August 26, 2011

England's challenge, and the Swann factor

England still have plenty of overseas challenges to conquer, but the presence of their ace spinner gives them an excellent chance

England's drubbing of India over the last month has made them the undisputed top side in Test cricket, but as Andrew Strauss said, the worst thing England could do from here is to get too cocky too soon. "The greatest pitfall is feeling like you have done it all. I'd be disappointed if our side fell into that trap." England have achieved plenty over the last couple of years, but they're far away from doing it all. In fact, they have plenty of challenges coming their way over the next 18 months, and how they cope will establish how long they stay at the top.

The gulf between England and India was embarrassingly wide in this series, which was a big surprise to most because of how close the teams were statistically in the 30 months preceding it. There have been comments that India's rise to the top was based on home wins against weak teams while England have done well all over the world, but a look at the recent numbers doesn't support that argument. In fact, Ricky Ponting said this in an interview to ESPNcricinfo: "[Y]ou've got to give England credit for what they've done. They've won pretty much everywhere they've been the last few years." Ponting would be surprised to see that England's only successful overseas campaigns over the last four years have been in Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh. The Ashes triumph was obviously exceptional, but it's also true that England have lost their last Test series in India, Sri Lanka, and even West Indies, while only managing to draw in South Africa.

In fact, the stats for England and India are remarkably similar during the period mentioned below. Between October 2008 and July 20, 2011, India had a 15-3 win-loss ratio in 30 Tests; England, from May 2009, have a 20-4 ratio in 31 Tests. During this period England played 20 home Tests compared to 16 by India. Both sides were utterly dominant at home, and had almost identical numbers overseas, with 6-2 win-loss records, including 2-0 series in Bangladesh. Both managed 1-1 draws in South Africa.

Over the next 18 months, though, England will get opportunities to avenge most of their losses over the last four years. In Sri Lanka later this year, they can atone for their 0-1 defeat in 2007-08; their Test tour to India next year will give them a chance to reverse a similar result in 2008-09. There's also South Africa touring England next summer - the last time that happened, England lost the Tests 1-2. Before all that, there's also a Test series against Pakistan in the UAE. England surely have the personnel to tackle these challenges, but the results they post will determine how long they hold on to the top spot.

England since May 2009, and India between Oct 2008 and Jul 20, 2011
Team Tests W/L/D W/L ratio Bat ave Bowl ave
England 31 20/4/7 5.00 43.78 29.41
India 30 15/3/12 5.00 44.17 35.76
England at home 20 14/2/4 7.00 43.71 27.43
India at home 16 9/1/6 9.00 49.27 36.27
England away 11 6/2/3 3.00 43.89 33.07
India away 14 6/2/6 3.00 38.95 35.17

The Swann factor
The series coming up for England over the next 18 months appear to be tough ones, but one factor gives them a distinct edge over England teams of the recent past: the presence of Graeme Swann. The lack of an attacking spinner had often handicapped England, especially on tours to the subcontinent, but with Swann around, home sides will probably think many times over before preparing turning tracks.

A team-wise look at the performance of spinners shows that over the last two and a half years England have been in unfamiliar territory: their spin average is the best among all teams. They've taken 158 wickets at 31.53, of which Swann has contributed 145 at 28.23, including all 11 five-fors and the lone ten-for.

These numbers are in stark contrast to England's spin stats before Swann made his mark in Test cricket: between 2000 and 2008, England's spinners averaged a dismal 42.21 runs per wicket. They also averaged barely two wickets per Test, a number that has more than doubled to almost four and a half since Swann's arrival.

While England's spin stock has risen several notches over the last couple of years, the teams who have been powerhouses of spin bowling through most of the 2000s have plummeted. Sri Lanka, Australia and India had been the three best spin teams between 2000 and 2008, but since 2009 the averages for these three have shot up to more than 39. Sri Lanka and Australia have obviously been struggling to cope with the retirements of Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, while India have been hit by Anil Kumble's retirement and Harbhajan Singh's poor form.

Team-wise performances of spinners in Tests since Jan 2009
Team Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
England 36 158 31.53 63.6 11/ 1
Pakistan 23 139 35.43 71.4 6/ 1
Bangladesh 11 99 36.88 68.8 4/ 0
Sri Lanka 20 146 39.37 75.2 7/ 0
South Africa 58 75 39.97 85.8 2/ 0
India 28 186 42.06 82.5 3/ 0
Australia 26 82 43.23 78.8 3/ 0
New Zealand 16 84 43.78 89.1 1/ 0
West Indies 23 98 45.20 89.0 3/ 0

Team-wise performance of spinners in Tests between Jan 2000 and Dec 2008
Team Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Sri Lanka 85 765 25.31 58.9 55/ 22
Australia 102 601 29.06 55.4 33/ 8
India 97 801 32.99 67.8 45/ 10
New Zealand 72 272 35.54 76.7 17/ 3
Pakistan 74 428 36.16 74.4 16/ 3
England 115 328 42.21 84.7 13/ 1
South Africa 102 256 42.96 83.1 8/ 1
Zimbabwe 44 158 47.05 90.0 6/ 2
West Indies 96 252 49.19 104.9 3/ 0
Bangladesh 58 238 50.87 97.9 15/ 1

The stats for spinners since the beginning of 2009 show how far ahead of the pack Swann is. Among spinners with at least 50 Test wickets, only Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan has a comparable average. Harbhajan is one of four spinners on this list whose average is on the wrong side of 35.

It's true that Swann has played only four Tests in the subcontinent, but his overall Test stats indicate he will be a handful for any batting line-up in helpful conditions, as the Indians found out at The Oval last week.

Highest wicket-takers among spinners in Tests since Jan 2009
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Graeme Swann 34 145 28.23 57.2 11/ 1
Harbhajan Singh 24 92 36.80 76.8 3/ 0
Daniel Vettori 16 59 38.28 89.5 1/ 0
Saeed Ajmal 11 50 31.14 68.9 3/ 1
Nathan Hauritz 14 50 37.34 69.6 2/ 0
Paul Harris 17 50 42.56 97.4 2/ 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo