August 5, 2011

Prior's rise, Dhoni's slump

MS Dhoni has a Test average of 25.72 in the last year, while Matt Prior has shone both as batsman and wicketkeeper

For MS Dhoni, these are the most testing times he has had as an international cricketer. The World Cup brought unprecedented highs, but the England tour has so far been the other extreme: he has struggled for runs, he has struggled behind the stumps, and his strategies as captain have been questioned. The third is quite possibly an over-reaction, and inevitable given the results of the first two Tests, but there's no doubt that Dhoni the batsman and the wicketkeeper needs to lift his game. It looks even worse for him since his opposite number in England, Matt Prior, has made vital contributions, especially with the bat. In the two Tests so far, Prior has scored 199 more runs than Dhoni; he has two fifties and a hundred, while Dhoni doesn't even aggregate 50 runs in four innings put together.

At the moment, there's no doubt that Prior is the best wicketkeeper-batsman going around. Dhoni's Test average of 37.45 is anything but poor, but a break-up of his stats reveals that his spread of runs is more uneven than Prior's. In home conditions Dhoni has done superbly, averaging 43.20 and scoring three hundreds and 11 fifties in 39 innings. Overseas, though, that average drops by 10 runs, to 33.37, with one century and 10 fifties in 52 innings. His average has fallen away even further when batting outside the subcontinent: in conditions that are more favourable for fast bowling, Dhoni averages only 28.25 in 23 Tests, with a highest of 92. He does have a few memorable innings in those countries, most notably the unbeaten 76 at Lord's in 2007 which saved the Test and ultimately won India the series, and the 90 in Centurion last year, but there have also been plenty of low scores to pull down the average. And over the last year Dhoni's form has been wretched: since July 2010 he averages only 25.72 in 25 innings. During this period, only five out of 16 Tests have been played at home.

In fact, the year 2011 has been a terrible one for Dhoni the batsman in both Tests and ODIs: he averages 14.60 in Tests and 31.60 in ODIs (well below his career ODI average of 48.78). However, his only half-century in the 50-over format was in the biggest match of them all - the World Cup final.

MS Dhoni's Test stats
  Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s Strike rate
Overall 59 3071 37.45 4/ 21 59.18
Home 27 1469 43.20 3/ 11 58.20
Away 32 1602 33.37 1/ 10 60.11
Outside subcontinent 23 1102 28.25 0/ 7 55.88
Since July 2010 16 643 25.72 0/ 4 53.67

Prior's stats, on the other hand, are far more even: his average in each calendar year so far has been at least 40 (with the 2011 average going up to 70.85), his home average (46.37) is only marginally better than his overseas one (43.41), and he has done pretty well in the subcontinent too, averaging 40.25 from seven Tests. His only poor series was in South Africa in 2009-10, when seven innings fetched him only 158 runs.

Matt Prior's Test stats
  Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s Strike rate
Overall 45 2526 45.10 6/ 18 67.03
Home 25 1484 46.37 4/ 9 71.69
Away 20 1042 43.41 2/ 9 61.36
In subcontinent 7 322 40.25 0/ 4 48.64
In South Africa 4 158 22.57 0/ 2 56.83

Dhoni's bottom-handed technique has helped him play the big shots in the shorter version of the game, but that, and his tendency to play from the crease, have caused him problems against pace bowling in Tests. That technical flaw has caused him even more problems in the more seamer-friendly conditions outside the subcontinent: his overall average against pace is 32.01, but outside the subcontinent it drops by almost 10 runs, to 22.12. Against spin, on the other hand, his numbers look much better.

Dhoni v pace and spin
  Runs Balls faced Dismissals Average
Pace - overall 1633 2751 51 32.01
Spin - overall 1370 2311 27 50.74
Pace - outside subcontinent 730 1365 33 22.12
Spin - outside subcontinent 332 537 4 83.00

The two bowlers who have dismissed Dhoni most often in Tests are Dale Steyn and Muttiah Muralitharan. Both have nailed him four times each, but Steyn has the better average against him - 22.75, to Murali's 31. Five fast bowlers have dismissed him three times, of whom Corey Collymore and Fidel Edwards have the best averages - Collymore dismissed Dhoni three times on the 2006 tour, while Edwards had similar success earlier this year. Chris Tremlett has got him three times too, once in 2007 and twice at Lord's.

Fast bowlers who've dismissed Dhoni most often in Tests
Bowler Runs Balls Dismissals Average
Dale Steyn 91 162 4 22.75
Corey Collymore 22 49 3 7.33
Fidel Edwards 31 56 3 10.33
Chris Tremlett 51 97 3 17.00
Mitchell Johnson 62 156 3 20.67
Morne Morkel 120 178 3 40.00

Prior's stats suggest he is fairly comfortable playing both pace and spin - his overall average against pace is a handy 44.11, while he has done even better against spin.

Prior v pace and spin
  Runs Balls faced Dismissals Average
Pace - overall 1588 2278 36 44.11
Spin - overall 938 1484 15 62.53

Only three bowlers have dismissed Prior three or more times in Tests. One of them is playing in the current series: Sreesanth's ability to swing the ball has helped him account for Prior thrice in only 75 deliveries. All three dismissals were very early in Prior's innings, which suggests Dhoni should have Sreesanth at the bowling crease as soon as Prior walks in to bat.

Bowlers who've dismissed Prior at least three times in Tests
Bowler Runs Balls Dismissals Average
Peter Siddle 109 147 5 21.80
Sreesanth 37 75 3 12.33
Shakib Al Hasan 39 97 3 13.00

After 45 Tests, Prior averages 45.10 at an excellent strike rate and conversion rate of fifties to hundreds, which makes him the best batsman among wicketkeepers going around today. Dhoni and Brad Haddin are next on the list, with averages of around 40. The difference in averages isn't that much, but over this period Prior, more than any other wicketkeeper-batsman, has looked capable of playing match-changing innings more often than the others in the table below.

Highest averages for wicketkeeper-batsmen in Tests since Jan 2007 (Qual: 1000 runs)
Player Tests Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s
Matt Prior 45 2526 45.10 67.03 6/ 18
MS Dhoni 44 2365 40.08 56.14 3/ 18
Brad Haddin 32 1905 39.68 58.74 3/ 8
Brendon McCullum 26 1625 36.93 61.36 3/ 9
Prasanna Jayawardene 30 1227 36.08 51.83 3/ 3
Mark Boucher 41 1641 32.82 48.99 1/ 10
Kamran Akmal 23 1267 31.67 63.79 2/ 8
Mushfiqur Rahim 22 1116 29.36 44.39 1/ 6

Dhoni obviously has a lot more on his plate than just batting and keeping wicket, but considering these two factors alone, there's little doubt as to who's the best at the moment in Test cricket. (Click here to see the all-time list of best averages for wicketkeeper-batsmen.)

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo