Throughout the second Test match of the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy, it was difficult to predict which way the match would head—not unlike how the ball behaved after landing on the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch in Bengaluru where the match was being played. But in the final moments on the fourth day, Ravichandran Ashwin ran through the lower-middle order of Australia ending with his 25th five-wicket haul in Test match cricket and a victory for India to level the series. Ashwin became the fastest (47 matches) to reach the milestone moving past the great Richard Hadlee who had achieved this feat in 62 Test matches.
Two Test matches earlier, Ashwin became the fastest to reach 250 wickets going past two other greats—Dennis Lillee and Dale Steyn, who had reached this milestone in their 48th and 49th Test match, respectively. Ashwin is now a wicket-taking machine, so much so that Steve Waugh recently called him “the Bradman of bowling”. While there is more than a tinge of exaggeration in Waugh’s statement, it is irrefutable that Ashwin has surpassed many bowling greats on his way to these milestones.
But on digging a bit deeper into the numbers, one finds that Ashwin has taken 202 of his 269 wickets so far in home conditions of India. Among all the bowlers in the history of cricket who have taken at least 25 wickets each at home and abroad, Ashwin’s ratio of wickets taken outside the home country to those taken in the home country (0.33) is the fourth worst. The three cricketers who rank behind him are Rodney Hogg (0.26), Dominic Cork (0.30) and Shivlal Yadav (0.32)—an obscure lot, whose company Ashwin would certainly not desire. Among those who have taken more than 200 Test wickets, Ashwin’s away-to-home wickets ratio (henceforth wickets ratio) of 0.33 is the worst. Fred Trueman, the late fiery English fast bowler, follows closely behind at 0.34.
Ashwin has played nearly twice as much at home—30 Tests—as compared to just 17 Tests away from home. Therefore, the wickets ratio is not the best parameter. But his ratio of away bowling average to home bowling average (henceforth averages ratio) is not much inspiring either. With the averages ratio of 1.51, Ashwin stands at the fifth worst position among bowlers who have taken at least 200 Test wickets. Those behind him, or with higher averages ratio are Abdul Qadir, Rangana Herath, Makhaya Antini and Alec Bedser.
What explains this anomaly in the case of the current world’s number one Test bowler? The comparison so far has included both pace bowlers and spinners. But spinners in general find it more difficult to take wickets abroad than at home. Seven of the 10 bowlers in the chart above are subcontinental spinners.
Among bowlers who have taken at least 25 wickets each at home and abroad (and this will continue to be the dataset for the rest of the analysis unless otherwise specified), spinners take 90 wickets outside their country for every 100 wickets in their own countries. In contrast, pace bowlers take 93 wickets away from home for every 100 wickets at home. The median bowling averages ratio of pace bowlers (1.10) is also better than spinners (1.12), even if by a whisker.
A straight-forward comparison between pace bowlers and spinners, however, hides a lot of country-specific granularities. Indian spinners take merely 67 wickets abroad for every 100 wickets at home. In contrast, Indian pace bowlers take 137 wickets abroad for every 100 wickets at home—and this is the best ratio for any country. This does not imply that Indian pace bowlers are the best in the world and fare worse in India only because of flat wickets. It may simply be the result of a near complete domination by spinners at home which improves the wickets ratio for the pace bowlers. Among the spinners, West Indians have both the best wicket ratio (138 abroad for every 100 at home) and the best median averages ratio (0.89). Among the pace bowlers, as stated earlier, Indians have the best wickets ratio and the West Indians, again, have the best median averages ratio (1.04).
Where is Ashwin in all of this? His wickets ratio is worse than spinners of Bangladesh who manage to pick only 48 wickets abroad for every 100 wickets at home. Indian spinners have the worst averages ratio in the world at 1.35 but Ashwin’s is even worse than the Indian average at 1.51.
Can Ashwin’s poor performance possibly be explained?
A poor wickets ratio may be the result of less number of matches played away from home. An extraordinary ability to take wickets at home—certainly a useful skill to possess—may also contribute to worsening of the wickets ratio. Similarly, his brilliant bowling average of 21.99 at home may be impacting his averages ratio adversely. But his absolute bowling average of 33.23 when abroad is also pretty mediocre.
There is, however, one partial explanation, and for which we need to focus on Indian spinners who have taken more than 150 Test wickets. Out of eight such spinners other than Ashwin, only Vinoo Mankad—of the Mankading fame (goo.gl/igoisO)—has a higher averages ratio than Ashwin. To be sure, high averages ratio does not make Ashwin the poorest of all Indian spinners. For instance, Ravi Shastri has a good averages ratio of 1.1 but with pretty ordinary bowling averages of 38.93 at home and 42.85 away from home. Yet, it establishes the striking contrast between his home country and overseas performance. None of the eight spinners have a worse wickets ratio than Ashwin’s, again with all the caveats applied. But the partial explanation emerges when we examine the records of all these spinners after the first 47 Tests—the number of Tests Ashwin has played so far. So at a similar stage of career—after 44 Tests for Mankad as he played just that many and 47 for the rest—Anil Kumble (1.67), Mankad (1.60) and Harbhajan Singh (1.53) had worse averages ratios than Ashwin. So it is not that unusual for Indian spinners to have skewed bowling averages at home and abroad in early stages of their careers. In fact, except for Erapalli Prasanna and Ravi Shastri, all of these prominent Indian spinners had improved their bowling averages after the first 47 Tests.
Why is this explanation partial and not complete? Because Ashwin’s wickets ratio and averages ratio worsens further when we compare his performance outside the subcontinent to that in the subcontinent. And in this case, even when compared to the rest of the eight Indian spinners at a similar stage of their careers, Ashwin’s averages ratio is the worst and by some distance. To reiterate, a big reason for this is his outstanding record at home—his bowling average at home and in the subcontinent is better than the rest of the eight. But clearly, he is pretty ordinary outside the subcontinent with a bowling average of 42.73.
Among all the spinners in the world who have taken at least 25 wickets both in the subcontinent as well as outside it, only Hedley Howarth of New Zealand with 86 Test wickets to his name has a worse outside-subcontinent-to-subcontinent averages ratio. These numbers don’t do justice to “the Bradman of bowling”.