The land of spinners: really?

November 29, 2011

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Three out of 10 isn’t half bad...

It has become an oft-repeated truism of late that the Misbah-ul-Haq led Pakistan side is quite a different beast to the swash-buckling, opponent destroying Pakistan’s teams of yore.  Further proof of this assertion came, if any was needed, in the ICC’s ODI Player Rankings for this week.

Three bowlers in the worlds top 10, whereas no batsmen made the cut? So far, so very Pakistani. However, Pakistan, the land of toe-crunching yorkers, of sheer pace and of larger-than-life fast bowlers with racy hair and racier lifestyles, seems now to be solely dependent on the twirlers: the three top-ranked Pakistanis, Saeed Ajmal, Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez are all spinners!

ICC ODI Player Rankings
Rank Name Country Rating
1 Saeed Ajmal Pakistan 693
2 D.L. Vettori New Zealand 691
3 G.P. Swann England 689
4 Mitchell Johnson Australia 688
5 M. Morkel South Africa 678
6 D. E. Bollinger Australia 660
7 Shahid Afridi Pakistan 655
8 Mohammad Hafeez Pakistan 645
9 D. W .Steyn South Africa 644
10 Shakib Al Hasan Bangladesh 639

(source: http://www.relianceiccrankings.com/ranking/odi/bowling/)

It is of course worth bearing in mind that the rankings simply present a snap-shot at a point in time; they’re a flawed and even inaccurate measure of class, but a decent gauge of form; that’s the only explanation for Hafeez being ranked higher than Dale Steyn (well that, or we have all slipped into a parallel universe!).

Nevertheless, the world’s current top 10 makes for interesting reading: two left-arm pacemen from Australia; South Africa’s new ball attack; and then six spinners: one each from England, New Zealand and Bangladesh, and the three Pakistanis.

It has been well over a decade since three Pakistani bowlers were amongst the worlds best at the same time; what is unprecedented though is for all three to be spinners! In fact, Pakistan’s current best paceman is actually Umar Gul at #29.

... And the top spot too...!

And if this wasn’t achievement enough, for the first time since the heyday of Saqlain Mushtaq in the late 1990s, a Pakistani is now ranked as the world’s best ODI bowler. In fact, Pakistan has not had a World #1 bowler in any format this century; itself a remarkable anomaly for a nation that has always prided itself on its bowling.

Saeed Ajmal’s slow but inexorable rise to the top therefore is testament not just to his guile and his wily doosra, but also to his sheer tenacity. Lesser mortals would have crumbled after the energy-sapping, demoralising and soul-destroying onslaught from Mike Hussey in the World T20 in May 2010; Ajmal instead retains the heart for a fight. He is often Pakistan’s trump card in the latter stages of the match, or whenever the pressure is on, or when the batsman attempt simultaneously to unravel his mystery/pick his doosra and score off him.

It’s not just the wickets though; Ajmal’s entire persona screams “Pakistani Bowler” in green-and-white neon. He may not bowl fast, but he more than compensates with the attitude, the natural aggression and the will-to-win that we expect, nay demand, from Pakistan’s best bowlers.

Never one to shy away from a challenge or a (gentlemanly) confrontation, and with his appetite for wickets and team glory far from sated, Ajmal’s good natured humour and his legendary TV interviews are set to entertain us all for a while yet.

Afridi’s place in the pantheon

This week’s bowling ratings represent the high-water mark of the fledgling careers of both Ajmal and Hafeez; but Afridi, the third and most experienced Pakistani in the list, has been ranked amongst the world’s best for a few years now, reaching 667 rating points as far back as June 2008 (he’s currently on 655 points).

In fact, Afridi has been a world Top-25 bowler since Feb-2007, a remarkably consistent run over almost five years for a player routinely (and unfairly) accused of inconsistency, and one whose career has been blighted by selectorial incompetence, management whims and PCB’s arbitrary bouts of frenetic banning activity.

This series (not unlike any other he plays in, these days) also witnessed another Afridi milestone – his 13 wickets in the five matches mean he’s now ninth in the all-time list of ODI wicket-takers:

Rank Name Country Innings Wickets Average RPO
1 M Muralitharan Sri Lanka 341 534 23.08 3.93
2 Wasim Akram Pakistan 351 502 23.52 3.89
3 Waqar Younis Pakistan 258 416 23.84 4.68
4 WPUJC Vaas Sri Lanka 320 400 27.53 4.18
5 SM Pollock South Africa 297 393 24.50 3.67
6 GD McGrath Australia 248 381 22.02 3.88
7 B Lee Australia 201 357 22.89 4.70
8 A Kumble India 265 337 30.89 4.30
9 Shahid Afridi Pakistan 305 328 33.47 4.59
10 ST Jayasuriya Sri Lanka 368 323 36.75 4.78
(source: http://stats.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/records/283193.html)

Afridi, his place in the ODI cricket bowling pantheon now secured, becomes the third Pakistani in the top 10, joining three Sri Lankans, two Australians, a Saffer and an Indian. Place in the pantheon? With a bowling average of 33? Let’s consider.

Seven of the Top 10 ODI wicket-takers of all-time have bowling averages below 30; most well below 30. Do they have anything in common? Well yes – six do. Six of those seven are pace bowlers, and the seventh, by some accounts at least, is not a bowler at all.

The other three in the Top 10 all have bowling averages above 30. Do these three have something in common? Why, they do too! They are all spinners/slow bowlers.

In fact, taking a broader perspective: 31 bowlers in total have taken more than 200 career wickets in ODIs. Of these, only eight are spinners/slow bowlers whilst the remaining 23 are all fast or medium pacers or trundlers.

Why might this be, one wonders? Now that’s a question for another day… but suffice to say that spinners have historically not fared well in the shorter form of the game, and Afridi remains one of the very few who has, in a career lasting over a decade.

Over the past five years, in the period he's been firmly established as one of Pakistan's leading bowlers, he's taken 134 wickets at an average of just 29 - if he continues in this vein for another four years, he's bound to surpass all but the very best in his discipline. He’s already acknowledged as a partnership breaker, a lethal weapon with a smorgasbord of skills and an almost bamboozling array of deliveries: a top-spinner, a wrong-‘un and the renowned faster one, all allied with very subtle changes in flight, dip and trajectory.

No surprise then that Afridi (with 40 wickets, including three five-wicket hauls) is the second-highest wicket-taker in ODIs in 2011. In fact, only four bowlers in ODI history have more five-wicket hauls than Afridi’s six: Waqar (13), Murali (10), Lee (9) and McGrath (7).

Last, but by no means the least...

Of course, this unprecedented spin triumvirate is not the only thing unique about thisPakistan side. The current team also boasts of a uniquely stoic and phlegmatic captain, who incomparison with some of his predecessors is virtually a charisma-free zone. “Boast” though is ofcourse the wrong verb, since Misbah-ul-Haq would never do anything as crass as that.

The emphatic series win over Sri Lanka has capped an excellent 12 months in ODI cricket forPakistan; there have been impressive performances either side of a remarkable World Cup run, and this victory is their fifth consecutive ODI series win.

The last Pakistani team to sustain a run of impressive performances was built on three middle-order batting giants; the veritable power-houses and run-machines Inzi, Yousuf and Younis.

Perhaps it is a sign of the changing times that the current sequence is forged upon the brilliance of three very different sort of cricketers.

 

The writer has been experiencing the joys of the roller-coaster that's Pakistan Cricket for well over two decades now, and has lived to tell the tale. He pontificates on cricket, on his favourite football team and on the meaning of life in general (no, not really) on Twitter here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.