Possibly the most significant Test match in the history of Test cricket is due to begin in less than 3 weeks time. Although the structure of the World Test Championship has its flaws, and enough has already been spoken about it, the virtues of the concept are immense and it has the potential to popularize and contextualize Test cricket for a much wider audience.
Speaking of contextualizing things, this article will try to contextualize one of the most common metrics used to assess batsmen- the batting average, using a slightly more advanced version of it- the weighted batting average, with respect to New Zealand’s batsmen in the last 5 years, keeping the WTC Final in mind. The concept for the weighted average used here has been borrowed from Himanish Ganjoo’s article on Contextual Averages. You can read that piece if you want a more in depth understanding of the theory behind it.
Now as for this article, the data used here is from 1st January, 2016 onwards. There are two main categories into which the numbers have been broken down:
1. Innings — 1st innings numbers, 2nd innings numbers, and overall numbers.
2. Conditions — Numbers in New Zealand, and overall numbers.
The numbers in New Zealand have been chosen as a separate filter keeping in mind the conditions the WTC Final is going to be played in. Conditions in New Zealand come closest to the conditions that are available in England for Test cricket.
Lets first have a look at the record of New Zealand’s batsmen in the last 5 years in Test cricket, in terms of runs scored and batting averages. We have no surprises at the top of the list, with Kane Williamson scoring more than 3,000 runs. In fact, no other New Zealand batsman except Tom Latham has scored more runs in the last 5 years, than Williamson has scored in New Zealand itself. Williamson has been so good, that his average in this period reads an insane 60.75 overall, and an insane-er 68.55 in New Zealand. Both up by 6 and 3 runs respectively from his career averages.
Their other batting mainstay, Ross Taylor, has also been getting better with age. He’s one of those rare batsmen who has averaged more in the 2nd innings than in the 1st. Compare that to Williamson, and you’ll find an almost symbiotic relationship, with Williamson setting up games in the first innings, and Taylor consolidating and finishing games in the second.
With four players in their top 5 averaging in the mid-40s or above and all of their top 7 (considering Colin de Grandhomme as the number seven over Mitchell Santner) averaging in the high-30s or above, you can see why New Zealand have had a 55% win percentage in the last 5 years, second only to India, who have won a whopping 63.63% of their Test matches in the same period.
If you were asked in a quiz contest ten years down the line as to who among Ben Stokes and Kane Williamson scored runs faster in Test cricket between 2016 and 2021, you’d almost certainly, without much thought, say Ben Stokes. And as you must have guessed by the phrasing of this hypothetical question, you’d be wrong. Kane Williamson has not only scored at an average of 60 in the last 5 years in Test cricket, he’s also done it while scoring at 3.47 runs per over. Ben Stokes in this period, has scored at 3.44 runs per over. Let that sink in.
Williamson is also the only New Zealand batsman to face more than 100 balls in an innings on average. He has faced around 18 overs on average in the 1st innings of all Tests in the last 5 years, and around 20 overs on average in the 1st innings of Tests in New Zealand in the last 5 years. Tom Latham, BJ Watling, and Henry Nicholls have spent a lot of time in the crease as well, with all of them facing more than 13 overs per innings on average. Ross Taylor is kind of an outlier here. He’s has faced only 10 overs per innings on average, but has made up for his shorter stay on the crease with his much faster scoring rate of 3.8 runs per over.
The versatility of New Zealand’s batting line up is striking. Three grafters in the top 6 who score at less than 3 rpo, separated by two rather flamboyant batsmen who score at 3.47 rpo or above, and one adaptable batsman scoring at around 3 rpo, who can perform both roles as required. Maybe ideally, they’d have liked one less grafter in the top 6, but it doesn’t really affect them since their lower order batsmen from 7–9, all score upwards of 4 rpo, making up for any lost time.
Now, onto the real deal, the weighted batting averages. The basic premise of the Weighted Batting Average(WBA) is that your contribution to the team will be not be calculated just by the runs you score, but by the runs you score in proportion to the average runs scored by a batsman (except you) in the match for the overall weighted average, and in proportion to the average runs scored by a batsman (except you) in that particular innings for innings-wise weighted average. What this does is, it takes into account the conditions on offer, and to a certain degree, the quality of opposition as well.
Let’s take the cases of Steve Smith in the 2014 Border Gavaskar Trophy and Joe Root in the 2021 Moose Cup against Sri Lanka to see the utility of the WBA in effect.
Steve Smith scored 769 runs in 8 innings at an average of 128.16 in that series. Australia and India crossed 500 and 400 runs respectively, once in all four Tests. Only 3 out of 16 innings recorded scores of less than 250, two of which were 4th innings where the teams did not get bowled out. Basically, the conditions for batting were supreme, and the bowling was often ineffective. This gets reflected in the Weighted Batting Average of Smith, which reads at 124.54, a drop of more than 3.5 runs. The difference isn’t huge, partly due to Smith’s brilliance and partly due to the construct of the metric, but it does tell us about the conditions the runs were scored in, and gives us a truer, more contextual value to work with.
Joe Root, in the series against Sri Lanka earlier this year, scored 426 runs in 4 innings at an average of 106.50. But unlike the 2014 BGT, this series wasn’t exactly a run fest. The pitches, typical of the subcontinent, were spinning, and they were spinning very early into the games. 4 out of the 8 innings recorded scores of below 200 ( two of which were successful 4th innings chases ), and the next highest run scorer after Root scored half his number of runs. It would be safe to say that conditions weren’t exactly those of a batting paradise. Accordingly, the Weighted Batting Average for Root in that series stands at 106.96, almost half a run more than his normal batting average. Again, the magnitude of difference isn’t very high because of the way the metric is defined, but with these two examples, the validity of the metric and its improvement over the vanilla batting average should be well established.
Fig 3 shows the WBA of New Zealand batsmen in the last 5 years. Here’s a quick guide as to what the numbers in the graph mean.
- The values inside the bars represent innings-wise WBA. These are calculated with respect to the average of batsmen(except the batsman in question) of the same team in the same innings. It implicitly gives an idea about the quality of the bowling the batsman has scored more against, along with giving an idea of the conditions the batsman has scored more in.
Higher value → Scored more when others in the team didn’t score as much → Scored more in difficult conditions and possibly against tougher opposition.
- The values above the bars represent the overall WBA. These are calculated with respect to the average of all batsmen(except the batsman in question) in a particular match. It gives a clear idea about the conditions the batsman has scored more in.
Higher value → Scored more when the match average was lower → Scored more in tough conditions to bat.
But as good as the WBA is in giving a truer account of a batsman, it can’t do so on its own. To interpret these values better, we need to look at the differences in their values with respect to the corresponding traditional averages. On doing so, there are four possible combinations of outcomes we can get. Below are the explanations as to what these combinations can be taken to mean.
- Higher innings WBA, Lower overall WBA— This implies that the batsman has often performed in matches where his teammates haven’t scored much, but the opposition have piled on the runs. Basically, it implies that the batsman has performed well in matches where his team has been outplayed by a superior opposition.
- Lower innings WBA, Higher overall WBA — This batsman is pretty much the opposite of the batsman above. He scores more in matches where his team piles on the runs(hence the low innings average), and the opposition doesn’t (hence the high match average).
- Lower innings WBA, Lower overall WBA — This batsman is a flat track bully (not that it is a bad thing, you need flat track bullies too). He generally scores when the average innings scores and average match scores are high, basically when others score big too.
- Higher innings WBA, Higher overall WBA — The ultimate crisis man, this batsman scores when the conditions are tough, and not many other batsmen in the match have scored much. This is understandably a rare breed.
With all these tools of judgement at our disposal, let’s look at the differences in the innings-wise and overall WBAs with the corresponding traditional average of New Zealand batsmen in the last 5 years.
This gives a very clear idea of which New Zealand batsman has scored in what conditions in the last 5 years. You can easily relate it to the four combinations defined above.
Tom Blundell’s two Test hundreds have come in games where New Zealand won by an innings against the West Indies, and lost badly against Australia, contributing in increasing his overall WBA and innings-wise WBA respectively. He also scored 117 runs in the 2 match series against India, and was the second highest run scorer from both teams. Those were difficult conditions to bat, and it reflects in the position Blundell occupies in both the graphs in Fig 4.
Now look at the positions of Latham, Williamson, and Nicholls in both the graphs. Williamson has significantly lower innings-wise and overall WBAs. He has scored much more heavily in conditions that have been helpful for batting and against weaker oppositions than he has otherwise, which is evident from the fact that he has averaged more than 100 in four series in the last 5 years, and those series have been against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and West Indies.
Nicholls’ and Latham’s are almost exactly opposite cases. Nicholls has significantly lower innings-wise WBAs, and substantially higher overall WBA. Which puts him in our second category- batsmen who score heavily when their teammates do the same and when their opposition don’t. His top 6 averaging series’ in the last five years have come against Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh, England, Bangladesh, and Pakistan respectively. And yet, in none of those series was he the highest run scorer. His ranks in terms of runs scored were 4th, 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 6th, and 2nd respectively.
Latham meanwhile, has a significantly lower overall WBA and a higher 2nd innings WBA. He has scored seven 50s and one 100 in the 2nd innings in the last five years. He has fifties in the 2nd innings against Australia, England, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, with one 50 each in India and the UAE. This is why his 2nd innings WBA is higher. But when you look at how these matches unfolded, you’ll see why his overall WBA is lower. New Zealand have won 4, lost 3, and drawn 1 of these 8 matches where Latham has scored more than 50 runs in the 2nd innings, and all these games have been substantially high scoring, thus increasing the match average of batsmen and lowering the value of runs in the match.
Conditions for the WTC Final are not going to be easy for batting. And the bowlers these batters will face will be of the highest quality. From what we have seen above in terms of WBAs, both the Toms, Latham and Blundell, might turn out to be prized wickets for India given their propensity to score the tougher runs. While the likes of Williamson and Taylor will always be focused on and have high expectations on them, data tells us that Williamson has not had the best of times against high quality opposition in not so great batting conditions. This will motivate both the Indian camp, and Williamson. And while not much mention has been made of Watling and de Grandhomme, India must be careful to not overlook them in their planning. Their fire and ice approach lower down the order has the potential to take the game away from the opposition, especially in tough conditions, which Watling in particular, doesn’t mind.
But before the ultimate showdown begins on the 18th of June, New Zealand will play England for two Tests. Its almost as if this series is being played to announce the WTC Final open. While NZ’s prime focus will obviously be to win this series first, but they’ll be lying to themselves if they say their minds are not on the showpiece event that lies ahead of them. Neil Wagner, R Ashwin, and Ishant Sharma have said how this means like a World Cup Final to them. We all know how the last World Cup Final in England played out.