Indian bowlers lead way as strike rates give new focus to Test cricket

Ravi Ashwin one of a number of Indian bowlers with superior strike rates

Anindya Dutta

There has been a lot to be thankful for this summer from a sporting standpoint, not least of which has been the return of spectators to Test cricket. And notwithstanding the failure of most batsmen not called Root to stand up and be counted, they have enjoyed an intriguing and enjoyable contest between England and India.

But it is indeed the failure of batsmen and the lack of big totals that has drawn my focus over the past week to a conundrum – choosing the most relevant between two bowling parameters: the average and the strike rate. In all honesty, as a self-confessed tragic of Test cricket, I never thought it would come to this.

For a century and a half, the bowling average, or runs conceded for every wicket taken by a bowler, has been the defining statistic in judging the greatness of the Sultans of Swing and Wizards of Spin. I have often benevolently smiled at the folly of youth obsessed with the white-ball format who mentioned strike rates and Test cricket in the same breath. But perhaps it was time, I thought, to wipe that smirk off my face while I reconsidered my position in the light of how batsmen approach Test cricket in the era of T20 and the Hundred.

Besides the ongoing debate about comparisons across eras, could we actually apply the same parameters to Test cricket as it exists today and going forward, I asked myself? Should we?

When batsmen have lost the ability to play long innings in challenging conditions, when technique against both the moving ball and spin has become a scarce commodity, why should the ability of a bowler merely be measured against runs conceded?

Perhaps the misguided youth of today indeed have a point when they choose to focus instead on the strike rate. Anyway, what harm could it do to study it a bit more closely? So I did.

Defining the ground rules

We could look at strike rates from the dawn of Test cricket, but that would be counter-intuitive given what I said above. Test cricket has gone through too many changes in terms of the weather impact on pitches, the ball, the length of the over, the technique and intent of batsmen to compare across eras.

My first thought was that perhaps the relevant data set is from 2007, when the first T20 World Cup was played? I quickly discarded that notion given the technique and intent of batsmen could scarcely have changed overnight. So it had to be more recent. But with no great clarity on a reasonable cut-off date, I chose to take a data set of bowlers who are still playing Test cricket.

Next, given that it is Test cricket, and longevity and performance over a significant period of time is what the format is all about, I took the call that I would compare the performance of current bowlers whose careers have stood the Test of time, so to speak. So while their careers could have started before 2007, they continue to ply their craft against modern batsmen.

Hence the data set now pruned down to bowlers who have played at least 50 Test matches (and in a solitary transgression to my own rule, a bowler who will in all likelihood play his 50th this month). The results were interesting to say the least.

The magic of eight

There is an interesting fact for anyone intrigued by numbers in cricket. No bowler in our data set has taken their wickets, without on average sending down eight overs. Not one.

In fact, even if we look beyond the set of active bowlers to all those with more than 50 Test matches against their name, only four illustrious speedsters make it on this count: Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Malcolm Marshall and Allan Donald. Steyn took a wicket on average every seven overs and Donald just about breasted the tape a shade below eight. If we relaxed the criteria to 40 matches, Kagiso Rabada would top that list with a wicket every six overs and five balls and would be followed by Shoaib Akhtar at a shade above seven.

But back to our chosen data set. The best in our group of bowlers who met both criteria of having played 50 Tests and not having retired from the format, managed to make it at just above the intriguing eight mark and the straggler came in a whisker short of nine. A caveat worth mentioning at this point is that the ESPN Cricinfo data set of 77 Test bowlers across history that I was using doesn't have on the list any bowler who has had to labour for more than nine overs to take a wicket on average in their career. So it seems reasonable to conclude that in modern cricket, the eight to nine goalpost is a reasonable one to work within.

The most striking bowlers in Test cricket

At No.6 on our list is Barbados-born 33-year old Kemar Roach of West Indies.

Since making his debut at the age of 20, Roach has been the standout fast bowler carrying the legacy of illustrious predecessors on his broad shoulders. He has picked up 231 wickets every 53 deliveries through his career of 67 Test matches.

What makes this a remarkable achievement is that Roach has played for one of the weakest sides in modern Test cricket, unlike the stalwarts from the formidable Barbados and West Indies sides of yore. For the traditionalists, his average of 27.05 is nothing to scoff at either.

Coming in at No5 is a man whose absence from the current Indian playing XI in England is inexplicable to say the least. One would imagine that the presence of Ravichandran Ashwin, who has taken a wicket every 52 deliveries in 79 Test matches played over a decade, would be a shoo-in for a side struggling to dominate a largely mediocre English batting line-up. One would, of course, imagine wrong since one does not dwell in the headspace of India's current team management.

The fact that Ashwin also happens to be the ONLY spinner not just in our shortlist but also in the entire data set of those with more than 50 Test matches to have a strike rate in this range, without even dwelling on his average of 24.56, the lowest among the six, makes the omission stunning.

Helping swing the inaugural World Test Championship his nation's way earlier this summer, No.4 Neil Wagner may have only added three to his tally of 216 career Kiwi wickets against a hapless India, but he did it every 31 deliveries instead of his usual 52.3. His average of 26.4 is inferior only to Ashwin's, on our list.

Besides earning his position in our exalted list, Wagner also has an achievement that is unmatched in the entire 126-year history of first-class cricket. In 2011, playing for Otago, Wagner took five Wellington wickets in a six-ball over. A decade later, the feat remains unchallenged.

