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Ashes Mythbusting: Home comforts, expert tossers and a 80/1 value lefty

Getting under the hood of some of the most common Ashes theories

by Aidan Elder | July 3, 2015

After all the talking, speculation and pretending that we actually care about Test matches against the West Indies, it’s nearly upon us. The latest Ashes series kicks off on Wednesday. Partially in honour of that fact and partially because there is a lot of bullshit talked about the Ashes, we’ve cracked open the history books to explore some of the myths surrounding the Ashes and indeed cricket generally.

#1 – Winning the toss is crucial. Not so much.

‘Who won the toss?’ comes the fevered question on the opening morning of any Ashes Test. As if the random flipping of a coin can supersede actual important things like batting well or not bowling with all the precision of a discount facelift.

It’s old, has questionable relevance in the modern world yet still receives an obscene amount of attention. Kind of like cricket’s version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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There’s no doubt that having the choice of having a bat or having a bowl is seen as advantageous, but it’s impact on the final result is minimal. 39% of teams who win the toss in the Ashes go on to win the Test. That’s a chunky enough number, but it also implies that 61% of teams who win the toss don’t end up winning the match.

There are a lot of nuances to that bare stat, but if there is a disadvantage in winning the toss, it’s minimal and probably not as fatal to your chances as continually relying on Joe Root’s part-time spin to overcome some of the world’s top batsmen. To sum it up by coining a new little old-time crickety saying:

Tails never fails,
But if it does,
Don’t let it ruin your buzz.

Wow – dropping rhymes like Snoop Dogg.

#2 – Home advantage is decisive. Hmmm …

Most sports do show an advantage for the home side and with the addition of booze-fuelled home crowds and the anger of spending hours on end with not a whole lot happening, Test cricket seems like an environment that would seriously magnify that advantage. To be more up our own arses, ‘sticking a key in the wicket’ about it, the ability to cultivate pitches that suit the strengths of your bowling attack should also tip the balance in the hosts’ favour. Except that stats don’t unequivocally confirm that.

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Around 51% of Ashes series have been won by the hosts. That means we can legally say that the home team win most of the time, but to leave it there would be about as responsible as leaving John Terry unattended with your wife, girlfriend or mum. To balance that, the away team has won around 41% of all the series and 7% have ended up all square. (We’re aware that misses out 1%, but that’s due to rounding down, not our inept grasp of mathematics).

Digging deeper into the outcome of individual Ashes Tests, we see a similar trend albeit with a significant increase in draws. 41% of Ashes Tests have been won by the home team, but equally you could say 59% have not. The away team wins 31% of Ashes Tests and 28% end up in a draw, often thanks to the British summer pinching a day or so of play.

On the face of it, it’s good news for England. With home advantage, the previous stats suggest they’re more likely to win Ashes Tests and the entire series. Having said that, the numbers are as tenuous as Kanye West’s grip on reality. The away side win both the matches and series a sizeable amount of the time. If the teams are more evenly matched that is being suggested, being on the good soil of Blighty might help the Poms, but if the gap is as big as is reckoned, the Aussies probably have enough reason to justify their usual smug self-confidence.

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#3 – Pretty Much Anyone Could Be Top Runscorer

This one is pretty much rubbish. There may be fanciful thoughts along the lines of ‘Ben Stokes could come good with the bat and he’s a bit of value at 33/1’. That’s not to dismiss the ability of Ben with the bat. He may well get a couple of important big scores in the course of the series, but recent history points towards looking very much towards the top of the batting and the top of the betting.

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The trends over the last 30 years are equally helpful yet vague. In terms of which team the Top Runscorer has played for, that’s a straight 50-50 split – eight have been playing for the Poms and eight for the convicts. A stronger trend emerges when looking at the eventual series winner.

The Top Series Runscorer has been on the winning Ashes team 75% of the time. Not conclusive, but if you fancy one side over the other, you probably shouldn’t plump for a Top Runscorer who plays for the opposition. Another strong trend emerges when we look at who benefits from home comforts. 75% of the Top Series Runscorers have been playing for the home team.

Possibly the most interesting trend in the last 30 years is the level of left handed batsmen who have racked up the runs. Overall it’s 56% to 44% in favour of right handed batsmen, but given that lefties are often in the small minority of a batting line-up, that represents significant over-indexing versus the right-handed batsmen. Depending on how you see the series panning out, that could make David Warner, Alastair Cook, Shaun Marsh or even Moeen Ali at 80/1 a decent option. Ali at 33/1 to be Top England Series Runscorer looks like it’s actually got a good chance of happening.  Yes, we’re aware Gary Ballance is also left-handed and shorter odds than 80/1.

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