April 17, 2009

South Africa's home run, and Gambhir's resurgence

The toughest country to beat in their own backyard, and the Indian who's had an amazing 10 months

What's the most difficult task in international cricket today? Options: A) Beating Australia in a home Test series; B) Beating Sri Lanka / India at home; C) Defeating South Africa in a home ODI series.

In days gone by, you'd have been right in choosing option A or B, but over the last few years, Australia have lost their position of pre-eminence at home, drawing a Test series against India in 2003-04 and barely winning in 2007-08, and losing to South Africa earlier this year, while the subcontinent no longer holds the kind of mysteries for foreign teams that it used to a few years back. Sri Lanka admittedly remain formidable in home Tests, but their dominance in ODIs is fading: they've recently lost home series to Pakistan, England and India.

What about option C, then? South Africa have just walloped Australia, sealing the series with one game still to go, and prior to that they dealt similarly with West Indies, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, England, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Kenya. Succinctly put, South Africa have won each of their last 13 home ODI series, and 41 of their last 49 completed home ODI matches. It's a truly staggering record, and one that rubbishes the theory that home advantage is a thing of the past because of increasingly standardised conditions around the world.

During this period, only once have they lost more than one match in a series: in 2005-06 against Australia, the series was level 2-2 before South Africa sealed an improbable win in Johannesburg, chasing down a victory target of 435. Australia are the only side to win more than one game against them over the last five-and-a-half years, while against India, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the home team has a perfect 14-0 combined record. (Click here for the overall summary.)

As the table below indicates, none of the other teams have come close to the kind of domination that South Africa have shown at home. Australia are a distant second-best, with a win-loss ratio of 2.42. Restrict the stats only to results against the top teams, and South Africa are still comfortably on top with a win-loss ratio of 4.42, while second-placed Australia only manage 1.94.

Win-loss ratio in home ODIs since Jan 2004
Team Played Won Lost Ratio
South Africa 53 41 7 5.85
Australia 70 46 19 2.42
New Zealand 55 32 18 1.77
India 52 31 19 1.63
Pakistan 47 29 18 1.61
Sri Lanka 46 27 17 1.58
Bangladesh 47 23 24 0.95
England 52 23 24 0.95
West Indies 49 22 24 0.91
Zimbabwe 44 9 35 0.25

During the same period, though, their overseas record has been distinctly patchy, with a win-loss ratio of 1.06, well below Australia's 2.75, and poorer than New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India as well. They've recently taken over as the top ODI team in the world, and one of the immediate goals for Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur will be to redress the huge discrepancy between home and away results.

Gambhir's steep ascent

In his earlier avatar Gautam Gambhir was classified as a batsman who made the cut in the limited-overs format due to his ability to improvise, but one who lacked the technique to succeed in Test cricket. The numbers supported that argument: in his first 14 Tests, his high moments came mostly against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. In the last 16 months, though, the transformation has been remarkable, with Test runs in difficult circumstances against tough opponents both home and away. His two outstanding and hugely contrasting centuries in New Zealand have lifted his average in his last 11 Tests to 75.19, with 12 fifty-plus scores in 22 innings during this period.

Gambhir's career in two parts
Period Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Till Dec 2007 14 692 32.95 1/ 3
Since Jan 2008 11 1579 75.19 5/ 7
Career 25 2271 54.07 6/ 10

All these runs have placed him among the top Test batsmen in the game in the last year and a half. Since 2008, only two players have a higher average. (It's also interesting that the top five has a preponderance of left-handers.)

Best Test batsmen since 2008 (Qual: 500 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Thilan Samaraweera 9 1147 95.58 4/ 5
Shivnarine Chanderpaul 14 1208 86.28 4/ 9
Gautam Gambhir 11 1579 75.19 5/ 7
Ashwell Prince 14 1050 70.00 5/ 2
Graeme Smith 18 1760 67.69 6/ 7

What also stands out about Gambhir since his return to the Test team is the way he has performed in the second innings. His last seven second-innings scores read thus: 104, 36, 66, 97, 30 not out, 137, 167. Some of those runs were scored with India in a strong position and pressing for a win, while others came in backs-to-the-walls situations that required him to bat long periods. He managed both superbly. Overall, his second-innings average is a healthy 56.35, with the aggregate nearing 1000 after only 20 innings. In the all-time list of batsmen who have scored at least 750 second-innings runs, Gambhir's average puts him in seventh position.

Best batsmen in second innings (Qual: 750 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100/ 50s
Don Bradman 30 2299 104.50 10/ 8
Colin Bland 18 893 68.69 2/ 4
Herbert Sutcliffe 31 1541 64.20 6/ 6
Jacques Kallis 90 3911 60.16 8/ 25
Bruce Mitchell 38 1654 57.03 3/ 10
Dudley Nourse 28 1307 56.82 3/ 7
Gautam Gambhir 20 958 56.35 3/ 4
Andy Flower 49 1972 56.34 5/ 10

And here are Gambhir's performances against a few individual bowlers during his golden period. As you'd expect, not many bowlers have had the better of him. Daniel Vettori and Chaminda Vaas have toiled several deliveries but haven't dismissed him even once. Andrew Flintoff has been wicketless against him too, but has at least managed to reduce his runs to a trickle. The most successful bowlers against him have been Mitchell Johnson, Muttiah Muralitharan, and quite surprisingly, Jeetan Patel, who has dismissed him twice at an average of 25.50.

Gambhir v bowlers since Jan 2008
Bowler Balls Runs Dismissals Average Runs/ over
Brett Lee 228 128 1 128.00 3.55
Mitchell Johnson 167 108 3 36.00 3.88
Daniel Vettori 196 101 0 - 3.09
Chaminda Vaas 144 83 0 - 3.45
Chris Martin 169 73 1 73.00 2.69
James Anderson 164 67 1 67.00 2.45
Monty Panesar 96 63 0 - 3.93
Andrew Flintoff 195 61 0 - 1.88
Muttiah Muralitharan 120 56 2 28.00 2.80
Jeetan Patel 135 51 2 25.50 2.26

The challenge for Gambhir will be to continue in a similar vein even as international bowlers try to find chinks in his new, tighter technique. Perhaps the odd flaw still exists - he has been out lbw eight times in 21 dismissals since 2008 - but if he scores 75 runs each time before getting out, his team-mates will hardly be complaining.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo