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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2014, 23:55 GMT

    SL needs someone who can bowl above 140 KPH all the time and a couple of good medium fast (135+) bowlers. I am sure with their batting with Sanga, Mahela, and Angelo and spin of Herath and Mendis etc can compete with any other team in the World. Yes we lack in speeds of Johnson and Steyn.

  • Fergus on May 10, 2014, 20:29 GMT

    Interesting piece. Having seen every tour by Sri Lanka to England, their most impressive seamers have been Rumesh Ratnayake, Asantha de Mel and Vinothan John. Given how long ago they all played just emphasises the point. Never understood what happened to John, he looked a real prospect but just seemed to vanish. Vaas's main problem in England was just a lack of nip, he certainly had the skills but was just a fraction too slow to capitalise on slow early season wickets. Given that Anderson is now heading that way it could be a good contest this year. Certainly think any combination of U Yadav, B Kumar, V Aaron, M Shami should match anything England can put put given that Moores seems determined to stick with 'Flower's Favourites'.

  • Micah on May 10, 2014, 17:37 GMT

    If only Kulesakara was a tad quicker...he'd be one of the best seamers around,,,

    Not that he's far off from the top anyways

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2014, 16:41 GMT

    on a seamers point of view you could argue sri lanka have been given better conditions but what about our batsmen! We will have a torrid time against the likes of Anderson and Broad who bowled well in Australia,whereas India will go at a time where there are batting friendly pitches so there batsmen who are some of the best in the world could cash in..

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2014, 16:09 GMT

    Mathews vs Stokes will be interesting if the latter recovers in time - Mathews is probably better with the bat but Stokes is better with the ball. Both provide good balance to each side (as does any genuine all-rounder), so a performance from them could be the key.

  • Jonathan on May 10, 2014, 12:26 GMT

    Aren't these statistics skewed by the fact that Murali would have bowled virtually unchanged from one end during the last fifteen years (and took the lion's share of wickets)!!

  • Mohamed Afulal on May 10, 2014, 7:52 GMT

    An interesting summation by Rajesh. An ideal presentation for fast bowling coach, head coach and the captain Angelo to sit down and work out a strategy.

    What is not covered here is Srilanka's batting during the same period. If Lankan statisticians can unearth those numbers and formulate strategy to improve batting, then we can counter English seam bowlers and put up decent 1st inning total in excess of 500. This will be an onerous task for Mahela, Sangakkara, Angelo, Prasanna Jayawardena and the duo who open the batting for Srilanka now that Dilshan and Samaraweera retired.

    As Englishmen still smart over the drubbing received at last Ashes series, it would be up to Angelo to gel his team to a winning combination with whoever he gets in the bowling and batting department.

    Last but not least, the fielding, catching and throwing at the stumps are key instruments to success. Let's hope all is well and ends well too.

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2014, 5:13 GMT

    @FawltyBean, we're not talking about Eng away from home, Ashes or UAE, I didn't even say Eng bowlers are world class away from home. I can say SL are pretty comfortable at home, but most of their wins at home are contributed by the spinners, first Murali then Herath.

    Like with all teams. Australia may be just ahead of South Africa but it would be interesting to see how they go in the UAE against Pakistan and with no more Dennis Lillee to coach them because they can't afford him anymore, they could struggle away from home.

  • Dummy4 on May 9, 2014, 20:04 GMT

    Asian teams (except Pakistan) have always struggled with their pace attacks. I was quite surprised to see that Vaas averaged 77 in England, where the conditions were supposed to suit his bowling. I've come across people who consider Vaas a great bowler, but his record in SA, Australia and England suggest otherwise - he was good, but certainly not great. To be honest, I don't see this lot doing anything special in England this time around. I hope they prove me wrong, though.

  • asad on May 9, 2014, 17:18 GMT

    @India_boy: I disagree that the gap between Pak batsmen & Ind/SL batsmen is bigger than the gap between Ind/SL bowlers & Pak bowlers. At this point that claim might be true (only cuz our bowlers are doing bad) but in the past it was not the case. Pakistan had a middle order consisting of Younis (at his peak), Yousuf & Inzi as well as Saeed Anwar as opener. That time our bowling was also quite good with Wasim & Waqar late in their careers but Shoaib Akhtar at his peak. We also had good spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq. Compare this to Indian team of that time with Sehwag & Gambhir as openers, Dravid, Tendulkar, VVS etc.. in middler order with Kumble as a good spinner but not much in terms of fast bowling. At that point both teams had quite a lot of there batting greats and spin greats but in terms of fast bowling Pakistan was ahead. So after the late 2000s to early 2010s is maybe the only time when this claim was true.

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