December 16, 2011

Payback time for bowlers

Test matches had been largely dominated by batsmen for two years, but in 2011 the bowlers came back strongly

The last few months have been especially good ones for bowlers. Pitches have been prepared to favour them, especially in South Africa and Australia, and they have exploited those conditions, leaving the batsmen wondering if this is indeed the golden age for batting. There have been other series this year when the bat has dominated the show, but 2011 will be remembered for, among other things, the fact that bowlers restored some parity after a couple of years when ball had clearly played second fiddle to bat.

In South Africa's two-Test home series against Australia, for example, each wicket cost less than 27 runs. In Australia's two-Test series against New Zealand, bowlers dominated even more, conceding 23.04 runs per wicket. As the series-wise numbers show, only once in 2011 has the average for a completed series exceeded 40 - when Sri Lanka toured England for the three-Test series, 42.30 runs were scored per wicket. In most of the other series, the averages have hovered around 32 to 35, which suggests a reasonably even contest.

Overall, the manner in which the bowlers have hit back in 2011 has been a refreshing departure from the two preceding years, especially. The year-wise bowling averages in the table below shows a significant improvement over 2010 (bowling average 36.60) and 2009 (37.70). In that two-year period, there were nine series of two or more Tests in which the average exceeded 40, with three of those going beyond 50. (This excludes Sri Lanka's tour of Pakistan in 2009, which was aborted midway due to the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus.) The two series between Sri Lanka and India - one in each country - both produced very high scores (though there were four results in six Tests), as did the two draws between South Africa and Pakistan in the UAE. On the other hand, there were five series with sub-30 averages.

The last time the overall average for a year was lower than 2011's number so far was way back in 2002, and even there the difference is marginal. (In fact, with four more Tests coming up in the year, mostly in bowler-friendly conditions, it's entirely possible that the average will slip below the 2002 mark by the time the year is done.)

Breaking up the stats into pace and spin, it's also clear that both categories have had pretty good years. Fast bowlers have averaged 31.87 so far this year, which is the first time in 11 years that they've broken the 32-barrier. Spinners have averaged 34.54, but even that's a huge improvement on their 2010 average of 40.52 and their 2009 mark of more than 38.

Year-wise averages for bowlers in Tests since Jan 2001
Year Tests Bowl ave Pace - wkts Average Spin - wkts Average
2011 36 32.87 698 31.87 397 34.54
2010 43 36.60 776 34.14 476 40.52
2009 41 37.70 771 37.22 438 38.47
2008 47 33.68 958 32.59 475 35.57
2007 31 34.83 629 33.23 281 37.54
2006 46 34.53 951 33.59 445 36.22
2005 49 33.40 1014 32.92 487 34.51
2004 51 35.31 977 35.65 577 34.59
2003 44 36.12 890 34.22 415 40.15
2002 54 32.58 1071 32.42 511 32.59
2001 55 34.09 1019 33.40 521 34.46

The region where the bowling averages have improved most significantly is the West Indies. For several years now, the pitches there have largely been sluggish, offering little for fast bowlers. This season, though, all that changed. The two series played there - featuring Pakistan and India - both witnessed averages of under 27. It's true that some of the top Indian batsmen were missing on that tour, but even so, it was clear that the pitches this season were different: Rahul Dravid and Duncan Fletcher, India's coach, both called the conditions among the toughest they've encountered. In 2009 and 2010, the average in 10 Tests in the West Indies was 37.26; this year it was 24.80, a drop of 33%. In fact, all the way from 2003 to 2010, the average in the West Indies was 37.03.

There has been a significant difference in Australia too, but the season there has only just begun. Final judgement on the conditions must wait till India play their four Tests, for it's highly unlikely that conditions in Adelaide and Sydney will resemble those that were on offer in Hobart.

The only country in which batsmen enjoyed a higher average in 2011 than in the previous two years was England. Despite the struggles of the Indian batsmen in four Tests there, the overall runs per wicket figure is in excess of 38, thanks largely to England's superb batting displays throughout the season.

Bowling averages in each country in 2011, and in the two previous years
Host 2011-Tests Wickets Average 2009&10 - Tests Wickets Average
West Indies 5 177 24.80 10 267 37.26
Australia 3 98 27.65 11 344 35.52
South Africa 3 99 30.38 9 289 33.62
New Zealand 2 63 31.47 9 281 38.10
Sri Lanka 3 91 32.35 11 297 39.30
Zimbabwe 3 103 34.23 - - -
India 3 98 36.36 10 281 43.43
Bangladesh 3 81 36.71 5 161 38.24
UAE 3 84 37.30 2 52 50.07
England 7 201 38.61 15 470 30.05

And a look at the top wicket-takers of 2011 reveals that quite a few have taken wickets at very good averages: with a 30-wicket cut-off, Stuart Broad's 22.30 is the best, followed closely by Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal, who is also the leading wicket-taker of the year so far. Ajmal's tally is much lower than the 2010 leader, Graeme Swann, who had 64, but that's because he has played half the number of Tests that Swann played. Most teams played fewer Tests this year because of the World Cup.

Apart from the names in the list below, there were several others who did well in their limited opportunities: Dale Steyn took 17 in three at 21.05, Ryan Harris took 15 in three at 17.33, while a whole host of debutants proved they belonged at the Test level right from the outset. (Click here for the full list of bowlers in 2011.)

Bowlers with best Test averages in 2011 (Qual: 30 wickets)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Stuart Broad 7 33 22.30 49.1 1/ 0
Saeed Ajmal 7 46 23.34 57.3 3/ 1
James Anderson 7 35 24.85 50.8 1/ 0
Ravi Rampaul 8 31 25.03 54.8 0/ 0
Abdur Rehman 7 32 25.90 68.6 0/ 0
Darren Sammy 10 30 29.10 65.2 1/ 0
Fidel Edwards 8 32 29.90 47.3 3/ 0
Rangana Herath 8 32 31.96 74.3 2/ 0
Devendra Bishoo 10 39 36.23 69.9 1/ 0
Ishant Sharma 11 41 36.26 66.0 2/ 1

There's a small twist in the tale, though. With all these wickets and better bowling averages, you'd expect a reduction in the percentage of draws, but that hasn't been the case. In 2011, 12 out of 36 Tests have been drawn, which is exactly one in three - it's the second-highest percentage of draws in a year since 2001. The only year when the draw percentage was higher during this period was 2009 (15 out of 41). In 2010, for instance, only one in four Tests was drawn (11 out of 43). Click here for the list of drawn matches in 2011.

Stats excludes the ongoing Centurion Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka.

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

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