Flick the switch
Australian batter Phoebe Litchfield has taken the leap in T20 cricket
Welcome to the 29th edition of Plot the Ball for 2023.
If you missed the previous edition, you can read it here:
When we spoke about the Australian women’s cricket team’s relative struggles of late, it was clear that — despite the extended absence of one of their all-time great players — it wasn’t their batting performance that was causing issues. An important factor in that has been the emergence of 20-year-old left-hander Phoebe Litchfield as a positive contributor — and her career path to date is a great illustration of what it means for a young player to ‘take the leap’.
Australian batter Phoebe Litchfield is taking the leap in T20 cricket
This year, I’ve written quite a lot1 about the idea that most athletes who begin their professional careers at a very young age have — on balance — a negative impact on their team’s performance to begin with.
Regardless, getting that playing time early on is a really strong indicator that they will eventually become a positive contributor.
Sometimes — for a multitude of reasons — that reversal never arrives. But, in the cases where it does, there’s often a particular match or sequence of matches that sticks in the mind in hindsight as the point at which a player ‘took the leap’.
The beginning of the 2023-24 cricket season in Australia might have been that stretch of time for Phoebe Litchfield.
The left-handed batter debuted for the Sydney Thunder in the WBBL2 way back in 2019, at only 16 years of age.
With such precocity comes significant expectation — but, even allowing for that, Litchfield’s performances over the last month or so have still been eye-opening.
And, since the 2023 WBBL season began a couple of weeks ago, she has already scored 140 runs across three innings while being dismissed just once.
Litchfield actually announced herself back in 2019 with a player-of-the-match performance in her second-ever WBBL game — so you might be wondering if much has really changed.
But — in a format of cricket where maximising the efficiency of your run-scoring is the name of the game — the pace of her innings3 meant it probably wasn’t actually a match-winning effort.
Litchfield scored at a rate of 108 runs per 100 balls in that innings, while all other batters in the match scored at around 129 — meaning that, in aggregate, she scored around 10 runs fewer than you’d expect given the number of balls she faced.
And she acknowledged this herself at the time, telling ESPNCricinfo “I was getting a bit nervous and I put us in a bad position”.
It’s fair to say that Litchfield doesn’t need to be nervous about her contributions any more.
Tracking her WBBL performances by runs vs. expectation over the four years since her debut, it’s impossible to miss the extent of her improvement.
While still scoring at a slower rate than her teammates and opponents in her age-17 (2020) and age-18 (2021) seasons, Litchfield’s performances were obviously trending in the right direction.
Last year, though, she moved into solidly positive territory — and has built on that in her 2023 campaign so far.
Over her last 10 WBBL innings, she is scoring about 24 runs over expectation per 100 balls — a rate that, if sustained, would cement her as one of Australia’s elite T20 batters4.
With Litchfield, what’s striking is that she really can access almost all 180 degrees of the off side of the field with her innovative strokeplay.
She is comfortable driving the ball in the air straight down the ground off both pace and spin bowling — often after shuffling down the pitch to alter the length of a delivery to her advantage.
And she can play the same type of shot a little squarer — while maintaining good power — over extra cover too.
Off pace bowling, she times the ball beautifully off the front foot through the point region. And — off the spinners — she uses her deft hands to reverse-sweep, switch-hit and scoop both behind and in front of square6.
Flashes of this talent have been evident since her debut at 16 — and now, at 20, we can definitively say she’s using those skills to have a positive impact on her team’s chances of winning games.
It’s always thrilling to see a young athlete’s developmental curve7 follow such a linear path in the right direction.
In Litchfield’s case, the question now is how long the line will continue to go up.
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
This idea was fleshed out most fully in this post on the New Zealand men’s cricket team’s talent pipeline.
She scored 52 off 48 deliveries faced, without being dismissed.
When I ran this analysis for the first time last year, Alyssa Healy stood out as the best Australian batter in WBBL history: her career performance at that point — facing an average of 25.8 balls per innings and scoring +4.8 runs — equated to around 25 runs above expectation per 100 balls. The next tier of players like Meg Lanning, Beth Mooney and Ash Gardner were all in the range of +15 runs per 100 balls.
As an aside, I absolutely love these ‘player development curve charts’ for NHL prospects from Chace McCallum — and the idea of overlaying certain benchmarks on Litchfield’s career (probably by comparing the career paths of some of the other batters I mentioned above) is something I will return to at a later edition of this newsletter.