With the great spin bowling superstars of the past now long gone there is a perception that Test Match spin bowling is in somewhat of a rut, a view that has only been enhanced by the recent retirement of Graeme Swann.
Analysis of the current crop
Statistics since 1st January 2012 however suggest different, with seven spinners in the top 20 leading wicket-takers during that period. This return hardly suggests reason to panic, considering that in the majority of cases slow bowlers might make up between 20/50% of a sides bowling attack depending on conditions and 35% of bowlers on this list are categorised as spinners.
Graeme Swann (102 wickets) is unsurprisingly top of the table, however Rangana Herath (98), Nathan Lyon (89), Saeed Ajmal (86) and Ravichandran Ashwin (78) can all boast a position in the leading 10.
Swann does however benefit from playing significantly more Tests during the timeframe than the majority of those listed, in terms of average wickets per game his return of 4.25 per game is not among the standout spinners.
Herath claims on average 5.76 victims per Test, Ajmal 5.38 and Ashwin 5.2, Shane Shillingford is also a surprise success story with his return of 5.67 only bettered by Herath, although further inspection does reveal that stat is inflated by 19 wickets in two Tests against Zimbabwe.
A comparison against the wickets per game of the leading paceman during this time frame provides favourable viewing, with only Mitchell Johnson’s frightening 6.2 scalps per Test able to better Herath, Ajmal and Ashwin.
It is worth reminding though that spin bowlers do bowl a greater number of overs than seam bowlers which is likely to influence these results, further to that in sub-continental locations the spinner can often be the main source of wickets whereas on more seam friendly surfaces there are a number of pace bowlers vying for breakthroughs.
Comparisons with the past
The argument that the current collection don’t possess the same X-factor as Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan is a valid one, but then it would be unrealistic to expect them to considering they were both one of a kind bowlers.
More realistic comparisons should be drawn against the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble to name but a few, all high quality bowlers but arguably Ajmal and Herath are certainly on a par, only reminiscent tinted spectacles could argue otherwise.
Statistically there is little to choose between them, Ajmal’s career average of 27.5 comfortably put him clear of the three bowlers listed previously, which is vindication for why many consider him to be the world’s leading spinner with daylight in second. An average of 30 for Herath all but matches that of Kumble (29.7) a bowler rated as one of the all-time greats, which is not to say Herath should be viewed in the same bracket given his overall career achievements are some way off the Indian’s, more that the Sri Lankan is an excellent bowler who isn’t given the credit he deserves.
The case of Ashwin is more complicated to decipher; his overall average of 28.5 is exceptional, however that masks an ugly average of 74.8 outside of Asia. It is no great secret that sub-continental spinners struggle in other regions; Herath averages 8.8 runs more per wicket outside of Asia, Swann 5.6, Kumble 5.5, Saqlain 4.5 and the legendary Muralitharan 3.4. That there is just 0.1 differences between Ajmal’s averages is further vindication to him being top of the spinning mantra.
Such is the disparity in Ashwin’s returns it is a blot hard to ignore, particularly considering how unthreatening he has been outside of Asia.
Despite the favourable statistics there is a concern regarding the next generation of slow bowlers. Ajmal and Herath the leading two spinners are at 36 and 35 respectively, now well into the twilights of their careers and there are concerns about who will take up the mantra.
Undoubtedly spinners are late developers, quite what Ajmal was doing with his career prior to his Test debut in 2009 is one of cricket’s great mysteries. Taking that into account it could yet turn out that a couple of the spinners currently playing may go on to become high quality spinners, for that to occur though selectors need to allow bowlers greater opportunity to grow as Test cricketers rather than discarding them when things don’t go to plan.
The success of Lyon provides vindication with the Australian overcoming a difficult start to his Test career to become a pivotal part of Australia’s current resurgence, at just 26 his overall career average of 33 should fall yet further.
Even in this case though the Australian’s dispensed with Lyon after a difficult tour of India, ignoring that such conditions are not natural to an Australian spinner or that Indians are often the best players of spin. Fortunately for the Aussies their failings over the summer Ashes allowed them to stumble back upon Lyon.
There is though a dangerous factor affecting the future of spin bowling which is the impact of Twenty20 cricket. The likes of Ajmal, Herath and Swann were around long enough before its arrival to learn their skills without being moulding to suit limited overs cricket.
Players who have proven unplayable at Twenty20 level such as Ajantha Mendis and Sunil Narine have found removing batsman at Test level an entirely different kettle of fish.
One-day cricket was always around in the past but not on the scale it is today, as a result players partake in substantially less first-class cricket, particularly once they are at the door of the international setup, which makes developing Test match skills incredibly difficult.
The changing role of the spinner
The changing nature of the role of a spin bowler throughout cricket in general is possibly one of the main reasons why so many question the current state of spin bowling.
The defensive manner in which they are on the large part utilised means slow bowlers are discouraged to give the ball flight and express themselves, which in is perhaps why the current crop are held in less regard as their predecessors.
For an example of this you only have to analyse India’s recent decision to favour the cautious Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja over the more attacking Pragyan Ojha, who has remarkably never played a Test outside of Asia despite a hardly unimpressive average of 25 since January 2012.
The current climate also means it is more difficult than ever for leg-spinners to develop, given this is such a challenging art to master and as a result they generally concede more runs than other spinners. With limited overs cricket playing such a monumental role in the modern game which leg-spinners often don’t suit and a general lack of patience throughout the game, the already rare leg-spinner looks a dying breed.
In conclusion, the current state of spin bowling is far less bleak than the cynics might have us believe, with the previous generation being spoilt by possessing not one but two all-time spin-bowling greats one of the main factors behind the negative aura around today’s spinners.
However, with Ajmal and Herath likely to be joining Swann in retirement over the coming years, the future of spin bowling at Test match level looks in serious doubt.
This uncertainty is based not only around the current stocks but also the changing landscape for spin bowlers, fuelled by the dominance of limited overs cricket.
© Cricket World 2014