November 9, 2012

The spin challenge for England's batsmen

In the last 11 years, England's Test batting average against spin in Asia is among the poorest

The 2000-01 season was an outstanding one for England cricket. Under Nasser Hussain, they toured two out of three subcontinental fortresses, and won both battles, beating Pakistan 1-0 and Sri Lanka 2-1 in two three-Test series. For a team whose ability to play and bowl spin bowling had always been questioned, this was resounding success.

In those six Tests, England found several heroes: Graham Thorpe was undoubtedly the leader with the bat, scoring 553 runs - including two hundreds - at an average of 61.44; Michael Atherton contributed consistently, and while Hussain generally struggled, his one major score, 109 in Kandy, led to victory against Sri Lanka. With the ball, Darren Gough and Ashley Giles were the stars, taking 24 wickets each in six Tests at averages of less than 30; Gough was skilful with the old ball, and Giles offered the reliable spin option that every team must have when it visits the subcontinent.

It has been more than 11 years since those triumphs, and England haven't come close to replicating those results in the subcontinent. In eight series against India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Asia since then, the best they've managed are drawn series in India (2005-06) and Sri Lanka (2011-12). On the other hand, they've lost six times, twice each to India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. They've won two series in Bangladesh during this period (in 2003 and 2010), but even the staunchest England supporter will agree that those wins don't count for all that much. Leave out those results, and in 22 Tests in Asia from December 2001, England have a 2-11 win-loss record.

Is the problem with their batting or their bowling or both? The table below lists the averages for both, comparing them with other teams from outside the subcontinent. The England bowlers have a combined average of 36.77 runs per wicket, which isn't outstanding, but only Australia have done better, among teams from outside the subcontinent. However, as a batting unit, three of the five teams listed below have better averages than England's 26.80. The big problem for England has been converting their fifties into hundreds: both Australia and South Africa average more than one century per Test when playing in these countries, but England's average is a poor 0.68 hundreds per Test. Their ratio of hundreds to fifties is almost 1:4, which is much worse than those of Australia and South Africa.

Batting and bowling stats for overseas teams in Ind, Pak, SL and UAE since Dec 2001
Team Tests Bat ave 100s/ 50s Wickets Bowl ave Strike rate
Australia 19 31.73 26/ 40 317 29.95 59.6
South Africa 17 36.55 22/ 44 234 40.47 77.0
England 22 26.80 15/ 56 311 36.77 77.2
New Zealand 12 29.97 12/ 28 141 49.26 91.0
West Indies 16 26.36 9/ 40 198 43.75 80.9

Breaking up the numbers further into batting records against pace and spin, it's clear that England's batsmen have found it tough to survive spin in Asia. The most recent example was against Pakistan in the UAE, when Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman spun rings around the England batsmen, in a series England lost 3-0.

In these last 11 years, South Africa have been the best batting side in Asia, against both pace and spin. Against the slow bowlers they average 35.10 runs per wicket, which is significantly better than England's 25.54.

Teams v spin in Ind, Pak, SL and UAE since Dec 2001
Team Team inngs Wickets Average Run rate
India 109 367 42.01 3.22
Sri Lanka 109 390 40.89 3.10
Pakistan 96 325 36.30 2.91
South Africa 32 168 35.10 2.66
Australia 35 201 31.91 2.93
New Zealand 23 132 29.90 2.56
West Indies 28 148 26.71 2.69
England 44 231 25.54 2.45
Zimbabwe 10 69 15.43 1.85
Bangladesh 20 83 14.86 2.41

A look at the records of England's batsmen against spin in Asia (excluding Bangladesh) shows that most of them have much poorer records there in comparison to their overall numbers. Among the current lot, only Alastair Cook has a 40-plus average against spinners in Asia; in fact, he averages 63.75. He has faced 1327 balls from spinners, and been dismissed just eight times, an average of 166 balls per dismissal. Kevin Pietersen, on the other hand, has been dismissed 16 times in 932 balls, an average of 58 balls per dismissal. Pietersen, though, has looked to take charge against spin, scoring at almost four an over against them, thanks to which his average is a respectable 37.62 (against left-arm spin, though, that drops to 25.50).

Most of the other England batsmen have done much worse than that. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Ian Bell, who averages less than 25, with a dismissal rate of once every 64 balls. His run rate is similar to that of Cook, but he tends to get out far more often to spin, which is surprising, given his organised technique and his ability to play the ball late and with soft hands.

England's lower middle order has been an area of strength for them, but even they have struggled to score runs against spin. Matt Prior has reasonable numbers, but even his average against spin is well below his career average of 42.61. Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, who have often scored vital runs down the order, have struggled to replicate those performances against spin in the subcontinent.

England batsmen v spin in Ind, Pak, SL, UAE since Dec 2001
Batsman Runs Dismissals Average Run rate
Kevin Pietersen 602 16 37.62 3.87
Alastair Cook 510 8 63.75 2.30
Paul Collingwood 484 11 44.00 2.53
Andrew Strauss 452 14 32.28 2.68
Ian Bell 446 19 23.47 2.19
Marcus Trescothick 301 6 50.16 3.64
Matt Prior 292 10 29.20 2.58
Michael Vaughan 247 8 30.87 2.02
Mark Butcher 224 6 37.33 1.74
Jonathan Trott 217 7 31.00 2.21
Graeme Swann 109 9 12.11 3.65
Stuart Broad 69 6 11.50 3.39
Eoin Morgan 63 5 12.60 2.64

Cook has done a fine job in tackling spin in Asia, but South Africa and Australia have had at least two batsmen who have done that job for their team. Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers have absolutely stunning records against spin in Asia, with Amla averaging in excess of 80. For Australia, Ricky Ponting and the two Michaels, Hussey and Clarke, have done the job pretty well. Similarly, Shivnarine Chanderpaul has performed consistently well in Asia, and Chris Gayle has been among the runs too. If England are to end their 11-year drought in Asia, they'll need several things to fall into place. Among the main ones will be to ensure that their batsmen conquer India's spinners, and get enough runs on the board to allow the bowlers to exert some pressure on the home batsmen.

Overseas batsmen with best records v spin in Ind, Pak, SL, UAE since Dec 2001
Batsman Runs Dismissals Average Run rate
Jacques Kallis 1071 17 63.00 2.93
Hashim Amla 757 9 84.11 2.63
Ricky Ponting 691 11 62.81 3.30
Michael Clarke 611 14 43.64 3.10
Shivnarine Chanderpaul 601 12 50.08 2.55
Michael Hussey 579 10 57.90 2.89
AB de Villiers 561 10 56.10 3.58
Alastair Cook 510 8 63.75 2.30
Chris Gayle 418 7 59.71 3.50

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