Can New Zealand get back to the top of men's test cricket?
Welcome to the 12th edition of Plot the Ball for 2023.
Late last year, I proposed a basic method of assessing how many runs a batter had scored relative to ‘expectation’ in T20 cricket — and, earlier this year, discussed applying this method to the longer formats of the sport. With the World Test Championship final just around the corner, I decided to attempt to put this into practice — by looking at the team which won’t be defending their title next week.
Can New Zealand get back to the top of men's test cricket?
Buried towards the end of last week’s edition of the newsletter was a line about Australia being a much more dominant economic force than New Zealand — its neighbour across the ditch.
The most obvious underlying reason for this (the relative size of the countries’ populations1) doesn’t always come through in rugby union — a sport where Kiwis have long punched well above their weight.
Look at the history of international cricket, however, and it starts to become more apparent.
New Zealand can’t rely on almost always ‘having the cattle’ in the way their neighbours can, instead operating in peaks and troughs when gluts of cricketing talent come along.
And, in retrospect, the period between 2015 and 2021 will probably be seen as one of their highest ever sustained peaks. They contested three international white-ball finals and the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final over this stretch, beating India in the latter by eight wickets.
But the Black Caps now stand at the start of what may be a sustained fallow period.
A number of key players from that run have advanced into the later stages of their careers — or retired altogether. World-class fast bowler Trent Boult has taken a step away from international cricket, and world-class batter Kane Williamson will be out for a long time with a serious knee injury.
It’s unsurprising, then, that their performances over the last couple of years2 were nowhere near good enough to reach a second consecutive WTC final — and it’s fitting that it’s Australia who will take their place in a contest against India which starts in London on Wednesday.
Williamson’s injury in particular3 raises some interesting questions for the future of the side’s batting lineup in test cricket.
While he’s shown little sign of decline so far, he will be 33 years old by the time he returns to the international game — and around him in the team’s batting order in their last test match were specialist batters now aged 31, 31, 31, 32 and 324.
Simply put: are there any potential stars coming up through the ranks who might eventually take those places?
We could start by looking at the list of top run-scorers in New Zealand’s domestic red-ball competition — the Plunket Shield — but that is a bit simplistic.
It would be better to adjust these descriptive statistics for context — and we can start to do so by applying some of the same principles which underpinned the ‘runs vs. expectation’ metric I laid out for T20 cricket late last year to the longer format.
In that analysis — to recap — I compared the scoring rate of a batter in a given match to the scoring rate of all other players in that match to get a sense of how efficiently they had used up their team’s resources, given (some of) the conditions5 in which they were batting.
Given that the objectives and challenges of first-class cricket differ from the white-ball game6, we do need to amend things slightly for the longer format.
To start with, runs per dismissal above expectation — rather than runs per ball — is a better primary gauge of a batter’s performance.
And given that batting against the new ball is so much more difficult than batting later in the innings, players’ performances should only be directly compared to players in similar positions in the order.
If you bat in the top three all season, for instance, your ‘expected’ number of runs scored per dismissal will be calculated by summing the runs scored by all other top-three batters in matches you play in, and dividing that by the number of times in aggregate they were dismissed.
If you bat in the middle order — defined here as positions four, five and six — your performance will be compared against other players in those positions.
Taking the last two seasons of men’s domestic cricket in New Zealand, then, which young red-ball batters stand out?
Correction: The chart originally published above missed out data from the fourth innings of a 2021-22 Plunket Shield game between Otago and Wellington; Jacob Cumming’s figures have been updated accordingly7, and changes to the copy below are in bold.
It’s reassuring to see Rachin Ravindra — someone who has already played a bit of test cricket as an all-rounder — regarded as an above-average player by this metric.
Batting in the top three, Ravindra been dismissed on average once every 80 balls over this period — and scored about 38 runs per dismissal. In the games he has played, other top-three batters — across both his own team and the opposition — have averaged 33.4 runs per dismissal, giving him a ‘runs vs. expectation’ per dismissal figure of +4.2.
His Wellington teammate Muhammad Abbas is another interesting player to consider.
Over a small number of first-class innings, his raw numbers — an average of 56 runs per dismissal — stand out. But, crucially, these are also backed up by the context-adjusted figures: he has scored about 15 more runs per dismissal on average than the other middle-order batters in his matches have managed.
Given these returns, it’s unsurprising that he’s already been called up to play for the New Zealand ‘A’ team.
Both players’ raw numbers are fairly similar — and pretty unremarkable. In nine innings, Heaphy has averaged 28 runs and 81 balls per dismissal; over a slightly larger sample, Cumming has returned 28 and 799.
But adjust these performances for context and the similarity fades: Heaphy has scored around 12 fewer runs per dismissal than the calculated expectation, while Cumming has actually scored 3 runs more.
The upshot of this, to be clear, is not to write off Heaphy. There is still a positive signal in him being picked to play at the top level so young, and few teenage athletes are actually plus contributors to their pro teams10.
But these figures certainly give Black Caps fans a lot to be optimistic about with respect to Cumming — likely an above-average batter in domestic cricket before he has reached the age of 20.
This obviously doesn’t mean that either he or Abbas is a sure thing; the uncertainty and contingency baked in to talent development means that ‘can’t-miss’ prospects don’t really exist in any sport.
It’s just that — for unavoidable demographic reasons — New Zealand have fewer potential stars coming through the ranks than their trans-Tasman neighbours11 in the first place.
If the Black Caps do make it back to another WTC final in the next decade, I’d be surprised if one or both of them aren’t at the heart of their batting order.
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
In Kyle Jamieson, they have — pending a comeback from a relatively serious injury of his own — someone who can take over from Boult and lead the bowling attack for several years more.
A notable weakness is that it doesn’t account for the stage of the innings in which a player was batting — something which Kartikeya Date’s ‘Misbah’ metric (outlined in his newsletter, ) deals with well. On the positive side, this approach will capture match-specific conditions like the pitch better than models which draw on the entire history of T20 cricket to calculate the expected runs off a given ball.
I got into this a bit more in my piece about Eoin Morgan, Brendon McCullum and England’s batting in all formats of the game.
Correction: Jacob Cumming’s figures were previously incorrectly listed as 25.8 runs and 75.7 runs per dismissal in 16 innings — equivalent to +2.5 runs per dismissal vs. expectation.
If — like me — you’re partial to the story of a multi-sport athlete, you might be interested to know that Heaphy is also a tidy rugby player.
Correction: see note in bold above.
Football writer noted this in a recent piece for ESPN about Jude Bellingham: “Usually, though, teenagers getting lots of minutes aren't quite deserving of those minutes. Rather, they play so much because their club or their coach has decided that the long-term payoff is worth playing the teenage prospect over a currently better veteran player.”