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Dissecting Pollock, and Sri Lanka's home advantage

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it. Every Friday, The Numbers Game will take a look at statistics from the present and the past, busting myths and revealing hidden truths:

The metronome
For a while now, critics have been harping on about the gradual decline of Shaun Pollock the fast bowler: he no longer has the pace to be at his penetrative best, while his ability to seam the ball makes him a force only in helpful conditions, they reckon. Well, Pollock may not be at the top of his bowling prowess, but he's far from a spent force, as he proved quite emphatically in the first innings against Sri Lanka at Galle. On a pitch which offered him little by way of pace, bounce or seam movement, Pollock still consistently pitched it perfectly in the corridor, and asked plenty of questions of the Sri Lankan batsmen. The result: a richly deserved haul of 4 for 48 from 23 nagging overs.

His pace of around 125kmph will hardly scare batsmen - to put that in perspective, he is marginally quicker than Sanjay Bangar - but shun the speed and check the stats: 343 Test wickets in 84 matches (includes the first innings of the Galle Test) at 21.35, with a wicket every 55 deliveries. Admittedly, the numbers have taken a slight beating of late - in his last two series, against West Indies and New Zealand - he has averaged nearly 30 per wicket, making his overall numbers creep past 21, but Pollock's stats still make for awesome reading: among fast bowlers with more than 150 Test scalps, only five have a better average.

It's easy to suggest that most of wickets came on the seamer-friendly tracks of South Africa, but, if anything, his performances in the subcontinent are even better - 49 wickets in 13 Tests at an incredible 18.57. Remove the seven cheap wickets he took on the tour to Bangladesh, and the numbers are still highly impressive - 42 wickets at 19.86. The table below lists the best overseas fast bowlers in the subcontinent (minimum qualification: 30 wickets).

Talk about Pollock, and immediately comparisons are drawn up with Glenn McGrath, another who swears by metronomic accuracy, and, like Pollock, is striving to extend his use-by date. The numbers for both bowlers are remarkably similar - both have a high number of right-handed victims, and are especially adept at dismissing batsmen before they settle in.

So is there any chink in the Pollock armour that the opposition would do well to be aware of? Apparently there is - unlike McGrath, Pollock doesn't enjoy bowling to left-handers. And, if the numbers are anything to go by, it isn't only a slight dislike - he absolutely abhors bowling to them. In all Tests since September 2001, only 22 of his 108 wickets have been left-handers, and they have come at the exorbitant cost of more than 42 apiece. Compare that to a measly average of 17 against right-handers, and what comes out is a startlingly skewed picture. (The corresponding averages for McGrath are: 21.17 against left-handers, and 22.76 against right.) Only three openers average more than 50 against him during this period, and they answer to the names of Taufeeq Umar (72), Matthew Hayden (68) and Chris Gayle (64). If fact, five of the top six names are left-handers. (Marcus Trescothick and Mark Richardson complete the list.) Enough reason for India to play Yuvraj Singh at the top of the order when South Africa tour India later this year?

Spin's the key
Sri Lanka's domination in the recently concluded Asia Cup may have gone against the form books - most pundits were predicting a comprehensive Indian win - but one only needs to look at their past record to see that Sri Lanka at home are anything but pushovers. In the 44 one-day internationals they have played at home since 2000, Sri Lanka have won 33 and lost just nine - three of them in one series against Australia earlier this year - for a stunning success rate of 75%. (Two games were washed out.) During the same period, their overseas stats are rather more modest: 45 wins and 39 losses, which translates into a 52.9% win record.

A combination of slow, grassless tracks, and a plethora of spin options - part-time, full-time, offspinners, left-armers, wristspinners - have generally been enough to asphyxiate the most potent batting line-ups, as the Indians twice found at the Premadasa Stadium. The table below lists exactly how Sri Lanka's army of slow bowlers have been such fearsome weapons at home (all figures since September 2001).

Muttiah Muralitharan is a known threat, but, as in the Asia Cup final, when Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Chandana and even Tillakaratne Dilshan choked the runs, the lesser bowlers have often thrived just as much as Murali. On an average, spinners bowl 28 overs in a home ODI and concede just 3.9 per over - that's a total of 109 runs when the spinners are in operation. With Chaminda Vaas around to handle ten of the remaining 22 overs, it's hardly surprising that teams seldom manage to put up substantial totals when playing against the Sri Lankans.

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.