• The new schedule is easier for the Royals, but MLB still somehow scored an own goal

    This started as part of the post on the rule changes, but then I realised it was really its own category. As part of the new CBA, MLB released what I keep hearing described as ‘the new balanced schedule’ late last year, with expanded interleague play and less intra-division games. The first thing to note about it is that it isn’t actually balanced, it’s just less unbalanced than the schedule that’s been used since 2013. Teams still play their own division more than anyone else, for example the Royals play 13 games against Detroit next year and 15 games total against the entire NL West. The fact that this seems to continually escape the notice of analysts is kind of baffling to me. The other day on MLB Network they were talking about how it would be harder for the Royals next year, playing fewer games against the AL Central and more against the big teams in the National League. I get why, on the face of it, one would think that, if the schedule were actually balanced. But it’s not. Yes, we play the Tigers six fewer times, but we also play Cleveland six fewer times and the games against big teams like Los Angeles and San Diego are balanced out by games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

    Of course, we can quantify this instead of just vaguely saying there are good teams and bad teams. This is a bit of a digression, but I like numbers and analysis, so if you want to skip the next couple of paragraphs I don’t blame you. Under the old schedule the Royals would be playing the NL East in interleague play, plus four games against St Louis, our ‘natural rival’. (Much more on this later, because it’s surprisingly important.) We’re still playing the NL East, and also playing three games each against the five teams in the NL West and the other four teams beside St Louis in the NL Central. Those extra 27 games mostly come from playing six fewer games against the other four teams in the AL Central, though we actually also play one fewer game against the NL East than we would have under the old schedule. That leaves two games unaccounted for, as far as I can tell they come from playing one fewer game against each of the AL East and West. There’s always a random element to which of those teams we played six or seven times, so there’s no way to know exactly which teams we would have played one extra time. That makes for a bit of uncertainty, but uncertainty always exists and it is important to acknowledge it and ideally quantify it, not just ignore it.

    The standard way to judge strength of schedule is to just aggregate the winning percentage of the opponents weighted by number of games and compare before and after. This has the advantage of being simple, but it doesn’t really work because it blurs the distinction between how good (or bad) a team is and how many times you play that team. For example, The Los Angeles Dodgers were 111-51 last year. The two teams at the bottom of the NL West, Colorado and Arizona, were 68-94 and 74-88, respectively. The combined winning percentage is above .500, specifically .521, but if you played each team the same number of times—as the Royals do next year—that’s twice as many games against teams below .500 than above! Clearly averaging winning percentage doesn’t work. Instead you have to classify opponents (which you can kind of see in that above example—teams were classified into above and below .500) and see how the number of games against different classes changes. I’m going to use 70 wins as that’s decently close to the Royals win total last year. The only important thing is that a game against Cleveland or Detroit counts the same as a game against Los Angeles or San Diego. Of the 27 games lost from the old schedule, the Royals had at least six against teams with fewer than 70 wins last year, the six against Detroit. There might also have been two more, depending on which teams in the AL West and NL East we would have played one more time. (The AL East had no teams with fewer than 70 wins, so it doesn’t matter.) Of the 27 games gained under the new schedule, we actually have nine such games, against the Reds, Pirates and Rockies. It’s a pretty small difference, but the schedule is actually slightly easier for the Royals next year. Again, that 70 win number is an arbitrary one. But the answer actually doesn’t change even as you move the threshold around: The more balanced schedule is at worst the same and at best slightly easier for the Royals in 2023.

    It’s also important to note that the Royals would normally play the NL East next year, which had two 100-win teams and an 87-win team, so the comparison might be different in 2024. But it’s useful to demonstrate two things. One is how superficially a lot of the analysts are approaching the new schedule, which bugs me. The other is how small the actual difference in strength actually is. It doesn’t really matter, and that’s without even getting into the fact that even a lopsided matchup in a single baseball game is a lot more even than most other sports.

    Anyway, I’m not nearly as annoyed about the change itself as I am with the discussion about it. I have nothing against playing all 29 teams in a year. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I don’t really like interleague play and now that the DH is universal (grumble) there’s no extra appeal to playing in an NL city. But at the same time, I remember when I was a kid and how excited I was to see teams and players that I had never seen before come to the K. I always insisted we go to the game when there was an NL team in town. And I still like seeing new teams come to town. I have a goal of seeing every team play in person, which I’ll be able to achieve a lot quicker now. So I’m fine with that.


    MLB did not do a good job of actually implementing this change. To be fair, it is hard to build a good schedule for all thirty teams, especially without changing the total number of games, which at this point is probably a non-starter*. But this year the Royals have back-to-back off days at the end of May/start of June and a Sunday off day in August. Back-to-back off days are annoying, but not really an issue. The issue is a Sunday off day. I know that way back when there were Sunday off days and Monday double headers, but that’s not what’s happening here. This is just a Sunday afternoon in August with no baseball, which ought to be illegal. (And I don’t mean against MLB rules, I mean there should be a federal law against this, along with the Constitutional amendment banning Astroturf and the designated hitter.)

    *I say this because 162 feels like one of the game’s sacred numbers now, but emphasis on now. For almost sixty years the season was 154 games long, and it was only changed to 162 because of the change in the schedule necessitated by expansion to ten-team leagues—it was a balanced schedule of 18 games against each of the other nine teams. But when the leagues continued to expand the length stayed at 162 games. It’s probably not going to change again, but it might make things easier.

    This is particularly frustrating because as difficult as schedule creating is in general, this one actually has a pretty easy solution. Both of those weird off days come about because of a two-game series against St Louis being put into a slot for a three-game series. But it would be very easy to make both into a three-game series! First off, both are mutual off days; the Cardinals could play us without them having to move another game. That would make for a 164-game schedule, which we don’t want, so we have to take away two games from elsewhere. Luckily, as mentioned previously, we have some ‘extra’ games against AL East and AL West opponents. Of those ten opponents, we play six of them six times (two three-game series) and four of them seven times (a three-game series and a four-game series). There is no reason we could not make two of those four-game series into three-game series, preserving both the 162-game schedule and the conventions of playing every Sunday and not having back-to-back off days. Hopefully the front offices complain about the lost revenue from weekend attendance and this gets fixed next year, because it is very easy.

  • New Rules in MLB in 2023

    After listening to a week’s worth of games and watching a few, I wanted to give my initial take on the new rules. Of course, it’s not just new rules this year, it’s also a new scheduling system that I have heard a lot about, but that’s a different post. For now, I’m just going to focus on the rules.

    The big thing this year is the pitch clock, but I actually want to address the new bases first. These have mostly been an afterthought, because on the face of it, they don’t really change much. I can see on TV that they are bigger, and yeah, sure that means the distances are a little reduced. Maybe that means more steals or infield hits (although the distance is shorter for the throws too) or whatever. But I doubt that’ll be noticeable. The reason I am starting with these is that I am really hoping the new bases help with the one place MLB need to change the rules and didn’t: the slow-motion replays of runners coming off the bag for a split second. This has been one of the most frustrating things about the sport in the last few years, mostly because every umpire interprets ‘clear and convincing’ differently and you could have the same play called two different ways on successive days. But this is also one of the few places where I think the application of the letter of the rule is actually contrary to the spirit of the rule. There’s nothing that a runner can do differently or better to stay on the bag—an impact at that speed is going to jostle the runner no matter what—and I’ve never thought it was fair to punish them for being subject to the laws of physics. The flip side of that is that no one (that I know of) wants runners being able to gratuitously overslide with no consequence. Ideally a rule change here would just restore the previous status quo. This probably reads like a bit of a digression, but it’s relevant because I really don’t know how the bigger bases will impact this, if at all. But there’s a reasonable chance that by giving runners a bigger target they have more chance to keep contact during the impact or more room to make it harder for a fielder to keep the tag on. It’s not a perfect solution—to be fair, I don’t think there is one*—but maybe this will help.

    *The best idea I’ve had so far is simply to make that aspect of the play off limits for review. If the umpire can see the runner come off the base in real time, fine. But if the effect is so small that it takes replay, then there’s probably nothing the runner could do and it should not be reviewed.

    Okay, so the big noticeable changes this year: Firstly the pitch clock, of course. Most people who follow me on Twitter will know I have been in favour of this for years, because watching some relievers pitch is just painful. But there are some aspects to it that are probably necessary for the concept to work that do introduce some unfortunate wrinkles. The basic premise—that the pitcher has 15 seconds with no one on and 20 seconds with runners on, and the hitter must be ready with eight seconds remaining—is great. It’ll cut down on relievers taking forever and it’ll cut down on hitters faffing about with their gloves between every single pitch. But with this comes the stipulations that the pitcher can only step off the rubber twice without recording an out and the hitter can only call time once. I understand the necessity of this, otherwise players could completely circumvent the rules at will. But the limits on stepping off the rubber and throwing over might have some huge knock-on effects. The onus is mostly on the pitcher to control the running game, and for all the talk about the larger bases being an incentive to steal, taking the threat of throwing over away from the pitchers will do a lot more. (Even as I write this I watched a player steal third almost unopposed because the pitcher wasn’t doing anything to hold him on.) MLB wants to increase stolen bases, so they probably see that more as a feature than a bug, but I am a little less convinced. Stolen bases are fun, but partly because of the difficulty and risk. Diminishing the pitcher’s ability to control the running game felt before the start of games like tilting the scales too much, and maybe it will be, but it’s been okay so far. Though the first dozen or so games I’ve watched or listened to, I only think it’s been relevant once or twice. I definitely think the pitch clock overall is a net positive, and certainly when I was planning an outing with some friends of mine who are more casual fans it was a selling point that a Saturday game starting at six would probably be over by nine.

    The other big rule change is the shift, or lack thereof. I care less about this, partly because I don’t think it’ll make a huge difference. The argument about the shift usually centres on the batting average of left-handed pull hitters, but advanced analytics have basically meant that left-handed pull hitters aren’t judged on batting average anyway. (This is a topic I’ve been slowly and vaguely writing about, but it’s more time-consuming than I thought.) So what’s the point of having or not having the shift? Just from a fan’s perspective I think the biggest difference will be the end of the frustration of watching your pitcher make a great pitch, induce weak contact the other way and have it be a hit because the field was set for a bad pitch instead of a good one. But in practice it might just make pitchers even more single-minded about strikeouts. I suspect the most it’ll be talked about is if or when a team actually gets called for a violation early in the year.

    It’s also technically a change that the extra inning Manfred runner is now permanent. It’s a stupid change and I hate literally every aspect about it, not least that it’s ‘solving’ a problem that barely existed and to the extent that it did exist could be solved in any number of better ways. I’m not going to dignify it with a lot of attention, but it is important in that it shows what a low bar MLB has for ‘success’ for these new rules. (Or, equivalently, what a high bar there is to actually dropping any of these rules.) Unless any of the important rules dramatically and unarguable backfire, I expect they will all be made permanent, and that’s the one aspect of all this that I really dislike. MLB does not seem interested in reconsidering at any stage; we all knew for months that these rules were coming in no matter what and it’s clear that they are basically permanent.

  • Answering Questions With Data

    No, not that Data. (Source: Wikipedia)

    When we try to apply statistics to sports, or to anything else for that matter, what we are doing is trying to answer a question with data. The data part of that is obvious, but what’s less clear is usually what the question is. But there is always something we are trying to know or understand more clearly. This process is also at the heart of all research science and the issue of what questions should be or can be meaningfully asked is actually a very difficult one and it often takes years of experience to do this correctly so that your data are not fooling you. This is why research articles in science journals are written so weirdly and often with so much jargon. There are a lot of tiny distinctions that we easily conflate in everyday language that are vitally important when doing research. This is true in any data-based research, including analysis of sporting statistics. This is always an issue and part of the conflict between old- and new-school statistics really boils down to misunderstandings of what questions the data are actually answering.

    One of the most common distinctions that gets lost in sport (and in everyday life, really) is the difference between statistics that tell you how often something has happened in the past and the odds that something will happen in the future. All sporting statistics are the former. If a batter in baseball has a .300 average it tells us the rate at which he or she has got a hit so far in a season or career, specifically three times out of ten. If a cricketer averages 45 with the bat it is the same thing: in the past that cricketer has averaged 45 runs for every dismissal at the relevant level.

    Such stats tell stories, often extremely effectively. If I tell a baseball fan that a hitter had a .287 batting average, 12 home runs and 58 RBIs, that immediately gives a sense of the hitter, albeit an incomplete one. I could add to the story by saying they scored 93 runs, or had an OPS of .671 or some such. All those tell us about the player without ever having to watch a single plate appearance. Extremely importantly in the ongoing (and probably never ending) debate of old- versus new-school statistics, all of them fall into this same category of frequentist statistics. One person might understand a .287 batting average better than a .671 OPS and people might (okay, do) disagree about which is more important, but they both tell you about things that already happened.

    The problem is, the question of what happened in the past isn’t usually the question to which we want to know the answer. It’s great to know that our hypothetical hitter has got a hit in 28.7% of official at bats for the year, but usually what we want to know is something like the likelihood of said hitter getting a hit in their next at bat, or at what rate they will get a hit next year. It’s fairly obvious that the latter is not the same, but it’s less obvious&mdash but just as true&mdash that the former is not the same either. And this is why I started with the importance of knowing what question we are asking of the data; it is extremely common to see people not just in sport, but when dealing with probability in general to assume that the frequency of an event happening in the past is the same as the likelihood of that event happening in the future.

    This distinction is the impetus behind a lot of advanced stats and Sabermetrics. I do have some issues with Sabermetrics, but on the whole I quite like it. (This surprises a lot of people, but it is true.) Part of that is just having a natural affinity for playing with huge datasets from a sport I love, but also most people behind Sabermetrics understand this distinction and a lot of other important scientific principles to working with data. They are very good. The issue is that most people in the media and even a lot in front offices don’t understand that distinction, and then completely misapply advanced statistics.

    This is why I have started here. In practice people are almost always going to use frequentist statistics to approximate likelihoods. The alternative is building a proper Bayesian formulation, and whilst that is increasingly feasible, it’s still well beyond what most people can do, or even find it worth doing. But what’s important is understanding when we are using frequentist statistics and what their limitations are.

  • (Re-) Introduction

    Hello. Or hello again, as the case may be. If you’re coming to this as a new blog and never read The Forward Defensive you might wonder why a ‘new’ blog is clearly not that new. If you know I used to write a blog ten years ago you might wonder what the hell happened and why that blog is here now. Either way, I felt I should stick some sort of re-introduction before just writing things.

    About eleven years ago I decided to start blogging about sport and primarily cricket. I started The Forward Defensive because I was spending a lot of my time watching sport and had more options and analysis than could fit on Twitter. (This was in the days before threading.) I really enjoyed blogging; I enjoyed the excuse it gave me to watch even more cricket at even stranger hours in the middle of America and I really enjoyed virtually meeting so many people with a shared interest. But when I started grad school in 2013 I stopped having the same amount of time to devote to writing and in particular I stopped having the same amount of time to devote to watching. I still did watch sport, of course—anyone who has followed me on Twitter for the last decade will be keenly aware of this—but I didn’t watch as much and I didn’t have the same energy to devote to opinions about it. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but grad school is exhausting. It also doesn’t pay well, and eventually I couldn’t justify continuing to pay for hosting fees, so I made a backup of the data and let the hosting expire. (I thought I had kept the relatively cheap domain name registration though, but apparently not.)

    Great, that explains why the post before this is a half-baked one from 2014 about Mike Moustakas being sent to Triple-A that I wrote from a room at a now-defunct radio observatory in eastern California. But you may ask yourself: ‘Why is there now this post?’ ‘Why is the name of the blog different?’ ‘How do I work this?’ ‘Where is that large automobile?’

    The short answers are that I’m restarting (for lack of a better word) the blog now because I finished grad school in May and now have a job that affords me a lot more money and spare time. So I’ve gone back into watching sport in detail and I have gone back to having thoughts and opinions about sport again. I noticed this in earnest during the recent MLB postseason when I realised I was texting unsolicited long-form analysis to family members every night, usually because someone in the broadcast media was completely failing to understand (or at least convey an understanding) of the nuances of statistics and mathematics. Consider the return of this blog an effort to spare my loved ones from getting series of paragraph-long texts from me every time I sit down to watch a game.

    The name is changed for two reasons. Firstly and most importantly, it is because—as alluded to above—I accidentally let the domain name registration lapse. As soon as that happened it was picked up by a dodgy-looking reseller to whom I have no intention of giving money. I could have just changed the URL to some close variant of it, but at the same time the blog is not going to be quite what is was previously either. A new name seemed a better option. I’m still going to write about whatever sport I happen to have an opinion on (probably one of the first posts is going to be about the ongoing World Cup) and I’m still going to write some stuff that is just an opinion. But I’m going to focus more on deep analytical dives. I have almost a decade of experience as a professional scientist now including a PhD in Astrophysics. I have tools and experience to apply that I couldn’t even imagine when I was blogging a decade ago. This also ties back into my motivation to start blogging again in the first place. There is no shortage of modern statistical analysis in either cricket or baseball, but despite the fact that every industry now has data scientists to perform customer analyses there does not seem to be any effort to upgrade from advanced statistics to data science in sport. In practice, this also means I am probably going to end up focussing more on baseball than I used to. The data collection is a lot more thorough and organised in baseball and the records are easier to access. (Also, although both sports have inexplicably become harder to watch in the modern media landscape, cricket more so because I have less flexibility to deal with the time zones involved now.) This is why I chose the name Defensive Indifference. It is a similar style and has a direct nod back to The Forward Defensive, but it’s a baseball term.

    Other than that, it’s the same as it ever was.

    (NB: This post will be pinned for a little while, until there are enough new posts that it isn’t necessary any more. A summary of the relevant information is still in the About section.)

  • Moose sent down

    I’m a day or two after the party on this (see the end of the last post re: being in the mountains of California), but I did see that the Royals finally sent Mike Moustakas to Triple-A Omaha.

    It had to happen. Although he has shown glimpses of breaking out, the fact remains that it is the last week of May and he is yet to have a stretch of consistently performing even passably well. Even worse, between the few games where he has looked like remembering how to bat (eg, the 3 RBI game against Colorado) he has looked completely lost. I lost count of the number of times in the past few weeks I saw him strike out swinging at a pitch well outside the strike zone. He has clearly been straining mentally and it was not getting better. Sending him to Omaha was certainly the best thing for him and the club at this point.

    How long he will be there is the interesting question. He batted superbly in Spring Training, so I would not rush to recall him even if he hits .500 for a couple or weeks. Danny Valencia has performed decently and can has played every day at the major league level plenty, so he can hold the third base spot for a while. I would let Moose play at Omaha for at least a month, even if he looks like he has got things back together right away. I suspect he needs time to really settle in, find his form again and just put the first seven weeks of this season out of his mind.

  • Roses preview

    After a two year wait, there is finally going to be a four day Roses match this week. It has to be said though, that unless Lancashire play a lot better than they have shown for most of the start of the year and especially better than a fortnight ago against Middlesex, the match may not be worth the wait.

    The match against Middlesex was not quite a shambles, but our batting effectively failed again. Whilst it was our highest first innings score this season, it was not nearly enough on a fairly flat wicket on which our bowlers toiled. Middlesex admittedly batted well, but it is worth remembering that going into that match they had faired little better than we had with the bat. Even with Kyle Hogg returning, only scoring 266 in a flat wicket in the first innings was simply not enough. Much as I hate to say it, Yorkshire look to be a strong side and they will provide just as much of a test as Middlesex did. The batsmen in particular will have to rise to this challenge much better.

    Whether or not that will actually happen, we will have to see. The signs in the three day match against Loughborough MCCU were mixed, but it did seem a bit more of the same: a poor first innings total bailed out by a good performance with the ball and then a better batting display in the second innings. I don’t think that will be good enough against Yorkshire. Unfortunately there isn’t really an obvious solution. Luis Reece and Karl Brown both scored second innings runs, but that isn’t really a cause for optimism as much as it is a reason not to drop them.

    If we do manage to get some runs on the board, I would back our bowling to be able to make inroads, but as we saw against Middlesex, that isn’t a guarantee. Jimmy Anderson will be absent again, though an attack of Glen Chapple, Kyle Hogg, Tom Smith (on current form) and Simon Kerrigan should be quite capable. It might be worth playing Kabir Ali as he has looked fairly sharp over the start of the season, but ultimately I would prefer not to weaken the batting any more.

    I won’t actually be able to follow this match very closely though; I am currently at a radio observatory in the mountains of eastern California and will be throughout the match. This post was actually supposed to go up days ago, but due to packing and travel I could not quite finish it. I’ll be seeing score updates and my fingers are crossed, but I do worry that the typical turgid draw of a Roses match may be the best case result this time.

  • Lancs’ batting woes

    Lancashire have played a quarter of their Championship matches this season and although it is still certainly early there are some areas of concern. Although our record (one win, two draws, one loss) is not really dire on the face of it, both draws were losing draws. We were saved by bad light against Warwickshire (admittedly after putting up a good fight) and by rain against Sussex. The bowling has been decent so far; the problem has very much been the batting. The extent to which we have struggled with the bat is highlighted by a glance at the Division One table; we have just one batting point from four matches. That by itself has actually cost us a place; our record is better than that of Nottinghamshire, but they have managed ten batting points which is enough for them to sit in sixth whilst we are in seventh.

    Paul Horton has batted well at the top of the order, but then the entire middle order has consistently struggled and the fact that we scored enough runs to beat Northamptonshire was down largely to the efforts of Jos Buttler and Tom Smith down the order. Luis Reece still has promise, but he is yet to do in the first division what he did in the second last year. Andrea Agathangelou was dropped after the first three matches, but at least against Sussex Karl Brown and Steven Croft did not fare any better. Possibly most worrying is that Ashwell Prince has done very little to follow up his century in the opening match. Even before the season started it was clear that we were going to be relying on him to stabilise an inexperienced batting order and our struggles are directly tied to his struggles.

    There isn’t an easy fix to this. It is reasonable to expect that a batsman of the potential of Reece will find some form as the season goes on and the same will likely be true of Prince. Brown and Croft have only had one innings and so might improve, but at the same time there is a reason they did not play at the start of the season. The only real active step Glen Chapple and Mike Watkinson can take right now is to try to find an overseas batsman for the remainder of the season. Simon Katich did an excellent job last year in that role; right now we really need someone who can do that again. There are unfortunately no obvious options and the fact that we are five weeks into the season with no overseas signing suggests that most of the less-obvious ones are not interested either. So it looks like we will be spending most or all of the summer hoping our current batsmen remember how to bat. Our bowling is good enough and there is enough promise in the batsmen that this isn’t a disaster, but I worry it will mean a pretty nervous (not to mention frustrating) summer in the bottom half of the table.

    There is some good news ahead of tomorrow’s match against Middlesex, however: Kyle Hogg has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the first four matches of the season. Although Jimmy Anderson is unavailable after playing against Scotland this weekend, it does mean a return to something close to our first choice attack against a Middlesex side whose batting has almost been as frail as ours. If we can bowl first we have a good chance to bowl them out cheaply and then we might be able to ease some of the pressure on our own middle order. Fingers crossed…

  • Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

    Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

    First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

    The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

    The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

    For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

    For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

    There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

    This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

    At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
    Alastair Cook*
    Sam Robson
    Ian Bell
    Moeen Ali
    Gary Ballance
    Ben Stokes
    Matt Prior†
    Stuart Broad
    Chris Jordan
    Steve Finn
    Jimmy Anderson

  • England 2-0 New Zealand

    First, apologies for not writing in some time. I’ve tended to either be too busy to sit down long enough or too uninspired to write anything even vaguely coherent. (That last one may still be the case, we shall see.) Anyway, here follow my belated thoughts on England’s 2-0 series victory against New Zealand.

    Despite the scoreline, there was a lot of criticism during the series of England’s approach and I do think that some of it was warranted. In the first Test, the focus was mainly on England’s very slow scoring rate in the first innings. This criticism was completely unwarranted as the rest of the Test showed: it was hard to bat on that wicket and England’s first innings score turned out to be not only the slowest of the match, but also the highest.

    More reasonable, however, was the criticism of Cook in the second Test. It was a match in which the first day was entirely lost to rain and one which England thoroughly dominated. But Cook declined to enforce the follow-on despite that and even after deciding to bat again, England showed no signs of wanting to win. They batted very slowly on the third evening and very late into the fourth day, despite rain forecast on day five. To an extent this was vindicated as England did manage to win, albeit with very little time left before the rain set in on the last day. Cook’s decision not to enforce the follow-on was at least reasonable: he wanted the New Zealand left arm bowlers to give Swanny a bit more rough going into the last innings. Given that England’s lead was not actually over two hundred (the lead required to enforce the follow-on was reduced to 150 after the first day was washed out) this is at least understandable, though at the time I was inclined to disagree with it.

    But the overall mentality of England after that point was very troubling. The plan was very clearly to try to make the match safe, despite the extreme unlikeliness of New Zealand ever putting up a challenge and the knowledge that more time was likely to be lost to rain. This was made clear not merely by the lateness of the declaration, though Cook did set New Zealand at least 150 more runs than were ever going to be needed, but by the fields set in the fourth innings. With New Zealand chasing over 460 to win, Cook could have been very aggressive; runs were not at all relevant at that stage. But he did not attack until very late in the innings, preferring instead the more defensive fields for most of the fourth day. This was entirely the wrong message to send.

    But apart from that, there was a lot about which England could be happy in the series. In particular, Graeme Swann showed that he was back to full fitness and is as potent as ever ahead of the Ashes. Stuart Broad also continued the return to form he started to show in New Zealand. But most of all England will be pleased with Jimmy Anderson. He did not have a great winter (though that is by his rather lofty standards), however he was at his absolute best at Lord’s and got the ball to swing prodigiously. The batting left a bit more to be desired, but a lot of that has to go to the way New Zealand bowled. Their seamers were very good in both matches and got plenty of swing themselves.

    Whilst the result was largely expected, it will be disappointing for New Zealand after how well they did at home against England back in March. In the home series they fared quite well with the bat, putting up large scores in both the first and last Tests and comfortably securing a draw in the second. With the ball swinging more in England, however, they looked hopelessly out of their depth. They had one partnership of note, when Broad and Steven Finn lost their line in the first innings at Lord’s. Not only were they troubled by swing, they could not handle Swann turning the ball out of the footholes generated by their own left arm pacemen. Their struggles with the bat were reminiscent of their tour of South Africa and it is something they need to fix very quickly.

  • Lord’s, day three: England 180-6

    It was finally England’s day at Lord’s and it was so close to being decisively England’s day. England at one point led by 184 runs with eight wickets in hand, but finished it effectively 205-6 and need Ian Bell to bat well with the tail tomorrow.

    Right up to the last half an hour, however, everything had been going England’s way. England started the day by getting Brendan McCullum in the first over and from there the Kiwis collapsed as dramatically as England had done the previous day. New Zealand lost their last six wickets for just 52 runs and their last seven for exactly sixty going back to the dismissal of Dean Brownlie last night. As would be expected with those figures, England did bowl better. Stuart Broad in particular was consistently the right length and not coincidentally was consistently threatening. It was he who got the wicket of McCullum, admittedly to an ill-advised swipe outside off. The bowling figures would suggest that Steven Finn also improved dramatically, but his was more a case of it being better to be lucky than good. He was still too short; a pitch map late in the innings showed no balls pitched full of a length. Broad was comfortably the better bowler of the two, but Finn managed to mop up the tail.

    The standout performer with the ball was James Anderson, however. He got a much-deserved bit of luck when Kane Williamson strangled one down leg, but picked up his five-fer with an unplayable delivery to Bruce Martin. He finished with staggering figures of 24-11-47-5. His eleven maidens were four more than the rest of the attack managed combined. He now has 303 Test wickets and has a chance to go past Fred Trueman when he bowls in the second innings.

    England very nearly managed to bat New Zealand out of the game in the evening session. There was a wobble before tea when Alastair Cook and Nick Compton were both out with the score on 36, but Jonathan Trott and Joe Root batted superbly the blunt the New Zealand attack and build the lead. In a match where only Ross Taylor had looked comfortable for the first two and a half days, it was a fantastic performance. It was so close to putting New Zealand out of the match, though it may yet prove to have been enough.

    Tim Southee deserves a lot of credit for continuing to bowl testing deliveries even when his cause seemed lost. He did for New Zealand much what Anderson did for England. But England will be a touch concerned with how softly the four wickets went down before stumps. Root was a bit lazy with a defensive shot and edged the ball onto the stumps, then Bairstow got into a bit of a tangle trying to play an admittedly good delivery. Matt Prior continued a shocking game by tamely pulling a ball straight to square leg and Trott’s resistance was ended when he tried to drive a ball that was spinning back into him. In every case the New Zealanders bowled well, but England were just a bit too casual.

    England’s lead is at 205 at stumps, so they are still in a good position. Batting has seldom been easy in this match and the ball is turning and bouncing very sharply already. Anderson and Broad can reasonably expect the ball to continue swing in the fourth innings and Swann will be able to turn it out of the footholes created by the New Zealand left-armers. Williamson showed that the turn from there is very sharp and there is some bounce to go with it. England are 27 runs away from setting New Zealand the highest score of the match to win and certainly anything more than 250 will be very tricky. But New Zealand do have an opening now and the match is far from over. The key tomorrow morning will probably be Ian Bell. He was ill for most of today and he will have to bat with the tail tomorrow. He needs to get some runs as England cannot expect much from the tailenders.