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Amid the lamentations and recriminations surrounding India’s defeat to South Africa, with the former’s spectacular batting implosion and the debates of Ashish Nehra vs Harbhajan Singh bowling the final over, one question almost got lost.

Also See | Bowling Stats (PDF)

Why did the home team go with three seamers when spin was supposed to be the saviour and R. Ashwin was awaiting a chance? As expected, the tournament turns out to be a batsman’s paradise. But in the run-up, much was written and debated about spin—India’s supposed strength against spinners, the inclusion of Imran Tahir in the South African squad, the astuteness of Graeme Swann, and the Australians’ lack thereof.

How do the tweakers really compare with seamers in this World Cup?

According to the Cricinfo website’s Statsguru database, pace bowlers collected 279 wickets compared with 194 by spinners. Alright, granted that there are more seamers across teams than those who can spin the ball. However, not only do the faster bowlers grab these wickets at a lower average of 29.6, they also strike once every 35 balls. In comparison, spinners succeeded in dismissing a batsman only once every 42 deliveries.

Nevertheless, it’s a sweeping conclusion since one can’t adjust for the different kinds of match surfaces, playing conditions, and the averaging out of the best performances such as South African Dale Steyn’s five wickets against India with some of the worst. However, we can adjust for two factors.

One, a closer look at these numbers indicates that Indian surfaces, despite those infrequent gems such as Chennai, are possibly the most batsmen-friendly in the world. The averages and economy rates for both categories of bowlers take a tumble. In contrast, the bigger grounds in Bangladesh seem to be relatively more bowler-friendly. That could also be because, apart from the first game, most of the games played in that country have been low scoring.

Two, even if one removes the matches involving the associate nations that could have skewed figures (though we are being uncharitable to Ireland and the Netherlands’ performances against England), the numbers don’t change much. Seamers still get 114 wickets compared with the spinners’ 82. The gap between the averages and strike rates only gets wider.

Between the last World Cup in 2007 and this one, fast bowlers have been more successful in the subcontinent. Consider One-Day International matches played in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka only between Test members. In 123 games between the two World Cups, seamers have struck 973 times, conceding 31.71 runs per wicket. Spinners have racked up 659 dismissals at 33.58 runs apiece. Moreover, the pacers strike every 37 balls compared with nearly 43 for the spinners.

These figures also reinforce India’s relative ineptitude with the ball even in home conditions. Consider the Indian flingers’ performance between World Cups in matches played in the subcontinent. For both pacers and tweakers, averages are poorer and economy rates worse than the overall aggregates for subcontinent matches during this period. To consider just the figures for spinners, Indians conceded 35.16 runs per wicket and leaked nearly five runs an over. The comparative overall numbers stand at 33.58 and 4.68 for all teams.

Of course, numbers can’t always do justice to match-winning performances or near match-winning feats of heroism, such as Zaheer Khan nearly winning the match against England or his conceding only four runs in the penultimate over of the South African chase. But what these numbers do suggest is that more such performances are needed for the favourites to justify that tag.

Photo by Shashank Parade/PTI; graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint

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