August 2, 2014

India's bowling weakness outside the subcontinent

Without good-quality third and fourth bowlers, India will continue to struggle outside the subcontinent despite their talented batting line-up

Having your third and fourth bowlers average 45 puts huge pressure on your batsmen © Getty Images

After three Tests in England, India's bowlers have conceded 43.4 runs per wicket. They have won a Test match. Their best bowler, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, relies on control rather than pace and has taken 15 wickets at 23 apiece. Ishant Sharma, who turned in a match-winning performance in the second innings at Lord's, has ten wickets at 28.5. He has been mercurial as ever. His 7 for 74 at Lord's sits alongside two other innings, at Lord's and Trent Bridge, in which he conceded 3 for 211 in 62 overs. Until he dismissed Ian Bell in the 30th over of England's second innings at Lord's, Ishant had gone wicketless for 52 consecutive overs. India's spinner, Ravindra Jadeja, has bowled more overs than any other Indian bowler. He has eight wickets at 48 runs apiece. His wickets have come at the rate of one every 18 overs. Mohammed Shami has taken the new ball for India in this series. He has been hammered, by Test match standards, conceding 366 runs in 96 overs of bowling. His five wickets have cost 73 apiece, and it has taken him 19 overs of bowling to take each.

The Indian attack that started the Southampton Test - Bhuvneshwar, Shami and Jadeja (with Pankaj Singh at 0) - had taken 90 Test wickets between them. This has been a pattern in India's overseas bowling performances in recent years.

Performance of bowlers by position of innings (Since Jan 1, 2010. Tests in Aus, Eng, SA, NZ and WI)
Team 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th or more Deliveries Wickets Runs
Australia 115 112 104 103 51 484 8.6 241
Bangladesh 103 107 119 133 77 539 5.6 343
England 130 119 126 111 35 521 8.7 271
India 140 137 137 135 46 596 8.0 335
New Zealand 111 110 111 108 56 495 7.6 261
Pakistan 108 99 104 115 55 481 8.4 249
South Africa 114 111 93 104 52 473 8.8 243
Sri Lanka 116 126 106 95 101 544 6.8 324
West Indies 99 106 115 139 65 524 7.8 254
Zimbabwe 111 102 120 130 95 558 6.8 323

In the table above, I looked at Test bowling in England, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa by bowling position since January 1, 2010. The table shows the number of balls bowled per innings in each position, and the number of runs, wickets and deliveries per innings for all ten Test teams for the period under consideration. Those who follow Test cricket reasonably closely will not be surprised that Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and England have been the strongest Test attacks outside the subcontinent in the last four years. West Indies and New Zealand have built good records as well.

India have a peculiar record that provides some context to the experiment with Stuart Binny on the current tour. The workload of their fourth bowlers has been significantly higher than those of the other teams' better specialist bowlers. India average nearly 100 overs per innings while the top bowling sides average between 80 and 90 overs per innings. MS Dhoni's tendency to check the scoring from one end while attacking from the other may have something to do with this. When extrapolated over ten wickets (one completed innings), what this means is that India bowl 125 overs and concede about 420 runs per completed innings, as compared to say England, who bowl 99 overs and concede 311. The period from 2010-2014 has been a successful time for England with Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Stuart Broad forming a settled trio in their prime.

The comparison in the table below is meaningful, given that it is made over four years and includes matches played by each team against more or less the same mix of batsmen from around the world. Unless you argue that the wickets India play on are especially flat compared to the wickets other teams play on, it is hard to deny that India's bowlers put their side at a massive disadvantage when playing outside the subcontinent. Only Sri Lanka, among the top eight Test teams, have fared worse.

Performance of bowling teams per innings (Since Jan 1, 2010. Tests in Aus, Eng, SA, NZ, WI)
Team Overs per ten wickets Runs conceded per ten wickets
Australia 94 281
Bangladesh 162 617
England 99 311
India 125 420
New Zealand 109 344
Pakistan 95 296
South Africa 90 276
Sri Lanka 133 473
West Indies 111 324
Zimbabwe 138 478

Where does the weakness in India's attack lie? I've broken down the bowling average and strike rate by bowling position below. Bowling position 1 refers to the bowler who delivers the first over, 2 to the bowler who delivers the second over, 3 to the first-change bowler and so on.

The figures for Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are provided for the sake of completeness, but readers should keep in mind that these two sides have played significantly fewer Tests outside the subcontinent in the last four years compared to the top eight teams.

Strike rate by position (Since Jan 1, 2010. Tests in Aus, Eng, SA, NZ and WI)
Team 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th or more
Australia 51 47 60 65 80
Bangladesh 86 178 74 95 103
England 57 56 55 67 94
India 67 62 70 97 142
New Zealand 57 58 65 79 82
Pakistan 51 54 61 62 60
South Africa 43 41 64 71 93
Sri Lanka 95 67 78 81 83
West Indies 63 60 91 62 65
Zimbabwe 56 82 360 78 63

When you look at these figures, keep in mind a few career strike rates. Dale Steyn takes his wickets at the rate of one per 42 deliveries. For a top-quality spinner in this era, this figure is nearer to 60-65. For a top-quality fast bowler, a strike rate of 50 is considered respectable. When it comes to the average, an average under 25 is world class, and an average under 30 is considered excellent for a specialist bowler.

India's new-ball bowlers have worse strike rates than all other major teams with the exception of Sri Lanka. But it is their third and fourth bowlers who have hurt them significantly. The first- and second-change bowlers for India have a tougher job compared to those in stronger sides, who bowl at batting line-ups that are already under pressure.

Pakistan have conceded totals of 400 or more only three times in 28 innings since January 2010. India have conceded 400 or more 13 times in 36 innings in the same period. India have bowled the opposition out in only 61% of the innings they have bowled in. Pakistan have managed this 79% of the time. Australia have managed it 91% of the time.

Bowling average by position (Since Jan 1, 2010. Tests in Aus, Eng, SA, NZ and WI)
Team 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th or more
Australia 25 23 31 31 42
Bangladesh 62 113 50 53 63
England 27 29 29 36 56
India 34 37 44 49 86
New Zealand 30 29 38 39 45
Pakistan 25 30 31 32 31
South Africa 21 20 34 35 56
Sri Lanka 55 45 45 51 42
West Indies 32 30 43 28 32
Zimbabwe 33 46 253 34 38

One does have to factor in the advantage of playing at home that some of these teams have in these numbers. But even so, the fact that none of India's bowlers (in any position) has done as well as any of Australia's or Pakistan's specialists is telling. India's best bowler has done about as well as England's second-change option.

Based on these numbers, if you want a vivid picture of what it is like to face India's bowlers outside the subcontinent, consider how India's batsmen play spin outside the subcontinent. They score freely and lose wickets rarely. That's the quality of bowling opposing batsmen face all the time when they face India's bowlers.

New Zealand's record shows similar trouble with the third and fourth bowlers' spots over the period under consideration. But their new-ball attack is significantly better than India's. It is the rare Test team that can expect to play three bowlers who are of equally high quality, let alone four. But there is a huge difference between playing a third and a fourth bowler whose wickets cost about 35 and a third and a fourth bowler whose wickets cost about 45 per wicket.

This is the handicap India's batsmen labour under. Even though they went through that trying spell of eight Tests in England and Australia in which they were bowled out for 250 or less eight times in 16 innings and lost every time, they have made over 330 at least once in each of their last seven Tests outside the subcontinent. They have set up at least three wins, in Johannesburg and Auckland and at Lord's, of which the bowlers have delivered only one. New Zealand easily saved the Auckland Test, while South Africa nearly produced a world record to steal a win in Johannesburg.

With their current batting, India will win a lot of Tests overseas if they can find good quality third and fourth bowlers - positions they have struggled to fill in recent years. MS Dhoni defended India's decision to play four bowlers and Rohit Sharma in Southampton with the argument that Rohit Sharma "could also give us those eight to 10 overs or more". His problem has been that it's not only his fifth bowler who has just been making up the numbers.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here