The overseas bowling puzzle for India

The recently concluded, enthralling test series between India and Australia represented a watershed moment for the Indian cricket team. In the process of defeating Australia in the final test in Dharamshala, it became the third country (after Australia and South Africa) to hold all bilateral trophies in test cricket (concerning its own team, of course) at the same point of time. From Steven Smith’s quip of being one or two sessions away from the Australian team retaining the Border-Gavaskar trophy after the Pune reverse to winning the series at Dharamshala, this was a stunning reaction from the Virat Kohli led team. Of course, India having played most of its recent tests at home has contributed to some part of this achievement; greater challenges lie abroad.


The spin twins: Who will make the cut in an overseas test? Image source: 1.

The bedrock of this match-winning juggernaut has been built on the foundation of a well-oiled bowling unit. Leading from the front are India’s two match winning spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. Ranked 1 and 3 (Ashwin was ranked at 2 when the series concluded) on the ICC player rankings, they have been at the forefront of dismantling opposition teams at home—emulating the illustrious Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwath Chandrashekhar, who occupied the top two slots way back in 1974. Ashwin even managed to breach the elite 900 ranking points level, hitherto unscaled by Indian bowlers.

However, the two spinners took contrasting paths during the extended home season.  Ashwin took off from where he left, becoming the third player (after Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan, no less) to snare four consecutive Man-of-the-series awards with his showing against the New Zealand team. However, he ran into a wall (relatively speaking) in the form of the English team. He wasn’t able to run amok against Bangladesh or Australia either; his batting form tailed off as well.

Of course, injury might have played some part in his less-than-stellar showing; during the home season, Ashwin bowled over 700 overs and picked up 82 wickets (a record). He was first picked for the Ranji trophy quarterfinal match against Karnataka, and subsequently withdrew due to a sports hernia to recuperate. The same injury reared its ugly head after the India-Australia series, and the bowler rightly gave the IPL a skip.

On the other hand, Ravindra Jadeja went from strength to strength as the home season progressed. He maintained a high level for the first three series, and was the standout performer in the Border-Gavaskar trophy, usurping his teammate Ashwin from the top of the ICC rankings. He too missed the initial matches of the IPL, but his improved test match prowess hasn’t exactly boosted his IPL showings. Both of these bowlers were ineffectual during the Champions trophy.

Versus team (number of tests) Ravichandran Ashwin Ravindra Jadeja
Wickets Bowling avg. Wickets Bowling avg.
New Zealand (3) 27 17.77 14 24.07
England (5) 28 30.25 26 25.84
Bangladesh (1) 6 28.50 6 24.66
Australia (4) 21 27.38 25 18.56
Recent ODIs        
Champions trophy 1 167 4 62.25

This raises an interesting conundrum with tours to Sri Lanka in July-August and away to South Africa in December-January: what will India’s bowling combination be when it tours different countries?

When India last toured many overseas countries in 2014, Ashwin had been left out of the eleven seven times in nine test matches. He was dropped after he bowled 42 overs at the Wanderers with nothing to show in the wickets column. The man who replaced him in the next test was Ravindra Jadeja—who toiled for 58.2 overs in the first innings, but got 6 wickets. Even the unheralded Karn Sharma leapfrogged him in Adelaide.

Ashwin didn’t impress when he got the chance in England or Australia either. After a period of introspection, he turned a corner and has been a different bowler since. But the question remains—who will be the primary spinner when India tours? What would be done with Kuldeep Yadav, another interesting prospect?

Fortunately, there exists a period in India’s recent cricketing past when the team faced a similar conundrum—the spinners being the previous Indian coach Anil Kumble, and the man who Ashwin replaced, Harbhajan Singh.

Between Harbhajan Singh’s debut test (25th March 1998) and Anil Kumble’s final test (2nd November 2008), India played toured many a country abroad. In 20 of these matches, both Kumble and Harbhajan featured.  Sometimes, one player was favoured over the other—Kumble made the cut 26 times, whereas Harbhajan was picked 12 times.  Is there any evidence that playing one or two spinners led to the other bowling better?

  Alone Together
Kumble 34.35 35.38
Harbhajan 38.60 40.27

The effect, if any, is quite marginal. In fact, the statistics show that both spinners bowled marginally better alone (overall bowling figures are woeful, nonetheless). The choice of bowling combination is revealing in terms of the opposition strength; they featured in tandem mostly for tests against “weaker” nations like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies, and against stronger opposition at well-known spin friendly venues like Galle, The Oval, Sydney and their ilk.

Keeping this in mind, it will be interesting to see the Indian team’s approach when it lines up against teams abroad. Would it pick one over the other? Will the team management play both in a five bowler combination, and hope for the lower order to click? Which two spinners will they play? Will there be a third spinner in this equation on overseas rank turners? Here is the flexible approach that Anil Kumble had advocated before his time as the Indian coach:

“We have gone into this theory of three seamers and one spinner the moment we sit on an aircraft which travels more than seven hours – that’s the mindset… If your 20 wickets are going to come with two spinners and two fast bowlers, so be it. If it comes with three spinners and one fast bowler so be it.”

To his credit, Kumble stuck to his philosophy during his tenure. Now if India worked out a bowler management program to go along with an approach like this, it would have a great chance of competing with the best sides overseas. But with Kumble being no more associated with the Indian team and Ravi Shastri yet to air his views regarding this in public, the Indian team’s strategy remains to be seen.

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.



2 thoughts on “The overseas bowling puzzle for India

  1. one honest question please provide honest answer dont you think this whole business of checking how many man of series each player has got is bit over-rated i mean i was pleasantly surprised that this concept called man of series existed during imran and marshall times ,i thought it 90s invention after television boom came in so not sure you can judge how good ashwin is by the man of series awards he got .do we know how many man of series bradman ,keith miller or sobers got ?
    Second thing regarding ashwin is the number of test matches he has missed away which kinda inflates his strike rates and averages for example a batsman scores 2-3 centuries at home but team drops him right after one away failure and then he comes back and score heavily at home i hope you get the drift i know ashwin is top class cricketer especially in test but is overseas reputations is still question mark .However its not that every player needs to perform everywhere no one remembers warne poor india record but atleast warne played in india often quite often actually if you compare it older aussies like Lillie or thomo


    • Hello Sandeep,

      Thanks for writing to us. For some reason, this comment was marked as spam (not anymore). Yes, the man of the match/series is a recent phenomenon which began in the 80’s. But we don’t have any information before that. But that doesn’t mean insight can’t be drawn from MoM or MoS. In test cricket, bowlers grab MoM and MoS most of the time but batsmen do in ODIs (as you can imagine); so even though the press fetishes batsmen more than bowlers, the game adjudicators have largely recognized pivotal roles. Yes, they can be thoroughly subjective as well. I wouldn’t place as much importance to an award compared to the numbers behind them.

      Regarding the Ashwin bit, I feel that every cricketer needs to prove themselves abroad against good teams in unfamiliar conditions to be counted as greats. You’re right that it may not be possible for every cricketer to do well everywhere (Dravid and Laxman have poor records in some countries whereas Tendulkar is more rounded). But it is also based on how many chances they get. Given that a tour to a particular country comes every 4-5 years, you need at least a 7-8 year career for you to have two shots everywhere. Now that is an incredibly small set of players. Ashwin has made his overseas record alright in WI and SL but his big test will come against Aus, NZ, SA and Eng. He will have to tick at least one box and according to our research, he needs fast bowling support to do it. One more thing–the anglo-centric media does focus on subcontinental players a bit more in their criticism. For example, Jimmy Anderson called out Virat Kohli’s great series as a result of him being great in his conditions. Given that he’s done well last the time in SA and Australia, that’s a bit rich. What’s more, Jimmy Anderson has a pathetic record almost everywhere outside England. Yet we don’t see the world media putting him so much under the scanner. In their eyes, he’s an all-time legend with nothing to prove.


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