Which is the unluckiest team in sport?
In the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the 112th edition of the Major League Baseball’s championship series. Until then, the Chicago Cubs, incredibly, had not won this championship for a record 108 years. The 2016 appearance in the World Series was their eleventh; they had lost their last 8 summit series in over a century. “Lovable losers”, they were called; always a bridesmaid, never the bride—in other words.
The same undesirable epithet could be applied to the Netherlands national football team. Thrice they made it to the finals, but to this day, they have never lifted the men’s World cup. In club football, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen (dubbed “Neverkusen”) certainly made a good case for themselves around the turn of the millennium with four second place finishes from 1997 to 2002. Particularly, in 2002, the team lost in the finals of the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Champions League, and surrendered a five point lead atop the league table in the last 3 matches. Spare a thought for Leverkusen’s star midfielder Michael Ballack who would get another loser’s medal—his German teammates would lose the World Cup final as well (he missed the final due to suspension).
In ODI cricket, this dubious distinction belongs to England. Thrice they made the ODI World Cup final, only to lose it all the three times. To date, England have not won the prized 50 over trophy (it won the World T20 in 2010). I the first loss they were never in the hunt against a champion West Indies team. The other two losses must have certainly rankled; they were the best chasing team between 1987 and 1992 (South Africa had only played a few matches) and yet managed to lose both these chases. The first one could be attributed to Mike Gatting’s infamous reverse sweep, but what happened against Pakistan? What did the numbers have to say, in the manner of the best players and teams with the ball in the first innings of the ODI?
As investigated in the previous articles of this nature, ODIs can be split into 9 convenient eras—each containing at least 250 matches and one major ICC tournament—with the last one ending by 2016. Over the course of these nine eras, different factors and rulings have provided a shot in the arm for different protagonists of a cricket team. The blazing away in the powerplay was first demonstrated by Martin Crowe and team, in rather thrilling fashion, in the 1992 World Cup. The exploitation milking of the bowlers in the middle to end overs was taken to an extreme in recent times with A B deVilliers as the headline act (stroking a 44 ball 149 in the 2015 World Cup), prompting the ICC to change the powerplay regulations once again. The previous throw of the powerplay dice—along with two new balls and flat pitches—have now given a shot in the arm to the wrist spinners. Hence, a detailed appraisal of the data is necessary to understand the evolution of bowling second in the ODI game through the course of its history.
As explained in the previous article, bowling differs from batting in many aspects. For starters, specialist batsmen are not usually called in to bowl, and a bowler can be called into bowl at any time in the innings provided he/she has overs left in their quota; wickets are also relatively finite compared to runs. Based on the comparision of frequency distribution of wicket hauls and run-scoring patterns, a four wicket haul could perhaps be compared to the bowler’s equivalent of hundred runs and a three wicket haul being the analogue of an individual score of fifty.
In a one-day international (and T20 as well), matches can be won by either run containment or bowling out the opposition. As an aside, one could mischievously suggest bean counters playing a part in the case of rain-affected games, but we’re only talking about the on-field factors. Therefore, the ability to take wickets and/or the ability to prevent the opposition from scoring runs are of paramount importance in the limited formats of the game. Of particular interest are the economy rate (runs per six balls), big haul percentage (% of innings with more than 3 wicket hauls) and bumper haul percentage (% of innings with 4 or more wicket hauls). Since information from ball-by-ball outcomes is not available for all ODIs, the analysis will be limited to information which can be gleaned from scorecards. Like last time, we will proceed to examine the trends in these factors before moving on to take a look at bowlers who were proficient in the second innings of the ODI.
The strategy to bowl in an ODI varies between the first innings to the second. In the former, the focus is on limiting the opponent to the lowest score possible whereas the second one has a specific target score in mind (getting them all out is common to both). The variation of the economy rate showcases the evolution of the ODI in general; the opening bowlers were played with utmost caution in the first two eras. The economy rate of the opening strike bowlers has seen a steady upward trend ever since 1993; in recent times, their economy rates have been worse off compared to the later regular bowlers. The specialist spinner (or more accurately, the no. 5 bowler) suffered in the earlier days of the ODI; today, their ER is in line with the opening bowlers. The part time bowlers have predictably suffered a lot more than their regular counterparts, especially in the previous era.
The propensity to rack up a haul of 3 or more wickets has been relatively in the same ballpark for regular bowlers through the course of history of the ODI second innings. The opening, no.3 and no.5 bowlers have traded positions with each other during the various eras, with the recent eras being the most favourable to the opening bowlers. Oddly, the sixth era (02-04) saw the no. 7 bowler being as effective as the regular bowlers. While this may have been a statistical quirk, it might also be due to the targetting of the part-time bowlers by the opposition batsmen (and getting out).
Examining the trend of picking up four or more wickets shows a variance across the bowling order. The opening bowling slots were not the best place to pick up a bumper haul in the old days of the ODI; the number 3 bowler was the most successful in the first few eras. Probably, the batsmen had a habit of seeing off the new ball bowlers and then taking the first change bowler head on. In the last two eras, the rate of taking bumper hauls is indistinguishable between the first three bowlers in the bowling order. Here too, the part time bowler (no. 6) was as productive as the others during one era.
The overall metamorphosis of ODI bowling in the second innings can be captured by the metric of Bowling Index (BoI). For the uninitiated reader, it is the product of the bowling average and the economy rate divided by 6. For a bowler, both of these are highly valued (lesser the value, the better). Since the BoI is a multiplication product, a low value would indicate a low value of its constituent factors. This metric has been used at ESPNcricinfo, and by other analysts as well.
Eyeballing the values of BoI during the different time periods of ODI history, it can be seen that the game has changed significantly from the initial days. The opening position has largely been the best place to bowl throughout ODI history; nowadays, with two new balls, the opening bowlers have posted better figures compared to the previous era. The spin bowlers (Nos.4 and 5) have typically struggled amongst the regular bowlers and the first change bowler has BoI values somewhere in between. The part-timers have been mainly cannon fodder except for around the turn of the millennium when they boasted very good BoI values. Once again, it must be reiterated that the bowling position information is not as reliable as the batting position; but in the absence of ball by ball data across all ODIs, this is the best available measure.
One of the easiest ways to understand the differences between bowling in the first innings and bowling in the second innings would be to compare the BoIs between the two. The above table shows the variation of the BoI (second innings) with respect to the BoI (first innings). For the benefit of easier reader visualization, the positive and negative values have been coloured in green and red respectively. For example, BoI (second innings) was ~20% higher than BoI (first innings) for opening bowlers in the first ODI era. Since a higher BoI implies an inferior product of bowling average and economy rate, a positive difference (green) indicates that it was easier to bowl in the first innings. However, across the board, it can be seen that it has been generally easier to bowl in the second innings compared to the first (due to the overwhelming number of red/negative values).
Like the previous articles, the overall BoI (across bowling positions 1 to 7) will be used as a baseline for each era. This may no doubt cause some under-representation of bowlers who bowled later on (especially spinners), but this is a good first-cut method in itself. In order to make the selection process more robust, a healthy wicket cutoff has to be applied keeping in mind the typical number of ODIs played by bowlers in each time period. A cutoff is necessary to weed out statistical quirks (eg. Sunil Gavaskar had an ODI bowling average of 25), but at the same time it should not be unusually high to limit the playing field and eliminate a deserving bowler. As the ODI format gained popularity only in the 1980s, lower cutoffs should be imposed on bowlers from the first two eras. Therefore, the cutoff for the first two eras has been kept at 20 wickets, and for the subsequent time periods, it has been raised to 25 wickets. Now that the cutoffs and baselines are in place, we can proceed to take a look at the champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODIs across ODI history.
In the first three time periods, the West Indian bowlers dominated the second innings ODI bowling charts. Apart from the usual suspects of Garner, Holding, Roberts and Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Winston Benjamin also came to the fore. Other legends such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee also feature in this lists, which shows the similarity of test match bowling and opening bowling in ODIs back in the day. Barring Abdul Qadir, spinners largely had a tough time during the early eras.
In the post-“opener enlightenment” period of the ODI, fast bowlers from Pakistan, Australia and South Africa excelled in the middle 3 eras. All-time great ODI bowlers such as McGrath, Pollock, Donald, Akram, Murali, Warne, Waqar and co. made their presence felt with their deeds on the field. Many spin bowlers featured frequently in the tables signifying a revival of spin bowling. More importantly, Muralitharan topped the BoI ratio charts in two successive eras with BoI ratio values in excess of 2.5 which is all the more significant considering that he was a spinner.
The highest BoI (second innings) ratio was achieved by Sri Lankan mystery spinner Ajanta Mendis in the seventh era, but he hasn’t been able to replicate his form ever since. The last three eras have also seen the emergence of several ODI specialists such as Kyle Mills, Sunil Narine, Jacob Oram and others. Several players from the “minnows” have also made it to the list. The last statement is not intended as faint praise—it is commendable that they still managed to dominate their counterparts with the limited opportunities afforded to them. Several spinners (many of the “mystery” variety) have also done well recently.
Barring the freakish BoI ratio values of Muralitharan and Mendis, the rest of the top bowlers of each era had BoI values less than 2.5. Additionally, the distribution of BoI ratios has been different across time as well. Some eras have been dominated by bowlers, whereas, in some others they have struggled to scale BoI heights. Therefore, a BoI ratio cutoff of 1.40 (like the batsmen) can be used to separate the bowling champions from the “merely good”. The choice of 1.40 is quite deliberate as only handful of bowlers have breached this level in each era. The 1.40 level represents a 40% better performance (in terms of BoI ratio) with respect to the average bowler (bowling positions 1-7) of the particular era. What about the longevity of these bowling champions?
Very few bowlers have been able to consistently outperform the field in the second innings of the ODI for a long period; almost every bowler in the above table can be considered to be an all-time great. The degree of longevity and excellence of these bowlers can be captured by counting the number of multiple appearances at a particular BoI ratio level. In the above tables, the bowler’s name and his nth appearance (in brackets) at 1.75 and 1.40 BoI levels have been documented.
For instance, Richard Hadlee made his second appearance in the 1.75 level in era 2 (bowling second). Apart from Hadlee, only Holding, Akram, McGrath and Muralitharan have been able to scale such heights (>1.75) in more than one era. The 1.40 level has been breached by several other fantastic bowlers—Pollock, McGrath and the rest. Several other bowlers such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Brett Lee, Ntini, Vettori, Shakib and others narrowly missed making the cut narrowly. Compared to the batsmen, it has been a lot tougher for bowlers to perform at high BoI levels for multiple levels; no doubt, they are less favoured by the ODI format compared to the batsmen.
Now to the teams which had these bowlers. At any point of time, did a team have a battery of these match-winning bowlers in the second innings of the ODI?
Taking all eras into account, between five to thirteen bowlers were able to clock a BoI ratio of more than 1.40, showing the exclusivity of the benchmark. Barring two eras, one single team had the highest stockpile of champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODI. Overall, teams from Pakistan, South Africa, Australia and West Indies were blessed with bowling personnel who outperformed their peers in more than one era. The champion second innings bowler is probably Wasim Akram who spent four ODI eras in the BoI ratio>1.40 bracket (2 of them >1.75). Quite simply, there wasn’t another ODI bowler who dominated the second innings for as long as Akram did—which brings us to the 1992 World cup final.
The 1992 World cup final was contested between arguably the best ODI side of the time (definitely the best chasing side) and a resurgent Pakistan. Pakistan had barely scraped through the group stages courtesy of a rained out match against the very same England side after being all out for 74 (which would have knocked them out). Nearly at the brink and facing elimination, the Pakistan team rallied around a mythical Imran Khan speech, where the team embraced the spirit of a “cornered tiger”. After beating the fancied New Zealand twice, the team booked a spot in the final.
In the final against England in front of a record crowd at the MCG, the Pakistan team posted 249/6 in the first innings thanks to late flourishes from Inzamam and Akram. Akram would then star with the ball as well; after prising out Ian Botham out early, he would be called into service again in the 35th over. After being at a perilious 69/4, England’s two champion chasers—Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother—would add 72 runs in 14 overs, setting up the match for a thrilling finish. Who would give way? The unstoppable force or the immovable objects?
What happened next is part of cricketing folklore. The force was certainly with Wasim Akram. Bowling around the wicket with the old ball under lights, Wasim Akram would conjure two unplayable deliveries, courtesy some hostile reverse swing at extreme pace. The first one would swing in and straighten just a touch to beat Allan Lamb’s stroke. The second one was even more emphatic—poor Chris Lewis has no chance when he brought his bat down to a vicious inswinger which snaked its way to the stumps. The sullen, yellow duck television graphic accompanying Lewis’ walk back to the pavilion signalled how the situation had changed; the chase has been snuffed out in a matter of two deliveries. Wasim Akram running across the pitch with his forearms raised in celebration is one of the indelible images of the World Cup history. A champion bowler had stopped chase-masters England in their tracks, and consigned them to the bridesmaid spot for the third time in five world cups.
Disclaimer: Some images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.