Numbers Game May 9, 2014

English challenge for Sri Lanka's seamers

England is generally a pretty good venue for seam and swing bowling, but Sri Lanka's pace attack has always struggled there

Quiz question: What feat has Rumesh Ratnayake achieved in a Test in England that no other Sri Lankan player has? Answer: He is the only fast bowler from the country to take a five-for in a Test in England; he took 5 for 69 in 1991. In ten Tests since then, the only four-wicket haul by a Sri Lankan seamer in England is 4 for 122, by Chanaka Welegedara, in 2011.

Sri Lanka have generally struggled to make an impact in England, winning only one of the last nine Tests there, and to do better this time, they'll need far better numbers from their seam attack. The conditions in England generally tend to favour seam and swing, but that hasn't always worked in favour of teams from the subcontinent, especially India and Sri Lanka. Both teams have, on several tours in the past, found wicket-taking quite difficult for their pace attack. Sri Lanka have had the advantage of touring there early in the summer for their last three Test series, and are doing so again this time - that's when pitches are fresher, and conditions generally better for seam and swing. Despite that, Sri Lanka's quick bowlers have made minimal impact in England the recent past.

In the last few series, though, Sri Lanka have also unearthed a couple of bowlers who they'll feel should be more potent with the new ball in seaming conditions. One of them is Shaminda Eranga, who has been consistently impressive - when he hasn't been injured - in his short international career so far. Eranga took a wicket with his second ball in one-day internationals, and his first ball in Tests, and has quickly racked up 38 wickets in 11 Tests at an impressive average of 31.60. Earlier this year he had a superb series against Pakistan in the UAE, taking 12 wickets at 28.75.

The other bowler who did well in that series against Pakistan was Suranga Lakmal, who also took 12 wickets, at 33.75. Unlike Eranga, Lakmal had a terrible start to his Test career, taking only 20 wickets in his first 14 Tests at an average of 65.75, but he has managed almost as many wickets in his last five Tests - 19 at 32.10. Throughout the three Tests against Pakistan, both Eranga and Lakmal were outstanding with their consistency in line and length, and they'll have to replicate that in conditions which should be more conducive for seam and swing. If they manage that, the returns should be considerably better than what their counterparts had achieved on previous tours to England.

Sri Lanka's pace attack in each Test series in England
Year Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
2011 3 21 57.19 85.3 0/ 0
2006 3 10 74.90 133.0 0/ 0
2002 3 23 58.43 97.1 0/ 0
1998 1 3 76.00 174.0 0/ 0
1991 1 8 51.25 94.5 1/ 0

In nine Tests in England, Sri Lanka's pace attack has managed 54 wickets at an average of 61 and a strike rate of 99 balls per wicket. At that rate, if they were to take all ten wickets for the team, the opposition would score 610, and the innings would last 165 overs. The average is poorer than all teams who've travelled to England since 2000 except Bangladesh. India haven't done too well either, but their average of 41 is about 33% better than Sri Lanka's. In fact, Sri Lanka are the only team whose seamers haven't taken a five-for in England since 2000.

While Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India have been quite poor with their pace attack in England, Pakistan's quick bowlers have been superb, averaging 30.58 runs per wicket, the best among all teams. That isn't surprising, though, given the number of high-class fast bowlers they regularly produce.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's seamers have found it tougher to take wickets in England than in any other overseas country since 2000. They've done pretty well in New Zealand and the West Indies, but South Africa, Australia and England have been quite a struggle. In South Africa and Australia, though, they've managed the odd good performance which has resulted in five-fors: Chaminda Vaas took 5 for 31 in Darwin in 2004, while Chanaka Welegedara and Dilhara Fernando have taken five in South Africa. However, in England, no Sri Lankan seamer has gone past four wickets in an innings since 2000.

The other aspect that stands out in the second table below is the number of Test matches Sri Lanka have played in some of these countries: they've managed just four in New Zealand and the West Indies, and seven in Australia. That reveals a scheduling problem that might only get worse in the near future.

Overseas pace attacks in Tests in England since 2000
Team Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Pakistan 12 139 30.58 55.3 5/ 0
Australia 22 274 31.40 54.0 14/ 0
Zimbabwe 4 45 31.93 65.8 1/ 0
South Africa 12 168 32.66 60.3 7/ 1
West Indies 18 197 36.04 64.2 6/ 1
New Zealand 8 84 37.48 71.1 3/ 1
India 11 105 41.31 72.3 3/ 0
Sri Lanka 9 54 61.00 99.2 0/ 0
Bangladesh 4 14 85.14 107.1 1/ 0
Sri Lankan seamers in Test series outside Asia since 2000
Country Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
New Zealand 4 38 33.73 62.4 3/ 0
West Indies 4 31 35.16 57.5 2/ 0
South Africa 8 55 47.65 78.4 2/ 0
Australia 7 45 58.64 93.1 1/ 0
England 9 54 61.00 99.2 0/ 0

No Sri Lankan seamer has taken ten Test wickets in England, which, in a nutshell, shows how poor they've been on tours there. Muttiah Muralitharan has 48 in six Tests, which is more than five times the next-highest - Vaas has played as many matches, but has struggled mightily there, collecting just nine wickets at an average of 77.66.

Vaas' underperformance in England - and the extent to which he was ineffective - was a huge surprise, and encapsulates Sri Lanka's seam-bowling struggles there. Vaas had his problems in other overseas venues as well - he took 17 wickets in six Tests in Australia at 41.70, and 11 from five Tests in South Africa at 47.45, but even those weren't as bad as is numbers in England. The best figures he ever managed in England were 2 for 71. There have been other Asian fast bowlers who haven't done well in England, with Kapil Dev being the most notable example - in 13 Tests there he averaged 39.18 - but even that is barely half of Vaas' bowling average in the country.

The current crop of Sri Lankan seamers have a fine opportunity to set these numbers right. England, after their battering at the hands of Mitchell Johnson and Co, will want to cash in on what they'll feel is a fairly friendly seam-bowling attack. It'll be up to Eranga and Co to prove them wrong.

SL seamers in Tests in England
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5 WI
Chaminda Vaas 6 9 77.66 159.4 0
Dilhara Fernando 3 7 56.14 67.5 0
Suranga Lakmal 3 7 51.85 75.7 0
Chanaka Welegedara 2 7 37.42 53.1 0
Nuwan Zoysa 2 6 43.16 77.0 0
Ruchira Perera 1 5 27.60 49.2 0
Rumesh Ratnayake 1 5 32.00 63.6 1

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