Stats current to before the start of the Hyderabad Test
India beat England 4-0 in their recent Anthony D'Mello Trophy series in India. Normally such a scoreline would suggest Indian dominance with bat and ball. In Test cricket this usually means three high-quality bowlers and four or five high-quality batsmen. Duncan Fletcher's theory of a successful team involved a minimum of eight regulars who were successful and picked themselves. While Mohammed Shami (ten wickets at 25 apiece) was fit and available, it could be said that India had three outstanding specialist bowlers. But take the series as a whole and you find that R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja took 54 wickets between them at 28 runs apiece, while the other Indian bowlers combined for 36 wickets at 38 apiece. Amit Mishra's five wickets cost 55 runs each. It didn't help that Mishra played on the two most batsman-friendly wickets of the series, in Rajkot and Chennai.
Famous teams are marked by famous bowling trios and even quartets. But these are well known precisely because they are so rare. It is hard enough to find one Test-quality bowler for a given set of conditions, let alone three. For the most part, Test success is built on the backs of a pair of reliable, experienced bowlers. It is difficult to isolate such pairs. Even if we consider iconic combinations like McGrath and Warne, or Ambrose and Walsh, they tended to have above-average support bowling.
I identified all pairs of bowlers, bowling in home Tests, that satisfy the following two conditions. First, the pair should have played together in at least ten home Tests. Second, together they should have bowled the majority of their team's overs in all these Tests taken together. These conditions help to isolate pairs of bowlers who not only dominated the bowling for their team, but did so for a prolonged period in home conditions. A side with three strong bowlers would not have two out of the three dominating both the bowling and the wicket share for a prolonged period of time. A pair of bowlers who were not good at what they did would not survive as the main bowling pair of a Test team for a prolonged period of time.
There are 25 pairs of bowlers in Test history who qualify under the conditions set forth above. They are listed in the table below. The table also gives the number of balls they bowled per match, their combined average and strike rate in those Tests, match results, and the number of wickets they took in the match as a pair.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list is not a long one. If the minimum match requirement is reduced to five home Tests, the list grows from 25 to 44 pairs. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by spin bowlers, since spinners tend to bowl more overs than the fast men. Twenty-two out of the 25 pairs include at least one spinner. The most prolific spinner of them all, Muttiah Muralitharan, appears on the list four times.
The Indian spin quartet's appearances are notable. India did systematically worse when S Venkataraghavan and one of the other three spinners combined to bowl the majority of India's overs than they did when any combination of the other three bowled together. Venkat and Erapalli Prasanna do not feature in this list as a pair. Was the quartet really a quartet?
Abdul Qadir appears on this list as a part of three pairs. Iqbal Qasim was Qadir's most frequent spin-bowling partner. Imran Khan and Qadir do not appear as a pair. This is probably because Qadir bowled only about 25% of Pakistan's overs in Pakistan (the bowling share for a spinner is more commonly closer to 30% than 25%), while Imran bowled only about 21% of Pakistan's overs in Pakistan. Even though they played 22 Tests together in Pakistan, they accounted for 45% of Pakistan's overs in those matches and took 49.7% of Pakistan's wickets.
If we change the conditions for isolating pairs to consider the ones that took the majority of their team's wickets over 15 home Tests, the many great fast-bowling combinations in Test history make their appearance. The minimum here is increased to 15 Tests, as there are numerous pairs who have achieved this over ten. Further, if one considers strong attacks, then this high bar helps isolate the truly dominant performers in those attacks. For example, among the great West Indian speed quartets of the '70s and '80s, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Michael Holding feature on this list. West Indies never lost a Test at home when Marshall and Garner, or Marshall and Holding took the majority of the opposition wickets.
A number of pairs appear on both lists. These are pairs that bowled the majority of their team's overs and took the majority of their team's wickets, and played together in home Tests on at least 15 occasions. The standout pair from this select group is the Indian pair of Ashwin and Jadeja. This may come as a surprise to readers, but Jadeja now remarkably has 111 wickets in his 25 Tests. More importantly, his economy rate of 2.27 is the best among all bowlers in the 21st century who have at least 50 Test wickets. In India, Jadeja has taken 90 wickets in 17 Tests with an even better economy rate of 2.13. He bowls a maiden once every 3.7 overs. Jadeja is a captain's dream. He is nearly unhittable in India. At the other end, Ashwin has a significantly greater arsenal of variations and tricks, and can afford to experiment far more than he might have done without the miserly Jadeja as his partner.
India have won 14 out of the 17 Tests that Jadeja and Ashwin have played together at home. In these Tests, these two have accounted for just over 12 wickets per Test. Compare that with the returns of Marshall and Garner, or Ian Botham and Bob Willis, or any of the other celebrated fast-bowling pairs at home. The fast men take their wickets about an over quicker than Jadeja and Ashwin do, but they account for fewer than ten wickets per match as a pair. Over 17 Tests, the Indian duo have faced nearly all major contemporary Test opposition. By way of comparison, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh bowled more per Test than Ashwin and Jadeja, and managed 10.5 wickets per Test as a pair in India.
It is a truism in Test cricket that bowlers hunt in pairs. As with most things, this is probably out of necessity. One great bowler surrounded by modest colleagues is not sufficient to challenge most Test-quality opposition. Three top-quality bowlers are hard to find all at once. A pair is a nice compromise. A pair can also ensure that at least when the two are bowling together, the opposition batting faces a difficult examination.
If visiting teams are to do well in India in the near future, they will not only have to learn to read Ashwin's many variations and resist the temptation of being dragged off balance by his mesmerising drift, they will also have to find a way to score runs against Jadeja. For it is at Jadeja's end that India's dominance at home begins.
This article demonstrates an approach to studying pairs of bowlers in home Tests. It can be easily applied to other combinations of specialisations (middle-order batsmen, openers, lower-middle orders, spinners, fast men) as well. It tells a story that the more commonly studied statistical accounts of individual players does not allow us to see.
Stats current to before the start of the Hyderabad Test