The ODI men who could do it all

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Yuvraj Singh, the pie chucker who came up trumps in the 2011 World Cup. Image source: 1.

“You will matter when it matters the most”

These were the very words which served as Yuvraj Singh’s inspiration during the 2011 World Cup. When the squad was announced a month in advance of the tournament, there were a few surprises in store. For one, Rohit Sharma was not picked in the squad, and a case could be made for the team being one batsman short; two, the bowling seemed a bit lightweight going into the tournament with only one experienced spinner.

The then chairman of selectors, Kris Srikkanth, exuded confidence in this team: “Don’t forget that you are playing in India. The spinners probably play a very major role on the turning wickets. I am confident that the kind of balance we have, the kind of batting line-up we have, this team led by Dhoni will do the job for us”. With the World cup being held in the subcontinent, his panel was confident about the part-time options offered by Sehwag, Raina, Yusuf Pathan and Yuvraj.

In the first match, our man Yuvraj Singh didn’t have much to do. Sehwag’s belligerence had put the match out of Bangladesh’s reach, and after safely pouching Tamim Iqbal, he wheeled in his overs. Over the next four matches, he would stroke 3 fifties and nab seven wickets. The doubts still lingered though—the wickets had come against Ireland and Netherlands. How would he hold up against the bigger tests that lay waiting for him deeper in the tournament?

In the remaining four matches, he would chip in with defining contributions in all four. A hundred against West Indies, anchoring a tight chase against the Aussies, and staying on the inevitable victory lap on what was the biggest stage of them all. That was not all; he would take 2 wickets in each of these matches as well. Four Man of the Match awards in a single World Cup (third after Aravinda de Silva and Lance Klusener). 362 runs @90 and 15 wickets @25. Easily the man of the tournament. What made this even more special was that he had produced these performances with the yet-to-be-discovered devil of germ-cell cancer residing inside him. Somehow, this Indian team had held up thanks to the balance brought by this man.

Not bad for a bowler who was derisively labelled as “pie chucker” and “left-arm filth”, eh?

But speaking about his bowling career as a whole, it is fair to say that Yuvraj Singh wasn’t a thoroughbred all-rounder for India in ODIs. While no one doubts his batting pedigree and claims to a spot in the hypothetical all-time India ODI side, he bowled in only ~50% of his matches, averaging slightly over 5 overs per match—with most of his overs being bowled from a position of 6 and above. These statistics would firmly place him in the category of part-time bowler. His overall bowling average isn’t earth shattering stuff (like the 2011 WC stats) as well.

But over the course of the history of the ODI, who were the cricketers that could regularly chip in in both innings? What are some of the characteristics that we can expect out of a “good” ODI all-rounder? Let’s take a detailed look. For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at players who served as true all-rounders—contributing with both bat and ball—thus bringing a multitude of skills and team balance into the mix.

The ODI is different from the test match format in some ways. For starters, each team bats only once. But another crucial difference is the participation of the lower order in batting. While bowlers are expected to bat in tests, given the fact that the average ODI produces ~7 wickets per innings, the all-rounders usually occur a bit higher in the batting order. Additionally, teams tend to pick bits-and-pieces cricketers (like Chris Harris) in ODIs—as opposed to specialist bowlers and batsmen—due to the fact that ODIs can be won by run containment. Therefore, ODI all-rounders are a grade below their test counterparts (like Sobers, Miller, Imran, Botham etc.)—who can command a specialist place for either skill.

Right, it is time for some cutoffs.  We’ll be largely looking at all-rounders who featured in 100 batting and bowling innings, bowled in at least 80% of the matches, nabbed 100 wickets, and have an batting minus bowling average of -5 (or better). The criteria will also be relaxed slightly to allow a few exceptions who fell short in 1 or 2 criteria. This exercise gives us our first glimpse of the magnificent dozen: Kallis, Klusener, Flintoff, Watson, Angelo, Kapil, Cairns, Shakib, Imran, Razzaq, Greg Chappell and Symmonds. Unfortunately, we had to leave out several other players such as Viv Richards, the Waughs, Cronje, Hooper, Gayle, Jayasuriya, Harris, Botham and others as they fell short on more counts.

The batting

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Real-time variation of batting average with each match

The batting average is often used as a measure of excellence of a batsman. Of the twelve players, five are in the 40s range (Chappell, Kallis, Klusener, Angelo and Watson), followed by Symmonds, Flintoff, Shakib and Imran in the 30s range. Of this lot, only Kapil Dev’s batting average is much lesser than the rest. However, we must also remember that the batting average is dependent on the position at which the batsman batted. Coming in later not only limits the opportunities to bat with more established batsmen, but also robs you of an opportunity to build an innings (and raise his average). Note that these are real-time figures and hence “streakiness” is more common in the early career as the late career deviations are cushioned by the total number of matches. Hence, the real-time data has been shown after 10 data points only (but duly accounted for).

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The average batting position (ABaP) is the average of all the batting positions batted at by the respective player, taking into account all the innings he has batted in. A lower number indicates that the batsman has batted mostly higher up the order. Both the opening positions have been given a value of 2 as they are equally spaced from 3 compared to the number 4 batsman. The above table is in line with the relationship between batting position and average; one can see that as players with the highest averages generally have lower career ABaPs, and Kapil’s lower batting average has to be seen in this context. A note of caution though—though ABaP numbers are generally indicative, since it is an average, it can throw up numbers which may not correspond with a player’s most popular position (we’ll see at least one such example shortly).

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Batting position distribution for different players

The batting position distribution also roughly follows the ABaP values, showing that ABaP is a good first-cut approximation for the batting opportunities provided to the batsman throughout his career. However, we must also note two glaring exceptions—Watson and Klusener. The former batted mostly in the top order, but his few innings in the lower middle order have dragged his ABaP to ~3.5. The latter is a work of art—he has batted all across the order (most frequently at 8); in spite of this, he managed a batting average north of 40. But how did these players move across the batting order over the course of their careers?

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Real-time average batting position variation with each innings

Plotting the real-time variation of the Average batting position is one way to track this movement. And keeping track of this does reveal valuable insight: by and large, players have been steady across the batting order (Flintoff) or have been shifted around a bit (Shakib). Coming to the outliers, Klusener’s real time variation shows a major shuffling around the order before settling in the lower-middle order; Watson, and to a lesser extent Imran, moved higher up the order as their careers progressed.

The bowling

The bowling analogue of the batting average is the bowling average. Like its batting counterpart, it is measured in runs (conceded) per dismissal, albeit with the better players showing lower values. Additionally, the bowling average has information about both the economy rate (runs conceded per over) and the bowling strike rate (balls per wicket). Good bowlers typically have values south of 30.

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Real-time bowling average variation with each match

The career progression of bowling average shows major upheaval in the case of Kallis and Watson—they needed in excess of 50 matches to settle close to their end-career levels. Also, barring Symmonds and Razzaq, the players largely became better bowlers as their careers unfolded. Flintoff, Kapil and Imran had the stand-out bowling averages of this pack. But what about its relationship with the bowling order?

The Average Bowling position (ABoP), like its batting counterpart, gives an indication of the most frequent bowling position of the players. Though, it must be noted that the bowling order is a lot more fluid compared to the batting order as bowlers can bowl the early over but then finish their quota only at the very end of the innings. But due to the absence of overall ball-by-ball data throughout the history of the ODI, this is the best information available.

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Only Imran and Kapil were frontline fast bowling options. Kallis, like his test role, was largely a support seamer. The ABoP also shows the favoured type of all-rounder in ODIs—the cricketers who can do a bit of batting and some medium pace bowling—and the majority belong to this category. Shakib and Symmonds (who sometimes also bowled medium pace) are the spin bowling all-rounders in this otherwise medium pace-heavy contingent.

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Bowling position distribution for each player

The bowling position distribution unearths additional detail to the ABoP data. As explained earlier, all these players bowled in at least 80% of their matches (with Symmonds and Matthews being the least). But Kapil Dev’s frontline status is in a different league—he was the runaway leader of the attack in ~90% of his matches, unlike any other player; perhaps, this explains his lower than expected batting average. The distribution also reveals that there are additional levels to middle over bowlers—Cairns, Flintoff and Razzaq were more preferred earlier than, say, Watson, Klusener or Chappell.

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Real-time bowling position variation with each innings

The real-time ABoP shows much lesser movement when compared to the batting order. Then again, it must be remembered that the desired data which would resolve this is missing. From the above charts, it looks like players largely stuck to their respective roles. Although, it must be noted that the South Africans normally bowled alongside Donald and Pollock (as did Watson with Lee and co.), which might somewhat explain their lowly ABoPs.

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Real-time overs per match for each player

The bowling load shouldered by the players can be gleaned from the overs bowled per match data. Another note of caution here: ODIs, especially from the earlier years, tended to be more than 50 overs long, and players like Imran and Kapil bowled more than 10 overs in many matches. Kapil, Imran, Klusener and Shakib can be classified as full-time bowlers; Kallis and Flintoff took greater bowling responsibilities for some time as their careers progressed; the others mostly hover around 5-6 overs mark, showing that Yuvraj Singh’s 5 OPM is quite reasonable, considering that he bowled in much fewer than 80% of his matches.

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Real-time balls per wicket for each player

Another way to spot the wicket taking bowlers is to plot the bowling strike rate (balls per wicket). Of course, in the ODIs the economy rate is also important but this metric does indicate the players who were the better wicket takers among the lot. Cairns and Flintoff were fantastic wicket takers all through their careers (Razzaq in his first 100 matches as well). Also, the improvement shown by Watson, Chappell and Kallis is remarkable.

Tying it all together

Now for the last bit of analysis to look at their all-round contributions. The net contribution of an all-rounder can be measured in terms of the difference in levels of batting and bowling averages. Keeping in mind the importance of the batting position, it can give an indication of the net contribution to the team.

