The events of the last few days have taken many people by surprise. To say it has been an eventful week is an understatement. Whatever your own opinion on whether Edwards should have continued as captain, or at least continued playing in the England side, as by all accounts she so desperately wanted to, you have to admit that there was a growing pressure for big change. Although many had questioned her captaincy lately, the biggest criticisms seemed to emanate from the more casual observer, who are less familiar with the nuances of the team.
From that perspective, it seems unthinkable. Why would Robinson even for a minute consider forcing the person who has undoubtedly been England’s best player to exit from the side? In order to try and justify a decision which at first glance may appear ridiculous, it requires an attempt at diagnosis of the current state of affairs at the top level of England women’s cricket. Robinson has a theory, I think, and not to be too presumptive I shall call it the “eclipse theory” here, for want of a better name. Let’s start with what Edwards has said:
“Mark spoke to me quite honestly and told me how he saw the next series as an opportunity to develop players and take the team in a new direction…He said the girls are hiding behind me sometimes and that they needed to develop.”
“We have a number of younger batters who have not shown their potential at that level. Mark sees the next couple of series as an opportunity to give them a chance with a new captain as well. He thinks there is not a place for me in the team.”
George Dobell at ESPNCricinfo expressed a similar thought:
“Robinson, the coach for six months now, noted that nothing seemed to grow in (Edwards’) shade. While that is no reflection of Edwards, he knew he had to act and made what Connor, the head of women’s cricket at the ECB, called ‘a ballsy decision’.”
It’s clear that Robinson has subscribed to the theory that Edward’s excellence has prevented other players’ development. Can this theory explain the logic, if any, behind pushing Edwards out of her role?
Support for the“eclipse” theory
A good theory must at least be internally consistent and have some explanatory power. On the surface, this theory appears to be onto something. Some players have been allowed to continue playing despite not making much contribution to the side. This is my take on the theory. And please be aware, I am playing devil’s advocate for this section.
The theory goes that winning cricket matches due to many runs scored by one superb player allows other individual poor performances to be overlooked. A side without any outstanding individuals, on the other hand, relies heavily on consistency throughout the batting order for any success they achieve. The England team of recent years has benefited in the short term from a massive glut of runs from one source, and so has not needed to tap into other sources very often.
Hence, we see players with somewhat unenviable records, such as Beaumont and Wyatt, still appearing for England despite a long track record which on paper looks more akin to failure than success. The theory would say that they have only done as well as they have needed to, to stay in the squad. With England still winning most series over the past few years, there has been little opportunity for upcoming players to break into a side which has, on the surface, looked fine as it is. The introduction of professional contracts, which have seen little change since 2014, has only cemented an already static group of players. Robinson, it would appear, wants to be the irresistible force to give momentum to this immovable object.
Robinson’s theory plays heavily into a narrative that we have seen him expound from the inception of his tenure. He’s come into the training set-up and immediately noticed that there are quite a few players who should be much better than they have been. A prime example is Tammy Beaumont: a very gifted player who looks superb in the nets and yet has looked timid for England out in the middle. She has only managed averages of 17 in ODIs and 13 in T20s despite playing over 60 matches in a career stretching from 2009. The fact is, she hasn’t needed to do any better, according to this theory. Despite what’s gone before, she’s still around the team now, and with Edwards’ exit, she looks a certainty for the Pakistan series as one of very few experienced specialist batsmen left in the contracted Performance squad.
Indeed, Robinson has been nothing if not consistent. A comment on the Cricinfo web site article covering Edwards’ retirement reveals how it’s very easy to not understand Robinson’s thinking. User BRUSSELSLION asks: “Only a month ago, he (Robinson) was saying that England needed more players like Edwards, now she’s surplus to requirements. What’s changed?” But actually, I’m not so sure these ideas are in direct contradiction. Robinson clearly wants players of Edwards’ skill to evolve from the existing squad; however having just one Edwards, Lottie, who so dominated the run scoring, he viewed as more of a hindrance to the other players, a roadblock to their evolution.
If Robinson could show that the average runs gained from having Edwards in the side was likely to be less than we could have expected from other “fully developed” players, he has some justification at least. But can he show that? With Edwards struggling to take quick singles and twos these days, it’s clear that some runs are being lost, not only from her own score but from her batting partners too. Quantifying this can be difficult. I think the total runs lost to this effect is unlikely to be more than 10 or 15 per T20 innings, and that assumes that Edwards batted for most of it anyway, and probably scored 60+ in the process.
Robinson cannot expect to backfill places from the development set-up as quickly as he could in men’s cricket. On the other hand there are several Academy players long overdue for a full England debut. The definition of the phrase”ready for International cricket” may have to change, because frankly (in my opinion) those in charge of selection have become too sure about certain players not being able to rise to International play. In reality, it is very difficult to be sure how well a player may adapt to it, unless they are given a good chance to show off their talents. What Robinson has done should help shake this up. Other teams blood their promising players at much younger ages. England may need to start debuting more teenagers in the near future.
Even if this is all true, I don’t necessarily agree with Robinson’s decisions to date, or his pet theory. Let’s look at some of the problems with it.
Criticism of the “eclipse” theory
There are several areas where we could criticise Robinson’s actions. Some have already been identified in articles and comments on this site. Certainly, it is a huge risk for England to lose their best player at a time where we desperately need more runs, not less. Hopes for victory in the 2017 Women’s World Cup were real and serious whilst Edwards was in the team, particularly as it would be a home series. Now, with Edwards gone, there can be little hope of that achievement, and even a semi-final seems like it would be a good result rather than an average one.
I’m sure it wasn’t Robinson’s intention but he seems to have set himself up to be able to make excuses. If England perform poorly for the rest of the year, he can always point to the fact that Edwards is not around and he needs more time with the squad. The other side of the coin is that he must be accountable for this decision, and I’m sure there will be many looking to criticise if England start to lose overall series in the next year or two. I sure will.
Those supporting Robinson’s decision have drawn comparisons with Alastair Cook’s forced exit from the ODI captaincy of the England men’s side. He scored a lot of runs, and didn’t want to go either. And Cook’s departure was followed by a complete change in approach from the rest of the team, which has led to much more exciting play and the side enjoying renewed success, really challenging the world’s best teams and indeed coming within an over of winning the WT20 final.
This argument doesn’t really work, though. The men’s team needed a change in approach only; the side already contained experienced, confident players with strong records, and fifties and hundreds in the bank, who had to adjust their mental and technical approach, but not fundamentally raise their whole game. Many of the England Women batsmen will have to do things they have never done before, set new standards, and advance their games to entirely new levels to make up for the loss of Edwards. This is, needless to say, a huge ask, and some of them may not be able to do it as well as Robinson demands.
On the flipside of the theory, a small number of players have excelled in addition to Edwards’ excellence. So this is a big problem for the theory. For example, Sarah Taylor is a player who has generally succeeded with the bat in recent years. She and Edwards stand apart from the rest. And yet Taylor was obviously not part of Robinson’s plans for “refurbishment” of the squad. It is possible, of course, that his attempts to change the status quo could prove ironically futile this summer. Maybe Taylor will score most of England’s runs now (she’s certainly done it before), and big contributions from other players will still be few and far between. In which case, Robinson has only passed the whole problem along a step, and really achieved nothing of note, all the while forcing the exit of our finest player in far from ideal circumstances.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Robinson’s decision and explanation, though, is that he has already disproved it with his first few months in the job. The South Africa series saw a more attacking approach from the batting line-up, with the likes of Jones in ODIs, and Beaumont in the WWT20, coming to the fore. If anyone had been previously eclipsed by Edwards, it was Beaumont. Except, by hook or by crook, the situation seems to have been turned around for her, and quickly – with Edwards still there. If Beaumont had done as well for England since 2009 as she had in the last few months, her record would be quite impressive. If we could see the same effect for some of the other underachieving players, this whole problem suddenly evaporates and along with it, Robinson’s entire justification.
So is it possible that this whole debacle could turn out to be a complete folly after all, even stretching into the long term? Perhaps.
Let’s look at some specific details. One way to identify players who have not been subject to any eclipsing effect is by looking at who has performed well when Edwards did not. So I have checked the scores made by our main batsmen in T20Is and ODIs since the start of 2014 (to roughly coincide with “professionalism” and also because going back further starts to look pretty desperate). The scores are only counted when Edwards scored less than 20 in a T20, and less than 40 in an ODI, and the player in question scored more than 20. There are less entries than you may think. As a rule of thumb, the more a player features in these lists, the less sense the “eclipsing”argument makes for them specifically.
England T20I Cricket from 2014 onwards: Edwards scores 19 or less, batsman scores 20+
|# 20+ scores
Edwards scored 19 or less in 12 out of 26 matches since 2014. England’s record in these games: won 8, lost 4 (67% win ratio). England’s overall T20 win ratio is 73% (source WCB)
So this is not a particularly good start for the theory. England’s win ratio when Edwards gets a sub-20 score is not much worse than their overall win ratio. This shows that the other players, overall, are largely making up for this deficit. We see no Jones, Gunn or Wyatt in the list, however, which shows that these players have not done it for England in T20Is when needed the most.
England ODI Cricket from 2014 onwards: Edwards scores 39 or less, batsman scores 20+
|# 20+ scores
(Brunt, Jones and Shrubsole also feature once each in this list, but I’ve not included them in the table.)
Edwards scored 39 or less in 8 out of 16 matches since 2014. England’s record in these games: won 4, lost 4 (50% win ratio). England’s overall ODI win ratio is 69% (source WCB)
The results from the ODI analysis support the theory better, which is strange as Robinson made his decision after a T20 competition. I had to increase the range of Edwards’ scores for ODI, as there were so few entries in the list if you go much lower! The team record is significantly poorer when Edwards did not score heavily, which shows how vital she was to England in ODIs. However, I think we can say that Sciver, Taylor and Knight have not been negatively affected, as all tended to contribute when Edwards didn’t, and all have decent overall ODI records. Indeed Sciver’s performances for England have often outmatched those for Surrey.
The effect is only slight for Greenway, and Elwiss hasn’t played enough games to make any conclusions – a problem in the selectors’ hands and not Edwards’. Jones is in the same situation. The only remaining players who could have been eclipsed by Edwards are Gunn, Winfield and Wyatt. (I have already discussed Beaumont.) Is the development of just these 3 players really worth getting rid of Edwards for?
The only justification left for Robinson would be the idea that the likes of Beaumont, Knight and Winfield would be getting hundreds every other week had they been developed correctly. They should be absolutely superb players. To prove that, you’d have to show that their batting trend lines (average, strike rate) have been decreasing since coming into the England team. That is a statistical minefield, though, as any decline is more likely to be due to improving opposition than anything else. I’m left with the distinct impression that Robinson’s decision, and the eclipse theory, has more to do with a vague feeling than any hard data. It is merely a smokescreen for bringing about the change he wants. He wants a fresh start, and is placing too much faith in the hope that players can develop far further than we have seen. Let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
The fact is, we don’t know how any of these players would have performed had Edwards not been part of the team. But that’s the problem Robinson has. We don’t know how they will do going forward either, and that is a huge risk to take when you know you could have had Edwards still playing, particularly in ODIs, for the next couple of years. The number of players potentially eclipsed by her excellence is too small, and the effect too slight, to base any big decisions on. The transition option, with Edwards still in the ODI team (and possibly the T20 team as well) but not as captain, still seems more favourable to me.