When Fred Trueman, the great England fast bowler who played Test cricket from 1952 to 1965, became the first bowler to take 300 Test wickets in 1964, he was asked if he thought anyone could ever break that record. His response was reported to be: “Aye, but whoever does will be bloody tired.” At the time, it must have seemed outlandish that anyone could have got that many wickets, but even Trueman, as good a raconteur as he was a bowler, couldn’t have foreseen the way cricket would evolve and explode into the entity it is today.
R Ashwin has just taken his 300th wicket, quicker than anyone else in history at 54 Tests, and India’s premier spinner looked far from tired when he breached the landmark as India crushed Sri Lanka in yet another match. Taking 300 wickets is merely the next step in a career that still has several lengths to run for Ashwin. His present trajectory means he could even end up challenging Anil Kumble’s mark of 619. If he does go on to do that, perhaps some of the carping that inevitably accompanies the accolades of any major feat will simmer down.
Ashwin has been in the middle of an extended form streak that has been the primary factor in India’s bull run in Test cricket, a run so strong that fans actually complain about being ‘bored’ by the Indian team’s dominance. And yet, caveats creep into any discussion involving the team and particularly for the man who is the world’s best tweaker at present. They can be summarised into a single sentence: “He/they have done it mostly at home.”
Factually, this is true. But an assertion can be a fact without meaning anything. You might as well say Andy Ganteaume, the Caribbean batsman, has a Test average of 112, which is greater than Don Bradman’s 99.94. Yes he does, but without the context of knowing that … played only one match, it is meaningless.
Again, on the surface, Ashwin’s break-up of 216 wickets at home versus 84 away seems mighty skewed. But that break-up is merely a function of how much he has bowled at home versus away. More than two-thirds of the deliveries Ashwin has sent down have been at home. Which means that if more than two-thirds of his wickets have also come at home, it is not outlandish, but expected.
The snapshot below illustrates this.
Ashwin’s wickets break-up
|Wickets||Balls Bowled||% of wickets||% of balls bowled|
This provides simple perspective for the disparity in Ashwin’s record. And if 67.77% of balls bowled at home – where most bowlers in history have done better – has netted him 72% of all his wickets, it’s hardly exceptional. It’s much closer to the norm in fact.
Delving deeper into numbers provides even more clarity to the argument. The good folk at PaajivsPunter had done an exhaustive analysis of Ashwin’s bowling, but this column will look at a narrower spectrum of numbers.
How Ashwin has done in countries away from home does not exist in isolation. It must be looked at with how spinners overall have done in cricketing nations around the world. If it’s true that the subcontinent offers greater scope for the slower bowlers to influence a game, it’s equally true that in Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, it’s the seamers who make the bigger impact. So measuring Ashwin’s ‘away’ stats against his own ‘home’ numbers is faulty logic at best.
Since Ashwin’s debut in November 2011, here is how spinners have fared in the countries Ashwin has bowled in so far (he hasn’t bowled yet in New Zealand, Zimbabwe or the United Arab Emirates).
|Country||Mts||Away spinner wkts||Away spinner avg||Away spinner S/R||Overall spinner wkts||Overall spinner avg||Overall spinner S/R||Avg Difference||S/R Difference|
Australia has been the most unforgiving place for away spinners, and it’s not been a particularly happy hunting ground for home spinners either, as the averages and strike-rates indicate. Home spinners have taken wickets at 16.40 runs better though, and they’ve struck three overs sooner too. South Africa and England expectedly follow on the list. Interestingly, away spinners have had a pretty tough time in India, and the good figures for home spinners are largely down to Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja doing their thing.
But how does Ashwin compare in other countries against other spinners?
|Country||Mts||Ashwin wkts||Ashwin avg||Away spinner avg||Overall spinner avg||Ashwin S/R||Away spinner S/R||Overall spinner S/R|
It’s instructive to look at this table on several parameters. For starters, Ashwin has done better than the average spinner has done in every country except South Africa, where he played a solitary Test and failed to take wicket. It was the thrilling draw in Johannesburg in 2013, where South Africa almost chased down 450-plus but went conservative at the end. Ashwin has spoken earlier of this particular Test being a “turning point” in his career. He was dropped from the playing XI and missed six overseas Tests, but used the time to work on his bowling and emerged more complete.
In Australia too, where he has none-too-flattering stats, half of his matches came on the disastrous 2011-12 whitewash tour where no Indian acquitted himself well. The batsmen didn’t put up enough runs for the bowlers to have any freedom, the bowlers didn’t stop the Australians from running away with the game to reduce pressure on the batsmen. In England, both matches he played in were heavy defeats for India. These three countries – South Africa, Australia and England – are particularly in focus not just because they are obviously the most difficult for spinners to operate in but because India’s long overseas season is going to encompass all three.
How Ashwin does on those three tours will be scrutinised, but it must be so with the correct lens. He’s a better, more confident and more skilful bowler now than he was when India last visited these countries, and there is every chance he will have greater success than before, when he had already done better than par.
But that is for the future. In the here and now, Ashwin has already shown that the speed with which he has got to 300 Test wickets is overwhelmingly outstanding in some countries, better than average in most of the rest.