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Real-time average difference for each player

Kallis, Klusener, Flintoff, Watson and Imran had a very healthy average difference for large parts of their ODI career. But spare a thought for Greg Chappell—he had spectacular numbers until the fall near the end of his ODI career. In the current lot, Shakib and Angelo Matthews have shown world-class numbers in this respect. Also, it must be noted that almost every player’s values fluctuated wildly in the first 50 matches; perhaps it takes ~50 matches for both sets of statistics to stabilize.

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Real-time average ratio for each player

Another, not-so-common way of expressing the same information is to through a ratio of the averages. A ratio yields a dimensionless number, as opposed to the runs/wicket currency of the earlier metric; this latter measure favours the better bowlers due to the bowling average appearing in the denominator. Only Kallis and Klusener come close to the 1.5 mark, although others like Watson, Chappell and Imran have touched it at various points of their career.

The last question left to answer would be the classification of these wonderful multi-skilled men. Is there any easy way to label these players?

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Classification of ODI allrounders

One easy way to visualize this data is to plot the ABaP against the ABoP to reveal the buckets which neatly cluster together in recognizable patterns. Using the data from earlier, we can proceed to label them accordingly. In the above plot, the lower right quadrant has top order batsmen who are useful bowling options; the top right quadrant has late order muscle and middle overs specialists; the top left quadrant contains strike bowlers and lower order batsmen. There are three out-of-place players in this above chart—Razzaq faded away as a wicket-taking force towards the end of his career, Angelo Matthews isn’t as much of a regular bowler nowadays, and Shakib is a regular bowler.

But more incredibly, there is no player in the lower left quadrant—a top order batsman and a strike bowler (someone like Neil Johnson, but who had a much longer career). Perhaps, considering the fact that Shakib is a lead bowler for Bangladesh, and a spinner (and hence comes 2 bowlers later), his real position should be in the empty quadrant with an effective bowling position of ~2, which shows his overall stature in the game today. Additionally, he’s easily the game’s best ever spin-bowling all-rounder, and a lone representative in the high table of ODI all-rounders, which has been traditionally dominated by the faster men.

What about the rest of the current crop? Stokes, Pandya, Ali have a long way to go in their young careers; Faulkner needs to find a way to get selected; others like Kane Williamson are more of the batsmen who can bowl well category.

If we had to pick one, and only one, it would have to be a player who didn’t have quite the happy ending to a World tournament à la Yuvraj Singh. Yes, we are talking about Lance Klusener—the tragic hero of the 1999 World Cup. Blessed with belligerent batting to go along with his canny bowling, he would have easily been the top of the money heap in today’s age of franchise T20 competitions.

Disclaimer: An image used in this article is not part of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely rests with the respective holders.

 

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Women’s cricket needs all the support that it can get

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Where does women’s cricket go from here? Image source: 1.

While Virat Kohli’s wrist spinners were busy bamboozling the South African batsmen and grabbing the headlines in the papers back home, the Indian women’s cricket team notched up a significant victory of their own. Part of ICC’s Women’s Championship, the Indian women landed on South African shores around the same time the men were playing an ODI series of their own. Away from the glare of cameras and media attention (more on this shortly), the ladies wrapped up the 3 match ODI series in quick time, walloping their South African counterparts in the first two matches at Kimberley. En route to the series win a match to spare, opener Smriti Mandhana scored her career best and Jhulan Goswami became the first bowler to amass 200 ODI wickets. In this historical diamond mining town, the Indian gems shone the brightest.

It wasn’t so long ago that these women were the cynosure of sporting attention, albeit for a short while. On a cheerful day in July 2017, the Indian women’s cricket team locked horns with their English counterparts for the title of the ICC Women’s World Cup at London. Chasing a total of 229 in 50 overs, the team stayed in the hunt until the 45th over when Anya Shrubsole snared both Veda Krishnamurthy and Jhulan Goswami to induce panic in the ranks. The Indian women lost by an agonizing 9 runs, but won plenty of hearts, new-found fans and viewers in the process. But what enabled this in the first place? A television broadcast.

Speaking after that final, Mithali Raj rued the lack of experience in the Indian team, and felt it was a factor when push came to shove. She was right. In her 18 year career, she has played only 189 ODIs and 10 test matches. Even a player of her experience had only played only ~10 ODI matches a year; what hope did the greenhorns have? Between the South Africa series and the World cup, their international calendar was barren. In fact, a year ago, this team won a quadrangular series in South Africa last year (before the World Cup). After securing the win, Mithali Raj bemoaned the lack of television coverage for the women’s game:

“Back in India, we do have a lot of people coming and watching the matches. It is important that we market the sport. If we are playing a series, or a bilateral series, it is important that it is broadcaster because a lot of people back home are so inquisitive to know the result of the game. They do follow it over the net, but if it is broadcasted, it can make a huge difference for the profile of the game as well as for the players.”

One year later, on the back of a fantastic World Cup campaign and a sufficiently long notice period, little seems to have changed. While the ongoing men’s series has had plenty of airtime, pre-match and post-match analyses, highlights packages and so on, the women’s matches have had no broadcast. The official BCCI page also did not have commensurate coverage. Hardcore fans had to resort to scorecard updates from the BCCI Women twitter feed to satiate themselves. Needless to say, it was an unsatisfactory experience.

Imagine watching a cliff-hanger season finale of a rivetting, award-winning drama series. There is plenty of buzz about the new twist on the internet and everyone can’t wait for the upcoming season to see how it plays out. You, along with many others, wait for months for the new season’s opening episode to resolve the mystery. Except, in this case, there is no forthcoming episode; only a break in continuity which kills the very momentum that had been built up all this while on the back of historic results. And just like that, the lack of a broadcast has robbed them of a chance to continue their story with the fans they had gained in mid-2017. And it is these women who will be devastated by another recent body blow–cricket missing its date with the 2022 Commonwealth games.

Women’s cricket was originally penciled in the 2022 edition, which is scheduled during the months of July and August. But the Commonwealth Games Federation wanted to include only those sporting disciplines which would be played by both men and women. Meaning, this edition would clash with many domestic (men’s) T20 commitments which has become the economic lifeline of cricket boards. Sadly, the ones to bear the brunt will be the women who will once again have to contend with a lack of a headlining focal point to their fixtures.

The Commonwealth Games is a relic (and I mean this in a good way) from the times of the British Empire involving athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations. The game of cricket is a recognized sport and has featured only once—at the 1998 Commonwealth games held in Malaysia. No doubt, a Commonwealth Games medal might not feature high on the agenda of professional male cricketers who might count marquee bilateral series and the World cup as the blue chip tournaments. But it must also be remembered that ten years ago, a newly-minted IPL trophy or a World T20 title were worth nothing in terms of historic value. Yet, that didn’t stop teams and players from partaking in the activity, enriching it, and carving a history for themselves and for the sport.

The Indian women don’t have their own IPL, and it is not for a lack of asking; only a few play in the Women’s Big Bash League. Domestic T20 leagues mainly enlist domestic players and top available freelancing international players. It is safe to say that the Indian women will not feature in big numbers in the WBBL unless they become accomplished T20 players, which once again points in the direction of fixtures and scheduling. But a bigger point is unless these competitions have a structure over multiple levels which are financially self-sustaining (like European football), they would not provide an opportunity to scores of cricketing aspirants of varying ability from different countries.

On the other hand, a focal point of an Olympics provides significant funding from sporting and government sources and bring much needed attention to the sport. An Olympic-style football participation model would have taken care of levelling the playing field to some extent. This will no doubt be a lot more inclusive in introducing the sport at the global stage and go a long way in popularizing the sport and adding more fans to the game. Another case in point is the recent Khelo India games, which has showcased the best of upcoming talent on nationwide television.

Given these traditional difficulties, women’s cricket should not suffer from a lack of institutional support and needs all the help that it can get to compete on even terms. The first of many steps has to come from the powers that be like BCCI and ICC. A little bit of planning, foresight and institutional support will no doubt go a long way in game accessible to fans and setting the stage for a robust women’s cricketing ecosystem. Surely the world’s richest cricket board can spare a few more rupees and grey cells for this cause?

Disclaimer: The image used in this article in not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely rests with its respective owners.

 

 

 

Setting expectations for Ashwin and Jadeja in South Africa

A new turn awaits the spin twins. Image source: 1.

The cricketing world and its citizens will be watching with great anticipation when the Indian team takes on the mighty Proteas in the upcoming series in the Southern Hemisphere. An Indian team—with personnel who have experience of playing in South Africa—which has won its last nine series, will be facing off against a South African team which polished off Zimbabwe in two days. This contest that will be played over three test matches has all the makings of a marquee series if one were to look at the ICC rankings. The top two test teams taking on each other. Seven of the world’s best 14 batsmen.  Six of the world’s best 14 bowlers. Two returning stalwarts in A B de Villiers and Dale Steyn, who will no doubt remember the drubbing they received in India, and will be motivated to return the favour.

When the Indian team takes the field in the first test in Cape Town, the spin bowling department will be under intense scrutiny with multiple sub-plots. Is there space for both Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, ranked 3 and 4 on the ICC rankings (the top ranked spinners)? Unlikely, considering the traditional conditions in South Africa, and given that Rahane’s recent form has been patchy, the team management may not play the fifth bowler. Then which one will get to play in this cricketing version of Sophie’s choice? Would it be the higher ranked Jadeja who had a six-for in the previous series, or would it be Ashwin, who went wicketless in his 42 overs of the solitary test he played the last time around? How will they hold up against Keshav Maharaj, the opposition spinner?

Regardless of the difficult decisions that the team management undoubtedly have to make, one reckons if this is an acid test for both these men with regard to their test cricketing stature. Both these tweakers started off as limited overs specialists; however, their limited overs stock has plummeted in recent times just as they have made their names in the test arena. Both spinners have bowled extremely well and at home, and also at West Indies and Sri Lanka recently. But unless they muster eye-catching performances overseas, starting from this South Africa tour, it looks like they will unfairly labelled as home-track bullies.

So what do these bowlers have to do to excel in South Africa? Are there any clues that can be obtained from spin performances of the past? Can we expect them to rip out the South African lineup or do we have to temper our expectations?

Since their readmission to the cricketing fold, South Africa have been a formidable team, even more so at home. They have a Win-Loss ratio of 2.8, and have triumphed in nearly 60% of their home matches. Barring the champion Australia team, only England have found success in South Africa. Spinners have struggled, taking 448 wickets at a bowling average of 39. In 125 matches, a haul of five wickets or more has been snared by spinners only 17 times. Keeping all this in mind, it is fair to say that only a handful of spin bowlers have flowered and bloomed in this desert.

Bowlers like Shakib Al Hasan, Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria, Rangana Herath, Harbhajan Singh and Graeme Swann have had the one good tour in South Africa. But since this is the second tour for Ashwin and Jadeja, they need to aim higher.

Bowler Matches Bowling average (away, SA) Wickets
Shane Warne 12 24.31 61
Muttiah Muralitharan 6 26.02 35
Anil Kumble 12 32.02 45

 

Of the spin bowlers who’ve visited South Africa at least twice since readmission, three names have performed on more than one tour: Shane Warne, Muralitharan and Anil Kumble—all legends in their own right. Overall, only Warne and Murali have had great returns in South Africa over their entire career. However, even they nabbed a five wicket haul at a much lesser rate compared to their 1 in 5 combined career tallies. Hence, a lesser tally can be expected in Ashwin’s and/or Jadeja’s cases as well. What about the other variables? Upon careful examination of their records, several trends become clear.

Bowler Bowling average

(1st innings)

Wickets

(1st innings)

Bowling average

(2nd innings)

Wickets

(2nd innings)

Shane Warne 30.41 24 20.35 37
Muttiah Muralitharan 31.75 20 18.40 15
Anil Kumble 38.87 24 24.19 21

 

Barring a few outlier performances, South African pitches have been unfriendly (even for these spin-masters) in the first innings; their strike rates (balls per wicket) hover at values greater than 12 overs, a clear marker of the uphill task awaiting the Indian spinners. On unhelpful pitches, they must be ready to embrace a support role. In complete contrast, bowling in the second innings has been far more rewarding. Of course, one mustn’t forget that the second innings only comes into play once parity has been achieved in the first—a traditional Achilles heel for the Asian batsmen.

Bowler SA batting average

(1st innings)

Away team batting average Bowling average

(2nd innings)

Away team batting average
Shane Warne 27.24 36.93 27.52 36.20
Muttiah Muralitharan 41.68 23.91 26.92 20.21
Anil Kumble 34.57 28.10 34.68 22.21

 

Of the three spinners, only Shane Warne bowled with the relative comfort of a first innings lead. The all-weather, all-conquering Australian team were able to compete on both the batting and bowling fronts against South Africa. On the other hand, the Asian champions suffered from a lack of batting support. For perspective, consider the first innings batting average differential. Shane Warne bowled in the second innings with nearly a 100 run lead. Whereas, Kumble and Murali bowled magnificently in spite of a ~60-120 average run deficit; meaning, they were always chasing the game.

Bowler Fast bowling support (10 wickets, bowling average<30) Spread of bowler wickets across the batting order
Top order

(1-3)

Middle order

(4-7)

Tail

(8-11)

Shane Warne 5* 23.0% 42.6% 34.4%
Muttiah Muralitharan 0 22.9% 48.6% 28.5%
Anil Kumble 3 31.1% 35.5% 33.3%

 

Share Warne was also blessed with other wicket-taking bowlers like McGrath, Gillespie, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark. Why, even Steve Waugh (denoted by *) took wickets at an impressive rate. Anil Kumble bowled alongside Srinath, Prasad and Sreesanth—three Indian bowlers who did well in the Rainbow Nation. Bowling support is also a recurrent theme in the tales of the spinners doing well in a solitary series– Mohammed Asif, Waqar Younis, Lahiru Kumara and others set the stage for their spinners to do well. But one must doff his/her hat to the Sri Lankan champion Muralitharan—who bowled with virtually no batting or bowling support. All things considered, it is easily the best bowling performance by a visiting spinner on these shores since their readmission. Also, Warne and Muralitharan had a similar distribution of wickets across the batting order; whereas, Anil Kumble made more inroads in the top order.

What about the upcoming test series then?

The first two tests are at Newlands and Centurion, where spin bowling has traditionally suffered. The third test is at Jo’burg, where spinners have had it easier; with no Kingsmead on the list, the one venue where spinners have feasted is missing. Looking at all this, the Indian spinners have to play a supporting role in the first innings, and only come into play in the second for most of the series. Batting and bowling support is very much a necessity to influence the outcome of the match. The traditional second innings advantage will surely come to naught if the batting collapses. All eyes will be on the batsmen and the fast bowlers to stand up to the challenge.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely rests with the respective owners.

 

 

The bowling avengers: completing the squad

We’re back to the year 2030. As discussed earlier in this series, a mysterious group of aliens have landed on Earth and are interested in facing off against the Earth’s finest in a one day international (ODI) cricket series which will seal the planet’s fate. It has now been six months since the various wise heads of the BCCI put their brains together to come up with a hypothetical batting lineup combed from ODI history to face the alien might.

Meanwhile, the aliens have gotten comfortable on Earth, and are getting to grips with its various quirks as they are going about their daily cricket practice routines. There is a lot of confusion regarding the status of the aliens—whether they are illegal immigrants or refugees—and this is occupying columns of newsprint in the West. Back home in India, the epicenter of all the action, some events are predictable and comforting. The jury is still out on demonetization. Salman Khan is still making movies, and employing a driver in the age of driverless cars. Rahul Gandhi’s latest speech is touted to be his coming-of-age moment.

The aliens are now anxious; it has taken more than six months for the BCCI to come up with half a team. The last table thumping did not have the desired effect or response from the BCCI. On their part, the BCCI are complaining about impending Presidential elections and the saga of various state associations not falling in line. Plus there is the small matter implementing the Supreme Court recommendations.

Furious at the inaction, the aliens issue yet another ultimatum, and decide to go nuclear. No, not by any means of violence; they simply choose to rewrite the various broadcasting, internet, TV and VR rights for the various India home series and the IPL. Suddenly, the BCCI wake up from their slumber and swing into action. They now huddle together in order to complete the lineup with a 15 member squad, of which only the batting lineup have been chosen so far—Tendulkar, Amla, Kohli, Richards, de Villiers, Dhoni and Klusener. This fictitious exercise is a culmination of scouring the history of ODI cricket to identify the players who outperformed their peers.

How do we go about selecting the rest of the team?

The ODI format of cricket has changed its spots over time. In the initial days of the format, teams often treated it as a truncated version of the test match. Besides, teams also had 60 overs to negotiate. With the advent of power-hitting at the start of the ODI in the early ‘90s, the game pivoted to a much more frenzied approach against the new ball. Since then, the economy rates of bowlers have been continuously on the upswing. Plus, we now have a newer format (which rewards power hitting a lot more) to contend with—the T20.

In spite of bowlers receiving a hiding over the last few years of the ODI, the basic resource dynamics of the game hasn’t changed. In the game of cricket, three basic quantities are measured—runs, balls and wickets. Depending on the format of the game, the importance of each quantity (and their interplay) varies. Considering that an ODI can be won by either bowling out the opposition or by run containment, a good bowler needs to be on top of two metrics: one, the bowling average (runs conceded per wicket), and two, the economy rate (runs conceded per over). They are the bowler’s equivalent of batting average and strike rate respectively.

The product of the two (divided by 6)—often called as the Bowling Index (BoI)—has been used by ESPNCricinfo and many others as a tool to benchmark bowlers against their peers. Usually, analysts have compared a bowler’s BoI with the corresponding BoI of the average bowler during the said player’s career—this is a method that has also been used by us in our earlier exercises. This is a solid, first-cut method no doubt, but it has some inherent disadvantages, which will be discussed and addressed shortly.

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Table 1: Variation of Bowling Index (first) across the batting order in different time periods

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Table 2: Variation of Bowling Index (second) across the batting order in different time periods

Upon detailed examination of the above BoI tables, some characteristics of bowling in ODIs become apparent. One, bowling in the first and second innings are totally different ball games with respect to the BoI; two, bowling at the top of the bowling order is far more advantageous with respect to bowling statistics (and hence encapsulated by the lower values of BoI).

In the previous two articles of our bowling series, the BoI concept was extended in order to examine which bowlers dominated their peers in terms of their performances. We had computed and compared BoI ratios (by dividing the baseline with the BoI of a particular bowler during an era) of various players during the first and second innings of the ODI over the course of the history of the ODI (nine ODI eras in total, each having an excess of 250 matches). A benchmark (BoI ratio of 1.40) was also applied across the board (after an appropriate cutoff, of course) in order to separate the elite performers during a particular era. A BoI ratio of 1.40 represents a 40% higher performance over the average bowler. It must be noted that a BoI ratio of 1.40 is extremely rare, and less than 20 players have achieved it during every era under consideration (all stats until Dec 31, 2016 have been included).

Many bowlers have been able to perform at a very high level in some eras (Ajanta Mendis, for example), but have struggled to replicate it across multiple time periods—except for the very few standout performers who have shone throughout their careers.

Considering that the ODI has undergone a sea of change from its first sighting in 1971, a hypothetical exercise like this raises many questions. How can players from one era be compared with the present day ones? What about players—like Brad Hogg—who have had stop-start careers? Can today’s bowlers, who bowl in such impoverished times, hold a candle to the legends of yesteryear? What about the changing rules of the powerplay, influence of T20 and smaller boundaries? So many issues to resolve.

Therefore, any analysis must take all these valid questions into consideration. Hence, we have to compare bowlers’ tallies with statistics relevant to their own careers. The grandfather of ODI batting, Sachin Tendulkar, played in a record 463 matches. In contrast, the bowler with the maximum appearances in ODIs is Wasim Akram with 356—a full 107 matches lesser than the overall record. On the whole, bowlers have a lesser shelf life, and this must reflect our cutoff as well. If the batsmen had a cutoff of 75 innings at 30 runs per dismissal, the bowlers have to clear the 50 innings, 50 wickets, 2000 balls bowled at 32 runs per dismissal. At the same time, this level is moderate enough not to exclude the modern outliers. This brings a total of 132 players under the lens.

The criteria for selection would be excellence over a sustained period of ODI cricket (interested readers can go through the era-specific values in the earlier articles), unless the gulf between the BoI ratios of a bowler with a short career and a long one is hard to overlook. Considering that many present day players may not have played in as many matches, the ones who could perhaps surpass the legends (in terms of BoI ratio values) in the future will be mentioned in the special mention category. Next comes the algorithm for selection.

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Table 3: Variation of BoI (second) (%) using BoI (first) as a reference. Eg. BoI (second) is % higher for 1&2 compared to BI (first) between 71-84. (BoI (second)-BoI (first) /BoI (first))*100

Upon detailed examination of the above BoI tables obtained from the first two parts of the bowling exercise, it becomes clear that this method does not take three crucial factors that affect BoI values into consideration. One is the first to second innings disparity; second is the bowling order; third is the era centric values. To some extent, a uniform baseline takes care of the third factor, but the first two lie unaddressed. Considering that the spinners have struggled to match BoI values of fast bowlers, a tweak has to be applied to make sure there is decent representation across the board. This tweak has to be based on the bowling opportunities that was provided to the bowler during his career (until 31 Dec 2016).

Are there other concepts that we could use? The Average bowling position (ABoP) is a composite number representing the mean of all the bowling positions bowled in by a particular player. While the ABoP itself cannot reveal all information (as similar magnitudes of ABoP can be obtained by differing combinations of bowling position distributions), it can give us a snapshot of a bowler’s most usual bowling position in the bowling order.

Additionally, readers must also keep in mind that the bowling order is a lot more fluid compared to the batting order. For example, it can be said with a large degree of confidence that the openers are still at the crease at when the batting team have lost no wickets (barring rare cases of a batsman retiring hurt). However, a bowler can open the bowling, bowl the solitary over, and then complete his quota at the death; but the scorecard will still list his bowling position as 1. See the problem? Unfortunately, ball by ball data is not available for matches before 2001, and hence we will have to resort to the bowling order.

Using the same principle of the ABoP, the fraction of innings bowled in the first/second innings, in different bowling positions and in different time periods will be multiplied with the respective BoI values of all bowlers who bowled in similar circumstances (tables 1 and 2), which is then summed up to get the bowler’s BoI baseline (weighted) for that particular player. In some way, with this tweak, we will be comparing the said player’s BoI with a hypothetical, composite, average bowler—who has been afforded similar bowling opportunities (first/second innings, bowling position and era) during the player’s career.

Now that we have nailed down the algorithm for selection, we can move on to the selection of the players.

The bowling lineup should contain fantastic strike bowlers, with the inclusions for variety and part-time options as well. Considering that the batting lineup had Tendulkar and Richards, they can be expected to fill in the sixth bowler’s role in case one of the five receive a hiding from the aliens. The fifth bowler should ideally be an all-rounder who can bowl their full quota of overs (pace or spin) and is a competent batsman, in order to lend balance to the team. The batting exercise selected seven players (one batting all-rounder, one keeper and two sixth bowlers). In the remaining eight places, we can thus select three pacers, two all-rounders, two spinners and a spare player. Additionally, a left-arm pacer and a wrist spinner would be nice as well in the interest of variety.

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The metronome Glenn McGrath will be opening the bowling for the earthlings (note that players bowling at position 1 and 2 have been allocated a bowling position of 2). His BoI ratio stands apart compared to other opening bowlers such as Bond, Pollock, Ambrose and Hadlee. At the other end, Wasim Akram would be steaming in with his left arm swingers. Readers must note that in his young, 59 match career (until 2016), Mitchell Starc has racked up some ridiculous numbers. Considering that he has had a stellar 2017 as well, it might be wise to succumb to temptation and select him instead. Though, does Akram’s excellence at the death and the many headlining moments over 356 matches shade the younger man’s career so far? Really tough call.

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In the first change position is the all-time BoI ratio leader—Joel Garner. The extent to which the man towered over the rest (both literally and figuratively) can be gauged by the fact that no one else got close within ~8% of his career BoI ratio. Other fast bowlers (with illustrious colleagues) like Holding, Donald and Morkel also have excellent values in spite of bowling at no. 3. Perhaps, in any other team, they might have opened the bowling.

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In the earlier method of comparing the player’s BoI with a flat baseline, spinners had poor representation. However, with this new method in place, their numbers are quite impressive in the overall scheme of things. Leading the tweakers’ pack is Saeed Ajmal, but given his history with his bowling action, Muralitharan will be chosen lead spinner. Saqlain Mushtaq is not far behind as well. In the case of wrist spinners, Imran Tahir (62 matches) has clearly outperformed his peers but would he walk into the side ahead of Shane Warne (194 matches)? Yet another case of Starc vs Akram.

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What about the multi-taskers? Though part-timers like Allan Border and Darren Lehmann have great statistics (Lehmann doesn’t clear the 2000 ball cutoff), their ABoPs is close to six and hence they were only capable sixth bowlers—clearly not good enough to merit selection. In our team, all-rounders with more credible bowling abilities have been chosen.

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Andrew Flintoff takes the pride of place amongst the bowling all-rounder pack—his batting numbers are pretty good as well. Klusener, Watson, Imran Khan, Kallis and Kapil Dev were better than their weighted baselines over their careers as well. Among the spin bowling all-rounders, Shakib Al Hasan is the undisputed leader with impressive bowling numbers; that he’s been able to post such statistics despite hailing from a weaker team is indeed commendable; him being a left-arm spinner adds to the variety as well. The presence of all-rounders adds a lot of depth to the team—the overall sum of the batting index (BI) ratio and bowling index (BoI) ratio gives an indication of their average contribution per match compared to the average batsman/bowler. Klusener is the overall leader due to his batting tilt; Flintoff and Shakib are very capable bowlers and they complete our set.

All that is left is the identity of the 15th player.

Is there enough cover for the pacers with only 3 frontline quicks? Should it be Holding, a pure pacer, or someone like Pollock who has a near-identical BoI ratio but can bat really well? Considering Flintoff is a super bowler in his own right, another pacer seems excessive. What about bolstering the middle order? Where is the left handed batsman? How can someone like Bevan or Hussey miss out with such high BI ratios? Not that it is any consolation, but Shakib Al Hasan is a decent batsman (though not in the same class); also—though he might not like it—Sachin Tendulkar could perhaps be persuaded to bat in the middle order if push came to shove. Shane Watson could also be considered as a batting pick due to his flexibility, but he wouldn’t displace any batsman on batting merit.

Considering all this, our BCCI’s last pick would be the left handed Adam Gilchrist—with a BI ratio better than Hayden (and close enough to the right handed Greenidge and Sehwag). What tipped the scales in his favour was his handedness, firepower (which could perhaps be deployed in the lower order as well) and his keeping ability. Yes I do hear that AB de Villiers has kept wicket in ~28% of his matches, but we wouldn’t want to burden the star batsman with additional responsibility given that the fate of the earth is at stake, would we?

This team has it all—thrilling openers, chase-meisters, finishers par extraordinaire, red-hot pacers, cunning spinners and multi-taskers supreme. Regardless of the nature of the pitch and the opposition, this squad should find the relevant answers; though, if the otherworldly beings turn out to be multi-limbed, irregular-formed, squiggly beings, I suspect the issue of handedness and leg before wicket will cause much consternation in the commentary box. The uber-cool, unflappable Dhoni would be captain of the side.

Bring on the aliens.

World XV: Tendulkar, Amla, Gilchrist, Kohli, Richards, de Villiers, Dhoni (c & wk), Shakib, Klusener, Flintoff, Warne, Murali, Akram, McGrath, Garner

Honourable mentions who could make it to the team in the future if they continue to perform at similar levels for a few more years: Buttler, Starc, Tahir

 

The long climb towards Tendulkar’s ODI records

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No more lonely at the top? Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI records seem to be under threat due to  gluttonous run-making from the recent crop of top-order ODI batsmen. Image source: 1.

After the recently concluded one day international (ODI) leg of the New Zealand tour to India, Virat Kohli once again climbed the summit of the ICC ODI batting rankings. He had temporarily lost the top spot to AB de Villiers for a period of ten days, but claimed it back with his twin tons in the ODI series. He wasn’t the only one with a prolific October. South Africa’s AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock plundered monstrous hundreds (176, and 168 not out respectively) against the hapless Bangladesh team at home. Meanwhile, in the UAE against a similarly listless Sri Lankan team, Pakistan’s Babar Azam notched twin hundreds of his own, as did Rohit Sharma against the visiting teams from Oceania.

More significantly, Virat Kohli amassed 889 rating points—a level which hadn’t been breached hitherto by any Indian batsman. Until then, that distinction was held by Sachin Tendulkar with a total of 887 in 1998, followed by daylight, Ganguly, Dhoni and Azharrudin. In his ODI annus mirabilis that was the year 1998, the Little Master towered over his peers scoring a gargantuan 1894 runs at an average of 65.3 and a strike rate of 102.15. To get an idea how much he was ahead of the rest of the world, one would have to consider that the average batsman (1-7 in the batting order) scored 32.5 runs per dismissal and at a strike rate of 75.22 in 1998. This means Tendulkar scored twice the number of runs per dismissal compared to an average batsman, in addition to scoring them at 36% more than the average batsman scoring rate that year.

No other batsman came within 600 runs of his run tally or had scored 5 hundreds that year (Ganguly, with 1328 runs and 4 hundreds came a distant second). With one superlative year—perhaps the greatest calendar year batting feat in ODI history–filled with memorable performances against top-class opposition, Tendulkar had claimed the record of the highest number of ODI hundreds and was well on his way to ascending the ODI batting throne. To add to all this, he was only 25 years old.

When he was finally done with ODIs in 2012, at a ripe old age of nearly  39 (in cricketing terms), he probably held the record for holding the most records in cricket— the most number of runs, centuries, fifties, matches played, man of the match awards, and then some. Back then, it was taken for granted that his records would stand the test of time. But with the emergence of a new generation weaned on a diet of T20 combined with flat pitches, runs have been scored at rates that have never been witnessed before. Is the impossible now possible? Are Tendulkar’s ODI records suddenly under threat? Who is most likely candidate to usurp his position?

Before Tendulkar, the grand old man of ODI cricket was Desmond Haynes. When he retired in 1994, he held the record for the most runs (7487) and centuries (17).  After his retirement, the run tally record was first claimed by Azharrudin before it was in Tendulkar’s firm possession. Even though Vivian Richards was clearly the better batsman and had a better set of statistics compared to his West Indian teammate, there were several reasons why Haynes held these records. Haynes finished his 16 year old ODI career three years after Richards’ (who also played for 16 years)—this was crucial since the ODI format only gained traction in the mid-1980s in terms of the fixture calendar. By retiring 3 years earlier than Haynes, Richards missed out on the busier, later years and finished with 51 matches lesser. Additionally, Haynes opened the batting whereas Richards batted down the order (mainly at nos. 3 and 4).

In ODI cricket, batting at the top of the order—especially opening or at no.3—gives a great chance for batsmen to pile on more runs and hundreds per innings due to more balls being available to score off. On the other hand, a batsman who comes in later to bat is constrained from score big due to lesser scoring opportunities being available. It is also instructive to note that the diminutive dynamo, Sachin Tendulkar, racked up ridiculous numbers after he made a successful switch to open the batting in 1994; until then, batting in the middle order, he had a merely average record in ODIs.

Player name Age at ODI debut Matches Innings Runs per innings Inns per 100 Inns per 50 Days per match Innings per MoM awards
Sachin Tendulkar 16y 7m 25d 463 452 40.765 9.22 4.71 17.55 7.29
Hashim Amla 24y 11m 10d 158 155 47.619 5.96 4.56 22.30 8.61
Virat Kohli 19y 9m 15d 202 194 46.546 6.06 4.31 16.64 7.76
AB de Villiers 20y 11m 16d 225 215 44.256 8.60 4.06 20.68 7.96
Joe Root 22y 0m 13d 97 91 43.956 9.10 3.79 18.08 13.00
Quinton de Kock 20y 1m 3d 88 88 43.250 6.77 5.87 19.84 8.80
David Warner 22y 2m 23d 101 99 43.131 7.07 5.82 31.76 7.62
Kane Williamson 20y 0m 3d 117 111 42.144 12.33 3.47 22.55 11.10
Shikhar Dhawan 24y 10m 16d 93 92 42.065 8.36 4.18 27.61 15.33
Babar Azam 20y 7m 17d 36 35 50.229 5.00 5.00 24.56 7.00
Martin Guptill 22y 3m 12 d 149 146 43.425 12.17 4.56 21.58 9.13

In the last few years, a host of top-order batsmen have been accumulating runs at rates that have never been seen before in ODI cricket. On perusal of the ICC ODI rankings, a rough indicator of batsmen who have dominated the ODI landscape in recent times, it can be seen that the top 15 slots in the list (as on October 31st 2017) are infested with top order batsmen. Unsurprisingly, in these run-inflationary times, the recent crop of top order batsmen have recorded the highest runs per innings and innings per 100 or 50 in ODI history. As seen in the above table, nearly everyone in this list had scored more than 40 runs per inning and take ~10 innings to make a hundred. The man-of-the-match count is a little tricky; a player with capable teammates is bound to share the award more often. In recent times, only A B de Villiers and Ross Taylor have amassed numbers at comparable (or better) rates predominantly batting at number 4 or lower.

However, regardless of how insatiable this present generation of active cricketers may seem, some records of Tendulkar are destined to remain unbroken. The below list is a repetition of the currently active batsmen featured in the earlier table, but with two extra details: one, their age at present which would roughly determine the remainder of their playing career; two, the average number of ODIs per year played by the batsman’s country in the last five years. With these two in place, and assuming that the batsmen get to bat in each match and perform at the same rate as before, we can proceed to calculate the number of years required by the respective batsmen to overhaul Tendulkar’s record tallies.

Player name Age as on 31/10/17 Mates played by nation per year Additional years needed to surpass Tendulkar’s tally of
Matches Runs 100s 50s MoM
Hashim Amla 34y 7m 1d 21.6 15 11 7 14 18
Virat Kohli 28y 11m 27d 24.2 11 9 5 10 13
AB de Villiers 33y 8m 15d 21.6 12 10 10 9 14
Joe Root 26y 10m 2d 22.0 17 15 17 13 34
Quinton de Kock 24y 10m 15d 21.6 18 16 12 23 22
David Warner 31y 0m 5d 21.0 18 16 13 23 19
Kane Williamson 27y 2m 24d 21.2 17 16 24 11 28
Shikhar Dhawan 31y 10m 27d 24.2 16 15 14 13 37
Babar Azam 23y 0m 17d 21.4 20 16 11 22 19
Martin Guptill 31y 3m 2 d 21.2 15 14 22 14 21

A guide to reading and interpreting the above table is explained as follows—Hashim Amla would overcome Tendulkar’s hundreds tally of 49 centuries at his current South Africa ODI playing rate and innings per hundred rate in his 7th year from 1st November 2017 (6.622 to be exact); needless to say, with him presently in his 35th year, it looks impossible. For the rest of the crowd, most of the years needed are in double digits, barring a few exceptions. Our calculations also make the assumption that every man-of-the-match award was won by the above players by virtue of their batting—which is probably not true. But given the names of the batsmen (unlike Tendulkar, who won it for his bowling as well), it can be conjectured that batting is their most likely route to winning the awards (as opposed to fielding and keeping feats, which are very rare).

Keeping a age cut-off of 40 years (which is extremely generous), it is safe to say that Tendulkar’s ODI records are out of bounds to most of them except a few plausible scenarios—Root and Williamson (50s), de Kock (100s) and Azam (100s, runs). This is provided they perform at the same level and play every match. Besides, there is no saying how the ODI schedule will vary in the coming years due to the threat posed by T20 leagues.

In spite of this generation being gluttonous like no ODI generation before, they suffer on two counts: barring Virat Kohli, every batsman has debuted in their 20s, thus losing valuable run-making years at the international level; two, they do not play as many ODIs in today’s times (as seen in the days/match in Table 1). This is where Tendulkar’s advantages—starting his ODI career in his 17th year, and playing nearly every India ODI when match fit—prevail over most of today’s generation.

But realistically speaking, the biggest threat to Tendulkar’s records comes from Virat Kohli. At his current rate, he can beat Tendulkar’s centuries tally in five more years—which looks the most likely to change hands. The matches, runs and fifties tallies need nearly a decade (give or take a year) of Virat Kohli motoring along at the same cadence before him getting a chance to achieve it near the end of what might be an incredible career. Who knows, we might also be talking about de Kock or Azam as likely successors as their careers draw to a close—provided they still play for their country and play at the same rates as before. Both of them have had great starts to their career so far, but it is a tad too premature to discuss their end career tallies given their age. Even then, the master’s man of the match tally may be out of reach, which shows the legend’s incredible influence on the ODI game in his time.

In short, given the considerations of time, Virat Kohli is the best placed player amongst the present active cricketers to assume Tendulkar’s mantle.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely belongs to the respective owners.

 

 

 

 

 

Why is Mumbai cricket treated with so much reverence, really?

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Ranji trophy: Pride of the Indian domestic scene. Image source: 1.

If one had read the sport pages in the lead up to the next Ranji trophy fixtures over the last few days, the focus on the Mumbai’s 500th game (earlier known as Bombay) would have been unmissable. For long, the self-congratulatory club of the Mumbai/Bombay Ranji trophy team (henceforth referred to by its more recent name) hasn’t let the rest of the country forget that it has been the domestic dada of Indian cricket, with a bevy of scarcely believable records.

This year’s season is the 84th edition of the premier Indian long-format domestic competition. Mumbai has won 41 of those titles. To put this into perspective, other champion teams like New South Wales and Yorkshire (in a longer time period with lesser number of teams) have 46 and 33 titles respectively. The second team in the Ranji trophy title honours list is Mysore/Karnataka—which is far behind with 8 titles. Even in league football, Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich don’t boast of such dominance.

At the height of Mumbai’s powers, they won 15 seasons on the trot before their streak was broken by Karnataka in the 1973-74 season (and after that, won three more making it a total of 18 titles in 19 years). Even in their so-called lean patch from 1984-85 onwards, Mumbai have won only 11 titles in 32 years. With such statistics, it isn’t surprising to see Mumbai players feeling that the Ranji trophy is their birthright.  No doubt, Mumbai is the biggest “brand” in Indian domestic cricketing history. But is the influence of this champion team on Indian cricket all positive, or is it basically bluster?

Take for instance their playing record. In 499 matches, they have won 242 matches, drawn 231 and lost only 26. In Win-Loss ratio terms, it is an insane 9.3. But in terms of Win%, it is only 48.5%. In comparision, the winning-est team in international test cricket, Australia, won ~47% of their matches. For a team that is known for their winning mentality and towering over every other team, this suddenly doesn’t look as impressive considering that it is in the domestic arena.

Mumbai cricket is also known for the famed “Bombay school of batsmanship” or “Bombay gharana”, which produced many batsmen of repute. Newspapers and sports websites have been singing paeans about their never-say-die, stubborn, khadoos attitude. But one needs to see how many of those dominated the world stage over their entire career. Two names—Gavaskar and Tendulkar—are no-brainers in terms of them commanding a spot in a hypothetical World XI; the test match arena didn’t get to see much of both the excellent Vijays—Manjrekar (the founder of the school) and Hazare; Vengsarkar was a great batsman for half a decade; the cupboard is now barren. Hopefully Rahane can fill in their gigantic shoes. Several other Mumbai players have extremely tall feats in the Ranji trophy and served India with distinction at many instances—Rusi Modi, Ashok Mankad, Ajit Wadekar and Polly Umrigar, but they were never consistently world-class. But did you notice a bigger problem? All of them were primarily batsmen.

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The Bombay bowlers club: Five bowlers (Khan, Mankad, Gupte, Shastri and Ghavri) from the Bombay/ Mumbai Ranji teams have captured more than 100 test wickets for India. Only Gupte and Shastri were not imports. Image sources: 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 .

Where are the world-class bowler from Mumbai? Sorry, the bar is too high. Where are the Mumbai bowlers who had a long careers in the Indian test team? Mumbai bowlers are conspicuous by their absence either in the most career wickets or in the most wickets captured in a season Ranji trophy records. The Mumbai bowlers who have the most wickets for India are Zaheer Khan and Vinoo Mankad, both having claims in a dream India-XI, but were imports or “outsiders” from other Ranji sides. Raj Thackeray would have certainly been incensed. One would have to go back as far as Subhash Gupte to find a “Bombay-bred” bowler who played for India.

In 2010, ESPNcricinfo had a fantasy exercise to select an all-time Indian test team. Needless to say, the team was picked by a distinguished jury (with a knowledge of the game far greater than mine or any average Indian cricket fan). Obviously Tendulkar and Gavaskar made it to the team (duh!), and apart from them, in spite of a glorious history, it is slim pickings in the 39 member pool for the Mumbai players—Gupte, Vengsarkar, Tamhane, Umrigar and Merchant. Seven Mumbai names in a 39 member shortlist. One bowler.

Contrast this with other cricketing dynasties. New South Wales: Trumper, Bradman, Border, Steve Waugh, Gilchrist, McGrath, Bill O’Reilly, Davidson, Lindwall; Yorkshire: Boycott, Hutton, Sutcliffe, Root, Trueman, Illingworth; Barbados: Greenidge, Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Hall, Sobers, Marshall, Garner (my due apologies to the illustrious players that I may have missed out). Even if a post-war cutoff is applied, the batsmen in each list certainly dwarf Mumbai’s, and they also produced world-class bowlers to boot. Lest I be accused of “jealousy”, I would like to state on record that my home state Karnataka perhaps has contributed as many world class players—if not more—as Mumbai (same goes for Saurashtra, by the way); besides, their bowling roster occupies the pride of place in Indian cricketing history, and they were some of the most self-effacing cricketers as well.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d like to reiterate that bowlers are the match winners in the longest format of the game. At best, a batsman can set up a match, and occasionally win the team the match by chasing down a lofty 4th innings score. A batsman may score 500 runs in an innings but if the bowling lineup cannot muster 20 wickets (lesser if a declaration is involved), a team cannot win. Based on historical trends, it can generally said that batsmen score runs in victories and draws, whereas the bowler has great wicket tallies only in wins—which shows their starring role in the longest format.

There was a time when the Indian team was dominated by players from Mumbai (and naturally, there were suspicions of a Mumbai-bias in selection). Seven Mumbai players represented India at Lords in 1952; in the immortal 1991 Ranji trophy final, the Mumbai team had 8 test capped players. Back then, players either had to be from Mumbai, or had to perform against them to be noticed; if not, you didn’t exist in terms of national reckoning. Many players shifted to Mumbai for this reason as well. Perhaps this tendency of piling on meaningless runs and glorifying individual batting statistics came from Mumbai as well? Which other cricketing culture laps up monstrous scores in school level cricket (case in point: Pranav Dhanawade)? Mumbai’s draw percentage is ~46%. This reeks of a dominance built on the basis of batting alone. Of the international sides, who has the highest draw%? It is India, with ~42%. No doubt, their inimical influence of worshipping batsmen (and many of their meaningless landmarks) has crept into Indian cricket. Prowess gained by racking up tournament victories built on the basis of first innings lead is hardly the ideal preparation for an international class competition. If Mumbai deserve their accolades for their batting history, a large part of the blame for giving bowling its due should be shouldered by Mumbai cricket.

On this basis, one could conclude that the influence of Bombay on the Indian test team is overstated and they brutalized teams by virtue of their endemic advantages–an organized cricket culture was non- existent outside Bombay till the 1960s; turf wickets, 3 day games and other basic infrastructural facilities were not the norm in other regions until recently, and their bowling revolved around the defensive tactics of testing the patience of a batsman with a 7-2 field. Additionally, the top 2 teams in the trophy hardly faced each other in the final as the tournament had a zonal format where only one team qualified from a zone till the 1970s, at the height of the Mumbai empire.

Its inward looking culture is symptomatic of a narrow worldview satisfied with domestic hegemony rather than global excellence. It is rather surprising that for a city that prides itself on a keen, calculating mind and the business of getting things done, has contributed very little in the business of winning test matches for India through its bowlers. Ramachandra Guha too has noted the absence of world class bowlers in the Bombay all time eleven, something which Makarand Waingankar has tried to apologetically explain in his “A Million Broken Windows” (many erstwhile competitors of Bombay cricket, clearly enamoured by its Ranji trophy winning mentality, of have tried to explain this recurring deficiency in the book).

But the most annoying, grating part of Mumbai cricket? The endless stream of “anecdotes”, “distilled wisdom” and narratives of a self- aggrandizing, narcissistic, pretentious team filled with circle jerks, so enamoured and infatuated with their incestuous selves. Tendulkar has a great straight drive? Obviously, in his formative years, he played in gullies with tall buildings and narrow roads where scoring straight was the only way to go. Why is a Mumbai batsman khadoos (never mind most of them didn’t display it in the international arena)? You tell me—why would a hard-working, middle-class boy, who travels for three hours along with a heavy kitbag in neutron-star-dense local trains just for a chance to bat, give up his wicket so easily? The resilient spirit of Mumbai, the will to make it is so overpowering, all-pervasive and part of the city’s cultural fabric that each kid is supplied with oodles of this secret sauce. Got out at 47 trying to force the pace in a lost cause? Why, he should have knocked the ball around for a fifty and then tried to force the pace. How strong was your Bombay team? Back in my day, getting into the Bombay team was tougher than getting into the Indian team. Of course, this was if you were a batsman or a keeper. Bowlers were always welcome. This list goes on and on..

Viewing the excessive backslapping bonhomie that is in full force with every new season from the outside seems revulsive, especially when more illustrious teams with greater achievements and contributions in the world arena go about their business in a quieter manner. That we were regaled with the same self-congratulatory tales time and time again, even in recent times, speaks volumes about a nation’s cricketing history riddled by chronic underachievement and insecurity.

No doubt, Indian cricket owes much of its early cognition of cricket to Mumbai—the first ever Indian team to tour England were the Parsis, most of whom were from Bombay; the precursors to the Ranji trophy—from The Bombay Pentangular to all the way back to the Presidency match were based in the city. But in today’s age, it is best to move on from the Mumbai-centric cultural imperialism and set higher standards and goals as a cricketing team.

In a pleasant coincidence, some of India’s best results and its best ever winning record in its test history have come in the decade when the Indian team has very few Mumbai players; one wonders if it is merely a correlation, or a causation.

Disclaimer: Some of the 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 their respective owners.

 

 

 

 

 

Indian wrist spinners no longer second class ODI citizens

Ignored no more: Anil Kumble suffered a bias against wrist spinners throughout his ODI career. Image source: 1.

The shoe is finally on the other foot.

For years now, wrist spinners in India had to wonder what they had to do to get the selectors’ attention. After Anil Kumble’s last one day international (ODI) in 2007 till the end of 2015, a grand total of three wrist spinners had played for India in ODIs (not counting the batsmen-turned-part-timers, of course). In case you’re wondering about their names, they are Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma—who played a cumulative 55 ODIs in these 8 odd years.  Spare a thought for poor ol’ Amit Mishra—the man with an ODI average of under 27, and the Indian with the most IPL wickets—but hardly got a chance to play against the big boys.

Player name Matches played Wickets Bowling average
Amit Mishra 28 47 26.14
Piyush Chawla 25 32 34.90
Karn Sharma 2 0

Table 1: List of Indian wrist spinners who played for India in the ODI format between 20th March 2007 and 31st December 2015

Coincidentally, Indian badminton has experienced an upswing since 2007. Is this due to a case of young boys with powerful wrists taking up the game after being dissuaded by the fates of Indian wrist spinners unfolding on and off the field? Jokes aside, back then, it wasn’t a stretch to call Indian wrist spinners as second class ODI citizens. Why, even during the peerless Anil Kumble’s playing career, after Harbhajan Singh burst on to the scene, the legend didn’t feature many times in the Indian team—missing 153 games in the process.

If one had switched on the television or an online stream to watch the latest ODI series featuring India, he/she would have certainly wondered what the fuss is all about. With Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal spinning a web against the Sri Lankans and the Aussies in the middle overs, the hard times faced by the practitioners of wrist spin seemed to be a distant memory; even forgotten, perhaps. However, old timers will note that the dark decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s were the worst for a wrist spinner when they were on the list of endangered species all over the cricketing world.

Spin bowling started losing favour in the early 1970s. John Snow headlined the 1970-71 and 1972 Ashes with Derek Underwood playing a parsimonious support act. A few years later, after losing test matches against the Australians and Indians in the 1975-76 season, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies turned to build a four-man demolition squad of fast bowlers which would terrorize batsmen world over for more than a generation. Naturally, other teams followed suit with fast bowlers of their own; even India, who often opened with a gentle medium pacer before tossing the ball to the members of the spin quartet, had found Kapil Dev in the golden age of fast bowling. The ones to suffer from this fast bowling tilt were the spin bowlers, and the situation only turned from bad to worse during the subsequent decade of the 1980s.

Particularly, one of the most difficult cricketing skills to master—wrist spin—had few takers during the dark decades of the ‘70s and ’80s when Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir was fighting a lone battle to keep the art alive. Since wrist spin involves spinning the ball using a full flick of the wrist and fingers, it is notoriously difficult to control and even more difficult to master. Invariably, a wrist spinner would bowl a bad delivery every other over which would duly be dispatched to the boundary. Hence, they were often labelled as high risk options, especially with teams coming to grips with ODI format where run containment was a premium. In the aforementioned time period of ‘70s and ’80s, fast bowling was seen as the key to test match success and spin was largely relegated to a defensive role; there were fears that wrist spin would totally disappear from the circuit. Batting skills against spin also took a backseat.

  Player name Matches Wickets Bowling average
1 Abdul Qadir 57 216 32.31
2 RJ Shastri 69 141 39.51
3 Iqbal Qasim 32 131 24.99
4 JE Emburey 55 120 39.65
5 B Yardley 19 89 28.64
6 Tauseef Ahmed 28 87 29.57
7 JG Bracewell 35 82 37.28
8 Maninder Singh 34 81 38.8
9 PH Edmonds 33 76 39.76
10 DR Doshi 23 74 34.35
11 NS Yadav 26 70 38.71
12 SL Boock 21 57 35.22
13 NGB Cook 15 52 32.48
14 RJ Bright 20 46 41.13
15 RA Harper 24 45 27.82
16 ND Hirwani 7 42 20.71

Table 2: List of spinners who captured the most test wickets in between 1st January 1980 and 31st December 1989.

The list of spin bowling wicket takers in the trough of the 1980s tells the tale of wrist spinning gloom and doom. Ploughing a lonely furrow for the tribe of wrist spinners, the effervescent Abdul Qadir is perched firmly at the top with 216 wickets at a bowling average of 32.31; Ravi Shastri, with 141 victims off his left-arm-whatever at a bowling average of nearly 40, followed. Fourteen more finger spinners dot the list after Abdul Qadir, before the next wrist spinner appears in this list, namely Narendra Hirwani—who snared 42 wickets (16 of them in one game). Finger spinners were dotting the team sheets with such regularity that drinking games involving their inevitable selection could have been invented.

The face of wrist spin would change with the emergence of Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed and co. in the 1990s. For nearly a decade and half, they bamboozled batsmen with their guile, control and variations. Shane Warne dragging Australia back from the dead in the 1999 World Cup semifinal and Anil Kumble bundling out six Windies for 12 runs are fond memories of that era. Unfortunately, after their retirement, wrist spin went underground for a few years yet again. In the era of ODI cricket that followed the retirement of the various wrist spinning doyens, the field turned barren with captains choosing safety and miserly spinners of the orthodox and mystery variety. However, in what has been a pleasant twist, the art-form has seen a renaissance in recent times. The lessons from the slam-bang nature of T20 and the fielding restrictions in the middle overs of the ODIs (hitherto the “boring” part of the ODI) have turned the situation on its head.

Player name Matches Wickets Bowling average
Imran Tahir 40 62 27.67
AU Rashid 46 68 32.05
A Zampa 26 37 32.62
MJ Santner 37 38 37.07
M M Ali 41 28 59.50

Table 3: List of ODI spin bowlers with the best bowling averages since 1st April 2015 against the top 9 ODI nations (minimum 25 wickets). All stats accurate till 4th October 2017

Since the 2015 World cup, finger spinners have found the going tough in ODI cricket. The most successful spin bowlers since the last World cup have all been wrist spinners (minimum of 25 wickets against the top 9 ODI teams). In what has been a clear role reversal, New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner has been the only reasonably successful (if you can call it that) finger spinner at a bowling average of ~37. After getting drubbed in the recent Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, though a bit late to the game, it is no wonder that India turned to wrist spinners of their own.

This recent revival of wrist spin in ODIs has been due to a host of factors. One, pitches all over the world have been flat with the conditions being loaded in the favour of batsmen (the average score since 1st April 2015 has been 272 runs); fielding restrictions have only added fuel to the fire with fewer boundary riders in the middle overs—meaning, today’s batsmen are going hell for leather more than ever; factors such as dew—which are almost a given during day-night matches held in the subcontinent—make it more difficult for the finger spinner to thrive.

Therefore, in today’s times, the best antidote for aggressive batsmen (the majority of whom are right handers) is to impart more spin on the ball and take it away from their preferred hitting zones on the leg side. Funnily, wrist spin needed batting to evolve to current T20-fuelled ballistic levels and to be countered with a high risk, high reward bowling deterrent.  With the spinning of the powerplay wheel and a combination of other factors, wrist spinners are surviving and thriving by remaining relevant even on the dreariest of surfaces in the shorter formats. It is early days still, but following worldwide trends, Indian wrist spinners are perhaps no longer second class ODI citizens.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests solely with its owners.

 

 

 

 

MS Dhoni hasn’t merited an India T20I spot in a long while

MS_Dhoni

MS Dhoni not quenching the thirst of T20 fans anymore. Image source: 1.

After India were duly blanked in the second T20I of the ongoing India-New Zealand series, there were some murmurs about Dhoni’s performance. Chasing a steep target of 197, Dhoni came into bat in the tenth over at 67 for 4 with 130 runs to get in 65 balls, with Virat Kohli for company. If an Indian fan had tuned into the broadcast from then on, it must have felt like Kohli and Dhoni were batting into two different matches. Here was a team under pressure after a top-order failure and having to score 2 runs in every ball with no recognized batsmen after them, but their approaches to the chase on hand couldn’t have been more different.

Kohli was batting on 36 off 22, and got a boundary nearly ever over from then on; Dhoni, on the other hand, struggled to keep pace with the number of balls bowled at him—with only two sixes keeping him afloat of the run-ball parity count till the last 2 overs. Yes, he did muster three more big hits later and ended up with respectable figures, but they didn’t count in the context of the match. This was one instance when the scoreboard didn’t tell us about Dhoni’s batting contribution with respect to the requirements.

Speaking in the post-match show, V V S Laxman did not mince words “…Kohli’s strike rate was 160, MS Dhoni’s strike rate was 80. That’s not good enough when India were chasing a mammoth total…I still feel it’s time for MS Dhoni to give youngsters a chance in T20 format. It will be an opportunity for a youngster to blossom and get confidence playing international cricket”.

Ardent fans would also recall the botched chase in the West Indies, the only ODI match India lost on the West Indian tour. Though it was a low score, India rapidly found themselves in a spot of bother, losing 3 wickets cheaply. The asking run-rate never climbed to alarming levels until late in the innings, and it was assumed that India would coast to a comfortable victory considering the West Indies weren’t the strongest ODI outfit. Dhoni had limped to 26 off 56 balls with 89 still to get in 114 balls, and no boundary would come between overs 20-38. The writing on the wall was there for everyone to see when Dhoni was dismissed 14 runs adrift of the target, having scored a solitary boundary. What grated further was that an exciting prospect like Rishabh Pant was taken all the way to the Caribbean, but only got to play in the solitary T20I.

Dhoni is nowhere close to be done in the ODIs—his showings against Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand confirm that there is plenty of ODI cricket left in him. But with him not getting any younger, is it time to pass on the wicket keeping baton in T20Is? Is there any basis to Laxman’s statements?

Looking at M S Dhoni’s overall T20I record, it wouldn’t be an understatement to call it as underwhelming. Over the 11 years, Dhoni has batted 68 times—between positions 3 and 7. His run tally is 11th amongst the players who have batted between similar positions; his batting average is quite healthy in 13th place (minimum 10 innings). But in the matter of strike rate, he lies at a lowly 68th place.

Over the last 5 years, a bowling team in a T20I has captured a wicket every ~17.8 balls (not very different from the overall figure of ~17.6 balls). This implies that the average team loses less than 7 wickets in a given match. Therefore, wickets are overvalued in T20Is (or 30% of the wickets are not utilized in an average match). On the other hand, each ball represents 0.83% of the available scoring opportunities for the batting side. Unlike an ODI, a batsman cannot take an over to “play himself in” in a T20I (like Dhoni did so). Hence, for a T20 player, strike rate is a far bigger asset compared to the batting average (runs per dismissal).

Of all the Indian men who have batted in at least 10 innings in positions between 3 and 7, Dhoni’s strike rate is second from last. But this alone can’t be held against him as it is also true that the Indian team has traditionally played a few T20I matches in a year. Why, another illustrious player—A B de Villiers—also has an ordinary T20I record compared to his stellar club showings. Can we therefore turn to a tournament like the IPL where more data is available and pick up some clues?

Over the ten seasons of the IPL, Dhoni has faced ~260 balls per season on an average. He’s had more good years than bad years (from a strike rate perspective). Overall, his numbers look really good—he’s well ahead of all of his Indian contemporaries in the strike rate stakes, barring Sehwag. On the basis of his overall IPL record, it is no surprise that his spot had never been under threat. And it is not like keepers such as Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel, Naman Ojha or Sanju Samson have been knocking at the door with their exceptional performances in the IPL or other domestic T20s.

MS drop.jpg

M S Dhoni’s batting record in the IPL ordered by season

However, the above table also shows that Dhoni’s ability to find the fence and his strike rate have taken a beating in the last 3 years, as seen in the lower than usual balls per boundary (4 or 6) and strike rate. The last two times he had ordinary campaigns (in 2009 and 2012), he was able to redeem himself in the next editions. But whether he will still be able to do that after the age of 36 is anyone’s guess. He probably isn’t the player anymore to take India home from a hypothetical scenario of 60 runs to get from 6 overs with 5 wickets in hand, leave alone yesterday’s match. Needless to say, the latest Dhoni T20I showing is a microcosm of his limitations in this format, and his inability to get going right from the start.

Yes, M S Dhoni is an all-time legend in the ODI format, probably in the league of Tendulkar, Richards, Akram and McGrath; he may very well have delivered the World T20 in 2007 and impressive showings in the recent editions of the World T20; but recent evidence points to his inability to keep pace with the batting demands of the T20 game. Make no mistake, his keeping ability, fitness, tactical nous are surefire hits in the T20 format, but on the basis of striking the ball (like the Dhoni of 2006 vintage) he’s holding the team back. This isn’t to suggest that the T20 door is closed to him; considering that wickets are overvalued, he could be considered as a pure wicketkeeper batting at number 7 or below—with a bevy of hard hitting batsmen and all-rounders above him in the batting order. But pragmatically speaking, the selectors should have bid goodbye to him in the T20Is long time back; Dhoni certainly wouldn’t need the T20Is to get himself an attractive IPL contract.

With India playing only the odd T20I per tour, the stakes are quite low in the overall scheme of things. Besides, there is no World T20 in 2018 due to a cramped schedule, which raises the question what purpose these bilateral T20I fixtures serve.  India have had a wretched T20I record during the last one year with victories against a greenhorn Sri Lankan team and a demoralized Australian team masking their overall deficiencies, and are in need of freshening things up. Hence, they should use the opportunity to audition the newer, younger models such as Rishabh Pant and co. with a view of finding clues to a solution of a much bigger, impending problem—the long-term successor to Dhoni in the ODI format.

Disclaimer: Some images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representation purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with respective owners.

Kohli in sight of Tendulkar’s ODI records

virat_kohli_batting

Following in the master’s footsteps. Image source:1.

In what must have been news to cricket followers all around the world, Virat Kohli didn’t get an ODI hundred in the five match series against Australia. He scored only 180 runs in five innings with a highest score of 92, sixth in the previous ODI series run aggregates. Gasp! He couldn’t convert his previous ninety to a hundred. The nerves must be getting to him. What a failure. Lest the army the fans of Kohli are up in arms against my insensitive remarks retweeting and abusing me in droves, let me clarify that I was only being sarcastic.

Now, with no sooner than the first ODI in the series against New Zealand, he’s got his hundred, ending his “slump”; in his 200th match too, to bring up a pretty statistic. This puts him alone at 31 ODI centuries, one clear of Ricky Ponting, and with only Sachin Tendulkar ahead of him. Though the result of the match didn’t go his way even after Kohli’s contribution, scoring his 31st century in his 200th match (all stats correct until 22nd October 2017) is remarkable. It is no surprise that VVS Laxman compared Kohli’s appetite and place in the modern game to the diminutive legend from Bombay.

The position of Virat Kohli as an all-time legend in the ODI format of cricket can be taken for granted even if he were to retire today (and let me assure you, he won’t). When he approaches the end of his career, he will probably be spoken of in the same breath as Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, M S Dhoni and A B de Villiers. A batting average of nearly 56 runs per dismissal despite the fact that he bats most frequently at no. 3; one of the fastest to the various multiples of 1000 runs milestones and centuries landmarks; a shiny World cup winner’s medal in his cabinet with a stabilizing innings that resurrected the chase; a record number of centuries in a run-chase, and the list only goes on. It is hard to believe the sheer number of records that he boasts of despite being nearly 29 years old.

It is also scarcely believable that he’s just about entering the prime of his career. As a yardstick, the immensely talented, yet rounded-at-the-edges Sachin Tendulkar played for India in his 40th year. Given Virat Kohli’s focus on athletic fitness and his lithe frame, how long he can play at the highest level if he can maintain his batting form is anybody’s guess.

For a different generation, Sachin Tendulkar was that benchmark of ODI excellence. In the late 1998, the then Indian skipper Mohammed Azharuddin (remember him?) became the highest run scorer in ODIs. Before him, it was West Indian Desmond Haynes who had set the ODI record for most runs in a career at 8648 runs in 1994. Haynes also had the record for the most ODI centuries in a career (18). In his record-breaking year of 1998, 25 year old Sachin Tendulkar swiftly moved from 12 ODI centuries to 21, obliterating the latter record. With his then run tally at ~7500 runs, it was just a matter of time before Tendulkar would scale the Mount Everest of ODI cricket.

Tendulkar was only done 14 years later in 2012, and finished with nearly every batting record worth having in ODI cricket. The most runs at 18426; the most number of centuries (49) and half-centuries (96); the first man to scale the 200 run barrier in a single ODI innings (cricket’s own version of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile), and so on—you get the idea. How close is Virat Kohli to beating Tendulkar’s records? Is it possible at all? There needs to be a detailed appraisal of their records before any conclusion can be drawn in this matter.

Virat Kohli made his first ODI hundred in his 13th ODI innings. Coming in to bat at no. 4 at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket in a steep chase of 316 runs against the Sri Lankans at Kolkata, Virat Kohli made a composed 107. Ably supporting Gautam Gambhir who headlined the chase with a 150, the two batsmen hunted the target down with minimum fuss. In his early days itself, Kohli had displayed a keen sense to chase down a target in a team which already had capable chasers.

In contrast, Tendulkar’s first ODI hundred came in his 76th inning, against the Australians in Colombo. It is worth remembering that Tendulkar batted in the middle order before 1994 in ODI cricket; an inspired promotion in New Zealand changed Tendulkar’s ODI fortunes. In fact, Tendulkar’s ODI hundred gathering prowess is not dissimilar to Kohli’s insatiable appetite today: from his 1st to 31st hundred, the master took 196 innings, whereas the protégé has taken 180 innings in these run-inflated times. It could be argued that Tendulkar’s run appetite was more gluttonous than Kohli.

Player name Runs per inns. Player name Inns./100 Player name Inns./50+ score
HM Amla 47.619 HM Amla 5.96 IJL Trott 2.50
V Kohli 46.292 V Kohli 6.19 Babar Azam 2.50
AB de Villiers 44.256 Q de Kock 6.76 V Kohli 2.53
JE Root 43.956 DA Warner 7.07 HM Amla 2.58
IJL Trott 43.369 S Dhawan 8.18 JE Root 2.68
Q de Kock 43.250 AB de Villiers 8.60 KS Williamson 2.73
DA Warner 43.131 JE Root 9.10 AB de Villiers 2.76
Zaheer Abbas 42.867 SR Tendulkar 9.22 S Dhawan 2.81
KS Williamson 42.303 ME Trescothick 10.16 IVA Richards 2.98
S Dhawan 42.089 LRPL Taylor 10.41 Zaheer Abbas 3.00
SR Tendulkar 40.765 HH Gibbs 11.43 F du Plessis 3.00
CG Greenidge 40.425 CG Greenidge 11.55 CG Greenidge 3.02
IVA Richards 40.246 WTS Porterfield 11.56 DM Jones 3.04
ML Hayden 39.568 RG Sharma 11.64 JH Kallis 3.05
MJ Guptill 38.417 MJ Guptill 12.00 SR Tendulkar 3.12

The extent of run-inflation can be sensed by looking at the names and time periods of the players who clocked in the highest runs per innings (RPI) in the history of ODI cricket. 10 out of 16 players with the highest RPI are still active today, with Kohli at second place; so are a similar 10 of the 15 players with the lowest innings per century. To add to the latter point, the top seven are from today’s times with Tendulkar in eighth. Even the innings per fifty plus score (which is a lot more accommodating of middle order batsmen) tells a similar story—top 3 batsmen are dominating ODI cricket like never before. No doubt Virat Kohli has been an excellent performer, but he’s clearly in the same league as some of his other illustrious contemporaries when compared to Tendulkar, who was in a league of his own—as were Richards, Greenidge, Jones and Abbas at other times as well.

Nonetheless, Virat Kohli could possibly overhaul Tendulkar’s records given time. This is highly dependent on whether he manages to stay at the same performance levels for the rest of his career. If we assume that he does manage to perform at 90% of his present ability from now on, he’d need another 229 innings to overhaul Tendulkar’s tally of runs, and 129 innings to overcome his hundreds tally. Given that he’s played about 200 matches for 192 innings, and he’s needed nearly 9 years to reach this point, he’d need a full decade to overcome Tendulkar’s run tally at the theorized 90% Virat Kohli cadence; the hundreds tally is a lot more in sight—“only” six more years. Of course, he could entirely lose form and fade away, but given his progress so far, he’s at a point at his career where he can entertain thoughts about his end-career ambitions.

Back when Tendulkar was breaking every record in the book, his ODI records looked unscalable, out of bounds of the realms of possibility, and set for posterity. Now, with this new run machine Virat Kohli at nearly 9000 runs (sure to pass it by the end of the year), and at 31 ODI centuries, at Everest base camp, Virat Kohli has Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI record peaks in sight. Don’t bet against it happening; after all, nothing motives Kohli more than a target to chase.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is for representational purposes only and is not the property of the blog. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

 

 

 

The terminators

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).

So near, yet so far, yet again: The England team at the 1992 World Cup final. Image source: 1.

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.

1a

Ranges of individual wicket hauls and run tallies in an ODI innings of approximately equivalent frequency distribution

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.

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Variation of economy rate with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only)

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.

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Variation of Big haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only).

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).

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Variation of Bumper haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only).

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.

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Variation of Bowling Index (second) across the batting order in different time periods.

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.

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%Variation of BoI (second) with BoI (first) as a reference. The positive and negative values have been coloured in green and red respectively.

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.

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Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the first 3 ODI eras.

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.

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Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the middle 3 ODI 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.

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Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the last 3 ODI eras.

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?

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Players having a high level of BI (1.75 or 1.40) across multiple eras.

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?

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The countries with the most number of good second innings bowlers (BoI ratio>1.40) in each ODI era.

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?

Death rattle: Wasim Akram exults after castling Chris Lewis. Image source: 2.

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.