of tequila which he will supply. For free. Surely this demonstrates such a poor understanding of human psychology (particularly amongst the English cricket media) that he isn’t anywhere near qualified to lead an international cricket team?

Whilst I have enjoyed the ride, I’m unconvinced that the England Test team is much better than they were four months ago. Since August 2020, England have won a grand total of 1 match in which Joe Root didn’t score a century, and even then he got 86 not out. The key difference between now and last year is that he has received some support from Jonny Bairstow.

Since the start of 2021, England have scored a total of 21 Test centuries. Joe Root was responsible 11 of them. Of the remaining 10, 4 of them have were achieved by Jonny Bairstow in the past 4 Test matches. The significant improvement in Bairstow’s form seems to be the only real dissimilarity between McCullum and Silverwood’s England teams. Whether McCullum was responsible for that, or simply the lucky beneficiary, remains to be seen.

The conditions in England have also been unusually conducive to batting up until now. Hot, dry weather, Dukes balls which have become relatively lifeless after a few overs. Pitches which have stayed hard and true for a full five days. This is not what you would expect in an English summer and, given the rain forecast through part of this game, seems unlikely to be the case this week. To borrow a phrase from football: But can they do it on a cold, rainy day in St. John’s Wood?

England have not, in my opinion, given themselves their very best chance of winning by picking Zak Crawley as opener again. Crawley averages 26.71 in his 25 Test matches. Twenty five. Christ…

Anyway, that’s less than Dom Sibley (28.94), Joe Denly (29.53), Rory Burns (30.32), Mark Stoneman (27.68), Alex Hales (27.28), Sam Robson (30.54), Nick Compton (27.80) and Michael Carberry (28.75), just going through the list of openers who England have discarded for not scoring enough runs, and who (apart from Burns) all had far fewer chances to demonstrate they deserved their place.

It’s not even like he’s improving year on year. This summer, he has a Test batting average of 17.75 from 4 matches for England this summer, and 24.25 in 8 Championship games. It’s frankly a little odd that Kent are still picking him.

I don’t envy professional/degenerate gamblers like InnoBystander going into this series, because I frankly have no idea what is going to happen. England crushing South Africa and England being crushed by South Africa seem equally likely to me. Both teams have a fragility to them which means things could go very wrong, very quickly.

All that said, having predicted England losing every Test this summer, even the possibility of winning this series seems like a miracle to me. Long live Bazball!

If you have any comments on the game, or anything else, please leave them below!

The Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs

“As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.” – Aesop’s Fables

It is difficult to over exaggerate how much English cricket relies on Test cricket financially. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of the ECB’s total domestic income comes from the six or seven red ball internationals played every summer. The ticket sales alone for a home Ashes series draws in almost as much income as the entire Hundred (Including TV rights, sponsors, and 34/35 ‘full’ grounds) in a year.

Which is what makes it so surprising that the ECB seems intent on prioritising a competition which is losing money, and seems certain to continue losing money for the next six years without significant changes, to the detriment of their proverbial golden goose.

For a simple indication of the two formats’ relative worth: In 2019, the idea was mooted by MCC members that one Test every season, played at Lord’s, should be shown on Freeview. Sky responded by saying that such a move would cost the ECB £50m per year. For a single Test match. The total revenue for The Hundred in 2021 was £52m.

It has been said repeatedly by supporters of The Hundred that it is vital for the competition is played in August, since more children will be able to attend games or watch them on TV than at any other time of the year. This may be fair enough as an argument if your sole priority is the long term health of this one competition, but it is baffling in the context of English cricket as a whole.

Given that the ECB (and therefore the counties also) are so financially reliant on Test cricket, it would seem like a sensible measure to ensure that as many children as possible were able to watch it on TV, to become the next generation of fans (and, more cynically, customers). Instead, the ECB has chosen to do the opposite.

There is also the matter of attendance. The T20 Blast was shifted from primarily being in August in 2019 to June in 2022, and this appeared to cause a 23% decline in ticket sales. Given the high demand and high price for Test tickets in England, a similar fall in sales might cost the ECB several million pounds every year.

It should be said, in fairness to Tom Harrison and others at the ECB, that they acknowledge the reliance that English cricket has on a handful of Test matches every season. It was a key goal of The Hundred to become a second source of income for the game, to act as a safety net in the event that the commercial viability of the red ball game declined. That is not an unlikely scenario, not least because clowns like Harrison have been in charge of English Test cricket for a long time.

The initial indications from The Hundred this year don’t seem to indicate that the competition deserves this extraordinary level of support from the ECB. Viewing figures on the BBC for the men’s and women’s opening matches appear to be almost half what they were in 2021, suggesting very little interest from the wider public. And, to be clear, this is before the men’s Test series against South Africa has begun. Moving next year’s Ashes to a less favourable slot in the calendar wouldn’t obviously have any positive effect on The Hundred, but could have a severe negative impact on the number of people watching the Tests.

Cricket Australia hosts both a T20 competition and their Test series at the same time, with no obvious harm to either. The idea that it is necessary to sacrifice England internationals in order to ensure the growth and popularity of The Hundred is blatantly false. The whole exercise stinks of some worried executives throwing every possible resource behind a project they are publicly considered responsible for, or perhaps have bonuses linked to the success of, not caring about the wider damage it will cause the organisation and people they are supposed to represent.

The ECB is insulated somewhat from the consequences of their actions, at least for a while. A new Sky TV deal has already been agreed which offers them a similar guaranteed income over the next six years, albeit one that will likely be worth a lot less over time due to high inflation in the UK. The problem will come when they look to negotiate the next contract, from 2029 onwards. If interest in the longest format is diminished, and by extension its commercial worth, then it would lead to a significant devaluation in what Sky and their competitors thought the rights are worth paying for. That would be catastrophic for the ECB, and particularly the counties.

Or maybe I am wrong. But I don’t think I am.

If you have any comments on the post, The Hundred, or anything else, please leave them below.

Why Not Move The Hundred To April?

The Hundred has been a contentious issue for English cricket since it was first launched in 2018. Its supporters, most notably within the ECB and the media, seem to treat it like a sacred object where it would be considered blasphemous to alter any part of it. The appointment of Surrey CCC’s Richard Thompson as ECB chair represents perhaps the first time since its inception that someone in a position of actual power has publicly questioned aspects of the competition, and that represents an opportunity to make The Hundred work for everyone.

One of the most egregious lies told regarding The Hundred is that it would help attract new fans to both watch other teams and play at their local clubs. If The Hundred does excite a kid into joining an All Stars Cricket session, then they would have to wait until May the next year. Someone wanting to see more T20 games has the same issue. There is a reason why you never see advertisements saying “You can buy this product… In eight month’s time!” That reason is because it would be a monumentally stupid waste of resources. After eight months, the excitement and interest will have largely faded.

This would all change if The Hundred was held in April. This would allow the ECB to say “Did you like attending this match? Well, this very ground is hosting seven more matches almost exactly like it starting next month. You can buy tickets now.”, or “Are you interested in playing cricket? Well you’re in luck, because this website will show you a list of local cricket clubs starting junior sessions in the next few weeks.”, and “Like these women cricketers? Here’s the fixture list for the Charlotte Edwards Cup.”. It even allows Sky to say “Did you like watching this match on BBC/YouTube/TikTok/Pick? Here’s how to subscribe to Sky Sports via Now TV, where you can watch cricket almost every day for the next five months.”

It just makes sense.

There are other benefits hosting the competition in April. The international calendar for the England teams is now ridiculously condensed thanks to the ECB trying to avoid scheduling games through either the IPL or The Hundred. With the IPL extending into June now and The Hundred taking up all of August, only September, July and half of June are available for 7 Tests, 12 ODIs and 12 T20Is between the men’s and women’s teams. 58 days of scheduled cricket in a space of roughly 75 days. It’s ridiculous, physically unsustainable, and simply can’t last. Something has to give and, absent a significant change of heart from the BCCI, it has to be the ECB which relents.

Obviously there are downsides to such a move. Nights are a lot colder in April than August, which would hit evening attendance somewhat. It wouldn’t all be school holidays, although the 2-week Easter break usually falls in April. Sky would probably not be too pleased if they wanted to show the IPL but were obliged to prioritise The Hundred instead, although I’d hope that the increased promotion for the rest of their Summer cricket might help mollify them.

Some players wouldn’t be available due to the IPL, including a few England internationals. Going by the squads in 2022, as many as 28 men’s cricketers in The Hundred (9 English plus 19 overseas) would be in India through April. The ECB could force players on central contracts to stay, but it would be massively unpopular with the PCA and might lead to people refusing to sign international contracts altogether. The loss of talent could be mitigated somewhat by the complete absence of international cricket in the IPL window, which would mean that virtually every other cricketer around the world was available. One obvious opportunity would be to recruit Pakistani players, who aren’t chosen by IPL teams for reasons left unspoken. That said, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to hold a T20 league at the same time as the IPL and not look like a second-tier competition. To be clear: The Hundred is a second-tier competition, but the ECB doesn’t want it to be that obvious.

There are undoubtedly other things that Richard Thompson could change in order to improve The Hundred for next season. The amount the women players are paid should be significantly increased, more women’s matches should have the prime nighttime slot, overall costs should be reduced, the on-screen graphics should be fixed, and Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen should be barred from entering the grounds. But none of that would have anywhere near the impact of having The Hundred, the showcase event for English cricket with up to 18 matches on Freeview, starting the season rather than being almost at its end.

If you have anything you’d like to say about the post, Thompson’s appointment, or anything else, please leave them below.