December 2, 2011

The challenge for spinners in Australia

India's spin duo had a fine home season against West Indies, but a far bigger task awaits

The last month wasn't a good one for Harbhajan Singh, but it was a fine one for Indian spin bowling. In three Tests against West Indies, R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha combined to take 42 wickets, and the overall average for the Indian spinners in the series was 25.95. It was the biggest haul of wickets for Indian spinners in a home series of three Tests or fewer in more than 17 years, and the sixth-largest in such a series for India ever. You'd have to go back all the way to January-February 1994, when Venkatapathy Raju, Anil Kumble and Rajesh Chauhan took 44 wickets combined, for a bigger haul by Indian spinners in a short series.

All this is excellent news for Ashwin, Ojha, and fans of Indian spin. The two tweakers have duly been picked for the next series, but they'll know that the conditions that confront them in Australia will be nothing like those they were presented with in India. In general, the pitches will bounce more and spin less, and it remains to be seen how the Indian spinners will adapt.

Going by Ashwin's comments after the first innings of the Mumbai Test, though, it appears he, at least, won't be complaining too much. He stated that he "felt cheated" by the lack of bounce at the Wankhede Stadium, but if he does convert the bounce available on Australian pitches into wickets, he'll be a rare spinner. In recent times at least, spin bowlers, especially fingerspinners, have had little to celebrate in Australia.

The table below lists, among other things, the averages of spinners in each country since the beginning of 2006, and the numbers in Australia don't paint a pretty picture. During this period, spinners have given away more than 45 runs per wicket there. (Only in Pakistan have they done worse, but the numbers there are skewed because of the small sample size: only 10 Tests have been played there in the last six years.) Muttiah Muralitharan has averaged 100 runs for each of his four wickets, and Harbhajan Singh 61.25 for each of his eight. (Click here for more averages of spinners in Australia.)

Recent stats for spinners in Australia don't look encouraging, but then it isn't much better in India either: since 2006, they average 41.03 runs per wicket, which is worse than the average in six other countries, including New Zealand, South Africa and England. Harbhajan, India's regular spinner during this period, has repeatedly complained that Indian tracks don't help spinners much, and the numbers seem to support his claim. On the other hand, many overseas spinners have relished conditions in New Zealand, though one reason for this also the less-than-stellar batsmanship of the home team against spin.

The home and away averages also say a bit about the quality of spinners that the home teams possess. In England, for example, the home spinners average 29.58, thanks largely to Graeme Swann, while overseas spinners average 44.67. In India, the Indian spinners do much better, with an average that is more than 17 runs better than their overseas counterparts. That's also because of the quality of the Indian batsmen against spin in home conditions.

Spinners in each country, home and away, since Jan 2006
Host country Tests Spin wkts Average Home - wkts Average Away - wkts Average
Bangladesh 18 300 31.85 130 42.93 170 23.38
New Zealand 23 198 32.95 100 34.99 98 30.87
Sri Lanka 27 380 33.81 255 26.37 125 49.00
West Indies 24 280 34.27 93 48.76 187 27.06
South Africa 31 193 35.05 69 38.37 124 33.20
England 43 323 36.35 158 29.58 149 44.67
India 28 408 41.03 271 35.09 137 52.79
Australia 29 206 45.64 94 44.92 112 46.24
Pakistan 10 88 59.32 52 51.46 36 70.69

Coming back to the performances of Indian spinners at home, for the last five years before this one they had been averaging more than 30 as a combination, and more than 35 in three of those years. In 2009, for example, the average ballooned to 46.28. These averages shatter the notion that facing Indian spinners in Indian conditions is one of the most difficult tasks in cricket; in fact, according to the table above, New Zealand's spinners have a slightly better average in their home conditions than Indian ones do in theirs.

The one country where home spinners have been really difficult to get away is Sri Lanka - their slow bowlers average 26.37 in Sri Lanka, compared to the overseas spinners' average of 49, a difference of almost 23. That's largely due to Muralitharan, though, so over the next few years we'll know if their spin attack can continue to be a potent force in Murali's absence.

Year-wise Test averages for Indian spinners at home
Year Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
2011 3 42 25.95 55.4 4/ 0
2010 7 63 38.41 87.5 1/ 0
2009 3 25 46.28 83.6 0/ 0
2008 9 85 34.43 74.2 3/ 0
2007 3 31 31.83 68.7 2/ 0
2006 3 25 37.20 87.8 1/ 0

Regarding the challenge for spinners in Australia, the table below shows that most of the overseas ones who've done well have been wrist-spinners. Anil Kumble averaged 5.5 wickets per Test, though he averaged almost 35 per wicket. The fingerspinners in the list below have all averaged more than 35, though even that is only about half as expensive as Harbhajan's overall average in Australia: nine wickets in four Tests at 73.22. That, obviously, shouldn't be the benchmark for Ashwin and Ojha.

Most wickets by an overseas spinner in Australia since 2000
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Anil Kumble 8 44 34.65 57.4 4/ 1
Daniel Vettori 9 29 37.55 76.2 3/ 0
Danish Kaneria 5 24 40.58 64.0 3/ 0
Graeme Swann 5 15 39.80 87.6 1/ 0
Upul Chandana 2 12 22.50 30.8 2/ 1
Sulieman Benn 3 11 37.09 83.4 1/ 0
Paul Harris 3 10 38.70 81.5 0/ 0
Monty Panesar 3 10 37.90 53.7 1/ 0

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on December 4, 2011, 19:41 GMT

    Mr. Rajesh, it has become a practice of many journalists to call the Australian wickets as only suited for "Chin music". However if you look at the recently concluded test between Australia & NZ, the off spinner Lyon took 4 wickets in the first @ just over 3 runs/over and 3 wkts in the second at 1.6 runs/over. 7 wickets is a great haul at Brisbane for an off spinner!Of course Pattinson took 5 wkts in the second innings with his pace bowling. So the Pitch helps both pace bowlers & good spinners.Ashwin has a good Doosra + a carrom ball + off spinners + bounce he gets due to high action.. Also Ojha varies his flight & spin cleverly + has an armer. If they bowl to their potential, expect wkts. from both.But Media hype might force Dhoni to go cautiously with just one spinner + 3 seamers + 7 batsmen. To win, India has to risk with 2 spinners + 3 seamers + 6 batsmen.Dhoni will decide based on the pitch to go for a Win or play safely.It is premature to write off spinners on Aussie pitches.

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2011, 23:18 GMT

    The question for India will be whether they have the seam depth there to keep one spinner out of the picture. If Zaheer Khan isn't fully fit, then potentially an attack of Sharma, Aaron, and perhaps Yadav is a big call to make. Two rookies playing Down Under for the first time would be a great risk. Personally I would play three seamers, Ashwin as all-rounder and have Ojha there. Dhoni bats at six and trust the top order, most of whom are experienced, to make the runs.

  • Ghana on December 3, 2011, 22:59 GMT

    Like godatno4 says - Kumble is the greatest indian spinner of the generation. We feel good about the spin dept and their ability to extract purchase. I wish they go with 5 bowlers some day!

  • kan on December 3, 2011, 21:05 GMT

    Ashwin and Ojha would certainly do much better than harbhajan, Ashwin should talk to Kumble for some tips as to how to use the bounce to purchase wickets, in sydney india can play both spinners, ojha is more tight and economical than Ashwin.

  • kan on December 3, 2011, 21:02 GMT

    Ashwin had a rough day during Ind vs WI 2nd ODI, may be he is tiring after 3 test matches, it is nice to give him break and try out Rahul Sharma for couple of games, as otherwise if Ashwin gets hit around again, his confidence would go down ahead of important test series

  • Naveen on December 3, 2011, 19:12 GMT

    It will be interseting to see if Ashwin and Ohja get to bowl in Tandem, that i think would be the key difference between dominating the batsmen or just containing them. They might as well combine with a medium pacer on the other end to create rough patches and exploit it. I am expecting Ashwin to do that if he gets a chance at all, since Ohja would be preferred bowler for Dhoni than ashwin, but also we need to consider number of lefties in the Australian line up.

    Dhoni is not a bold and agressive captain to play both spinners, fortunately or unfortunately it might also depend on Zaheer's fitness since he will be the go to bowler for Dhoni in conditions favourable for seam bowling.

    Only advantage for Ashwin is, he is next only to Dhoni when it comes to being cool under pressure, and in Australia there will be no dearth of it.

    It will be make or break for the young bowlers and definitely therewill be 2 rookies coming out with flying colours one in pace and one in spin.

  • Sreekanth on December 3, 2011, 18:33 GMT

    Personally, I think aswin will be the preferred spinner in australia (except maybe in adelaide where they can consider two spinners). This is for two reasons - 1. He relishes bounce and is in the mould of Kumble in that sense and 2. He is a much better batsman than ojha which might make the critical difference on an overseas tour.

  • P Subramani on December 3, 2011, 14:29 GMT

    Anil Kumble took 24 wickets in just 3 Tests in the memorable series in 2003/04. That was after he was not too successful on his first trip Down Under. Erapalli Prasanna was just superb in his only visit to Australia in 1967. He used to bowl with a lot of flight and had excellent variations like the flight and drift. The point I am trying to make is that spinners have to think about their art to succeed in Australia instead of just thinking that the ball does not turn much and so they will have to rely on the bounce available.Shane Warne was always a winner on these wickets. He used that classical flight that he had and his variations apart from his words before the series.I recall that even Ravi Shastri was unplayable in the Sydney Test in 92. Ashwin thinks about his game and what he needs to do in a game before he plays. He is an engineer like Prasanna and Kumble are. I think thinking bowlers will be able to do well in Australia. I am sure both Ashwin and Ojha will do well.

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2011, 12:44 GMT

    Thing to remember is that, even Anil Kumble struggled in Aus on his first tour there, in 1999. Only in 2003 onwards he picked up wickets there.....So Ashwin and Ojha can take this tour only as a learning exp; and so should the selectors.

  • Nilesh on December 3, 2011, 4:13 GMT

    I think based on the conditions in Australia probably only 1 spinner will get selected in a Test Match (so I personally think its unlikely that they will bowl in tandem or complement each other in the same game).

    I think this is an excellent article and Ojha and/or Ashwin would do well to look at the stats and set some reasonable goals. Obviously, it would be great news for Indian spin if either of them did well in Australia but that should not be the expectation going in (especially since they are going the first time, they are still pretty young). I recommend that they take lots of tips from Anil Kumble before the tour and use the tour as a learning experience.

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