July 1, 2011

The first-over specialists

Which new-ball bowlers are especially adept at striking in their first over and first spell? The numbers tell us

The opener's job in Test cricket is a tough one in any case, but this season in the West Indies, Ravi Rampaul has been making life for them even tougher: in seven innings so far, he has taken five wickets in his first overs. Admittedly, the openers from Pakistan and a second-string Indian side aren't the greatest ones going around, but even so Rampaul's success has been uncanny.

It started with the Test match against Pakistan in Providence. The second ball of his opening over pitched perfectly in the corridor, Mohammad Hafeez was undecided whether to play it or leave it, and ended up inside-edging onto his stumps. It got even better in the second innings: with Pakistan requiring 219 for victory, Rampaul struck twice in his opening over, getting rid of both Taufeeq Umar and Azhar Ali. In the second Test he had to wait till his fourth and fifth overs to strike in the Pakistan first innings, but the first-over magic returned against India, with M Vijay being trapped in front in Jamaica, and Abhinav Mukund edging a lifter to gully in Barbados. That makes it five wickets in seven first overs in the season so far, which means he has taken more wickets in his first overs this season than he did in his first five Test matches put together.

Rampaul has been having a great first-over run over the last month-and-a-half, but let's look at the first-over giants over the last decade. (Here, first over refers to the first over by a bowler at the start of an innings, i.e. the first two overs in a team's innings.) Since the beginning of 2002 - for which period ESPNcricinfo has complete ball-by-ball data for all international matches - the most wickets taken by a bowler in either of the first two overs of an innings is 12. Four bowlers share that record, but their rate of taking such wickets is varied - Matthew Hoggard and Zaheer Khan have struck once every 10 times or so, while the rates are quicker for Glenn McGrath and Chris Martin.

Among those with at least 10 first-over strikes, the best rate belongs to India's forgotten allrounder Irfan Pathan, which is a reminder of how good he used to be with the new ball. Irfan struck in the first or second over of an innings 11 times in just 52 innings, which works out to an average of once every 4.73 overs. That includes, of course, his hat-trick against Pakistan in Karachi in 2006, when he took out Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf in the first over of the match. Apart from that, he also struck in his first over a couple of times each against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and once each against Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies. All this in only 52 attempts.

Most of the other names in that list are the more expected ones. McGrath figures prominently, as do three of the top names in fast bowling today - Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Zaheer.

Highest wicket-takers in first two overs of an innings
Bowler Overs Wickets Average Overs per wkt
Chris Martin 80 12 19.67 6.67
Glenn McGrath 87 12 14.16 7.25
Matthew Hoggard 112 12 24.83 9.33
Zaheer Khan 115 12 32.91 9.58
Irfan Pathan 52 11 12.18 4.73
Shoaib Akhtar 50 10 17.50 5.00
Dale Steyn 77 10 20.70 7.70
James Anderson 89 10 21.40 8.90

Taking a much lower cut-off of five first-over wickets, Rampaul's rate of five wickets in 15 overs is the best, though sustaining it against better opening batsmen will be a tall order. Mohammad Amir's stats are pretty impressive too, as are those of Daryl Tuffey, who was well known for his first-over dismissals - twice he took two wickets in the first overs of a single Test, against England in Auckland and India in Hamilton.

Bowlers with best over-wicket ratio for first-over wickets
Bowler Overs Wickets Average Overs per wkt
Ravi Rampaul 15 5 6.40 3.00
Mohammad Amir 27 7 9.00 3.86
Daryl Tuffey 28 7 7.71 4.00
Waqar Younis 21 5 12.40 4.20
Irfan Pathan 52 11 12.18 4.73
Shoaib Akhtar 50 10 17.50 5.00

Taking this a little further, to the first 12 overs of an innings, it's possible to get a pretty good idea about the bowlers who rely on the new ball to get wickets, and those who are better when working with the older ball. (The numbers below, though, only include wickets taken in the first 12 overs separately; dismissals with the second new ball are included in the overall stats.)

What stands out immediately is that McGrath's average is exactly the same with new ball and old - it stays at 21.15. For the others, though, the numbers aren't quite as symmetrical. Some of them, like Mohammad Asif, Chaminda Vaas, Zaheer and Anderson, have overall averages that are similar to their new ball ones; for others, the difference is significant.

Irfan, for example, averages 22.41 with the new ball, which is almost 10 runs better than his overall average. He is the exception, for most of the other bowlers have better overall averages than with the new ball - apart from their proficiency with the old ball, another reason for this is also that in the first 12 overs of an innings they're bowling to specialist batsmen; later in the innings they get to bowl to tailenders as well.

The difference for the some of the bowlers, though, is pretty significant. Brett Lee had an overall average of 32.73 during this period, but during the first 12 overs it shot up to nearly 42. Steve Harmison has similar stats, while Fidel Edwards has fared even worse with the new ball.

And since we started with Rampaul, it's only fair to sign off with him: 11 of his 22 Test wickets so far have come in the first 12 overs of an innings. During this period he averages 18.27 at the start of an innings, compared to his overall average of 37.08. Clearly he is a potent force with the new ball, but equally clearly, he needs to develop his skills with the older one to become a complete bowler.

Bowlers in first 12 overs, and overall, in Tests since Jan 2002 (Cut-off: 25 wickets)
Bowler First 12 - wkts Average Strike rate Overall ave Strike rate
Glenn McGrath 51 21.15 56.5 21.15 52.8
Irfan Pathan 39 22.41 44.3 32.26 58.8
Shoaib Akhtar 37 24.78 41.5 21.94 39.3
Mohammad Asif 25 26.04 55.4 24.36 48.7
Dale Steyn 47 28.14 49.0 23.21 39.9
Chaminda Vaas 53 28.26 60.7 30.42 65.4
Zaheer Khan 67 29.62 54.1 30.93 56.5
Makhaya Ntini 78 30.73 59.8 27.89 50.6
James Anderson 45 32.17 61.7 31.04 57.2
Matthew Hoggard 56 33.39 62.9 30.30 55.5
Shaun Pollock 29 34.10 87.7 27.26 64.0
Jason Gillespie 33 34.24 68.6 26.75 58.9
Lasith Malinga 27 35.85 55.6 33.15 51.5
Chris Martin 39 37.66 65.2 35.29 63.0
Brett Lee 45 41.77 70.9 32.73 56.0
Steve Harmison 32 41.96 79.8 31.82 59.1
Fidel Edwards 25 52.76 76.8 38.40 58.3

All stats updated till the first innings of India and West Indies in the ongoing Barbados Test.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo