Selecting an England XI: Art or Science?

BW BlackContributor IMarch 7, 2009

The selection of an England XI always causes debate with regards to certain players. Underpinning these discussions is the complex subject of balance. There are numerous criteria that go into balancing a side.

First, there is picking on merit or on potential. At some point a player must be risked in a team, and given a run of games to find his feet in Test cricket. This needs to be finely judged against the merits of a more-experienced cricketer, who may be in a bad run of form.

Second, there can often be a temptation to play "horses for courses." This is particularly relevant with regards to bowlers and the type of surface. Picking a second spinner, or a specialist swing bowler, may be the difference between winning and losing a Test match.

Most importantly, there is the balance of what skills a player brings to the team. A player’s ability with the bat, with the ball, and in the field needs to be weighed against the different skill-set of a rival.

Most selections are done on gut feeling. Typically the selection is based on the XI selected for the previous Test, and then deciding who replaces who.

With this summer’s Ashes in mind, it is worth looking at if there is a more scientific approach that can be taken to selecting the perfect XI. Like any scientific experiment, one starts with a hypothesis, and tries to prove or disprove this through trials.

Let’s start with the data we do know. For these purposes, we will use three sets of averages—recent form (last two years), success against the opposition (Australia), and players’ records at home.

We will then use the following formula:

• Select three bowlers with the best recent form.
• Select the wicket-keeper with the best recent batting form.
• Select two opening batsmen with the best recent form.
• Select two middle-order batsmen with the best recent form.
• Select one batsmen with the best career average against the opposition.
• Select one bowler with the best career average in the country the series is being played.
• Select final player based on potential and all-round ability.

Scientific experiments always have a control sample. We will take, for reference, the Australian side that defeated England 5-0 in the last Ashes series. Using the formula above would give us:

• McGrath, Warne, Lee
• Gilchrist
• Hayden, Langer
• Ponting, Hussey
• M Clarke
• MacGill
• Symonds

This is very similar to the actual teams that were selecting by Australia, resulting in a 5-0 thrashing. The only difference was the selection of S Clark instead of a second spinner. This shows that this methodology has at least some merit.

Applying it to England for this summer’s series against Australia gives us:

• Sidebottom, Swan, Flintoff
• Prior
• Cook, Strauss
• Pietersen, Collingwood
• Vaughan
• S Jones (if fit) or Panesar
• Broad or Bopara

It should be noted that Broad (pictured above) is not currently being picked on merit, but instead is very much being picked on potential with the bat, with the ball, and his athletic ability in the field.

If England is going to compete with the very best in Test cricket (Australia, South Africa and Indian), then it is vital that Stuart Broad improves his Test bowling average of 41.91 to force his way into the team as one of the main four bowlers.

This would allow England to select Bopara as batsmen who offers a bowling option in the top six. A Symonds, J Kallis, and Yuvraj Singh give the same balance to their sides.

This scientific approach does appear to warrant consideration, but ultimately there will always be at least some art to selecting a cricket XI