December 20, 2013

Beyond bowling averages

Kartikeya Date
Why Siddle and Herath are special. And why some bowlers are better at dismissing the tail than others

A majority of batsmen dismissed by Peter Siddle have averaged more than 35 at the time © Getty Images

What does a bowling average show? And more importantly, what does it hide? What does it mean when two very different bowlers, R Ashwin and Peter Siddle, average in the 28-30 range? Each is effective in very different conditions, and perhaps against batsmen with different strengths and weaknesses.

The bowling average and strike rate provide a good entry point into understanding cricketers and their cricket. It can be safely argued that a bowler averaging 35 in Tests is not a very good Test match bowler, while one who averages 25 probably is. But beyond that, what can we learn?

In this post, the first of a three-part series, I present two measures that tell us a little bit more. But before I detail these measures, a word on how I hope these statistics will be read. My purpose with these measures is not to say one bowler is better than the other, but to show how differences between bowlers are visible in their records. In this post, I consider all contemporary bowlers who have taken at least 100 Test wickets.

Statistics are revealing. The fact that Shivnarine Chanderpaul has played 151 Tests for West Indies from 1994 to 2013, and scored 11,040 runs at 51.58 with 28 centuries and 62 fifties tells us a lot about Chanderpaul, but it tells us more if we also know that in doing so, he scored 16% of all the runs made by West Indies. It tells us even more, if we also know that from 1995 to 2012, Ricky Ponting made 13,378 runs at 51.85 with 41 centuries and 62 fifties for Australia, and this accounted for 14.4% of Australia's runs. How we choose to read measurements has a big role to play in what we learn from them. To say that Ponting was a better batsman than Chanderpaul based on a comparison of their records is perhaps the most boring thing that can be read from these numbers.

© Kartikeya Date

I have calculated the batting average of every single batsman at the start of each Test innings. Using this, I have built a record of the batting average of each wicket a bowler has taken. Column's B and C in the table above show the distribution of each bowler's wickets in two categories - batsmen who averaged less than 35 at the time, and batsmen who averaged more than 35. I use this distribution because I think batting average is a more reliable measure of quality than batting position. For example, how does one compare the batting ability of Matt Prior (41) and Chris Rogers (32)? Conventionally, one would consider an opener's wicket more valuable than a wicketkeeper's, but is that sufficient?

I also looked at the score for which the bowler dismissed each batsman. I propose that the ultimate ambition of a bowler in Test cricket is to dismiss a batsman who has a healthy batting average as early as possible. A bowler can do little better in a Test innings than to dismiss a batsman who averages 50 in Tests at that time, for a duck. Some bowlers do this more often than others.

Column H provides the number of batsmen (with average better than 35), who have been dismissed for a score below 35. In Column I, each bowler's strike rate for these dismissals is presented. I will refer to this as the bowler's Specialist Strike Rate. It tells us how often a bowler dismisses a specialist batsman cheaply.

In Column G, I provide my second measure beyond bowling averages - the batting average of the median wicket for each bowler. I will refer to this as Median.

All the bowlers in this list are contemporary bowlers. They have all played against more or less the same teams. Siddle's Median wicket averaged 38 in Tests. Ashwin's averaged 29.7. Irfan Pathan, whose Test record looks as good as it does thanks to a larger number of cheap Bangladeshi Test wickets, has a Median wicket of 27.0. Two-thirds of the Test wickets taken by Ashwin and Pathan averaged less than 35 with the bat. A majority of Test wickets taken by Zaheer Khan, Mohammad Asif and Siddle averaged more than 35.

A reasonably clear pattern is evident in these figures. Fast bowlers, who get first crack at openers and top-order batsmen with the new ball, seem to get a higher share of batsmen with high averages. Spinners make up the lower end of the list as a rule.

The exceptions to this are the two Sri Lankans - Rangana Herath and Lasith Malinga. Malinga's ability to attack the stumps accounts to some extent for his brilliance against tailenders and his limitations against top-order players (especially top-order players who have gotten used to his low release). Herath is perhaps the most underrated spinner of his era, not least because he played in Muttiah Muralitharan's shadow, and then was inexplicably selected behind Suraj Randiv for a few Tests. His relentless accuracy and subtle variations have made him a formidable competitor against the top order as well as tailenders.

I will conclude by saying that this clear pattern suggests a limitation of fast bowlers in this list, rather than point to a structural advantage in their favour. Look at Dale Steyn's record. Steyn is the most complete fast bowler of his generation. He dismisses a batsman cheaply once every 148 deliveries, and yet, these wickets account for only about two out of five taken by him. The tail demands attention in cricket, and for reasons of endurance and ability, very few fast bowlers are good both at dismissing specialist batsmen and dismissing tailenders.

In the next post, I turn my attention to Test spinners from the 1990s and 2000s. In the concluding post of this three-part series, I will focus on top fast bowlers in the modern era.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 23, 2013, 7:33 GMT

    @wakapak...Your right Waka in that Asif's figures do stand out even more than Siddle with that sparkling overall average and superior strike rate for quality batsmen. It's probably only because of the lower amount of wickets than Siddle because of playing fewer tests that he doesnt head the list and because of some parochialsim from a few of us Aussies that he hasnt been given due recognition in the comments.

