An Ashes series ahead and England doing issues with their top order batsmen to the extent that Jonathan Agnew wrote that those chosen for the tour party were, at best, “a lucky dip”. What, therefore, to make of the signals from the county game about players who have the potential to play for England? A long time ago, before TMS had had its twentieth birthday, Trevor Bailey used to comment that a county average of 40 was a marker for a Test prospect; he was not alone, then or now. Of course there were exceptions, Mike Brearley, for example, is often remembered for his captaincy rather than his runs, particularly during ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981.
1981 was a year of change that saw the full covering of pitches in the domestic game and the players’ averages over the years reflect this. Taking for instance the England batsmen turned commentators now, whose career averages on their Test debuts are shown in the chart, David Lloyd and David Gower for example debuted in 1974 and 1978 with averages of 32 and 27; the other four who first played in Tests over a decade later all had higher averages. By comparison, Geoff Boycott, who first played for England against the Australians in 1964, had an average of 46.
When players’ careers are on the rise and they first come into the England team, the average in the season when they are first picked (or the season before they go on tour) could be expected to be above their career average more often than not; David Lloyd and David Gower had averages of 62 and 41 when first picked. As to the general picture there is a pretty well defined list of 66 players who were picked to play as specialist batsmen for England between 1970-99 and their numbers are shown in the second chart.
The overall average of the career numbers is 37, that for the season 44, add them and divide by two results in a figure just over 40! As is evident there is some upward drift in the numbers and there is also a fair bit of variation from one player to another. The variation around the career and seasonal averages itself averages 5-6. Apart from David Lloyd in 1974, the two others with averages of 60+ in the season picked were James Whitaker in 1986 and Steve James in 1998; although as with David Lloyd, Steve James was selected early in the season after a relatively small number of innings. James Whitaker had a very good season in 1986 that included 9 not outs. The two standouts with career averages of 60+ are Allan Lamb in 1982 (as with others based on runs scored in England) and Graham Hick.
As for the relationship between a player’s average(s) when first picked and their subsequent Test career there is no obvious close and direct association. Of the major run-getters for England during these years, Allan Lamb and, to a lesser extent, Nasser Hussain had numbers above the average line on their Test debuts; the others starting with Graham Gooch in 1974 and ending with Michael Vaughan in 1999 were either on or below it; in the case of Michael Vaughan, whose numbers are at the right hand end of the chart, quite a way below it.
TMS commentators in the 1970s, Trevor Bailey, Henry Blofeld and Brian Johnston, with end of play summaries by EW Swanton, had a certain confidence that came from their backgrounds and with it also suggested a certain stability about the order of things; the relationship between Test and county cricket included as well perhaps, whether justified or not. But broadly, the numbers here do give some sort of credibility to the idea that the county Championship then sent out useful messages about those with Test potential, or at least those that the selectors thought had it.