The Friday Column March 11, 2005

The lucky bowlers, and the luckless ones

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it. Every Friday, The Numbers Game will take a look at statistics from the present and the past, busting myths and revealing hidden truths:

All international bowlers will swear by the need for skill and perseverance for long-term success, but they'll probably also mention that one needs a slice of luck. There are some bowlers who have the happy knack of finding the edge, or forcing batsmen to hit rank long-hops to the lone man stationed at deep fine leg, while others toil away, keep beating the bat or finding the edge, but at the end of the day, have figures of none for 100 to show for it.

It's commonly assumed that it all evens out in the end - a bowler might take a five-for despite bowling poorly, and might go wicketless after a great spell - but does it really? Cricinfo's ball-by-ball data suggests that there are some bowlers who are more adept than others at converting potential wicket-taking deliveries into actual wickets. Since September 2001, each and every ball bowled in Test cricket has been mapped along several parameters, including line and length, and how the batsman tackled it. Every time a batsman played and missed, edged, or was rapped on the pads, it went down as a potential wicket-taking delivery. Based on those numbers, there are some interesting revelations which come up.

Among bowlers who have taken at least 25 Test wickets since that period, Ashley Giles comes out as the unluckiest of the lot - he has bowled plenty of potentially wicket-taking deliveries, with minimum reward. Next in line in Stuart MacGill, while the much-maligned Ajit Agarkar figures high in the list as well. In a stop-start Test career, Agarkar has taken just 53 wickets from 22 Tests at an average of 46.66, but, as the table below indicates, he has bowled 452 potentially wicket-taking (PWT) deliveries, but only has 29 scalps to show for it, that's a ratio of more than 15 PWT deliveries per wicket. His record is very similar to another bowler who, so far in his career, has been a huge underachiever: Mohammad Sami has 48 wickets from 18 Tests (average 46.52), but here's something he can present to Bob Woolmer as a partial explanation of those awful numbers - he has needed to bowl more than 13 potentially wicket-taking deliveries to actually come up with a wicket under his name.

Pot. Wkt-taking balls Wickets Ratio
Giles 1892 101 18.73
MacGill 1344 85 15.81
Agarkar 452 29 15.59
Harbhajan 1918 124 15.47
Kaneria 1272 86 14.79
Andrew Hall 458 31 14.77
Warne 2213 159 13.92
James Anderson 470 35 13.43
Sami 535 40 13.38
Zaheer 1044 79 13.22

At the other end of the spectrum is South Africa's Nanty Hayward, for whom the ratio is an astonishing 0.97. A couple of New Zealanders - Chris Cairns and Shane Bond - figure very high in the list as well, while Shoaib Akhtar's ratio of 7.15 puts him in the top ten too.

Pot. Wkt-taking balls Wickets Ratio
Hayward 34 35 0.97
Bond 160 43 3.72
Cairns 256 47 5.45
Waqar 235 41 5.73
Blignaut 212 32 6.63

While potential wicket-taking deliveries is one way of looking at lucky/ unlucky bowlers, the other way - and one that bowlers will remember more vividly - is the number of catches that went down. In that count, Kumble leads the way with 24 spills off him, but the bowler who will probably feel most let down by his fielders is Andy Flintoff: he has taken 103 wickets, and has had 22 catches dropped off him - in percentage terms, that's easily the highest among all bowlers in the top ten. Move a little further down the list, though, and you notice the name of Javagal Srinath. He took 39 Test wickets during this period, and had an incredible 11 catches dropped - a percentage of 28.20. No wonder he couldn't get that perennially pained look off his visage.

Wickets Catches dropped Drop/ wkt %
Kumble 168 24 14.29
Flintoff 103 22 21.36
Gillespie 139 18 12.95
Harbhajan 124 17 13.71
Brett Lee 88 17 19.32
Hoggard 137 16 11.69
Muralitharan 192 15 7.81
Vettori 82 14 17.07
Dillon 74 14 18.92
Ntini 163 14 8.59

Let us know what you think

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Cricinfo. For some of the data, he was helped by Arun Gopalakrishnan, the operations manager in Cricinfo's Chennai office.