March 19, 2010

England's biggest spin hope

Graeme Swann has had an outstanding 15 months in Test cricket; the challenge is to ensure he maintains those levels of success

With his ten-wicket haul in the Chittagong Test against Bangladesh, Graeme Swann propelled himself into second place in the ICC rankings for Test bowlers, but more importantly, over the last 15 months he has given the England attack a completely different look and feel. There used to be a time when a spinning track used to put England at a severe disadvantage against most opposition line-ups, due to the relative inabilities of their batsmen and bowlers to handle those conditions, but now at least one half of that puzzle seems to have been solved.

Of course, Swann will need to consistently replicate this form over the next year and more - remember, the second year is said to be the most difficult for an international cricketer - but his current numbers compare very favourably with some of the leading bowlers over the last few years. His average of 29.55 has been bettered by only three spinners in the last five years (among those who've taken at least 50 wickets during this period). Swann's average during this period is better than that of Daniel Vettori, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who has found a real competitor to the title of best-offspinner-after-Muttiah Muralitharan.

Best Test spinners since 2005 (Qual: 50 wickets)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Muttiah Muralitharan 41 260 22.40 48.2 22/ 9
Shane Warne 26 147 25.07 50.0 9/ 2
Stuart MacGill 12 56 28.51 49.8 3/ 0
Graeme Swann 17 79 29.55 59.1 6/ 1
Shakib Al Hasan 18 63 31.38 65.9 6/ 0
Daniel Vettori 39 130 31.50 72.7 7/ 1
Anil Kumble 40 175 34.19 67.6 7/ 2
Monty Panesar 39 126 34.37 71.7 8/ 1
Harbhajan Singh 40 166 34.39 70.6 9/ 2
Paul Harris 29 87 35.12 75.9 3/ 0
Danish Kaneria 36 160 36.89 70.4 8/ 0

And comparing Swann with all bowlers since the time he made his debut, only four have a better average, and all of them bowl fast. Swann leads the way for the spinners, with Nathan Hauritz (average 30.75) and Harbhajan Singh (31.97) coming in next.

Best Test bowlers since Dec 2008 (Qual: 30 wickets)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Mohammad Asif 6 32 23.31 49.0 2/ 0
Dale Steyn 11 60 25.41 44.6 4/ 2
Zaheer Khan 12 53 27.24 48.6 3/ 1
Mitchell Johnson 17 82 27.75 49.9 3/ 1
Graeme Swann 17 79 29.55 59.1 6/ 1

Swann's entry is also huge for England because over the last three decades they've struggled to find spinners who've been consistently incisive. Among England spinners who've taken at least 50 wickets during this period, Swann's average and strike rate are easily the best. In fact, his strike rate of 59.1 deliveries per wicket is more than 12 balls better than the second-placed Monty Panesar.

Several of the other bowlers in the list had a few superb performances, but couldn't sustain them over an entire career. Nick Cook, the left-arm spinner, took 32 wickets in his first four Tests at an average of 17, and then managed just 20 in his last 11 at an average of 57. Similarly, Phil Tufnell had his moments, including two ten-wicket hauls, but finished with an average of less than three wickets per Test. The other Phil in the list, Edmonds, played 33 Tests during this period and averaged close to 40, while Ashley Giles and John Emburey were good to hold an end up, but could hardly be expected to take a clutch of wickets and run through batting line-ups.

England spinners since 1980 (Qual: 50 wickets in Tests)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Graeme Swann 17 79 29.55 59.1 6/ 1
Nick Cook 15 52 32.48 80.2 4/ 1
Monty Panesar 39 126 34.37 71.7 8/ 1
Phil Tufnell 42 121 37.68 93.2 5/ 2
Phil Edmonds 33 76 39.76 104.5 0/ 0
Ashley Giles 54 143 40.60 85.1 5/ 0
John Emburey 59 129 41.08 108.9 6/ 0

Thanks to Swann, the percentage of wickets taken by spinners for England has gone up significantly in the last 15 months - spin has accounted for more than 33% of their wickets in Tests during this period. It's nowhere near as high as the number for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or even India, but it's much higher than what it used to be for England in the days before Swann arrived on the scene. In the period from the beginning of 2000 to November 2008, only 314 out of the 1728 wickets that England nabbed fell to spin, a percentage of 18.17.

England's percentage in the last 15 months is also much higher than the corresponding numbers for South Africa and Australia. Swann's ten-wicket haul in slow conditions in Chittagong obviously helped, but he also grabbed 21 wickets in four Tests in South Africa, where spin wasn't expected to be much of a factor.

Percentage of wickets by spinners since Dec 2008
Team Tests Total wkts Wkts by spinners Percentage
Bangladesh 8 117 78 66.67
Sri Lanka 12 168 96 57.14
India 12 186 89 47.85
Pakistan 11 157 58 36.94
New Zealand 11 176 64 36.36
England 19 271 91 33.58
West Indies 14 170 49 28.82
South Africa 12 199 51 25.63
Australia 17 289 60 20.76

Four out of Swann's 10 victims in Chittagong were left-handers, with Bangladesh's captain Shakib Al Hasan falling to him both times. Shakib isn't alone in struggling against Swann, though - in South Africa, Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy had a torrid time against him in the Tests, with Prince being dismissed by him three times in five balls, without scoring a single run.

Overall, Swann has been far more effective against left-hand batsmen than against right, which probably explains the work he's been putting into developing his version of the doosra. Against left-handers he averages less than 22 runs per wicket, and strikes every 50 deliveries; against the righties the average goes up to almost 40.

Swann against right- and left-hand batsmen
  Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate
Right-handers 34 39.97 71.26 3.36
Left-handers 45 21.68 50.02 2.60

In fact, Swann's average against left-handers is the best among all bowlers who've dismissed such batsmen at least 30 times in the last five years. Swann's 45 wickets have come at 21.68, which is marginally better than Mohammad Asif's average of 23.10.

Best bowlers against left-handers in Tests since 2005 (Qual: 30 wickets)
Bowler Wickets Average Strike rate Run rate
Graeme Swann 45 21.68 50.02 2.60
Mohammad Asif 30 23.10 44.60 3.10
Morne Morkel 35 24.65 52.00 2.84
Muttiah Muralitharan 80 25.17 56.90 2.65
Lasith Malinga 30 25.73 48.00 3.21
Shane Warne 47 26.63 47.23 3.38
Matthew Hoggard 48 27.31 48.21 3.39
Zaheer Khan 60 28.40 53.88 3.16

Swann's start has been superb, but he needs to ensure he doesn't go the way of some of the other England spinners who started well and then fell away. A look at some of their spinners in the last 50 years indicates quite a few had very good numbers after 17 Tests, which is how many Swann has played so far. Edmonds averaged less than 24 and Emburey under 30, but the overall averages for both ended up around 10 runs higher. Monty Panesar had superb stats too after 17 Tests - 65 wickets at 28.40 - but he has only managed 61 wickets in his last 22 Tests. Swann's challenge will be to ensure his second year in international cricket is as good as his first.

Other England spinners after 17 Tests
Bowler Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Derek Underwood 71 17.63 60.6 6/ 2
Phil Edmonds 48 23.89 79.6 2/ 0
John Emburey 43 29.11 89.4 1/ 0
Monty Panesar 65 28.40 58.5 6/ 1
Ashley Giles 47 38.57 92.8 2/ 0
Phil Tufnell 54 39.20 88.9 4/ 1

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo