Extended thoughts on team selection
Russell Degnan

Previewing the forthcoming series can wait for the moment, not least because the Australian side is so stricken by poor form, injuries and general malaise that it is almost impossible to predict who will make the touring party, let alone the result.

The One-Day series hasn't helped. They rarely do, test players who aren't in the ODI squad are forgotten, ODI players on the fringe push their chances forward, and crises of form carry from one to other even when the playing personnel is different. Australia's formerly dominant one-day side has become a mere shadow of its former self in the wake of the test side's collapse. The malaise in the Australian side has become so deep that both Tony T and Nestaquin have both argued for a serious look at the incumbent side, and a rebuild, of not just personnel (who, in general, probably are our best options), but of approach, attitude and application.

Team selections need to follow a strategy that will rebuild the team. The days when a lineup of superstars could chase down any score, and defend any total are gone. The real beauty of the batting of Gilchrist, and the bowling of Warne and McGrath was that they were effectively all-rounders, the former because of his batting and keeping, the latter because they could effectively attack or defend as the situation required. The ineptitude in playing defensive cricket in losses to India and South Africa highlighted clearly the team's inability to react to different situations, and the need for players who, while not the game changers of yore, can play a specific role.

The aim of this post then, is to not so much list the 11 players (and more) that I like, but to determine why one is a better fit. I'll start on the edges and work in, not least because the biggest problem is always the number 6 and the fourth bowler.

The fast bowlers

First reality check. There isn't a spinner in the top ten (probably twenty) best bowlers in the country, let alone the top three. The selection criteria for your opening bowlers is their ability to take wickets at the lowest possible average. That sounds obvious, but keep in mind that the selection criteria for the third and fourth bowler is more complex than that.

Second reality check. There isn't a bowler in the country that will consistently take wickets for just over 20. This matters. Teams who have a player like that should be looking to complement and support that player first and foremost, a task the bowlers singularly failed to do for Warne in the 2005 Ashes. (Oh how we missed Paul Reiffel)

Third reality check. For Lee and Clark, read Hughes and McDermott circa '93-94. They may play, they may add something to the side (Clark more-so than Lee). But they are well on the wrong side of 30, coming back from injury, and not far from retirement. The South African tour won't include either, the Ashes are an unknown, and anything beyond that is luck. To the extent that each played a specific role, their replacements should replace that role, and hold it, if they prove superior.

With that in mind, here is a list of the top performing bowlers in Shield cricket, columns, from left, being 07/08 wickets/average, 08/09 wickets/average, career average, age, and a complex formula that weights the previous columns.

7/8W 7/8A 8/9W 8/9A CA Age Rank
McKay 16 24.75 21 21.19 24.93 25.94 26.08
Nannes 22 28.54 28 19 24.54 32.71 26.69
Johnson 31 37.8 31 19.16 29.47 27.24 26.84
Siddle 33 17.06 15 33.86 27.04 24.18 27.2
Cockley 2 60 14 17.71 23 22.82 27.51
Magoffin 35 25.48 25 23.96 28.42 29.16 27.61
Hilfenhaus 28 43.82 24 18.66 29.13 25.88 27.69
Noffke 51 19.03 16 20.43 28.04 31.75 28.37
Butterworth 15 45 17 20.7 26.85 25.25 28.57
Bollinger 45 15.44 16 27.56 30.88 27.52 29.01
Dorey 20 24.9 23 28.73 25.91 31.32 29.25
Geeves 37 33.27 25 20.8 34.57 26.63 29.93
Bracken 22 21.22 10 23.3 25.98 31.38 30.5
Harris 37 29.86 27 26.59 32.98 29.3 30.57
McDonald 13 38.76 18 24 30.02 27.62 32.01
Lee 45 25.57 13 39.3 28.4 32.22 32.3
Clark 35 30.4 7 23.85 27.14 33.46 33.4
Tait 11 34.09 13 40.76 28.59 26.29 33.51

Sometimes we get lucky (Clark) but it seems to take about two seasons before a bowler settles into the side. Johnson is there now, Siddle is on the way. Given they may yet fail, and in likely view of the need for a third (and possibly fourth) fast bowler, we can probably rule out anyone over 30 without either an outstanding case (form and need), or some international experience.

Noffke and Nannes then, could count themselves unlucky. Their career and recent form are very good, but at 32 (ish), they'll likely be past it by the time they find their feet. As an outside chance to tour South Africa and England however, their name should be in the mix. Dorey, and to a lesser extent Magoffin are younger, but also unlikely options.

At the other end of the scale, Cockley is 22, and only played four games, McKay is also inexperienced (though no more than many others before him), but seemingly not rated (See JRod for more, but note the absence of his name from any dispatches). Like Bracken, this stems partly from his low economy rate (2.5 ish), which improves his average, but means long spells for his bowling partners. More on that shortly. Butterworth's description as an all-rounder, while flattering, probably dooms him to wanton career destruction as he shuffles up and down the order and gets under-bowled. Geeves may be something for the future, but one good season doesn't make a test player, so like the others he'll need to wait.

Not surprisingly that leaves Johnson and Siddle as the likely leaders of the attack, both likely to average around 25-27, and concede runs at 2.6-3.0 rpo. The former has improved markedly over the past year, though he faded in the latter tests against South Africa, and needs to work on a ball that comes in. Siddle has impressed with his work-rate and aggression, even in India, though his tendency to bowl too short and below pace worked against him in Melbourne; fitness will be the key to his career, because he looks vulnerable to injury, and reports of stress fractures aren't a good sign.

The third and fourth bowlers must therefore complement their strengths, and hide their weaknesses. They are neither attacking nor defensive bowlers, Siddle is handy against the tail, Johnson has an uncanny ability to get set batsmen out (often to a rubbish ball). Neither are great swingers of the ball; obviously too, neither are spinners. That's a lot of roles to fill, but we can deal with each of these in turn.

An attacking bowler (Lee, Tait, MacGill) has the advantage that, when on song, they can roll a side quickly and allow a team to press for the win. They, in general concede more runs, but pick their wickets up more quickly. To the extent that conditions will favour an attacking bowler, there is a case to be made for their selection, and it is always necessary to have a bowler capable of removing tail-enders. In all other cases however, if the attacking bowler's average is worse than the attack leaders (and by definition it is), then their tendency to give up runs makes them less effective (as a combination) than a defensive one. Both tactically, because it is harder to build pressure, and because their wickets are more costly than that of their team-mates, even if they take more.

Although we've often scoffed at the Hauritz, Giles and Harris's of this world, they perform an essential defensive role that you need to have, whether it is in wait of a new ball or a session break, or most importantly, in support of a bowler who running rampant at the other end. However, there are limits to the tolerance paid to a worse average. Hauritz's average of 45 @ 2.0 rpo may be superior to Krejza's average of 40 @ 4.0 rpo, but it is substantially worse than any pace bowler would be, and at least some of the medium pacers above are capable of long spells.

Given that, the best make-up for the attack, to me, is to couple one moderately attacking bowler as support for Johnson and Siddle, with one defensive one.

The attacking bowler should come from (in order) Hilfenhaus, Bollinger or Lee. Lee, if fit and firing, is capable, but for much of his career, and certainly this summer, he hasn't been so good that he should be an automatic selection. If he never played for Australia again, it would not be a huge loss. Incidentally, Tait's inability to go for less than 4 an over likewise makes him a huge liability, regardless of his strike-rate. Hilfenhaus, as a genuine swing bowler would complement Siddle and Johnson well, and his season and career average, economy rate, and age all put him ahead of Bollinger.

On the defensive front, the choice is between (again, in order) Bracken, Clark, McKay and McDonald. Bracken's exceptional economy rate (below two), ability to swing or spin/cut the ball, and control should have got him into the side years ago. He isn't young, but his control is his strength, not his pace. Clark's lack of cricket leading into the Ashes will work against him, but assuming he is fit enough, his presence will be useful (even as a backup, because injuries always happen).

The spinner question is still open. We need one, preferably a real one, not Clarke or Katich, but we don't have one that can comprise a four-man attack. I'll leave that question until after the batsmen.

The keeper

Needless to say, this should be straight-forward and isn't. Haddin is clearly the best batsmen of the wicket-keepers in Australia. But it is quite possible he is also the worst keeper. He give chances, he lets through byes, he looks stiff, poorly positioned and upright taking balls, and his occasionally spectacular efforts often come in situations when the routine would have been sufficient. His batting, attacking and dangerous, is an asset, but is also often rash and disappointing in situations when a player of his experience should have had a calm head.

In a really good bowling side, his keeping errors would have been forgiven for his batting ability. But in a side that needs to take every chance, Haddin is a liability, and the 30 odd runs you lose on the batting ledger is more than made up for in the fielding. Who to replace him with, however, I am not sure of. I don't see enough state cricket to judge, and the obsession with the batting side of keeping is not limited to the international ranks (or the cricinfo descriptions). It isn't a decision you want to take lightly. England's chopping and changing of keeper's provides a case study in destabilisation with no end in sight.

Except for Ronchi, the obvious choice for the one-day side, and to a lesser extent Paine, there isn't terribly much between the batting of the other contenders. By reports, Hartley and Crosthwaite are the best glovesman, but their batting (particularly the latter) doesn't cut it in the modern game. Haddin is unlikely to be dropped of course, no matter his problems. But if his glovework doesn't improve in South Africa, the calls to take someone else to England will become more persistent.

The top order

An area where the Australian selectors should be most competent, and yet have been most lax. The demise of Hayden's career was most notable for how long the run of bad form was allowed to persist, and how stubbornly the selectors held to the hope of his redemption. The downside comes now, with complete uncertainty over the second opening position, and the lost opportunity to blood a player in the dead final test.

In the past, the opening combination has tended to be one fast, one slow, providing a mix of attack that unsettles opponents with greater solidity. One of the few positives of the past year has been the form of Katich. While I've been critical of the size of his scores he has provided rare solidity in a top order that has been wanting in that area. I still have doubts over Katich's long term future. The fact that he isn't making big scores bodes poorly for him when the inevitable loss of form occurs (notwithstanding the fact that he is almost 34).

As for his partner, the good thing is the selectors are spoilt for choice, even of all of them are flawed. Jaques is the obvious choice, having been the incumbent before a combination of Katich's form, injury and Hayden's return pushed him aside. The problem is a complete lack of any cricket this season prior to this weekend. His performances last season were exemplary, barring two things: an odd tendency to play ridiculous shots after reaching a milestone; and the manner of his play that suggests getting out at any time. His first class record suggests he'll prosper, but you never know how a player will perform at the highest level.

In the Shield, top order players dominate the runs table, with Klinger, the stodgiest of them, leading the way. His problem is his past, not his present, having spent several years doing nothing at Victoria, the worry is he'll regress again, or (perhaps worse) also take several years to settle at the higher level.

Rogers, also in rare form, is the only other opener with test experience, albeit a single unsuccessful game. He has an extensive career of run scoring behind him, but he is also almost 32 in a lineup with several players too far past that point. The chance to settle on a youngster or two is too alluring for Rogers to overcome.

And then there is Hughes. Australia has plenty of past history playing teenagers, but it is rare they succeed, and rarer still that they go straight into the opening slot. Only Archie Jackson could be considered a real success, and his career was cruelly curtailed. The temptation is to play Hughes in the middle order and push Hussey up to the top. Until recently, the idea that you'd move Hussey was madness, given his average, but now his form is so poor, the chance is available if the selectors want it - albeit, perhaps, by replacing one out of form left hander with another.

Finally, the one-day form of Shaun Marsh has raised his chances of touring substantially. His uncomplicated but fast-scoring style, his age, and his ability all work in his favour. His lack of hundreds at all levels, and poor first class form do not.

The smart money is on Jaques and Katich, with no other changes to the Australian line-up. But other options are available. Players need not be pigeon-holed, and movement up and down the order used to be fairly common as the selectors struggled to tie down the opening slot and number three. Ponting's own form has been poor for most of the summer, coming good in hard-working knocks in the first test in India, and in Melbourne, but otherwise struggling.

Ponting is proud, so surrendering the number three slot is against his nature, but the number of collapses in the past year has been alarming. If Hussey were to go, then the opportunity arises to play (effectively) three openers, then Ponting, opening up the top order to the in-form batsmen. Katich is the most likely number three, with two of Jaques, Rogers and Marsh opening (preferably the latter two), Ponting at four, then Clarke.

In the long term, if their form holds, Hughes and Klinger could move into the top three, and Clarke move up to four when Ponting goes. In reality, nothing could move Ponting from three, and the case for dropping Hussey is not so strong as yet (he will, at least, survive the South African series). That leave a likely combination of Jaques, Katich, Ponting, Hussey and Clarke, as opposed to Rogers, Marsh, Katich, Ponting, Clarke.

The middle order

The first question regarding the middle order, is what do we want from it. For preference, I like one of 5 or 6 to be a young batsman. The side needs to be rolled over constantly, and batsmen need time to settle. Unless they are going to open, they'll be batting down lower. But the real question is whether we need an all-rounder, and if so, what type?

Fourth reality check. Australia doesn't have a genuine all-rounder. What they have are a mix of genuine batsmen who bowl a bit (Clarke, Katich), better than average batsmen who bowl a bit more (North, Symonds), an all-rounder only in the sense that he is distinctly average at both (McDonald), very ordinary bowlers who can carry the bat reasonably well (Krejza, Hauritz, Casson) and decent bowlers who can also bat a bit (Johnson, Lee).

You can, statistically, calculate from their averages what each player will bring, in combination with those around them; how a lower batting average will offset a better bowling average. But this doesn't capture the real value of six batsmen, nor the value of a fifth bowler (by keeping the front-line players fresh, and increasing options across different conditions).

In the batting, the important thing to remember is that most players fail, in any innings, scores are exponentially distributed, and the major difference in average between players is often their ability to go on and make a big score, not a pretty fifty. The value of a sixth batsman (and batting keepers) (averaging 45+), rather than a player who rarely scores hundreds (averaging mid 30s) is that when the top order fails across the board, there is still the chance to score 300-400 if 6/7 are batsmen and get going, rather than 200-300 if 6/7 are not batsmen and get going. Of course, if they fail, they fail, but there is little to statistically differentiate a batsman and a non-batsman's failures.

In the bowling, consider what I said earlier about defensive and attacking bowlers. A fifth bowler, by definition, will be defensive, because there are three bowlers you'd rather have taking wickets. If conditions are such that the all-rounder chosen is in the first three bowlers (a spinner for instance), then even if they bat higher, the 4th/5th bowlers should be defensive.

The weakness with selecting Clarke, Katich or North as the batting all-rounder (in the former two players' case, opening the number 6 slot to Hughes), is that none of them are good defensive bowlers, as they concede runs at 3 or more an over. Symonds is better, in this sense, because he does a job holding an end, even if his bowling is mediocre at best, and his batting too often irresponsible. McDonald is an outstanding defensive bowler, and did an under-rated job in Sydney, but his inability to make hundreds hurts him, particularly if Haddin is replaced by a stronger keeper, but worse batsman.

Conversely, Krejza and Casson are attacking bowlers, which rules them out, unless the wicket turns. Hauritz is a good defensive bowler, but his batting cannot bridge the gap to be considered an all-rounder. There are three ways to shoe-horn a spinner into the side, and that is to play (in an attacking role) McGain, who, despite being almost 37, is undoubtedly the best spinner Australia has: play Johnson at 7, which potentially weakens the batting terminally; drop the third attacking bowler (Hilfenhaus) and take the risk that McGain's versatility overcomes his deficient comparative average; or drop the defensive bowler (Bracken), and play a defensive all-rounder, in the hope that their batting stands up to scrutiny.

The second option would be brave. It means playing a side that may struggle to take 20 wickets but allows the choice between the neither here nor there McDonald and a young batsman, probably Hughes or North, with my preference being Hughes. There is, however, little to choose between options two and three, both are risky, both are a problem always faced by selectors who sense simultaneous weaknesses in the top order and the bowling.

The upshot is that there probably needs to be subtle differences in the side, depending on conditions. On turning wickets, McGain (even Krejza) become attacking options, on bouncy seamers or in swinging conditions, the batting needs bolstering and spin is a luxury, on flat decks, the batting is secondary to the need for long spells from more than four bowlers. That suggests three sides (varying for form, the particular questions over Hussey and Haddin, and the general questions outlined above):

Rogers Rogers Rogers
Marsh Marsh Marsh
Katich Katich Katich
Ponting Ponting Ponting
Clarke Clarke Clarke
Ronchi Hughes Hughes
McDonald Ronchi Ronchi
Johnson Johnson Johnson
Siddle Siddle Siddle
McGain McGain Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus Bracken Bracken

Fielding and captaincy

Which leaves but two things. The first is the problem of slip. The absence of Hayden in the West Indies was a debacle. Marsh and McDonald are the likely candidates, but that is partly because I haven't seen terribly much of them, even if their record suggests they can catch. Other combinations vary, Jaques is terrible; Klinger and North have pretty good catching records; M.Hussey doesn't generally field there, but is normally safe elsewhere; D.Hussey does, but he is almost too old to debut; Voges can, but seems to be falling down the pecking order; Symonds, Hughes and Clarke are good fieldsmen, but not slippers.

The captaincy is a quandary. Ponting is hopeless, but the options aren't great. It is an extraordinary inexperienced side. Slotting back Hussey, Haddin, Symonds and Jaques would help that, but none of them are certain of their place anymore. Clarke might be better as captain, but he isn't showing it as vice captain right now. Katich would be the only option, but the potential distraction to his batting is worrying. If Cameron White could only bowl better, particularly as a defensive spinner, you'd be mad not to pick him and give him the job. But he doesn't, and may never do so. If North could force his way into the side, then he is an option, but in the meantime captaincy speculation is secondary to team selection. For better or worse, the uncertainty over places makes it a choice between Ponting, Clarke and Katich, with only Katich likely to be substantively better.

Because the selectors are conservative, minimal change is likely, and the series in South African series will merely hint at how the team should line up. But a number of key players need to show they are still capable at this level: Ponting, as captain, not just as an inspirational leader with the bat, Hussey, Haddin in both his disciplines, and the young players, whoever they are. While I'd hate to write off a series, particularly against South Africa, it is hard to see Australia winning with the current side (perhaps they could with a side playing with youthful abandon). In some ways, not losing should be secondary to playing well, and finding players who can keep the Ashes five months later. At the very least, players need to know what role they are there for, and play to it. Because the absence of sensible cricket in the past six months has been vastly more damaging than lapses in form and injuries.

Cricket - Articles 30th January, 2009 11:54:33   [#] [3 comments] 

Past time for formal time
Russell Degnan

In the most tedious stretch of sporting play I've seen outside the final minutes of any professional basketball game, Australia took the better part of three minutes to bowl two balls. The last of which with the South Africans needing 6 to tie. Taking ten seconds to bowl an underarm would have been better viewing.

However, on the back of an unbelievably tardy summer of time-keeping, it is merely one more demonstration of the need for the game to get serious about its time-keeping. Most other sports have it easy, because moving time is integral to the play, but cricket is not alone in being otherwise. Professional tennis long ago realised that players would happily take advantage of rest breaks, injuries, towelling offs and just plain tardiness to gain some on court advantage. Under the careful watch of the umpire, and the threat of in game penalties, the rhythms of the game are now punctuated with calls of "time", and it is a better spectacle for it.

Cricket, being played within strict time constraints, nevertheless has daft penalties, out of kilter with the crimes committed. A tardy batsman can be dismissed, a penalty so harsh that no self-respecting fielding side would apply it (even during the supposedly acrimonious "Sydney Test" when Ishant Sharma's daft and dim-witted ploy to slow things down practically deserved it). On the other end of the scale, an ill-thought out fine and suspension system is played out regardless of the game result, and largely ignored by captains.

The obvious solution is to enforce a strict time period - via the third/fourth umpire - for bowling the overs, and supplemented by solutions for the things outside the bowling side's control. Firstly, time stoppages for three types of events:

  • Stoppages for the state of the game: scheduled drinks, fallen wickets, third umpire rulings.
  • Signaled timeouts for unforeseeable problems: equipment failures (changed balls, demonstrated broken bats/helmets) or injuries. class
  • A limited number of 90 second timeouts for bowling and batting sides: probably 3 per session in a test, 5 per innings of one-dayers, 3 per innings of 20/20 games.

And secondly, preventing gamesmanship from the batting side. Timed Out may still need to exist, but can be replaced by a more general 5 run penalty for deliberate time wasting by the batsman. Applied where the fielding team is ready, and the batsman fails to face the delivery without just cause for greater than some time period (15 seconds), and on appeal from the fielding side. Batsmen needing the ubiquitous change of gloves, extended mid-over chit-chats, or drinks can call time-outs.

The bowling team must bowl their required overs regardless (either at the end of the session, or the end of the day), but will incur a 5 run penalty for each unbowled over at the conclusion of each session/innings. Not necessarily enough to be decisive, but more than enough to make a difference to tactics.

This makes for a few problems in test cricket, where the sessions are closed at a particular time and 90 overs are required. Specifically, there are four scenarios:

  1. The (normally 90min) time clock has run out, the required overs have been bowled: extra overs have probably been bowled, no penalty applies, the session ends at the correct time.
  2. The time clock has not run out, the required overs have been bowled: a slow session, perhaps with lots of wickets, or breaks; no penalty applies, the session could end either via the time clock or by the time.
  3. The time clock has run out, the required overs have not been bowled: penalty runs apply for unbowled overs, the session ends at the correct time, unplayed extra overs need to be scheduled at the end of play to get to 90 (regardless of who is bowling, but untimed).
  4. The time clock has not run out, the required overs have not been bowled: a slow session, but with unplayed time that needs to be continued until either the time clock finishes (rarely more than a few minutes) or the overs have been bowled (as above); penalties may apply and extra overs may need to be scheduled.

If the bowling side find sufficient time to have an on-field tactics meeting without calling a timeout then so be it, but time and run pressure will do what fines have failed to do all summer, and that's get things through quickly. Rain and change of innings would, of course, require the clock to be adjusted. But importantly, through formalisation of the game time, the hand wringing over over-rates can stop, and we can get back to the cricket.

Cricket - Articles 19th January, 2009 09:48:51   [#] [5 comments] 

Ratings - January 2009
Russell Degnan

India v England

Opening Ratings: Ind: 1160.06 Eng: 1100.18
Expected Margin: India by 80 runs
1st Test: India by 6 wickets
2nd Test: Drawn
Closing Ratings: Ind: 1167.91 Eng: 1098.27

A strangely short series, in what was a generally a good contest between the third and fifth best sides in the world. A comprehensive victory here would have propelled India into the top position on the rankings, but as it was they had to work hard merely to win. The first test was low scoring, punctuated by epic innings: a pair of Strauss centuries, a(nother) rejuvenation of Collingwood, a blistering 83 from 68 balls from Sehwag to set up the last day chase, and the long-awaited fourth innings match winner from Tendulkar. Strangely, having been dominant through the first innings, the spinners influence waned as the match progressed, Panesar received much of the blame for going wicket-less in the 387 run chase (a record for the ground, though only 40 runs higher than the tied test), though the English batsmen were negligent in not making more and faster runs.

The much anticipated Dravid resurrection finally occured in the second test, grafting 136, while the ever more impressive Gambhir made 179 at the other end. Pietersen, Gambhir and the in-form Yuvraj Singh scored runs in the subsequent innings, but with almost 100 overs lost to bad light and rain, India was unwilling to risk the series victory pressing for the win, and the game meandered to a draw. In the averages, Khan, Sharma and Flintoff (now back near his peak fitness) were the best of the bowlers, while Gambhir dominated with the bat, scoring 361 runs. It was, however, all too short.

Bangladesh v Sri Lanka

Opening Ratings: Ban: 542.57 Sri: 1107.36
Expected Margin: Sri Lanka by 232 runs
1st Test: Sri Lanka by 107 runs
2nd Test: Sri Lanka by 465 runs
Closing Ratings: Ban: 538.80 Sri: 1112.67

Ah, the enigma that is Bangladesh. Having restricted Sri Lanka to 293 on the first day through Shakib Al Hasan's 5/70, they proceeded to collapse for 178 as Muralitharan took 6/49. Now subdued, Jayawardene scored a brisk 166 to set up a 521 run chase over 5 sessions. And then, Bangladesh fire again, through the especially enigmatic Ashraful (101), and the genuinely talented Shakib al Hasan (96), they were 6/403 before a late collapse finished the game.

In the second test, Sri Lanka were struggling a little again, at 4/75, before Dilshan (162 off 165) and Kapugedera (96 off 124) blasted the score to 384. From there, Muralitharan and Mendis got to work, knocking over Bangladesh for 208, and giving Sri Lanka plenty of time to set a big total. Everyone contributed, but Dilshan's 143 was the highlight, as the Sri Lankan nerves from game one were eased with a 624 run lead. Given Shakib al Hasan top scored with 46, it was more than enough, though there was still a chance for Dilshan to take four wickets, just in case the man of the match was in any doubt.

Bangladesh are beginning to resemble New Zealand, with talented all rounders in Shakib al Hasan, Mortaza and the keeper Rahim providing the bulk of the runs, below a top order contributing very little, very inconsistently. The Sri Lankans got another average boost, but even when the result is "close" the games are a necessary evil, not a contest of equals.

New Zealand v West Indies

Opening Ratings: NZ: 987.67 WI: 911.82
Expected Margin: New Zealand by 88 runs
1st Test: Drawn
2nd Test: Drawn
Closing Ratings: NZ: 977.21 WI: 922.75

How I hate two test series. A contest between two evenly matched sides, and one best suited to help young players learn the fine art of controlling and winning games, is reduced to an irrelevant side-show by an extended one-day series and the need to play elsewhere. These two sides have an extended history against each other that should be drawn upon while both are lesser draws to the big sides, but instead they avoid each other beyond the perfunctory two tests.

As it was, the lack of a reserve day (or days) and the New Zealand weather killed all chance of something meaningful. In an evenly matched first innings, Ryder and Flynn showed some form though both missed out on centuries. In the reply, Gayle, Chanderpaul scored 70s, but it was the 106 (off 107) from Jerome Taylor that prevented Vettori's 6/56 from allowing New Zealand to try and force the issue.

The second test was an enthralling draw, Chanderpaul and Nash taking the Windies to 307, with O'Brien taking 6/75. The New Zealand reply was led by McIntosh's 136, but a half dozen batsmen failed to carry on their innings to bring the lead beyond 64, as Edwards took 7/87. Nevertheless, New Zealand was well placed with just less than two days to play, having had Patel pick up Chanderpaul for a golden duck, and having the West Indies 4/106. Gayle, with extended support from Nash, made 197 to rescue the game. Although New Zealand made some pretence at chasing down 312 from the two sessions remaining, they lost too many wickets to do so. A much improved batting series from New Zealand, led by Ryder and Flynn who nonetheless need to go on and score hundreds, not fifties. Less so the West Indies, so dependent on Chanderpaul, Gayle and now Nash, and struggling to bowl sides out. The ranking gap continues to close, but the Kiwis remain in front.

Australia v South Africa

Opening Ratings: Aus: 1266.48 SAf: 1188.62
Expected Margin: Australia by 89 runs
1st Test: South Africa by 6 wickets
2nd Test: South Africa by 9 wickets
3rd Test: Australia by 103 runs
Closing Ratings: Aus: 1235.76 SAf: 1218.57

One of the best three test series played in recent times, with either side capable of winning all three games, and the final one going to the last two overs, even if the series was no longer on the line. The Perth test started at speed, Ntini and Steyn ripping out Hayden, Ponting and Hussey with only 15 on the board, but Australia settled after that and would have been well on top if not for repeatedly getting out to poor shots and the seemingly innocuous spin of Paul Harris. South Africa, by contrast looked excessively comfortable at 3/234 on the second day, before Mitchell Johnson somehow prised out not just Kallis and de Villiers but 3 more wickets to have them reeling. Another top order failure, more bad shots, and another rescue from Haddin (94) and the tail. Nevertheless, Australia left South Africa and seemingly imposing 414 to chase from the final five sessions. Seemingly, however, was not very. First the injured Smith (108) and Amla (53), then Kallis (57), de Villiers (106*) and Duminy (50*) chipped away at the target, easily working the bowlers for runs, until the chase seemed a formality.

To lose once from an impregnable position is careless, twice is a testament to South Africa's grit, and Australia's impotence. A brutal if slightly out of touch Ponting (101) and a grafting Clarke (88*) gave Australia 394 despite further problem near the top of the order. Siddle and Hauritz then worked South Africa over, to have them 6/141, with only a seemingly brittle tail and second gamer Duminy to come. The loss of a completely ineffective Lee, and the insane selection of an injured Symonds were mitigating but not sufficient reasons for the score reaching 459, though Duminy's 166 showed enormous class. The spineless collapse that followed had an inevitability about it, only Ponting's 99 stood out as Steyn completed his 10-for and the 183 runs scored with astonishing ease.

The series lost, and despite a call for changes to the side echoing from coast to coast, the only ones made were required: trundling lower order batsman McDonald for Symonds, NSW left arm quick Bollinger for Lee. The script continued as for the first two games, Ponting won the toss and batted, Australia were 5/162, before a lower end rescue from Johnson and Clarke got the score to 445. South Africa had their moments, but the young Australian attack had theirs too, Johnson breaking Smith's hand and running out a lax de Villiers through sustained pressure with field and ball. Morkel and Boucher provided some resistance, before Siddle scythed through the lower order to take 5/59 and a 118 run lead. The Australian top order finally scored a few, before Ponting set a generous, but in light of the defensive bowling stock, sound target of 376 off 116 overs. When de Villiers went at 7/190 the game seemed up, but the tail hung around, Steyn and Ntini lasting 17 overs, long enough for Smith to decide he could risk further finger damage to bat. The final wicket, Smith, bowled Johnson off one of the cracks came with just 10 balls to go.

Both sides will take a lot from this series, South Africa, the mantle of the world's best side, though the ratings will lag on that, the knowledge that their players can win any game, and the ability of their players across the board to perform. Australia, the need for change, but also comfort in the performances of Siddle, Johnson, Clarke and even McDonald and Hauritz who bowled tight lines and kept the pressure on; something lacking over the past year and the major difference between South Africa's 414 chase and their failure in Sydney. The end must be nigh for Hayden, whose presence in South Africa would be a shock, but so too are we seeing the slow decline of Ponting and Hussey and increasing frustration with Symonds and Lee. The side that won in Sydney was raw, but it showed enough promise to suggest better things.

Forthcoming Series:

Suprisingly, none, for a month or more.

Pakistan (6th) 1064.46
Zimbabwe (9th) 595.29

Cricket - Ratings - Test 12th January, 2009 11:33:49   [#] [0 comments] 

Distinguishing Form
Russell Degnan

As part of a continuing series on why Australia should drop Matthew Hayden, it is worth considering the claim that his struggles represent a loss of "form", instead of something intrinsic to his game. And how is it that one could tell, statistically, rather than merely watching his increasingly frantic high-risk shot-making, and inevitable dismissal.

A moving average

The first, and most obvious way is by looking at their average. Because Hayden has played so long, and because players must be judged on recent performances, the most obvious way is to choose some time period: the past year, the past two years, or some arbitrary date that makes them look especially bad.

The less obvious, but more objective way is to take a weighted average, where recent innings carry more weight than those played in the past. The weighting should probably be done by time (Ri*0.95^M where Ri = runs scored in innings i and M = months since innings) but for technical reasons it is easiest for me to do it by innings (Ri*0.95^I where I = subsequent innings played).

Ignoring not outs. Hayden's weighted average is now down to 35.47, having been as high as 53.12 at the end of last summer. A rapid decline, but only 3 1/2 runs worse than Hussey whose decline has been even more marked.

Assessing luck

But there is another aspect to form, and that is the perception of luck. All batsmen have bad periods, because all batsmen are vulnerable to getting out for less than 20. Greg Chappell famously remarked, in the midst of a serious run of low scores, that he didn't know if he was out of form, since he hadn't batted long enough to know.

If a batsman averages 30, there may be two reasons. Firstly, it may be because they are not that good: that the distribution of their innings is that of a typical player of that average. And secondly that they are out of form: that a rash of unexpectedly low scores is not sufficiently off-set by hundreds and fifties that they typically make, and which would keep their average much higher.

Because scores are distributed unevenly, we can calculate consistency of performance by taking a weighted log average:
(2^(∑(all innings i)[log2(Ri*0.95^I)])/Wn)
where Wn = weighted number of innings played)

If a player scored the same in each innings, their log average equals their normal average. Normally, this average is around half the normal average, thus, by dividing them, we get a consistency ratio. A normal ratio seems to be around 0.5. Players who score big hundreds amidst lower scores will have lower ratios (0.3-0.4), players scoring consistently, higher ratios (0.6-0.7).

But consistency, over short time periods, is also a measure of form. A player whose recent average is mostly the result of one big innings is obviously capable of large innings, but lacking in form. A batsman whose recent average reflects consistency of performance is likely to reproduce that form.

Combining the measures

Players' form and ability can therefore be judged against the two measures. Hussey, who last year had a recent average of 71.9, and a form ratio of 72, was clearly in rare form, that would, inevitably, end. Now, remarkably, he has regressed to the opposite end of the spectrum, averaging 39.15, with a form ratio of 39. Looking at how the form ratio tracks Hussey's recent average. Once his form regresses to the 0.5 mark, he is likely to have a career average of around 48-50. Respectable, and worth persisting with. But what of the others?

The graph is a little hard to make out, but (ignoring Haddin, who is still finding his feet), Australia's batsmen fall into three groups.

Hussey and Ponting, whose form a year ago was stellar, but who have recently struggled, both dipping into the low 40s, before Ponting's recent recovery.

Katich and Clarke, whose averages have been high this year - Katich particularly, though he is still being penalised from being dropped. But, whose form is so consistent, they are due to fail. More particularly, while their recent averages are respectable, they aren't high for players in such good form, and need to make better use of their run scoring opportunities. Tracking back to "typical" form, their averages would decline to just 40.

Symonds and Hayden, whose averages were both in the high 40s, low 50s last year, but who have recently declined to the mid 30s. More pertinently however, their form has not dipped with their average. This indicates that their recent middling scores are what you'd expect for players of their current abilities.

While Hayden's decline is of recent vintage (a year ago, you'd expect him to average in the low-40s), it is materially different to Hussey's in that it isn't luck deserting him, but his ability to make decent scores. His starts are marked by failures every bit as bad as those where he doesn't start at all. And for an ageing player, that matters.

Cricket - Analysis 1st January, 2009 23:17:35   [#] [4 comments] 

On the changing of the guard
Russell Degnan

I don't really mind losing so much. South Africa are a good side and they played well, taking important wickets to keep themselves in the game, and taking advantage of our extended lapses. They are not a great side though, their batting can be flaky and their bowling same-ish. We could have, nay should have won both games.