At No3 comes a man who shook off the blackness of the coal mines of Jharkhand and took to cricket as a teenager in order to help supplement his father's meagre income as a coal miner. In the decade that the 33-year old Umesh Yadav has played Test cricket, he has taken a wicket every 51 deliveries at an average of 30.44.

What is most intriguing about Yadav's career is that despite his excellent strike rate, he has been used by successive captains as a flat pitch specialist. Bowling with pace and venom on lifeless tracks, he has indeed justified their faith, but in ignoring him in favour of colleagues who are frugal with runs on more helpful wickets, they may have missed a few facts about his bowling that merit consideration.

In the first 12-overs of an innings across countries and surfaces, Umesh has an incredible strike rate of 35. That means he gets a wicket every six overs that he sends down. Let's think about this for a moment – if Umesh Yadav opens the bowling for India, he is almost certain to get rid of one of the openers. His average during those first 12-overs? 20.96. That should logically ensure he is the first name in the pace bowling list of an Indian Test team. Except that he is not.

Yadav is also one of the rare Indian pace bowlers with the ability to get both swing and reverse swing, a trait, one would think, that would make him an automatic selection for an Indian side in England. In fact, a Cricviz study in January 2020 pointed out that in the two-year period before their study, Umesh was one of the three pace bowlers in the world who could get more swing than the icon of modern swing – Jimmy Anderson, while bowling significantly faster than him.

Since 2018, Umesh's strike-rate of 35.30 (balls per wicket) is the best in the world among bowlers who have played at least 10 Tests during that period. During the same period, he has taken 52 wickets in 13 Tests at an average of 20.03, the third-best in the world. And yet he has featured in only six of India's 21 Tests abroad.

Finally, Yadav's overall strike rate outside India, is 41. Every 6.5 overs, in conditions under which he is supposedly less impactful, he gets rid of an opposition batsman. Yes, he concedes far more runs in doing so than the other members of India's pace battery, but is saving runs really the only reason to leave a fast bowler with his remarkable ability to take wickets out of the side?

At No2 is another Indian – Mohammad Shami. Picking up each of his 195 wickets every 50 deliveries that he sends down, Shami is the workhorse leader of India's fast bowling pack. His average of 27.56 is fortunately optically enough to ensure he does make it to the side when he is available for selection.

Decoding the reasons for Shami's success on both counts (strike rate and average), Michael Holding pointed out in an interview to Sony in 2020: "It is important to have pace, but you have got to have control as well. Shami is not very tall... is not extremely quick... but is quick enough. And he has the control and he moves the ball around a bit. If you are constantly [bowling] in the right areas, attacking batsmen, it creates more and more pressure and they are more liable to make mistakes. So that is Shami's real strength."

Finally, coming in top of our class at No1 is an Australian left-arm pace bowler with the rare combination of pace, skill and accuracy: Mitchell Starc.

Starc's rich haul of 255 wickets have not only come at an average only marginally above Shami's at 27.57 but far more importantly in our case, with a gap of only 49 deliveries between each of them. In fact, among all bowlers in the history of the sport who have played more Tests than Starc, only the set of four mentioned above – Steyn, Waqar, Marshall and Donald – have a higher strike rate.

Player Career Span Test Matches Balls Runs Wickets Average SR
MA Starc (AUS) 2011-2021 61 12575 7031 255 27.57 49.3
Mohammed Shami (INDIA) 2013-2021 54 9801 5376 195 27.56 50.2
UT Yadav (INDIA) 2011-2021 49 7735 4597 151 30.44 51.2
N Wagner (NZ) 2012-2021 54 11991 6046 229 26.4 52.3
R Ashwin (INDIA) 2011-2021 79 21670 10144 413 24.56 52.4
KAJ Roach (WI) 2009-2021 67 12218 12218 231 27.05 52.8

Choose wisely and ye shall prevail

American writer Mark Twain once wrote to the New York Journal after rumour of his illness did the rounds: 'I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about; I have even heard on good authority that I was dead…. The report of my death was an exaggeration.'

One could say the same about Test cricket, whose imminent demise has been predicted for about a century. The fact is that Test cricket demonstrates its resilience by continually evolving.

Over the last two years, the 2019 Ashes, the 2020-21 India-Australia series and most recently the Lord's Test, have reminded us why the format has stood the test of time.

The sport has changed for the foreseeable future. Scores above 400 will be an exception rather than the rule. Results within the allotted five days will be the norm and draws a rarity. Batsmen will be forced to show intent more than patience. Captains will be judged more on their willingness to live and die by the sword than demonstration of prudence.

It is thus only logical that bowlers will be valued more for the wickets they take than the runs they save. As we have shed various cobwebs in our mind to help the format evolve, so we must shake ourselves out of the obsession with bowling averages and move on to focusing on strike rates. Modern captains need to look more carefully at this aspect of the evolved game.

It is hugely encouraging and testimony to the robustness of the domestic system that three of the six most impactful bowlers in the world – Shami, Umesh, and Ashwin – are currently a part of the Indian squad trying to win their first series in England in two decades. It is equally staggering, however, that not once has more than one made it to the final 11 in a Test match through the summer.

It is time that not just India, but all Test teams pay closer attention to bowling strike rates. Reimagining team selection using this parameter may just be what Test cricket needs to reduce the average age of its fan base while postponing the next conversation about its demise.