March 25, 2011

Redefining the role of spin

Plenty of teams have used spinners to open the bowling in this World Cup, and with spectacular success

It's a tactic that has been used several times in the past, but never has it been used as often, and with as much success, as in World Cup 2011. A spinner taking the new ball has been a common sight in this tournament, and such has been the success of the strategy that more and more captains have been encouraged to use it.

This formula has a World Cup history, going all the way back to the 1992 tournament. On that occasion New Zealand were the only team to take the risk, with Dipak Patel taking the new ball and achieving spectacular success with it. In 1996 a few more teams tried it, including India in the semi-final against Sri Lanka, but the total number of such instances in the entire tournament was only five, with no side trying it more than once. In 1999, Kenya's Aasif Karim was the only bowler to take the new ball, and he did it only once. Four years later, Canada and the Netherlands were the only teams to attempt to start an innings with spin, while in 2007 not a single team tried the tactic.

In 2011, though, teams have used this ploy liberally: in 87 innings in this tournament so far, a spinner has bowled one of the first two overs on 28 occasions, which is almost twice as many as in all the other World Cups put together. It started with the second match of the tournament, when Nathan McCullum bowled the second over of the match against Kenya. Though New Zealand's fast bowlers did most of the damage in that game, the success of the formula in subsequent games has made many teams opt for it.

Intrinsically it seems like a sound idea to begin with spin on slow pitches, against batsmen who're not used to starting an innings facing spin. Apart from presenting something unusual for the opening batsmen and giving them no pace to work with, this strategy also has another advantage - that of saving some overs in which the fast bowlers can exploit reverse swing in the middle of an innings.

What's surprising, though, is that so many teams have tried this tactic so often in the World Cup, without having done it much in the games leading up to the tournament (though some of the teams and the bowlers have tried it in Twenty20 games). In 326 ODIs innings from the beginning of 2010 till just before the World Cup, only 27 times did a spinner open the bowling, with Zimbabwe accounting for 12 of those (including instances when spinners operated from both ends). Even in ODIs in the subcontinent, it wasn't such a common practice: in 102 innings, it had been attempted only eight times. From an average of once every 13 innings, the frequency of using spin at the start has gone up to once every three innings in the World Cup.

And it's clear that the tactic has been a great success. In the 28 overs bowled first up by spinners (the first or second over of the match), they have gone for only 96 runs and taken five wickets, and their average and economy rates are much better than those of fast bowlers. The South Africans have been the stars, with Robin Peterson dismissing Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen in his first over, and Johan Botha getting rid of Chris Gayle.

Pace and spin in the first two overs of World Cup matches
  Runs Balls Wickets Average Economy rate
Pace 697 876 19 36.68 4.77
Spin 96 168 5 19.20 3.42

Nine different teams have opened the bowling with a spinner. West Indies used Sulieman Benn in each of the six group games, even when they were handed a bouncy pitch in Chennai against India. Zimbabwe have started with a spinner five times, while Bangladesh, Pakistan and South Africa have done so three times. The teams that haven't used this tactic at all so far are Australia, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Canada and Kenya.

Overall, using slow bowlers in the first 10 overs has yielded excellent results in this tournament. The lack of pace has prevented batsmen from making use of the hard new ball, and that has forced them to take more risks, resulting in wickets. In the 181 overs spinners have bowled within the first 10, they've only gone at 3.81 runs per over, which is one run per over less than what the seamers have gone for. And the spinners have a much better average too, conceding less than 25 runs per wicket, compared to 38.38 for the faster bowlers.

The fact that spinners have bowled about 20% of the overs in the mandatory Powerplays is also a stark contrast from the previous World Cup. Despite conditions being slow and low in most of the venues in the Caribbean too, spinners bowled only 11 overs through the first 10 in the entire tournament.

Pace and spin in the first 10 overs in World Cup 2011
  Runs Balls Wickets Average Economy rate
Pace 3301 4110 86 38.38 4.81
Spin 691 1086 28 24.67 3.81

The team that has used spin better than anyone else in the early overs has been South Africa. It's not a strategy you'd usually expect from them, but they've adapted superbly to the conditions, and they've had the slow-bowling talent to exploit the pitches in the subcontinent. The combination of Peterson and Botha have figures of 5 for 26 in 11 overs, which are outstanding stats; South Africa's fast bowlers have returned figures of 7 for 250 in 49 overs in the last 10.

Zimbabwe have been superb too, thanks largely to Ray Price, who has bowled with the new ball in five out of their six matches. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have had excellent economy rates with spin in the first 10 too, which means the spinners of five teams have conceded fewer than four runs per over when bowling in the first 10 overs in this World Cup. You'd expect the teams from the subcontinent to do well with their slow bowlers, but even England and New Zealand have respectable numbers.

The one team who struggled with the spin-bowling department was Australia, and it was exposed in their quarter-final defeat against India. They were the only team out of 14 not to employ a single over of spin in the mandatory Powerplays through the entire tournament. Sri Lanka have bowled only 24 balls of spin in the first 10, but then they have preferred to save Muttiah Muralitharan and Co for the middle overs.

Team-wise stats for spinners in the first 10 overs in World Cup 2011 (Qual: more than 5 overs)
Team Runs Balls Wickets Average Economy rate
South Africa 26 66 5 5.20 2.36
Zimbabwe 81 192 5 16.20 2.53
Pakistan 38 90 2 19.00 2.53
India 75 144 2 37.50 3.12
Bangladesh 119 198 5 23.80 3.60
England 62 84 2 31.00 4.42
New Zealand 34 42 0 - 4.85
West Indies 120 132 4 30.00 5.45
Netherlands 62 66 3 20.67 5.63

Among bowlers who've bowled at least seven overs during the first 10, Price leads the way in terms of economy rate: his 2.59 per over is marginally less than Graeme Swann's 2.62, though Price has taken five wickets as well. Botha, R Ashwin and Abdur Razzak have been among the wickets and have been excellent at the containment job as well.

This World Cup could be known for many things, but one of the prominent ones will be the fact that it has redefined the role of spin bowling in a one-day game, at least in matches played in the subcontinent.

Spinners in the first 10 overs in World Cup 2011 (Qual: 7 overs)
Bowler Runs Balls Wickets Average Economy rate
Ray Price 70 162 5 14.00 2.59
Graeme Swann 21 48 0 - 2.62
Naeem Islam 37 78 1 37.00 2.84
Abdur Rehman 31 60 0 - 3.10
Harbhajan Singh 25 48 0 - 3.12
Johan Botha 22 42 2 11.00 3.14
Abdur Razzak 56 96 2 28.00 3.50
R Ashwin 37 60 2 18.50 3.70
Adeel Raja 40 48 0 - 5.00
Sulieman Benn 109 114 4 27.25 5.73

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo