ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

Left-arm spin's resurgence, and series runs in vain

After a disappointing phase, left-arm spin has returned to Test cricket with a vengeance

S Rajesh

December 7, 2012

Comments: 15 | Text size: A | A

Rangana Herath made an instant impact, dismissing Shane Watson, Sri Lanka v Australia, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day, August 31, 2011
Rangana Herath has led the revival of left-arm spin, taking 96 wickets in 18 Tests at 24.41 in the last couple of years © AFP

Not so long ago, there was a time when the value of left-arm spin was being seriously questioned, especially in Test cricket. Unlike the offspinners and wrist-spinners, they had no mystery deliveries up their sleeve; it seemed as if they had been left behind as the game moved on and exponents of other trades within it had evolved and found new techniques to keep up. Left-arm spin had been largely reduced to a defensive bowling option, which captains often employed to keep the runs in check.

Over the last couple of years, and especially in 2012, all that has changed dramatically. Where there used to be only Daniel Vettori, manfully bowling over after maiden over but seldom picking up a bagful of wickets, there's now Rangana Herath, Abdur Rehman, Pragyan Ojha and, most recently, Monty Panesar, who has returned to Test cricket after a two-and-a-half year hiatus as a hungrier and more skilful bowler. Far from being merely containing options, these bowlers have been integral to the wicket-taking plans of captains, apart from also doing the run-choking act superbly.

The current year has been especially kind to them. Going into the Kolkata Test, left-arm spinners have captured 172 wickets at an outstanding average of 27.01 and a strike-rate of a wicket every ten overs. They've also taken as many ten-wicket hauls in a Test this year as they had from 2005 to 2011 all put together. They've even made a mark at a venue as unfriendly to spin as Perth, with South Africa's Robin Peterson becoming only the fourth left-arm spinner, and the sixth spinner of any kind, to take six or more wickets in a Test at the WACA.

In what's been a remarkable year for them so far, left-arm spinners have taken almost 15% of the total wickets that all bowlers have taken this year, which is a higher percentage than has been achieved in the last 25 years: the last time left-arm spinners grabbed a higher percentage of the total wickets taken by bowlers was in 1987, when Maninder Singh, Iqbal Qasim and Ravi Shastri led them to a tally of 100 wickets out of a total of 657, a percentage of 15.22. Even in that year, though, left-arm spinners averaged 31.87, which is comfortably higher than the 2012 average so far. The last time left-arm spin collectively averaged less than 27 in a year was in 1977 - during the heyday of Bishan Singh Bedi and Derek Underwood - when they averaged 25.35. (Click here for the year-wise stats of left-arm spin.)

Left-arm spinners in each year since 2002
Year Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM Total wkts Average Left-arm % wkts
2012 172 27.01 60.6 16/ 3 1155 33.79 14.89
2011 167 29.42 71.0 9/ 0 1233 32.31 13.54
2010 159 43.07 89.0 5/ 0 1252 36.60 12.70
2009 172 37.81 76.4 8/ 0 1214 37.70 14.17
2008 197 37.50 79.7 12/ 0 1445 33.68 13.63
2007 102 37.50 74.5 4/ 1 920 34.83 11.09
2006 112 43.75 87.9 5/ 1 1400 34.53 8.00
2005 106 44.94 88.0 6/ 1 1508 33.40 7.03
2004 210 36.07 74.6 10/ 1 1555 35.31 13.50
2003 167 36.20 75.0 11/ 2 1305 36.12 12.80
2002 105 42.06 85.5 2/ 0 1607 32.58 6.53

A comparison of the success rates of all bowling types in 2012 indicates how good the left-arm spinners have been. While all other bowler types have averaged more than 34 in Tests this years, left-arm spinners have averaged 27. They've also been the most difficult to score runs off, achieving an economy rate of 2.67 runs per over. That means they've offered the captains excellent control, and also been genuine wicket-taking weapons.

Stats for each bowler type in Tests in 2012
Bowler type Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10WM
Left-arm spin 172 27.01 60.6 2.67 16/ 3
Right-arm pace 606 34.45 65.9 3.13 23/ 3
Left-arm pace 78 35.15 64.1 3.28 3/ 0
Right-arm spin 299 35.85 70.5 3.04 12/ 4

The stats were similar in 2011 as well, though the gap in averages wasn't as large between the left-arm spinners and the next-best: left-arm spinners averaged 29.42, right-arm fast bowlers averaged 30.23, and the other two bowler types both averaged a little more than 37.

However, in the six years before 2011, the stats for left-arm spinners were very different. Between 2005 and 2010, they conceded more than 40 runs per wicket, and took a wicket once every 82 balls. Compared to those numbers, they've improved about 30% in 2012.

During that six-year period, the highest wicket-taker among left-arm spinners was Vettori - his 151 wickets came at 32.62. His wicket-taking ability has declined since - he has taken 21 wickets in nine Tests at 41.57 since the beginning of 2011 - but during that period he was clearly the top left-arm spinner. However, there were also others, like Nicky Boje, Ashley Giles, Mohammad Rafique, Sulieman Benn and Ojha, who had poor averages and strike rates.

Stats for each bowler type in Tests between Jan 2005 and Dec 2010
Bowler type Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10WM
Left-arm pace 892 32.25 58.4 3.31 36/ 5
Right-arm pace 4212 34.23 61.6 3.33 140/ 14
Right-arm spin 1758 35.58 68.5 3.11 83/ 18
Left-arm spin 848 40.36 82.3 2.94 40/ 3

In the last couple of years, though, the wickets have come in thick and fast for them. In his first 11 Tests, which he played before 2011, Ojha had conceded 40.40 runs per wicket; since the beginning of 2011, his average has dropped to 21.57 (47 wickets in seven Tests). Panesar has returned stongly for England, Herath has emerged from the considerable shadow of Muttiah Muralitharan, while Abdur Rehman has quietly and consistently been among the wickets even as most of the headlines have been grabbed by Saeed Ajmal.

Left-arm spinners with most wickets in Tests since Jan 2011
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Rangana Herath 18 96 24.41 57.5 9/ 2
Abdur Rehman 13 61 24.78 61.7 2/ 0
Pragyan Ojha 7 47 21.57 50.6 5/ 0
Monty Panesar 4 27 22.70 57.1 4/ 1
Shakib Al Hasan 7 27 33.77 69.6 2/ 0

Runs in vain

Australia's 1-0 series defeat to South Africa produced one of those rare instances of a team losing a series despite finishing up with a better batting average than the winning team. In Australia's case, that happened because the dominated the first two Tests without winning either: in Brisbane and Adelaide, Australia scored a combined total of 1382 runs for 23 wickets (average 60.08) compared to South Africa's 1252 runs for 32 wickets (average 39.12). In Perth, though, South Africa completely turned the tables, and Australia were powerless to resist. The result of this topsy-turvy series was that South Africa won the series - and retained the top ranking in the process - despite a batting average that was 4.07 runs lower than Australia's.

In the last 110 years, this is the eighth-highest difference in averages between the losing team and the winning team (losing team averaging more than the winning one). The one with the highest difference also featured Australia at the wrong end: in the 2009 Ashes, England finished with a 2-1 series verdict despite averaging only 34.15 runs per wicket, to Australia's 40.64. Australia scored eight hundreds in the series to England's two, and yet lost the crucial moments.

England also managed something similar in the home series against South Africa in 1998, when they won 2-1 despite averaging 6.03 runs fewer per wicket than the visitors. England themselves were at the receiving end in the West Indies in 2008-09, when they lost the first Test and then couldn't even the score, despite being a wicket away from victory in the third match.

India feature a few times too in the table below, twice losing series despite averaging more than the opposition. One of them was in Australia in 1977-78 when they lost 3-2, and the other against Pakistan at home when the visitors won the last Test - a low-scoring thriller in Bangalore - after the first four games were drawn. When India won their first series in England, though, they did so despite finishing with a lower batting average than the hosts.

