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Numbers Game

Should Australia be so reliant on spin in India?

Their slow bowlers have struggled in Asia over the last nine years, while their fast bowlers have done much better. They may have missed a trick with their selection

S Rajesh
S Rajesh
17-Feb-2017
Nathan Lyon is congratulated by his team-mates, Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, SSC, 4th day, August 16, 2016

Nathan Lyon has had a rough time in Asia so far: his 42 Test wickets in the continent have cost him 42.57 runs each  •  Associated Press

Going by the squad Australia have named for the tour of India, they expect their spinners to play a huge role in the four Tests. The squad includes five spinners (Nathan Lyon, Steve O'Keefe, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Swepson, and allrounder Glenn Maxwell) and only four seamers (Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, and Mitchell Marsh).
Clearly Australia have gone in with a spin-heavy strategy, but Virat Kohli and Co won't mind that, given Australia's recent history with spinners in India and Asia. In their last five series in India, several spinners have been tried - from Lyon, Jason Krejza, Nathan Hauritz and Xavier Doherty to Maxwell, Cameron White and Michael Clarke.
And, of course, there was Shane Warne, who toured India three times. Despite his overall poor record in India, he was a huge force in the 2004-05 series, taking 14 wickets in three Tests at 30.07.
Apart from Warne in that series, and Clarke's freak 6-for-9 spell in Mumbai, there have been very few impactful performances by Australian spinners in India over the last 15 years. Lyon took seven in Delhi in 2013, but that was in the fourth Test of a series that India had already wrapped up, and India went on to win that game too. Krejza took 12 in Nagpur in 2008, but leaked 215 runs in the process.
As the table below shows, Australia's spinners have generally failed in India on two counts: picking up wickets and keeping the runs in check. In their last ten Tests here, Australian spinners have gone at nearly four runs an over and conceded almost 48 runs per wicket. The fast bowlers haven't done a lot better in terms of averages, conceding 42 per wicket, but an economy rate of 3.1 means they have at least made the Indian batsmen work harder for their runs.
Australia's pace and spin in India, series-wise since 2000
    Pace Spin
Series Tests Wkts Ave SR/ ER Wkts Ave SR/ ER
2012-13 4 22 44.09 87.3/ 3.0 27 41.33 59.4/ 4.2
2010-11 2 23 33.04 62.0/ 3.2 8 60.25 89.2/ 4.1
2008-09 4 37 46.59 90.7/ 3.1 20 51.45 81.7/ 3.8
2004-05 4 43 21.72 53.3/ 2.4 25 23.36 44.9/ 3.1
2000-01 3 33 30.69 66.3/ 2.8 10 50.50 91.3/ 3.3
Australia's pace and spin in India, 2000-2005, and 2008 onwards
    Pace Spin
Period Tests Wkts Ave SR/ ER Wkts Ave SR/ ER
2000-2005 7 76 25.61 58.9/ 2.6 35 31.11 58.2/ 3.2
2008-2013 10 82 42.12 81.7/ 3.1 55 47.76 71.8/ 4.0
Over these last five series, in the Tests that Australia have won or come close to winning, the fast bowlers have usually made the greater impact. Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie were the obvious heroes in 2001 and in 2004, but even in the Mohali Test of 2010, when Australia suffered a narrow one-wicket defeat, Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus took 14 of the 19 Indian wickets. Admittedly the Mohali pitch had a bit in it for the seamers and India's pace duo of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma enjoyed the conditions too, but even so, it is difficult to imagine the Australian spin attack outdoing India's in a battle of spinners.
A look at the recent performances of Australian spinners in Asia gives further cause for pessimism: the Asian spinners have outperformed their Australian counterparts in each of the last six series, and mostly by huge margins. Lyon was outbowled by Rangana Herath last year in Sri Lanka, and even more comprehensively outbowled by Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar in the UAE in 2014. In India, the difference in averages between the Indian and Australian spinners has been more than 15 in each series. The overall wickets tally in these six series puts the numbers in perspective: the home spinners have taken 2.4 times as many wickets as the Australian ones, while conceding almost half as many runs per wicket.
Aus spinners v home spinners* in the last six Test series in Asia
On the other hand, the Australian seamers have done much better, and their numbers compare far more favourably with those of the Asian seamers. A lot of their success has come in the two series in Sri Lanka, but they did have a pretty good series in India in 2010-11, when the Australian spinners averaged more than 60. Also, in Starc and Hazlewood, Australia have two world-class fast bowlers who will back themselves in any conditions.
Aus seamers v home seamers* in the last six Test series in Asia
    Aus seamers Home seamers  
Series Tests Wickets Average Wickets Average Ave diff
Aus in SL, 2016 3 33 21.81 4 36.50 14.69
Aus v Pak (in UAE), 2014-15 2 10 64.60 9 31.88 -32.72
Aus in Ind, 2012-13 4 22 44.09 13 38.76 -5.33
Aus in SL, 2011 3 36 26.69 21 36.71 10.02
Aus in Ind, 2010-11 2 23 33.04 17 29.05 -3.99
Aus in Ind, 2008-09 4 37 46.59 26 33.88 -12.71
Overall 18 161 35.90 90 34.25 -1.65
* Pakistan have been considered as the home team for the series played in the UAE
Given these numbers, the composition of the Australian team raises further questions, especially because most of the Australian spinners have little experience of any international cricket, let alone experience of playing Test cricket in India. O'Keefe has played four Tests in all so far, Agar two, and Swepson none. That puts the onus on Lyon, whose overall numbers are impressive - 228 wickets from 63 Tests at 34.07 - but he hasn't yet solved the Asian mystery: in 11 Tests in the continent, he averages 42.57 for his 42 wickets. An economy rate of 3.67 in these matches indicates he hasn't been able to control the flow of runs either.
Australia haven't helped their cause by bringing along new spinners on almost every tour to India, but the spinners who were given the opportunities didn't make the most of them either. Lyon has been the exception, but his numbers in Asia are fairly ordinary.
Since the start of 2004, teams from outside Asia have won only seven Tests in India. In those seven Tests, the quick bowlers have done the majority of the damage, taking 90 wickets at 19.90. Spinners have contributed 46 wickets, with 27 of them coming in the two Tests that England won in 2012. Given the quality of their two new-ball bowlers, Australia's best bet is probably pace again, especially given that three of the venues for the series will be hosting their maiden Test. By selecting five spinners and only four seamers in their squad (including the allrounders), Australia might have missed a trick even before the first ball has been bowled in the series.
Pace and spin in overseas Tests wins* in India since Jan 2004
Bowler type Tests Wkts Ave Econ SR
 Pace  7  90  19.90  2.84  41.9
 Spin  7  46  28.08  2.69  62.6
* Test wins by non-Asian teams in India

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats