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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

S Rajesh

September 24, 2010

Comments: 82 | Text size: A | A

Graeme Swann trapped Imran Farhat leg before, England v Pakistan, 3rd Test, The Oval, August 21, 2010
Graeme Swann's wicket-taking abilities have served him well in all three formats © Getty Images
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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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Posted by sonjjay on (September 27, 2010, 6:00 GMT)

This is ridiculious why do most of our Indian fans have to trash every article about any cricketer, i thought atleast the sub continent guys had the connoisseurship to judge a spinner but I am surprised to read the comments here. With Bhajji on the decline and darting the ball swann is undisputedly the best spinner from the current group truly the best english spinner after jim laker...

Posted by TheBigFatFlapjack on (September 26, 2010, 16:49 GMT)

@Rahul-indian: i'm so glad to hear there's atleast one level headed Indian cricket fan out there :)

Posted by Lion_of_Lanka on (September 26, 2010, 14:41 GMT)

@satanswish: Swann is what 31 with only 113 wickets? Yeah right. Nambia would win the Cricket World cup before Swann surpasses Murali's record. As for ICC bending rules for murali, please, do your research first, ICC bent rules because 99% of the bowlers bent there arm more than 10 degrees not only Murali. Infact it was proven when they decided to test Murali's action. So yes, Murali does chuck according to old ICC rules but so does everyone else from McGrath to Lee to Pollock to England's own Jimmy Anderson with Sarwan being the only exception. As for Swann being the best spinner, sorry to disappointed but Dan Vettori of NZ is the best spinner there is in the current era since Murali has retired from test cricket. Unlike Swanny, Dan delivers whether it's SL, IND, AUS or SA and if I'm not mistaken the English media hyped Panesar in a similar way. Look where he ended up.

Posted by Victorian-Roo on (September 26, 2010, 14:08 GMT)

@Fellow Indians

Guys plz stop being obnoxious. To pounce on every opportunity of showing off dat we r better players of spin bowling & dat Swann should prove himself against us is quite frankly, childish & immature. Every1 knows dat Indians r excellent players of spin bowling but WHY d unhappiness when Swann is being rated a class act.

THE KIND OF LOGIC THAT SOME PEOPLE HAVE PUT FORWARD IS UTTERLY LUDICROUS. I can also put forward a question which goes like: "Since Indians are not so gud against Short Pitched bowling & haven't proved themselves on SAF and AUS soils (in Tests), why r dey No. 1 in Test Cricket then?" The very inconsistent stats dat is being blamed right now, is d very reason why we r on top of the Test Teams list. Therefore, I request for better sense to prevail and hope that the infighting is put to an end. Also, talent must be appreciated.

My view on Swann is that he is a breath of fresh air. Sadly, we don't have many talented spinners today :-(

Posted by satanswish on (September 26, 2010, 13:58 GMT)

Swann is definitely best spinner playing around currently. He doesn't have any defective bent arm by birth so ICC don't have to bent itself to clear his action. I'd be happy if Swann takes 801 wickets in test cricket.

Posted by harsha_udayanga on (September 26, 2010, 4:44 GMT)

I think he is a lovely spinner...and its good that England has him. I'm not comparing him with murali,warne or kumbli but its nice to see a spinner esp from england doing well. We all know that England isn't great @ playing spin and they have suffered inthe past on spinning wickets with bat and ball by not being able to play spin or ball spin. I think this might make the world cup 2011 more interesting. they will have to play in slow wickets..and by swann they will have a bit advantage and now maybe maybe.. England batsman can improve in playing spin...

Posted by Lion_of_Lanka on (September 26, 2010, 4:22 GMT)

Corey Parr: Mediocre bowlers? Do you know that there is a certain bowler called Lasith Malinga in the Sri Lankan side who is much better & effective than the English bowlers. And since, people love ICC rankings do you know there is a bowler called Nuwan Kulaskara who is a former no.1 ODI bowler in the world? Ajantha Mendis who despite not being mysterious anymore is still an effective bowler. No? Perhaps you must be knowing Murali who is the highest wicket taker in both ODI & Test and is considered to be the best bowler ever. That doesn't look like a mediocre bowling side to me. What about England? A bunch of mediocre bowlers who make use of a Pakistani batting collapse to glorify themselves. Jimmy Anderson and Swann are the only talented players in the whole squad that come to my mind and Swann is yet to be tested in the subcontinent.

Posted by   on (September 25, 2010, 21:19 GMT)

I like how all the comments coming from the subcontinent seem to allude to past greats and avoid the fact that at the moment their teams are devoid of any wicket takers (Pakistan excluded). Who is going to take any wickets for India against Australia? Will Sri Lanka even bother to pick any of their mediocre bowlers? Swann can be considered a great English cricketer, given that they usually produce better fast bowlers. Just like Mohammed Amir is/was heralded as some prodigious child, before the scandal, because the Subcontinent is generally weaker in the pace bowling category.

Posted by   on (September 25, 2010, 20:59 GMT)

Did Rajesh jump the Gun ? Yes very much I would say. Swann could develop into a classy spinner. But it is too early to judge. He has to play all good teams and other locations as well before judging. He has not bowled much against World's top test and one day teams specially India and Sri Lanka yet.

Posted by mkamd on (September 25, 2010, 18:50 GMT)

I agree that its a bit immature. Swan had a good season and thats all. He does not have a magical bowling art like Shane Warne or Saqlain or Murali. Usually when spinners come out successful, coaches and batsman all over the world try to find the antidote to play them and then you see them less successful in coming days. So Swan does not have any magical delivery and he has to show consistency to be among the great spinners. Saeed Ajmal is a ted more ecnomical and a ted low in strike rate. Some people may say that in limited over economy is more important. But I think both bowlers have to work hard as in future batsmen will come better prepared.

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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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