It’s a different – and longer – blog this week that analyzes two things: the Irish attack and the myths of the eight-team league.
I was at Bready for the first Twenty20 international between Ireland and Scotland last Thursday. The Irish, you will recall, lost by six wickets with quite a few overs to spare. The Scots – and Matthew Cross in particular – batted very well, and the Irish bowlers have received due criticism for their performance. Yet more than how they bowled, what they bowled was more striking.
It’s elementary that in Twenty20 cricket captains rotate their options to prevent opposition batsmen getting ‘set’ against a particular bowler. On Thursday, Kevin O’Brien shuffled the pack frequently, but there was one major problem: in Sorensen, Young, McCarter, Kane, and O’Brien himself, the Irish employed a battery of right-arm medium-pacers who generally bowl over the wicket, without major variations, and at a pace of 75-80 mph.
Consequently, once the Scots got ‘set’ against one bowler, it did not require much adjustment to face the others. Even the spinning option, Andy McBrine, bowls relatively quickly for a spinner and so did not provide that much of a difference.
The Scots, conversely, had both a tall slow-left-armer in Mark Watt and an off-spinner in Michael Leask. Moreover, their spells were broken up, so the Irish batsmen were forced to reset more often than their counterparts.
On Saturday, George Dockrell provided a degree of variation and control, but the two ‘new’ seam options that were used, Thompson and Cusack, were more of the same and so suffered the same fate.
More than the strength of Ireland’s bowling, then, the problem is the lack of variation within it. Of the ten highest-ranked Twenty20 bowlers in the world, how many are fairly conventional right-arm seamers? Only Nuwan Kulasekara.
I know that mystery spin, searing pace, and ‘something a bit different’ cannot simply be summoned from the shires, but it’s a real concern for the coming weeks and months: the T20 World Cup Qualifier, remember, has no reserve days in the group stages, so if there is a wet week and the Irish bowlers get collared a few times, qualification would be far from certain.
In 2012 the NCU reduced its Premier League from ten to eight teams. It was supposed to improve the standard of cricket by enshrining the ideology of ‘best against best’ and the cricket was supposed to become more competitive. Now, three and a half years later, have those things actually happened?
First, let’s deal with ‘the standard’ of the league. In absolute terms, I would argue that the majority of teams (5 of the 8) are actually weaker now than they were in 2011.
Waringstown? They are stronger, yes: Nelson, Hall, and Kidd have improved, Dennison has emerged, while McCollum, Thompson, and Eaglestone have been added to the ranks.
CIYMS? Definitely stronger. For Bodi, McCord, and Connell in 2011, read Dougherty, van der Dussen, Jones, Thompson, Britton, Cameron-Dow, and Dunn in 2015. No contest.
Instonians might be stronger too, but have the losses of Moleon, McCann, and Stevenson been balanced by the acquisition of Russell, McClurkin, Smith, Bunting, and Rushe? Maybe just.
CSNI? A tough one. Getkate and van der Merwe have arrived and Ben Adair has been successful, but Gary Wilson will not make many cameos this year (he made seven in 2011) and the loss of Nigel Jones potentially tips the scales in favour of ‘weaker’.
North Down, certainly, are weaker than previously, having lost Terrett, Haire, Russell, Cameron-Dow, and McKenna, while Shields, Khan, and Moreland are all now on the wrong side of 35.
Carrickfergus? They might have the same core, but Ryan Eagleson no longer opens the bowling, Taiaroa is long gone, and they have lost Stirling and McClurkin too. Weaker, I think.
Now let us say – for the sake of argument, this is not a prediction – that Carrickfergus get relegated this year. This would mean that Ballymena and Lisburn will finish in sixth and seventh, or vice versa. This is where these two clubs have finished, on average, for the last six years, with the exception of Lisburn coming third in 2010 and Ballymena coming third in 2011.
The terrifying thing, in this context, is that Ballymena and Lisburn would have maintained their league positions despite having weakened remarkably over the years. Ballymena have lost two Kennedys, McKinley (to university), Williams, McDowell, Kirkpatrick, and Fisher. Lisburn have lost Ryan and Craig Ervine, Hennie van der Merwe, Thompson, James Magowan (for most of this season), and other regulars such as McCann, Whitten, and Bell.
I’m sure that I have cherry-picked here and there to make a point, but I think the point is worth making: fewer good cricketers are playing in the NCU Premier League and whatever good cricketers that remain are playing for an increasingly small number of clubs.
This, perhaps, is a direct consequence of the reduction to eight teams. With ten teams in the league, seven or eight clubs would be viable options for ambitious cricketers; with only eight teams in the league, the transfer of players has been concentrated towards the elite few who are guaranteed survival and success for the next few years.
This process has consequently and completely undermined the second argument for the eight-team league: that it is more competitive than a ten-team league. In order to quantify the ‘competitiveness’ of the NCU Premier League I have compared the last three years of ten-team leagues (2009-11) to the first three and a bit years of eight-team leagues (2012-15) and I have done so using two measurements that are explained below.
I have also produced a figure for the period 2013-15 since 2012 – the first year of the eight-team league – can be reasonably considered as an anomalous year of ‘normalization’ in which eight strong teams from 2011 survived and nobody was promoted into the Premier League from the Section One of 2011. It was not until 2013 that the league system ‘adjusted’ to the institution of the eight-team league.
Now, the first measurement of competitiveness concerns the proportion of matches that have resulted in heavy defeats. To define ‘a heavy defeat’ I have used the criterion used by Cricket Ireland to award a bonus point in the one-day and T20 interprovincial matches: when the winning team has a net run rate for the match that is 25% better than that of the losing team.
From 2009 to 2011, in a ten-team league, 56% of matches resulted in a ‘heavy defeat’. Since 2012 – despite two weaker teams being removed from the league – 53% of matches still result in ‘a heavy defeat’. For the period since 2013, exactly the same proportion of matches (56%) result in heavy defeats. The eight-team league, then, has made no difference whatsoever to the proportion of hammerings that are handed out on a weekly basis.
The second measurement of competitiveness concerns the proportion of matches that have produced ‘very close results’. To define a ‘very close result’ I have used a similar criterion: when the winning team has a net run rate for the match that is no more than 5% better than that of the losing team.
From 2009 to 2011, in a ten-team league, 16% of matches were ‘very close’. Since the introduction of the eight-team league, the proportion of ‘very close’ matches has actually fallen to 14%. For the period since 2013, that figure falls even further to 11%. Put simply, close and competitive matches are becoming increasingly rare within the eight-team league.
Even more worryingly, there is a trend towards the mismatch becoming the norm. So far in 2015, bonus points would have been awarded in 10 of 13 league matches (77%) and there has not been a single ‘very close’ match.
If the purpose of the eight-team league was to avoid extensive rearrangements and ‘no results’, then it has worked: there has not been a voided match since 2012. If the purpose of the eight-team league was to reduce the workload of interprovincial cricketers, then you would have to ask them for their opinion; the rest of us, however, are simply playing less cricket.
Yet if the purpose of the eight-team league was to produce better and closer cricket, the experiment – in my opinion and according to this research – has failed. So what do we do now?