February 3, 2012

Swann v Ajmal: clash of the offspinners

They're the two best spinners in Test cricket over the last 30 months, and while their overall stats are similar, the break-ups are quite different

The ongoing Test series between Pakistan and England has presented a wonderful stage for a battle between arguably the two best spinners going around in Test cricket today. There are some who will make the case for Daniel Vettori, and while he remains a superb spinner in all forms of the game - and perhaps the best in the shorter versions - his relatively poor strike rate in Tests means he must cede the top spots to Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal. These two spinners turn the ball a long way, have outstanding variations, and their default mode is to search for wickets. The pitches in the two Tests so far have been fantastic, offering plenty of bounce for spinners and enough, but not alarming, turn. Ajmal haswon this battle against Swann, taking 17 wickets at 13.35 to Swann's 9 at 25 - and thereby moving up to second place in the ICC Test rankings for bowlers - but their overall numbers are so close that it's difficult to separate the two.

They made their Test debuts within seven months of each other - Swann started in December 2008 and Ajmal in July 2009 - and yet Swann has played twice as many Tests as Ajmal has. That's largely because Swann has played pretty much every Test that England have played during this period, while Ajmal hasn't for Pakistan. Of the 40 Tests that England have played since Swann's debut, he has missed only two - in Kingston and North Sound, against West Indies. Ajmal, on the other hand, has missed ten of Pakistan's 29 Tests since his debut, most of them on tours to Australia, England and New Zealand, countries where conditions don't generally support spin as much as in Asia.

Overall Ajmal has played eight Tests outside Asia, but only one in Australia (in which he had match figures of 2 for 223) and none in South Africa. Swann, on the other hand, has played nine Tests in Australia and South Africa, taking 36 wickets at 34.89.

That said, though, the skills Ajmal has displayed over the last nine months have been outstanding. It all started with a match haul of 11 for 111 against West Indies in Providence, and since then he has been a force in almost every Test he has played in. In his last ten Tests, including that Providence game, Ajmal has taken 67 wickets at 21.19. Only twice during this period has he taken less than five wickets in a Test. That sudden spurt of wickets has taken his overall Test tally to 100 in only 19 matches; at the same stage of his career, Swann had 85.

Swann and Ajmal in Test cricket
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/10WM
Graeme Swann 38 162 28.61 57.7 11/ 1
Saeed Ajmal 19 100 27.31 62.5 5/ 2
Swann after 19 Tests 19 85 30.84 62.3 6/ 1

In the 38 months since Swann made his Test debut, he and Ajmal have the best numbers among spinners. Pakistan's Abdur Rehman has fantastic stats too, but he has played only 12 Tests so far. Swann has taken the most wickets, and at a fine average, while Ajmal's average is the best of the lot. Vettori's economy rate is the best among the bowlers in the table below, but his strike rate is among the poorest: he takes a wicket every 14 overs, compared to 9.4 for Swann and 10.3 for Ajmal.

The only other spinner to have taken 100 wickets in Harbhajan Singh, but his numbers show why he is currently out of favour with the selectors: he averages 36.66, and has only three five-fors in his last 47 innings.

Spinners with at least 50 Test wickets since Dec 1, 2008
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Saeed Ajmal 19 100 27.31 62.5 5/ 2
Abdur Rehman 12 57 27.43 65.3 1/ 0
Graeme Swann 38 162 28.61 57.7 11/ 1
Shakib Al Hasan 16 72 31.80 66.0 6/ 0
Rangana Herath 22 85 33.14 71.3 7/ 0
Daniel Vettori 21 80 34.16 83.3 3/ 0
Pragyan Ojha 14 62 34.62 74.2 2/ 0
Harbhajan Singh 26 100 36.66 76.6 3/ 0

The overall numbers for Swann and Ajmal are fairly similar, but their methods are quite different. Ajmal's ability to pitch the ball on or just outside off to the right-hander and turn it either way makes him a huge threat against those batsmen, and it's reflected in his stats: against right-handers, he averages 25.80 runs per wicket, at a strike rate of 57.34. Against left-handers, he generally needs to work harder, averaging 30 at a strike rate of about 12 overs per wicket.

For Swann, the stats are reversed. His ability to turn the ball away from left-handers, and the ability to extract zip and bounce off the pitch, make him a far tougher proposition for left-handers: he concedes 21 runs per wicket against them, and strikes every eight overs. Against right-handers his average goes up to almost 37, an increase of nearly 75%.

Swann and Ajmal v right- and left-hand batsmen
  Runs Balls Dismissals Average Strike rate
Swann v right-handers 2861 5292 78 36.67 67.85
Ajmal v right-handers 1677 3727 65 25.80 57.34
Swann v left-handers 1769 4060 84 21.05 48.33
Ajmal v left-handers 1053 2525 35 30.08 72.14

The break-ups of each of these two bowlers against some of the batsmen they've bowled to reveal the bias. Ajmal generally has very good numbers against the right-handers: Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Thilan Samaraweera and Ramnaresh Sarwan are among the players who've struggled against him. A few right-handers have scored well against him, though: Jonathan Trott has played 286 deliveries from him without being dismissed once, while Shane Watson and Jacques Kallis have done well against him too. Among the left-handers, Kumar Sangakkara's stats stand out: 246 runs for only two dismissals.

Ajmal against some of the top batsmen in Tests
Batsman Runs Balls Dismissals Average Run rate
Kumar Sangakkara 246 594 2 123.00 2.48
Jonathan Trott 125 286 0 - 2.62
Shane Watson 68 137 0 - 2.97
Mahela Jayawardene 94 177 3 31.33 3.18
Jacques Kallis 85 117 1 85.00 4.35
Kevin Pietersen 53 76 4 13.25 4.18
Thilan Samaraweera 36 115 3 12.00 1.87
Ian Bell 10 29 3 3.33 2.06
Ramnaresh Sarwan 6 61 2 3.00 0.59

Swann, meanwhile, has superb numbers against left-handers, though Yuvraj Singh played 149 deliveries from him without a single dismissal. A lot of others have dismal stats against him, including Simon Katich, Suresh Raina and Salman Butt. Sangakkara has been dismissed by Swann only once in 126 balls, but he has scored 23 runs in those deliveries, a run rate of 1.09 runs per over.

Among the right-handers, Sarwan has much better stats against Swann than against Ajmal. His stats against Ajmal are quite shocking - 6 runs from 61 balls, two dismissals - but he has tackled Swann more comfortably. Watson and Kallis, though, have equally good numbers against both. Watson has faced 347 balls from both of them, scored 155 runs, and hasn't been dismissed once by either of the two.

Swann against some of the top batsmen in Tests
Batsman Runs Balls Dismissals Average Run rate
Michael Hussey 255 473 3 63.75 3.23
Ramnaresh Sarwan 144 226 2 72.00 3.82
Yuvraj Singh 106 149 0 - 4.26
Jacques Kallis 100 184 1 100.00 3.26
Shane Watson 87 210 0 - 2.48
Simon Katich 75 195 4 18.75 2.30
Kumar Sangakkara 23 126 1 23.00 1.09
Suresh Raina 27 70 4 6.75 2.31
Salman Butt 13 42 4 3.25 1.85

Ajmal has become the seventh Pakistan spinner to take 100 Test wickets, while Swann is the fourth-highest wicket-taker among England's spinners. Ajmal's average is the best among those seven Pakistan spinners, while Swann is the second-highest wicket-taker among England's offspinners, next only to Jim Laker, who has 193. Ajmal's already 34 years old, but he'll most likely play enough Tests to ensure that by the time he's done, he'll be counted among Pakistan's great spinners. Ditto for Swann as well.

Pakistan's top spinners after 19 Tests
Bowler Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Danish Kaneria 77 29.29 62.2 5/ 1
Abdul Qadir 65 33.78 76.9 3/ 1
Saqlain Mushtaq 85 29.54 65.1 8/ 2
Mushtaq Ahmed 53 34.01 70.6 1/ 0
Iqbal Qasim 43 37.81 103.6 1/ 1
Intikhab Alam 30 49.03 115.1 0/ 0

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