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