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By The Numbers: Too Old? The Lifespan of the Modern Batsman



Australia seems to flip back and forth between "age doesn't matter" (Chris Rogers) and "youth at all costs" (Mitch Marsh) selection policies. Ed Cowan is 35 and can't even secure a place in the NSW Sheffield Shield side, despite being the top scorer of the entire competition the previous year. Steve Smith, the Australian and NSW skipper, said he preferred Daniel Hughes, because: "I think he's a player potentially for the future".

Is 35 too old? How many years could a 35-year-old conceivably have ahead of them at international level? Is there any statistical proof that age alone can predict future form?

The following analysis includes all international male recognised batsmen who have played 4 or more matches (Test, ODI, T20) aged 35 or above from 1990 onwards (their entire career is, however, included in the analysis, not just their post-1990 career). The analysis compares these batsmen to their younger self, not to every single cricketer who has played in the last 27 years. There are many qualitative factors that determine the length of a career or the longevity of a cricketer. This article is going to prove that age by itself (if form remains constant, as it has with Cowan and numerous cricketers on this list) is not a reason to drop somebody. The policy of picking players for the future is admirable, but as this study reveals, the lifespan of the modern batsman is significantly longer than the current Australian selectors seem to think.

So, let's look exclusively at the numbers. This is the mean batting average for every cricketer in the analysis, broken down by format and age group (35+ vs 34 and under).


Immediately, it's clear age is barely a factor for batsmen in their mid-30s. The difference between the two averages in all three formats is almost small enough to be entirely dismissed. Not considering a batsman for international selection at age 35, provided their form remains strong (and Cowan's is very strong), has no statistical backing.

At what age does performance become an issue? 



This graph is a bit astonishing. It isn't until age 40 that test batting averages per age drops below 40 (Note: these are ALL test bastmen who played 4+ matches post-35 from 1990 onwards). Naturally, all the players in the dataset have proven themselves masters of longevity, or they wouldn't still be playing test cricket at age 40, but that line is proof that an international career is by no means over at age 35. If Cowan were to be picked for the Ashes, this graph shows it's possible he'd still be in his prime at age 37, right around the time Australia tours England for the 2019 Ashes.


What about One Day Cricket? 

Australia began to separate the test and one day teams after the World Cup final loss to Sri Lanka in 1996. An initial thought might be one day cricketer is more catered to a younger cricketer, but the statistics say different. In the dataset there are 57 eligible batsmen in test cricket, and 58 in one day cricket, so there doesn't appear to be a focus on youth in international selection policy. Australia doesn't quite match up here: 13 of our test cricketers post-1990 went on to play more than 4 games after they turned 35, but only 8 played one-day cricket post-35.



This graph shows the drop in average due to age doesn't occur until 39. Statistically, a batsman can be just as good at age 38 as they are between 18 and 34.


T20 Internationals


Batsmen in the dataset actually have a higher strike rate from age 35 onwards than they did under the age of 35, and their averages are almost identical. This isn't totally surprising, considering the wealth of older cricketers who have made T20 their format of choice, and travel the world performing in domestic competitions like the IPL and BBL. Selection policies have again chopped and changed between picking older cricketers and giving younger players experience. Australia's 2016 Twenty20 World Cup squad was heavy on youth, with no player aged over 35, but in 2012 David Hussey (35), Michael Hussey (37) and Brad Hogg (41) were included due to outstanding domestic form.

Sheffield Shield

In March 2017 Darren Berry wrote that the Sheffield Shield had  ".. become a development tool for higher honours as opposed to a once-revered hard-fought contest by each state's best 11 players". Brett Geeves wrote an impassioned article in November 2016 with a similar theme:
The damage is done and it will only continue while the domestic competition – both first XI and second – are diluted with underachieving kids who aren’t entering the highest levels of the game equipped with the experiences of complete domination through the once-challenging stepping stone to the earnt representation of state and country
Geeves' article pinpoints 2009 as the year when Sheffield Shield policy seemed to shift from promoting competition to promoting youth, beginning with a rebranding of the second XI competition into the "Futures League". Initial rules dictated teams only field three players over the age of 23, although this was relaxed in the 2011/2012 season to six players allowed over the age of 23.

Was this change in focus reflected in the statistics?


Performance has dropped off notably since the introduction of the Futures League and the shift towards using the Sheffield Shield as a breeding ground for the next generation of test cricketers rather than a fiercely competitive tournament in its own right. Analysing the top 5 run scorers from each year of the competition since 05/06, there was a huge dip of over 3000 runs between 05/06 - 08/09 and 09/10 - 12/13, as well as a drop in average of almost 5.50 runs. The average age of the top 5 run scorers also drops a whole 2.5 years. Despite a rebound in performance from 2013/2014 - 2016/2017, the aggregate was still more than 2000 runs behind the period 2005/2006 - 2008/2009.


These are the ages of all of the top 5 (each season) run scorers. Age 25-29 is the most prolific over the past 12 years, while 35+ has been the least.


This pie chart shows the same information but limited to 05/06 - 08/09, the period immediately before the second XI rebranding, and the season that Brett Geeves observed the Sheffield Shield was "... diluted with underachieving kids". 30-34 and 35+ are both more prolific, with 25-29 staying the same. 

What are these stats saying? The fact that 10% of the top Shield run scorers in the last 12 years have been over the age of 35 is again proof that, as long as form remains constant, mid-30s is not the end of a cricketer's career. Ricky Ponting retired from international cricket in 2012 and returned to Sheffield Shield to top the run scorers list with 911 runs at 75.91, all at age 38.

The idea that this change in focus has been detrimental to the Australian test team is reflected in the data. Australia dominated test cricket right up until the 08/09 India series, after which performances became much less consistent. Australia lost The Ashes at home in 2010/2011, the first time they'd lost a home Ashes in 24 years. In August 2017 they were one loss away from slipping to 6th in the world, a mark they haven't dipped to since 1988.

This period of erratic performance coincided with the drop off in Sheffield Shield performance outlined in the table above. It's also aligned with a huge amount of unrest in team selection, with the number of debutants more than doubling from 2009 to 2017, when compared to the period 2000-2008.





Conclusion

Players like Ed Cowan need to be nurtured, not cast aside. An international batsman's "expiry" age is 40 years old according to the statistics. A lot of cricketers lose form well before they hit 40, and they are dropped, just like every other cricketer in the world. If you're not performing, you won't get picked regularly, regardless of your age. Age shouldn't even factor into the debate though. Older players get significantly less leeway with their form, and can find it almost impossible to make it back into the side if they are dropped (Cameron White, a prime example). Yet if a batsman is 35, statistically speaking he could still be performing well for another 5 years.

There are more benefits to experience and older cricketers than simply proven longevity. Test batsmen can't be manufactured, they are born and bred in competitive spirit and hard-edged battles. Having vastly experienced players in the Sheffield Shield provides invaluable opportunities for young cricketers to learn and test themselves against the best. Think of players like Jamie Siddons, David Hussey, Jamie Cox, Michael Bevan, Martin Love, Michael Di Venuto, Stuart Law, Jimmy Maher. Now consider the current crop of Sheffield Shield batsmen. Ed Cowan was just dropped,  as was Michael Klinger. The journeymen, the cricketers who played Australia in the summer and County cricket in the winter, who have tens of thousands of first-class runs under their belt, are becoming fewer and fewer. George Bailey, Callum Ferguson and Cameron White are really the only super-experienced veterans still getting selected. And Australian international performance is starting to wane because of it.

If you're interested in the dataset, or have further questions about it, please message me! I'd love to chat about it. If you have any suggestions for future videos let me know. Please subscribe to my mailing list too, I will be doing many of these.


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