  • Wiqar on December 23, 2013, 5:41 GMT

    M. Asif's strike rate is 110 against the better averaging batsmen; no on come closer, Yay! I wish there was ant integrity column there too...

  • Bryn on December 22, 2013, 17:31 GMT

    this reflects why siddle has Petersen as his bunny, he is too smart and skilful and too much of a proper test match bowler. siddle is a captains gold

  • Kasif on December 22, 2013, 7:12 GMT

    This analysis is good for two reasons, if for no others: it allows one to compare the effectiveness of pacemen with the new ball, and it allows one to compare the value of bowlers' wickets if all else between them is roughly equal. A couple points to consider...

    The wicket of a batsman who averages more is probably more valuable than that of one who averages less, but it is usually more difficult to get a batsman out after he is set rather than before. It is wrong to imply that one bowler is better than another because he gets more unsettled batsmen out.

    The best time to get batsmen averaging over 35 out for under 35 is when they first come in, and early in the morning with the new ball. Only pace bowlers typically have a crack under these conditions, while spinners come in to bowl only later. Herath benefits from Sri Lanka being without quality pacemen; he gets early opportunities. Malinga was not a typical new ball bowler; he didn't bowl seam-up and relied on reverse swing.

  • rob on December 21, 2013, 23:51 GMT

    @ Lyndon McPaul & xtrafalgarx: Yep, I agree as well. I'll never forget Siddle bowling Tendulkar in Brisbane on his last tour. The little bloke was about 70 at the time and looking ominous. Sids put about 10 in a row just outside off and curling away slightly. The 11th pitched in the exact same spot but seamed back sharply to clip the off bail. Perfection!!. It cracked them open, set the tone and we went on to steamroll them. .. Sids cops a bit of flack from people who think you've got to be a super quick show pony to be a good fast bowler but people in the know would pick Siddle in their team each and every time. He has skill, patience, stamina and a good cricketing brain and all of those things are pure gold.

  • Dummy4 on December 21, 2013, 10:44 GMT

    @trafalgar x..Spot on!! 100% agreement. What I love about watching Siddle bowl is that most of the time he seems like just another accurate stock bowler producing the same old/same old 135 km's line and length each delivery; however he keeps that all important Jaffa up his sleeve for when the best batsmen(quite often the best in the opposing team) are least expecting it. Out of nowhere and on the deadest of pitches he will produce a ripper leg/offcutter a few kms quicker which will completely surprise the batsmen and most likely induce a false stroke or bowl them/trap them in front. He also seems to work his way into his spells getting quicker the longer he bowls. This is the ideal type of bowler at first change that a captain could hope for and my best memories are of watching him regularly get batsmen the likes of Sangakarra, Tendulkar, Bell and Pietersen whilst breaking the most crucial partnerships of the match.

  • Dummy4 on December 21, 2013, 10:07 GMT

    This is serious number-crunching Kartikeya.. & so very analytical.. Very meaningful & insightful..

    So, 2 bowlers with similar averages, however, 1st takes wickets of batsmen who score heavily, while the 2nd takes cheap wickets.. Furthermore, the 1st bowler also take a lot of wickets before those heavy-scoring batsmen have scored heavily..

    That is why Siddle despite being a 1st change bowler for Australia, is perhaps the most vital cog in their attack.. This is a great analysis..

    && Ashwin's position vis-a-vis Zaheer tells another story.. Zaheer, is perhaps the most under-rated bowler India ever had, he takes important wickets, always..

    A personal request, if you can, please post the same analysis for Shane Bond ( 87 Test Wickets is less I know )..

  • David on December 21, 2013, 9:51 GMT

    Really like the job you've done here. A different aspect of the stats that doesn't get discussed much. Plenty of big name bowlers made their names feasting on the tail: Wasim Akram was one, Warne often got a crack at the tail, Murali definitely did too. Good to give credit to those guys who do their best work against the top order. Asif and Siddle are two underrated bowlers that deserve the plaudits. Also Zaheer and Mitch Johnson usually do their best work against the better batsmen. McGrath would also come out well with this analysis I would wager if you went back further.

  • Mick on December 21, 2013, 6:12 GMT

    Great article, shows there are other factors important to the rating of your players. Perhaps technically beyond some readers to understand the concepts. I have long known that the ICC Rankings are a crock of you know what. They heavily favour players who have merely turned up and played a lot over 3 years. Batsmen rankings for ODI and T20 fail to take strike rates into consideration sufficiently. So I hope you will do some "alternative" analysis of batsmen too. Match winning and Match saving performances ought to count more than some player performing well when whole team performed equally well due to state of the pitch or weakness of the opposition. A bowler can come in and clean up the tail to artificially boost his bowling averages. Better to award points based on the quality of the batsman dismissed and take into account a general pitch rating based on how other bowlers performed in the same match.

  • Android on December 21, 2013, 5:36 GMT

    This is a useless analysis. Bowling is an art. If Waqas wasn't picking wickets the wasim at the other end would. McGrath setting up a batsman. Averages can only show one side of the picture.

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