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CricViz Analysis: The Bob Willis Trophy

CricViz analyst Rufus Bullough takes a look at the Bob Willis Trophy and some of the numbers associated with the red-ball game in England.

The newly formed Bob Willis Trophy ended on a slightly underwhelming note, with five days not being enough time to separate the two best and most consistent red ball teams in the country in recent years; Essex and Somerset. Essex were crowned eventual winners on first innings runs.

The overriding narrative over the past few seasons in English First Class cricket has been ball dominating bat, and this edition of the red-ball summer was no different. Batting averages for top six batsmen have generally been on the decline over recent seasons.

With averages around the mid 2010’s usually hovering above the mid to high 30’s, both 2018 and 2020 saw the batting average for top six batsman drop below 30 for the first time in recent memory.

When the averages are compared to the false shot (edges and plays & misses) percentages for those seasons, a clear correlation between the two numbers can be seen.

Batting in English red ball cricket seems to be on the decline in the sense of the traditional wicket preservation mentality. Dismissal rates have been following a similar pattern since 2012 to that of the averages, and have been falling. In the 2018 season we saw top six wickets falling every 56 balls, the lowest since 2012.  

This season saw a top six wicket fall every 61.5 deliveries, which is the second lowest figure since 2012. Why is this happening? Are batters playing more aggressive shots and creating more chances? Or, are the bowlers’ skill levels increasing, and therefore driving the increase in false shot percentage?

Over these eight seasons, attacking shot percentages have remained consistently stable, but the number of defensive shots per wicket has fallen. This is strongly suggesting that batsmen’s defensive games are not as strong as they have been in the past, which is hurting their dismissal rate and bringing their averages down.

Whether this has been coupled with an increase in the skill level of the bowlers, or due to the ever increasing volume and emphasis on white-ball cricket is difficult to say. But the defences of the top batters featuring in County Cricket are being breached more often.

Batting

This year’s truncated red-ball season saw a dip in both batting averages and false shot percentages compared to recent years, but there were still plenty of standout performers in this season’s competition, both from the old guard and some bright, new emerging talent.

Although the average cost of a top six batsman’s wicket is nearly as low as it’s ever been, that didn’t stop Alistair Cook from making hay while the sun was shining. England’s all time leading run scorer scored the most runs in this year’s competition (563) at an average of 56.30, including a masterful hundred in the Lords final.

Cook’s Essex were not the standout team with the bat in this year’s competition however. That honour went to Worcestershire, who averaged 39.68 runs per wicket lost. Their recent acquisition from Nottinghamshire, Jake Libby,  came in second on the run charts, amassing 498 across the season. He played with remarkable control throughout his nine innings, playing just 11.3% false shots, well below the season average for all batsmen of 16.4%.

Worcestershire and Derbyshire were the standout teams who batted with the most control throughout the tournament. Their low false shot percentages equating to high batting averages in this instance. The teams who batted with the least control in the tournament, were Hampshire and Northamptonshire, who consequently had two of the worst averages.

Gloucestershire’s season with the bat was a curious one, falling well below the average runs per wicket value, as well as playing with above average control. Their tournament run rate of 2.52, the lowest of all 18 teams, is indicative of their struggles. Their batters appeared to be playing within themselves in the aim of control and wicket preservation. By doing this, they ultimately appear to have turned down scoring opportunities, and therefore failed to capitalise on their better than average control. Only Hampshire scored fewer runs (1408) than Gloucestershire (1415) through the tournament, but they did so in two fewer innings.

Bowling

The current crop of players at Essex are serial red ball winners, winning two of the last three County Championships. Simon Harmer has consistently been the best spin bowler in the competition for a number of years now, and has been the leading wicket taker in red-ball cricket for two years running, claiming 123 wickets at 17.59 a-piece over the last two seasons, 32 wickets above his nearest rival, Chris Rushworth of Durham.

Combined with the emerging pace bowling talent of Jamie Porter and Sam Cook, Essex took their wickets this year at an average 21.12, which is their lowest as a team since the 1978 edition of the County Championship. They drew 19% false shots throughout the tournament. Only their opponents in the final, Somerset, had a lower team bowling average, and drew a higher percentage of false shots.

Somerset have been there or thereabouts over recent seasons finishing runners up over three of the last four editions of the County Championship, and are still chasing their first ever piece of red-ball silverware.

Somerset were this year’s stand out team with the ball, taking each wicket at the expense of just 16.29 runs. This is the 10th lowest team bowling average across an entire English First-Class season since 1900.

Somerset’s spearhead this season was Craig Overton, who claimed 30 victims at a remarkable average of 13.48, drawing 26.3% false shots along the way. Since 2012, when false shot percentages became regularly recorded in English First-Class cricket, only James Pattinson’s 2017 season with Nottinghamshire drew a higher false shot percentage than Overton’s effort this season.

Rufus Bullough is an analyst for CricViz.

Follow him on Twitter @rufus_cricket

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