What annoys me, is that having ceded the initiative to the South Africans, we then served up the lamest, most defeatist, performances by an Australian side I have ever seen. South Africa had no Waugh brothers heroics, or tense finishes to overcome. They overcame a side that rolled over when confronted with a mere 65 run deficit and best use of the pitch. A side that gifted hundreds of runs to them with defensive fields in the midst of last innings chases. A side with talent, albeit some of it under-performing, but which, right now, I genuinely can't see winning any test against anything above the most mediocre side.

Ponting is a winning player, who plays his most inspiring innings in the direst situations. But he has proven completely unable to lift his side. And yet, I see noone better. Neither Katich nor Hussey are young, and they need to focus on their batting. Clarke is the only other member of the side sure of his place, and yet he has been more culpable than anyone in gifting the South Africans his wicket, and ultimately the series. A player with more batting talent in his right hand than Steyn has in his entire body, was comprehensively outshone by the inferior player, by the mere act of grafting much needed runs.

But it is the selections that are really annoying me. 1970 was a notable demographic milestone. It was the peak year for births in Australia, which until recently, have declined ever since. It was also the peak year for cricket talent in Australia (this is purely a coincidence). It has been obvious for a decade that we had a once in a hundred year confluence of talent born within a year or two, that was going to rise and fall together. Turning over that side was always going to be a challenge, but like a cancerous growth, it was only going to be worse the longer it was left. But by favouring stability in the short term, and always playing the best possible cricketers, instead of building up reserves while the best players could still play, has resulted in a team that still needs to be rejuvenated, but is also in terminal decline, and deeply unstable because of it.

The bleating of Ponting and the selectors that they've been "unlucky" with injuries, is idiotic. Injuries happen, particularly to older players. Five to ten years ago we regularly rotated Martyn, Clarke, Bichel, Kasprowicz and MacGill through the side as players went down. Now we are blooding debutants with other debutants because of short-sided selectorial policy.

And still Hayden plays on. A player that was genuinely great five and more years ago, but has since tempered his bullish home form with consistent mediocrity on his travels, is being pushed to play through two hard tours, even as his presence unsettles those batting below him. A rare chance to sweep away the detritus after a massive loss, to test young talent in a dead test against a good side, is to be squandered in hope. It is deeply telling that the selectors justify this by pointing to Hayden's keenness and training regime, as if his potential replacements are lounging on the beach indifferent to their future prospects.

In his wake the top order is a shambles. This is hidden by the deepest Australian tail since the 1950s, but the first five wickets against South Africa have fallen for 166, 148, 223 and 145. All batsmen fail more than they succeed. It is the way of things, and averages are the result of hundreds, not the scores in between. But the big hundreds, the game changing hundreds, have dried up. Barely a score over 150 has been registered in four years. Katich, Clarke and Symonds have, over the past year, been in career best form, yet their recent averages are in the mid-50s and below. Their lapses while in form, have been more telling than Ponting and Hussey's when struggling. You need a lot of lucky batsmen to win games with pretty fifties.

It is those top order failings, along with those of the bowling that has plunged us into the English dilemma. Our bowling cannot bowl sides out, so we need a fifth bowler to "help" the attack. Yet, our best five batsmen are also insufficient. The persistent use of neither here nor there all-rounders lies in this quandary. With Symonds, Watson and (apparently) Noffke all injured, McDonald is perhaps deserving of his chance. However, all-rounders of this type are a sign of weakness and panic. It is no coincidence that the end of the careers of Dodemaide and Matthews, and the end of the bowling career of Steve Waugh, coincide with the emergence of Shane Warne. Nor that the perceived need for an all-rounder coincides with his (and McGrath's) retirement.

I have faith in the bowling though. Their captain is not helping. But we have fielded worse bowling line-ups, though injury, in the past decade than this one. We shouldn't expect anything more from Lee and Clark. The former has had one decent year in ten, has lost pace and swing and never had guile. The latter could prove useful in England. When fit, both should be sent to county cricket to prepare. The idea that adequate preparation could emerge from bowling four over stints in the IPL is ludicrous. If the conservatism of the current selectors sees both arrive on English shores with neither form nor fitness, then we may as well pass the trophy over now.

In Johnson, Siddle, Krejza and even Hauritz (who may not be Shane Warne, but could do a passable impression of Tim May) there is some hope. Well used they could be effective. Not win every game anywhere, anytime, effective. But they are good enough to beat England, and haven't been without success against South Africa. Outside them there are certainly options; young options who need games behind them. In its own way this is an exciting period in Australian cricket. As the early 90s side of Border was nervously rolled over through the mid-90s, so might the new crop turn out to be champions. They may never be as good as the side of the past decade, but there is no reason to think they couldn't beat all-comers.

It is just that, at the moment, we don't know, and won't know, because neither the selectors, nor the captain, seem to believe they can win. And if you don't believe you can win, you won't.

Cricket - Articles 1st January, 2009 10:53:17   [#] [2 comments]