Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Midweek Fixture: A closer look at the Black Caps' unnatural selection

By Dylan Cleaver

A former sports writing colleague had a theory that if you pick on someone or some team once, you were duty bound to do it a second time to show, I guess, you were serious.

After the capitulation in Dharamsala there is clearly plenty of rich material to further the themes expressed here, but I'm not 'format agnostic' when it comes to cricket and the ODI team has earned the right to some leeway.

Anyway, despite making a case for the prosecution, Mike Hesson was not put on a plane and brought home to explain away the test-series debacle, so we'll have to wait for that.

There is a theme from last week, however, framed as one of 10 questions to Hesson, that is worth expanding on.

"7. Why do you pick players with moderate first-class records and expect them to be good test players?"

This is a bugbear of many involved with the domestic game in New Zealand, who feel it doesn't matter what happens in the Plunket Shield because it will never carry weight with the selectors, thus rendering the country's premium (and expensive to run) first-class competition irrelevant.

New Zealand Cricket directly contracts 21 players. The six major associations that contest the Plunket Shield contract 15, though this number can increase slightly during the season for various reasons. For all intents and purposes, New Zealand has a first-class talent pool of between 110-120 players.

That's not a lot.

By contrast, England has a similar amount of centrally contracted players and 18 counties who all run first-class and second XI teams. The Ranji Trophy, India's first-class competition, consists of 28 teams for heaven's sake. Pakistan's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy has 26 teams in its current format.

Like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have just six first-class sides, but their cricket is underpinned by strong metropolitan competitions, the likes of which are not even close to replicated here.

In others words, with such a shallow talent pool, Hesson and former international Gavin Larsen, have to pick the right players. Poor selection is, unquestionably, a bigger obstacle to New Zealand being consistently competitive than it would be for the cricket powerhouses.

Thankfully, there is a tool to aid intrepid selectors. It is called statistical analysis. Others call it clever names, like 'moneyball' or 'sabermetrics', but the principle is the same: look deeply into numbers and you'll find what you're looking for.

Don't place to much emphasis on 'conventional' wisdom. Don't believe your eyes - they're unreliable and end up telling you what you want to see. Numbers are more reliable. They neither possess preconceptions nor harbour grudges.

Used properly, they can tell you all sorts of interesting things. Used strangely or flat out ignored and they just leave you with questions. Such as...

How does a guy like Colin Munro, who averages 48.2 in 40 first-class matches, miss out on a middle-order position to Henry Nicholls, who averages 36.5 in 42 first-class matches? What have Hesson and Larsen seen in that 12-run differential that has convinced them to eschew 120 years of wisdom that states that players with significantly higher averages tend to score more runs than those with significantly lower ones?

How does Ish Sodhi kept getting picked to play tests? He has played 48 first-class matches. He has taken 127 wickets at an average of 42.9 and a strike rate of a wicket every 11 overs. This is predominantly against NZ-domiciled players who have long struggled against spin. What in Hesson and Larsen's minds make them think he is then a candidate to regularly dismiss the likes of AB de Villiers, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli? Is the romanticism of picking a legspinner really enough to mask the obvious deficiencies? If so, why not take another look at Todd Astle, still young in spin-bowling terms at 30 and with a bowling average 10 runs better than Sodhi?

Even Mitchell Santner - I know, I know, he looks like he's got the goods - has defied an ordinary first-class record to play test cricket. Hesson and Larsen are asking a young man with a batting average of 28.5 and an unsightly first-class bowling average of 48.2 to be a test-ready allrounder. As it is, he is bowling above himself so far, though he average is rapidly returning to mean.

There are other anomalies, but you get the picture.

What the selectors are essentially asking these guys to do is to be better cricketers than they've ever shown themselves capable of in order to be competent test players.

A cricket coaching friend of mine made an excellent point that people of his ilk and selectors are allowed to use their eyes and gut more than journalists. They get to know the players and can make decisions based on character as well as talent. "Intangibles" is the buzzword.

(There is also the awkward truth that not enough batsmen have strung together enough good seasons in a row to force their way past selectorial blind spots. You can look at players like Bharat Popli, Ben Smith, the highly regarded Will Young and Ken McClure, who all enjoyed productive Plunket Shield seasons and argue that they have yet to show they can succeed over multiple campaigns.)

No doubt Hesson has seen elements in every player he has ever chosen that has told him they are capable of making the step up. All three players highlighted above might turn out to be brilliant and long-serving test players.

Then again, they might not. It just so happens, and this can't be coincidence, that they're all playing about as well as their numbers said they would.

THE WEEK IN MEDIA ...

The endlessly fascinating story of the worst contract ever dreamed up by a sporting franchise.

Can't help it, I'm addicted to the US election coverage. Treat it like a sport and you'll enjoy this Rolling Stone piece too.

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 24 May 2017 05:31:05 Processing Time: 882ms