September 24, 2010

The best spinner in all formats

Graeme Swann's performances in all formats this summer lend credence to the theory that he is the best spinner going around today

For Graeme Swann, the last couple of years, and especially the current one, have been nothing short of outstanding. Quite clearly, his stats during this period have established him as the best spinner in the game today. With Muttiah Muralitharan, the last of the three spin giants from the previous decade - Shane Warne and Anil Kumble being the others - retiring from Tests, there's a huge hole waiting to be filled, and Swann has staked his claim much more strongly than the others.

Since January 2009 Swann has performed superbly in all three forms of the game: in 22 Tests he has taken 105 wickets - the only bowler with a 100-plus tally - an average of almost five per Test; in ODIs during this period his record is equally impressive, with 41 wickets in 28 matches at an economy rate of less than four-and-a-half and a strike rate of a wicket every 30 deliveries. In 17 Twenty20 internationals during this period he has averaged less than 15 runs per wicket and 6.45 runs per over. Those are pretty compelling numbers in terms of excellence and consistency across formats.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the current generation of spinners is that they lack in wicket-taking ability, but Swann clearly bucks that trend. Murali, Warne and Kumble were known for being attacking, and Swann, in his relatively brief career so far, has taken the same aggressive route, even in formats of the game that call for a high level of defensive skills. The current year has been especially rewarding, with 28 wickets in 14 ODIs, 19 in 11 Twenty20 internationals - he was one of the architects of England's World Twenty20 triumphs - and 51 in 10 Tests.

Graeme Swann in Tests and ODIs since Jan 2009
Format Matches Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Tests 22 105 25.57 2.92 52.5
ODIs 28 41 22.56 4.42 30.5
Twenty20 internationals 17 25 14.72 6.45 13.6

In the five-match NatWest Series against Pakistan, Swann was the only bowler from either side to average less than 20, while his 11 wickets was only short of the series leader, Umar Gul. For a team that has historically struggled to find incisive spinners, Swann has been a godsend, and the standards he has set this year have been incredible: in his last three series (excluding one-off games) he has averaged 17.42 (against Bangladesh), 20.37 (against Australia) and 19 (versus Pakistan). (Click here for his series-wise ODI averages since 2009.)

And it's not as if Swann has achieved his successes against the weaker teams - exclude Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and other non-Test-playing teams from the analysis and his numbers are still outstanding. As the table below shows, there are other spinners who've been more economical than Swann, but none have shown the same wicket-taking ability. Swann has taken a wicket every 32 deliveries during this period, while Harbhajan Singh has the next-best strike rate, at 38.5 balls. Daniel Vettori has been the most economical bowler by far, but Swann has a 25% higher strike rate than him.

Best averages in ODIs for spinners since Jan 2009 against top eight teams* (Qual: 150 overs)
Bowler ODIs Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Graeme Swann 23 31 24.29 4.56 31.9
Daniel Vettori 26 30 27.83 4.05 41.2
Saeed Ajmal 28 38 28.71 4.45 38.6
Harbhajan Singh 30 38 31.60 4.92 38.5
Nathan Hauritz 45 50 33.06 4.69 42.2
Shakib Al Hasan 21 25 34.52 4.45 46.4
Shahid Afridi 32 39 34.64 4.59 45.2
Johan Botha 20 22 40.40 4.85 49.9
(*excluding Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and other non-Test-playing sides.)

Swann's striking power has been especially useful for England in the middle overs, where he has picked up 23 wickets at an average of 28.34. Only Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal has done better. Swann's strike rate is again the best of the lot - 37.57 balls per wicket, compared to around 42 for Shahid Afridi and Ajmal. Vettori, on the other hand, has only taken a wicket every 57 deliveries. To be fair to Vettori, though, that's also partly due to the rest of the New Zealand bowling attack - since he's clearly the best of the lot, batsmen have preferred to play him out and then attack the other bowlers.

Spinners in the middle overs (16th to 40th) in ODIs against the top eight teams since Jan 2009 (Qual: 100 overs)
Spinner Balls Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Saeed Ajmal 1100 26 28.19 3.99 42.31
Graeme Swann 864 23 28.34 4.52 37.57
Shahid Afridi 1550 37 31.18 4.46 41.89
Nathan Hauritz 1827 42 33.30 4.59 43.50
Muttiah Muralitharan 683 16 33.75 4.74 42.69
Harbhajan Singh 1159 26 34.38 4.62 44.58
Daniel Vettori 966 17 38.05 4.01 56.82
Shakib Al Hasan 726 13 40.38 4.33 55.85

It's a similar story in Twenty20 internationals too, where Swann's average and strike rate are better than those of any other spinner. The economy rate isn't the best of the lot, but at 6.45 runs per over it's perfectly acceptable. Vettori's economy rate is outstanding, but compared to Swann he has required twice as many deliveries to take a wicket.

Spinners with best averages in Twenty20 internationals against top eight teams since Jan 2009 (Qual: 30 overs)
Bowler Matches Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Graeme Swann 16 25 14.72 6.45 13.6
Ajantha Mendis 14 20 16.15 5.98 16.2
Saeed Ajmal 21 28 18.35 6.52 16.8
Shahid Afridi 19 23 19.95 6.24 19.1
... ... ... ... ... ...
Johan Botha 15 15 21.33 6.15 20.8
... ... ... ... ... ...
Muttiah Muralitharan 9 10 22.60 6.45 21.0
Daniel Vettori 15 12 27.16 5.71 28.5

However, it's in Test cricket that Swann's impact has arguably been the greatest. In the four Tests against Pakistan, Swann was the second-highest wicket-taker, while his average of 12.22 was the best, marginally better than James Anderson, who took 23 wickets at 13.73.

Swann's attacking instincts find expression in Tests more than in any other format - a fact most clearly demonstrated by his Test average since 2009, and by the difference between his average and that of the next-best spinner during this period. Swann has averaged 24.95 against the top eight sides, which is more than eight runs better than Shakib Al Hasan's average, which indicates his attacking ability. In the 10 matches he has played against the top teams during this period, Harbhajan Singh has taken 41 wickets, but he has had to bowl a lot for those wickets: four more overs than Swann per wicket. Vettori's strike rate is even poorer, requiring 91 balls per wicket.

Best Test spinners against top teams since Jan 2009 (Qual: 250 overs)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Graeme Swann 18 83 24.95 51.0 6/ 0
Shakib Al Hasan 10 45 33.00 67.7 3/ 0
Nathan Hauritz 12 44 33.56 66.8 2/ 0
Harbhajan Singh 10 41 35.80 74.9 2/ 0
Rangana Herath 8 35 36.34 70.8 4/ 0
Saeed Ajmal 8 30 37.13 79.1 1/ 0
Sulieman Benn 12 42 37.54 80.3 3/ 0
Danish Kaneria 10 41 39.60 65.9 3/ 0
Daniel Vettori 10 34 40.41 91.2 0/ 0
Muttiah Muralitharan 8 31 41.74 78.6 1/ 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo

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