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Feature

How good a year was 2018 for bowlers?

An analysis of the standout statistical trend from Test cricket in the year gone by

Kartikeya Date
09-Jan-2019
Batsman's game? Not in 2018 in Test cricket, it wasn't  •  Getty Images

Batsman's game? Not in 2018 in Test cricket, it wasn't  •  Getty Images

Of the 48 Tests played in 2018, 43 produced an outright result - more than in any other year. Of these, nine were decided by a margin of an innings. Nine were decided by less than 100 runs. Thirty-three of the 43 results were wins for the team batting first. Only six wins came in successful fourth-innings chases, while 28 such chases were lost. A century was scored about once every 28 innings. A Test wicket cost 27.37 runs each in 2018.
None of these numbers are normal in the modern era. Test cricket in 2018 provided fewer draws, fewer centuries and cheaper wickets than it has done in a long while. The last time bowlers had it anywhere close to this good in the format was in the year 2000.
I have previously argued in these pages that one significant difference between Test cricket in the 1950s and '60s and today's game is the absence now of bowlers with impressive averages but modest strike rates. These bowlers were difficult to score off, and consequently took their wickets cheaply, but they did not have the explosive capacity of, say, Dale Steyn. Brian Statham, Alan Davidson, Keith Miller and Neil Adcock exemplify this type of bowling. All four averaged in the early twenties but took more than 60 balls for each wicket. Scoring rates have improved in the 21st century. Many bowlers now concede somewhere between three and three and a half runs per over, and take each wicket in just under nine overs (giving them a bowling average of about 30).
Test cricket settled into a pattern over the past 15 years in which a wicket cost about 30-35 runs each, and it took about 100-110 overs to take ten wickets on average.
The scoring rate in Test cricket was just below three runs per over in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 21st century, it increased to just above three runs per over. The frequency of wickets went up from about one every 70 balls to one every 60. In 2018, all this changed. Not since 1981 has the average wicket come as cheaply as it did in 2018. And to find another year in which wickets came as frequently as they did in 2018, one would have to go back to the era before the advent of radio commentary.
As a consequence of this bowling record, there were fewer runs scored per Test in 2018 than at any time since the late 1990s. The 35 wickets taken per match in 2018 was the highest in any year since World War I, the most in any of the 83 years in Test history in which at least seven Tests were played. While a similar number of runs were scored per Test match in the 1990s as in 2018, only two-thirds of those 1990s Tests ended in a result. Drainage facilities are better all over the world today than they were back then. The use of lights has become commonplace. There are fewer (and shorter) interruptions today.
The consequences of the improved bowling numbers can be seen in the batting figures as well. Opening batsmen suffered in 2018 in comparison to other recent years: it was the worst for year for openers in recent memory; only 2000 comes close. Middle-order batsmen did not have it quite so bad, but even they struggled in comparison to the run gluts in other years of the 21st century. This is evident not only from the batting averages for 2018 in comparison to recent years but also from the reduced conversion rate of fifties to hundreds. In the first 17 years of the 21st century, 31% of fifties were converted into hundreds. In 2018, this dropped to 24%.
The record suggests that the year most similar to 2018 in modern Test history was 2000. That year, with the notable exception of Muttiah Muralitharan, the top wicket-takers were all new-ball bowlers - Courtney Walsh, Darren Gough, Shaun Pollock, Andy Caddick, Curtly Ambrose, Brett Lee, Waqar Younis and Shayne O'Connor. Allan Donald played only five Tests that year, but in those he took 24 wickets at 17.16 apiece. Wasim Akram took 26 wickets at 24.19 apiece. That was the last year where the great bowlers of the 1990s still dictated the course of Test matches. Walsh was 38, Ambrose 37, Akram and Donald 34. West Indian fast bowling declined after Ambrose and Walsh retired. Pakistan have not had a new-ball attack as settled as Wasim and Waqar since they left the scene. Until Steyn came along, South Africa struggled to find a settled new-ball pair too.
One would have to go back over 60 years to find a year in which new-ball bowlers improved on their 2018 record of a wicket every 24.31 runs. In 1956, opening bowlers took a wicket every 23.3 runs and every 71 balls. In 2018, opening bowlers have taken a wicket every 50 balls. This is a rate unmatched in Test history.
As great as the opening bowlers have been, the distinctive feature of 2018 is revealed in the figures for the first- and second-change bowlers. It is generally easier to score off the first- and second-change bowlers because they're not as good as the opening bowlers. Bowling averages and strike rates usually drop off for change bowlers compared to new-ball bowlers.
The drop-off in strike rate is especially important because while the average is a measure of the cost of a wicket, the strike rate measures the likelihood of a wicket. Given that every batting side has only ten wickets to play with, a worse strike rate means that wickets are less likely. This in turn increases the number of possible opportunities for scoring runs. The idea of the "sheet anchor" on the batting side is similar - staying at the wicket prolongs an innings and increases the likelihood of more runs being scored.
The period from 1974 to 2000 could be considered the golden era of the modern fast bowler. It runs from Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose and Wasim Akram. During this period, the average drop-off in strike rate between the opening bowlers and the first- and second-change bowlers was 15.7 balls per dismissal. In the last five years of Test cricket, this has reduced to 6.4 balls per dismissal.
The 2018 Test stats of bowlers were made possible by the bowling depth of their teams, aided by helpful bowling conditions. For instance, the seam movement on offer in England in 2018 was greater than at any time in the last decade. Fast bowlers had a great year, as did spinners. But the numbers also suggest that there are a lot of terrific fast bowlers and spinners bowling in Test cricket right now.
Yasir Shah became the fastest to 200 Test wickets in 2018. No bowler in Test history has more than R Ashwin's 342 Test wickets after 65 Tests. Nathan Lyon has become one of Australia's greatest ever wicket-takers and is surely their greatest ever offspin bowler. Rangana Herath retired in 2018 as an all-time great spin bowler. In Keshav Maharaj, South Africa have arguably their best spinner since they returned to Test cricket in 1992.
There are more outstanding fast bowlers playing in Test cricket right now than there have been in any given year in Test history. In previous eras, in any given year there were at most three teams that could boast of a top pace attack. In 2018 there have been six. Currently India, Pakistan, New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia can all field at least three fast bowlers who can be considered serious wicket-taking threats. West Indies used to feature in this list, but even for them, Shannon Gabriel is one of their finest since Ambrose and Walsh retired, and Kemar Roach and Jason Holder provide able support.
Below is the list of all fast bowlers who took at least 20 Test wickets in 2018. Consider the bowlers who haven't made this list - the likes of Mohammad Amir, Kemar Roach, Lungi Ngidi, Neil Wagner and Chris Woakes - and you get a sense of the depth of fast-bowling resources in contemporary Test cricket. The table of spinners is similarly impressive.
Test cricket lost Morkel and Herath to retirement in 2018. But even so, bowling stocks are arguably deeper than they have ever been. We could be in for a great era of Test cricket if conditions remain similarly sporting in the coming years. India played two Tests in 2018 where the wickets were arguably excessively bowler friendly. Play had to be stopped in Johannesburg because the pitch was considered too dangerous, and the Lord's Test began in conditions that made batting a lottery. But even so, it's far better for the authorities to err in favour of the bowlers than of the batsmen.
It would be a shame if the unprecedented bowling depth revealed in 2018 went to waste in a sea of flat pitches. Perhaps this is what prompted Sachin Tendulkar's unusual (for him) comment defending the Perth wicket.
Test cricket is a bowler's game; 2018 was the year of the bowling team. The coming years promise to be similar because there are more teams with better bowling attacks than ever before. We are in for a new golden age of bowling.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View. @cricketingview