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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shanmugam on August 27, 2011, 16:36 GMT

    Valavan, well said mate. I am not sure what makes these SL fans think that they can win tests against top notch opposition. Their bowlers wouldn't bowl Boycs' mum out. We saw what happened to them after Murali retired last year. They lost to even India:-)

    @Barry, true. Away wins should be valued more. But, home defeats should be penalized more too. SA lost to Australia and drew with England and India at home. England lost to SA and have defeated everyone else at home. India are unbeaten at home and except for the 0-4 drubbing they have had decent results everywhere else. The fact that they lost 4 consecutive tests have brought them down and that is understandable. The rankings are a reflector of current form and England are the best team atm. SA, for all their greatness, have never defeated a top team so comprehensively in a series. Also, SA have two excellent bowlers but the rest are mediocre. England have a set of very good bowlers.

  • Valavan on August 27, 2011, 8:55 GMT

    @Asanka, England will be surprised if SL wins a test in SL. SL looks pathetic without malinga, vaas and murali. And ODIs, ye in 2007 i think 3 - 2 win for england with all biggies in squad. You will lick the same wounds as indian fans did. So dont jump over the moon before the toss.Now Aussies are making SL toil. First try to win one test aginst aussies and speak of it.

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2011, 5:46 GMT

    The rankings seriously need to consider an away series win as more valuable as a home win. This article proves it. In the last 4 years South Africa have won away from home in Australia and England, and drawn in India. Neither England or India have come close to having as good an away record as South Africa.

    A team that lost against the West Indies and played two thirds of their tests at home in the last 3 years is no 1 now?! Seriously?

  • Peter on August 27, 2011, 0:44 GMT

    Let's face it, for India to win they need to take 20 wickets. Look at the bowling figures in England. An overall average over 70! How is this popgun bowling lineup going to take that many wickets to win? Apart from Zaheer, the rest of them wouldn't get a run in any half decent first class side or most 2nd XIs. And he is on the wrong side of 30 and consistently injured AND unfit!

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2011, 23:33 GMT

    Sri Lanka will put England in their place at the end of this year. I will be surprised, if they win a single test match over there.

  • chris on August 26, 2011, 23:13 GMT

    Is Swan a GREAT spinner, no. Is he the best spinner in world now, statistically just None of this really matters to me though because Is he the best spinner England have had for a long time, hell yes I've always loved watching good spinners bowl, so as an Englishman I've always had to admire other teams spinners, now finally we have one who can stand up as one of, if not the, top spinner in the game and I don't care that he's not one of the best ever. He is still very good indeed.I'm really looking forward to the upcoming tests against Pak and SL to see how Swan does on those pitches, also to see if England will play 2 spinners in a 5 man bowling attack I'd love them too but they seem reluctant to change their formula and that is 4 bowlers.Seems very strange to say this but I can't see England losing the next 2 test series, after that in the SA and India tests who knows what will happen. One thing I do know though is England will fight to the last and make the most of what they have

  • Valavan on August 26, 2011, 19:34 GMT

    @Shan, rekax mate. indian fans will speak about statistics which are favorabe for them, One hindh88 said England lost to windies. yes we did by 1 - 0, but some 4 months ago same time in Sep 2008 , India lost to SL to mendis magic. They dont count that. Its really a bitter pill, this 4 - 0 whitewash, so just trying to calm themselves,In other articles, also i saw winning an LOI against sussex and speak about 5 - 0 whitewash. Anyway we dont have to talk shan, our players will prove in the field.

  • Shanmugam on August 26, 2011, 17:42 GMT

    @Thomas Cherian, True. Warne and Murali have rather ordinary records in India. That is because the Indians are great players of spin bowling. However, Kambli never played a single test against Australia. He has played ODIs against them and has flayed Warne and there is no reason why he couldn't have played him better in tests.

    There is no reason why Swann can't succeed against India in India either. Last time he played he took two wickets in his very first over and finished with an average of 40. Mediocre but you also have to consider that was his first two tests. He is a much improved bowler now and, as the Indians learnt at the Oval, when conditions favor him he can be very good. You would find no England fan who would claim him as a great but as someone else mentioned, he knows his job in the England side. Tie up one end if conditions aren't favorable; attack if they are. And, he does it very well.

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2011, 17:39 GMT

    One simple question, what if a certain Mr Swann has a drop in form? And if the English are wanting to believe that Mr. Swann is infallible then i quote Andrew Strauss from this article: "The greatest pitfall is feeling like you have done it all". Swann is definitely not infallible, and i think that was eminently proved in the first three tests here. And Anderson & Co would certainly be a far less potent force in the sub-continents. So, lets see who has a longer reign at the top, India, or England.

  • sheraz on August 26, 2011, 17:17 GMT

    well ranking system is not correct .... now indian r calling it wrong when they became No 1 they were not tht good ..... they did not beat Aussie , RSA , or even srilanka ( since 1993) on other hand RSA n england beat aussie in their home ground.... nw it is not fair tht england gt NO 1 ..... my only question tht way india played in this series the look like bangladesh.... blowing even worse then bangladesh..... it is not about 4 -0 it is about how lose .......n tht was for NO 1 ...

  • No featured comments at the moment.