November 25, 2011

The year of the debutant bowler

First-timers have had a golden run in Test cricket in 2011. Here's an in-depth stats analysis of this phenomenon

If you're a bowler looking to play your first Test match, this might be the best time to take the plunge. Over the last six months, debutants have had a remarkable run with the ball in their first games. Sample this: in the last three months alone, six bowlers have picked up five-wicket hauls on debut. It started with Nathan Lyon's 5 for 34 in Galle against Sri Lanka, and then continued with Elias Sunny of Bangladesh, followed by November's four golden debutants - Doug Bracewell, R Ashwin, Vernon Philander and Pat Cummins. The tally of four in a month equalled the number of such debut performances over 24 months through 2009 and 2010.

There have also been other success stories among debutant bowlers, apart from those who've taken five-fors. Pakistan's Aizaz Cheema took four in each innings against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo to finish with match figures of 8 for 103; a couple of Zimbabweans - Kyle Jarvis and Brian Vitori - took five each in the match against Bangladesh in Harare; Sri Lanka's Shaminda Eranga showed plenty of promise too in his opener against Australia, taking four in the first innings and finishing with match figures of 5 for 127. A little before that, in June 2011, Praveen Kumar grabbed his first Test opportunity too, taking three wickets in each innings, and 6 for 80 in the match against West Indies. And then there were a couple of spinners with four-wicket hauls in their opening Tests - Bangladesh's Suhrawadi Shuvo and Devendra Bishoo of West indies.

Add up all these numbers and you get a terrific year for the freshmen. In all, debutant bowlers have taken 94 Test wickets so far in 2011 (and the year isn't over yet), at an average of 28.15. That's the most wickets ever taken by bowlers in their first Test in a year, going past the previous best of 83, which was achieved twice - in 1948 and in 1992.

There were a couple of highlights in 1948: Hines Johnson, a right-arm fast bowler from West Indies, took 10 wickets on debut, one of only 15 players to achieve this feat in Test cricket so far. And then there was Jim Laker, who announced his talent in no uncertain terms by taking nine wickets in his first game, against West Indies in Barbados.

In 1992, the two bowlers who stood out on debut were England's Neil Mallender - 8 for 122 against Pakistan at Headingley - and Richard Snell for his 8 for 157 in South Africa's comeback game against West Indies. Allan Donald took six in that game too, which was his Test debut as well.

Two other bowlers also made their debuts in 1992 - less memorably - but then went on to achieve great things thereafter: Muttiah Muralitharan had figures of 3 for 141, and Shane Warne 1 for 150, on their Test debuts. If nothing else, that should make the likes of Michael Beer (1 for 112 on debut) and Nuwan Pradeep (0 for 110) feel a little better about their Test futures.

Most wickets taken by debutant bowlers in a year in Tests
Year Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
2011 94 28.15 55.3 6/ 0
1948 83 28.02 68.0 4/ 1
1992 83 33.56 74.1 1/ 0
2003 81 37.97 67.8 5/ 0
2001 79 33.50 67.8 3/ 0
1965 77 24.46 63.2 1/ 0
1996 73 28.16 51.2 3/ 1

A comparison with debut bowling performances over the previous seven years further demonstrates how good 2011 has been to the debutant bowler. In the two previous years, they averaged more than 40 runs per wicket, while in 2004 and 2005, the average topped 50.

Debutants with the ball in Tests in the last eight years
Year Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
2011 94 28.15 55.3 6/ 0
2010 60 44.88 76.5 2/ 0
2009 66 40.42 68.9 2/ 0
2008 61 36.60 60.0 3/ 1
2007 55 27.92 53.5 3/ 0
2006 54 33.77 62.6 1/ 0
2005 30 51.03 83.2 1/ 0
2004 37 50.21 79.9 0/ 0

Plenty of bowlers have taken five-fors on debut in 2011, but does that signify much for the rest of their careers? Here's a look back at recent history: the table below lists the career stats of bowlers who took a five-for on debut between 2000 and 2006. (It's recent enough, and it's also at least five years since that performance, thus having allowed for their careers to take shape.)

Among the names below, only two are still actively involved in Test cricket. James Anderson has been outstanding as a strike bowler in the last couple of years, especially, while Fidel Edwards remains West Indies' best bet. They've both also added 10 five-fors to their debut performance. Among the other names, the one that stands out is that of Stuart Clark, who did a fine job of taking Glenn McGrath's place in the Australian bowling line-up for a brief period. He took only one more five-for after his debut display, but career stats of 94 wickets at less than 24 apiece are a fair reflection of his class.

For the rest, though, the numbers aren't flattering. Four out of the 11 didn't add to their five-for in their first game, while four others managed just one more. A couple of them - Richard Johnson and Shabbir Ahmed - didn't play too many Tests despite pretty good numbers in the matches they played, while Mohammad Sami turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the decade for Pakistan. (Click here for the corresponding list in the 1990s: among the 13 names is an Australian called Simon Cook. Full marks to anyone who recalls the name.)

Bowlers who took five-fors on debut in Tests between 2000 and 2006
Bowler Debut match figures Career Tests Wickets Average 5WI/ 10WM
Naimur Rahman 6 for 154 v Ind 8 12 59.83 1/ 0
Mohammad Sami 8 for 106 v NZ 35 84 52.27 2/ 0
Andy Blignaut 8 for 110 v B'desh 19 53 37.05 3/ 0
Manjural Islam 6 for 81 v Zim 17 28 57.32 1/ 0
James Anderson 5 for 138 v Zim 63 240 30.57 11/ 1
Richard Johnson 6 for 100 v Zim 3 16 17.18 2/ 0
Fidel Edwards 6 for 90 v SL 50 152 37.00 11/ 0
James Kirtley 8 for 114 v SA 4 19 29.52 1/ 0
Shabbir Ahmed 8 for 109 v B'desh 10 51 23.03 2/ 0
Charl Langeveldt 5 for 96 v Eng 6 16 37.06 1/ 0
Stuart Clark 9 for 89 v SA 24 94 23.86 2/ 0

The numbers above suggest bowlers who start with a bang don't necessarily go on to great things in their careers. However, in 2011 at least, it looks like debutants have far outperformed the rest.

Test bowling stats in 2011
  Wickets Average Strike rate
Debutants 94 28.15 55.3
Overall 977 33.68 66.8

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter