Top-order pickings October 21, 2005

Peerless Pigeon

The Numbers Game looks at Glenn McGrath's penchant for ruffling top-order feathers

Glenn McGrath: at his best against the best batsmen © Getty Images

Stuart MacGill and Shane Warne took most of the plaudits for Australia's emphatic win in the Super Test at Sydney earlier this week, but there was another bowling performance which didn't quite get the notice it deserved. With new ball in hand, Glenn McGrath strutted his stuff in both innings: in the first, he dismantled Rahul Dravid for a duck and Brian Lara for 5; in the second Graeme Smith went fifth ball, again without having got off the mark. All three batsmen average well over 50 in Test cricket, but McGrath nailed them all at a collective cost of five runs, underscoring his importance to the Australian unit yet again not only for his ability to get top batsmen out of the way, but also to do so before they settle in.

A good yardstick to measure the effectiveness of bowlers is not only to look at their total wickets tally, but also explore the contribution of top-order batsmen to that haul, and the damage those specialist batsmen did before getting out. McGrath has done exceptionally well on all counts: his tally is highest among all fast bowlers in the history of Test cricket, his 67% top-order wickets (No. 1 to 6) is second - and only marginally - to Allan Donald among all fast bowlers with at least 300 Test wickets. Best of all is his ability to get the main men out early - the top order score, on an average, less than 21 runs when they get out to him. None of the other fast bowlers in the 300-wicket club have done better.

Fast bowlers and their distribution of wickets
Bowler Wickets Top-order wkts (%) Ave of top-order wickets*
Glenn McGrath 521 66.99 20.68
Fred Trueman 307 59.61 21.02
Waqar Younis 373 62.47 21.45
Malcolm Marshall 376 63.30 21.50
Wasim Akram 414 56.28 22.48
Curtly Ambrose 405 63.70 22.51
Richard Hadlee 431 60.79 23.92
Courtney Walsh 519 59.34 24.99
Shaun Pollock 377 62.86 25.24
Allan Donald 330 67.27 25.47
Bob Willis 325 65.54 26.10
Imran Khan 362 63.26 26.57
Dennis Lillee 355 63.38 26.82
Ian Botham 383 59.79 28.90
Kapil Dev 434 64.52 29.05
*Is the average of the top six batsmen in innings in which they were dismissed by that bowler

The one batsman whom McGrath has owned more than any other is Michael Atherton. As if 19 dismissals at the hands of his tormentor isn't enough proof, check out his scores in those innings - 4, 8, 2, 1, 5, 41, 2, 8, 8, 0, 28, 1, 0, 4, 37, 0, 22, 8, 9. Brian Lara has fallen to him 14 times, and while the list includes a hundred and a double-century, there are also nine single-digit scores in those 14 dismissals (Of course, these averages do not include instances like that classic 153 not out at Bridgetown in 1999, when Lara conquered McGrath and ultimately wasn't dismissed by him). Among the top-order batsmen, VVS Laxman averages the highest (82.40) in innings in which he has been dismissed by McGrath. (Click here for the entire list for McGrath.)

Atherton is also on top of the list of `Most Dismissed Batsman' for Curtly Ambrose and Donald, but Atherton's stats there are more respectable than against McGrath: against Ambrose, his 17 dismissals have come at nearly 26 runs apiece, while Donald has dismissed him 11 times, but Atherton has managed an average of 30 in those innings.

A few other interesting observations: Wasim Akram has the lowest percentage of top-order wickets (56.28) among these fast bowlers, while Courtney Walsh and Ian Botham are next in line. When Kapil Dev got his top-order victims, they had, on an average, already scored 29 runs, which can partly be explained by the poor support cast for Kapil.

The analysis has focussed only on fast bowlers, primarily because the opportunity to open the bowling attack gives them certain advantages which makes a comparison with spinners quite unfair. Shane Warne, for example, takes only 53% top-order wickets, for McGrath and co. often leave him with no-one to bowl to but the tail. And the batsmen in the top six average nearly 35 in innings in which they've been dismissed by him, because batsmen have often already got a start in their innings when Warne comes on to bowl.

Spinners' distribution of wickets
Bowler Wickets Top-order wkts (%) Ave of top-order wickets
Muttiah Muralitharan 568 55.11 34.57
Shane Warne 629 53.42 34.76
Anil Kumble 465 58.28 39.16

Turn turn turn
In just over three weeks, England will begin their Test campaign in Pakistan, where they will be subjected to plenty of quality spin bowling. Pakistan do have reasonable fast-bowling resources as well, but with concerns of fitness, form and attitude hovering over many of them, spin might be a safer recourse. And the stats prove that subcontinental pitches and spin bowling has proved to be an irresistible combination to get at England's batsmen. Over the last 20 years, bowlers ranging from the inimitable Abdul Qadir to Iqbal Qasim to Saqlain Mushtaq have performed significantly better against England at home than against allcomers everywhere. Danish Kaneria is an exception - in 2000-01, his four wickets came at an exorbitant 54.25, but since those early days, Kaneria has come a long way, impressing many pundits in India and Australia. Chances are that average will come down significantly by the time England leave Pakistani shores.

England's struggle against Pak spin
Bowler Home Tests v Eng/ Wkts Average Career average
Abdul Qadir 9/ 61 19.56 32.80
Saqlain Mushtaq 3/ 18 23.94 29.83
Iqbal Qasim 6/ 20 26.40 28.11
Tauseef Ahmed 4/ 10 29.40 31.72

Other subcontinent spinners at home v England
Bowler Home Tests v Eng/ Wkts Average Career average
Muttiah Muralitharan 7/ 45 20.31 22.23
Anil Kumble 6/ 40 21.40 28.38
Harbhajan Singh 3/ 13 24.54 28.25

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