Biggest average difference between losing and winning team in a series, since 1912
Series Losing team - average Winning team - average Difference Series result
Ashes 2009 Australia - 40.65 England - 34.15 6.49 2-1
South Africa in England, 1998 South Africa - 35.37 England - 29.34 6.03 2-1
England in West Indies, 2008-09 England - 49.56 West Indies - 43.82 5.74 1-0
India in Australia, 1977-78 India - 33.54 Australia - 28.17 5.37 3-2
England in Sri Lanka, 2000-01 Sri Lanka - 29.76 England - 24.77 4.98 1-0
Pakistan in India, 1986-87 India - 38.10 Pakistan - 33.52 4.58 1-0
India in England, 1971 England - 29.85 India - 25.38 4.47 1-0
South Africa in Australia, 2012-13 Australia - 43.42 South Africa - 39.35 4.07 1-0
Stats for the series averages contributed by Travis Basevi

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Comments: 15 
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Posted by Nazratan on (December 10, 2012, 23:18 GMT)

Well if we are talking about Left arm Spinner resurgence, then Bangladesh should definitely get a mention. They have produced quality left arm Spinners and have constantly featured them in the national team. While others have one or two in the team, Bangladesh team could make a whole bowling team with just left arm spinners. May be the stats don't speak volumes about Bangladeshi Spinners, but they are and have been HERE, can't deny that!! That was the point I was trying to make

Posted by Dummy4 on (December 9, 2012, 3:56 GMT)

Dear Rajesh:

Please post stats for the performance of Indian batters and bowlers for 15 tests just before the last world cup and for 15 tests after the last world cup. Please also post stats for Indian teams test performance win/loss, runs scored, wickets taken for 15 tests before the WC and for 15 tests after world cup. It will be very interesting to see how greatly the performance of Indian team has changed in such a short time.

Posted by Dummy4 on (December 9, 2012, 0:15 GMT)

best place to get left arm spinners is... Bangladesh !! Shakib is a batting allrounder even though his bowling is excellent.

Posted by Dummy4 on (December 8, 2012, 15:29 GMT)

What seems to be happening in cricket is clean rotation. Once type of bowlers start getting wickets, all teams try to bring in the same type of bowlers...batsmen figure them out....a new type of bowler starts clicking. There were good fast bowlers once. Then we had the leg-spinner revolution led by Qadir, Warne, Kumble.... Then the off-spinner revolution led by Saqlain, Murli, Harbhajan.....Now there is a Left-arm spinner resurgence. Another thing - Ganguly's presence in Team India would also have impacted the performance of left-arm spinners...He could destroy them & therefore, did not trust them. Net Effect - nobody bowled Left Arm spinners in India. There has been almost no cricket in Pakistan recently, eliminating 2 of 4 countries where sides would bowl spinners (other 2 being SL & Bangladesh)...so where do the left-arm spinners bowl ?

Posted by Phani on (December 8, 2012, 12:53 GMT)

For all Bangaldesh fans, Shakib has Played only from 2007..thats why author hasn't mentioned in the list who are bowling from 2002 & when compared from 2011, Shakib has the worst Strike Rate, Economy rate..

The overall pic of Shakib is as below 102 Wickets with a strike rate of 68.2, average of 32.56 & economy rate of 2.86...so i leave to you my friends!

Posted by Dummy4 on (December 8, 2012, 2:14 GMT)

Monty played against Pakistan in UAE at the start of this year. How is he making a comeback in test cricket after a two and a half year hiatus??

Posted by Rod on (December 7, 2012, 23:48 GMT)

Can anyone explain why there are no left-arm "mystery" spinners?

Posted by Dummy4 on (December 7, 2012, 18:20 GMT)

Rajesh Sir - Everytime I'm amazed by the effort you put in your articles. Hats Off Sir.

Posted by shahrukh on (December 7, 2012, 17:43 GMT)

So this author is completely unaware of the existence of the Bangladeshi Left Armers? keeping everything else aside, Shakib alone is better than most of the bowlers mentioned there and his stats also prove it ( personally i think only vettori is better than shakib right now as a left arm spinner) but ofcourse the world best allrounder doesnt get a mention even does he?

Posted by Jon on (December 7, 2012, 15:17 GMT)

DRS has brought left arm spin into the game, which is simultaneously going to kill leg spin. DRS gives left arm spinners chances to get wickets by getting outside edges or beating the inside edge to get LBW's. With left arm spinners getting the success why would captains risk bowling a leggie who may bowl one pie every over. Personally I regret to say that leg spin is dying as an art. Coaching a fair amount of cricket myself I never see any kids bowling leg spin these days. With heavier bats and T2O cricket leg spinners really are a liability. It really is a shame because there is no better sight in cricket than watching a leggie bamboozle a batsmen. Certainly more interesting than watching bowlers dart it into the pads looking to get LBW's.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.

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