Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >ODIs: Separating the bride from the bridesmaid

In the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the 112th edition of Major League Baseball’s championship series. Until then, the Chicago Cubs, incredibly, had not won this championship for a record 108 years. The 2016 appearance in the World Series was their 11th; they had lost their last eight summit series in over a century. “Lovable losers", they were called. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

The same undesirable epithet could be applied to the Netherlands national football team. Thrice they made it to the finals, but to this day, they have never lifted the men’s World cup. In club football, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen (dubbed “Neverkusen") certainly made a good case for themselves around the turn of the millennium with four second-place finishes from 1997 to 2002. 

In 2002 in particular, the team lost in the finals of the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Champions League, and surrendered a five point lead atop the league table in the last three matches. Spare a thought for Leverkusen’s star midfielder Michael Ballack—his German teammates would lose the World Cup final as well (he missed the final due to suspension). 

In ODI cricket, this dubious distinction belongs to England. Thrice they have made it to the ODI World Cup final only to lose it. To date, England have not won the prized 50-over trophy (it won the World T20 in 2010). 

In the first loss, they were never in the hunt against a champion West Indies team. The other two, though, must have certainly rankled; they were the best chasing team between 1987 and 1992 (South Africa had only played a few matches) and yet managed to lose both these chases. The first one could be attributed to Mike Gatting’s infamous reverse sweep, but what happened against Pakistan? What did the numbers have to say, in the manner of the best players and teams with the ball in the first innings of the ODI?

As investigated in the previous articles of this nature, ODIs can be split into nine convenient eras—each containing at least 250 matches and one major ICC tournament—with the last one ending in 2016. Over the course of these nine eras, various factors and rulings have provided a shot in the arm for different protagonists of a cricket team. 

The blazing away in the powerplay was first demonstrated by Martin Crowe and team, in rather thrilling fashion, in the 1992 World Cup. The milking of the bowlers in the middle to end overs was taken to an extreme in recent times with A.B. de Villiers as the headline act (stroking a 44-ball 149 in the 2015 World Cup), prompting the ICC to change the powerplay regulations once again. The previous throw of the powerplay dice—along with two new balls and flat pitches—have now given a boost to the wrist spinners. Hence, a detailed appraisal of the data is necessary to understand the evolution of bowling second in the ODI game through the course of its history.

As explained in the previous article, bowling differs from batting in many aspects. For starters, specialist batsmen are not usually called in to bowl, and a bowler can be called into bowl at any time in the innings provided he/she has overs left in their quota; wickets are also relatively finite compared to runs. 

Based on the comparison of frequency distribution of wicket hauls and run-scoring patterns, a four-wicket haul could perhaps be considered a bowler’s equivalent of 100 runs and a three-wicket haul can be deemed equal to an individual score of 50.

In ODIs (and in T20 cricket as well), matches can be won by either run containment or bowling out the opposition (one could mischievously suggest bean counters playing a part in the case of rain-affected games, but we’re only talking about the on-field factors). Therefore, the ability to take wickets and/or the ability to prevent the opposition from scoring runs are of paramount importance in the limited formats of the game. 

Of particular interest are the economy rate (runs per six balls), big haul percentage (% of innings with more than three-wicket hauls) and bumper haul percentage (% of innings with a haul of four or more wicket). 

Since information from ball-by-ball outcomes is not available for all ODIs, the analysis will be limited to information which can be gleaned from scorecards. Like last time, we will proceed to examine the trends in these factors before moving on to take a look at bowlers who were proficient in the second innings of the ODIs.

The strategy to bowl in an ODI varies between the first innings and the second. In the former, the focus is on limiting the opponent to the lowest score possible, whereas the second one has a specific target score in mind (getting them all out is common to both). 

The variation of the economy rate showcases the evolution of the ODI in general; the opening bowlers were played with utmost caution in the first two eras. The economy rate of the opening strike bowlers has seen a steady upward trend ever since 1993; in recent times, their economy rates have been worse off compared to the later regular bowlers. The specialist spinner (the No. 5 bowler) suffered in the earlier days of the ODI; today, their economy rate is in line with the opening bowlers. The part-time bowlers have predictably suffered a lot more than their regular counterparts, especially in the previous era. 

The propensity to rack up a haul of three or more wickets has been relatively in the same ballpark for regular bowlers through the course of history of the ODI second innings. The opening, No. 3 and No. 5 bowlers have traded positions with each other during the various eras, with the recent eras being the most favourable to the opening bowlers. 

Oddly, the sixth era (2002-04) saw the No. 7 bowler being as effective as the regular bowlers. While this may have been a statistical quirk, it might also be because opposition batsmen aggressively targeted the part-time bowlers, thus increasing their chances of getting out.

Examining the trend of picking up four or more wickets shows a variance across the bowling order. The opening bowling slots were not the best place to pick up a bumper haul in the old days of the ODI; the No. 3 bowler was the most successful in the first few eras. It’s possible that the batsmen had a habit of seeing off the new ball bowlers and then taking the first-change bowler head on. 

In the last two eras, the rate of taking bumper hauls is indistinguishable between the first three bowlers in the bowling order. Here too, the part-time bowler (No. 6) was as productive as the others during one era.

The overall metamorphosis of ODI bowling in the second innings can be captured by the metric of the bowling index (BoI). For the uninitiated reader, it is the product of the bowling average and the economy rate divided by six. For a bowler, both of these are highly valued (the lower the number, the better). Since the BoI is a multiplication product, a low value would indicate a low value of its constituent factors. This metric has been used at ESPNcricinfo, and by other analysts as well.

Eyeballing the variation of BoI over the different eras, it can be seen that the game has changed significantly from the initial days. The opening position has largely been the best place to bowl throughout ODI history; nowadays, with two new balls, the opening bowlers have posted better figures compared to the previous era. 

The spin bowlers (No. 4 and No. 5) have typically struggled among the regular bowlers and the first-change bowler has BoI values somewhere in between. The part-timers have been mainly cannon fodder, except for around the turn of the millennium when they boasted very good BoI values. Once again, it must be reiterated that the bowling position information is not as reliable as the batting position; but in the absence of ball-by-ball data across ODIs, this is the best available measure.

One of the easiest ways to understand the differences between bowling in the first innings and bowling in the second innings would be to compare the BoIs between the two. The above table shows the difference between the BoI (second innings) and the BoI (first innings). 

For the benefit of easier visualization, the positive and negative values have been coloured green and red respectively. For example, BoI (second innings) was about 20% higher than BoI (first innings) for opening bowlers in the first ODI era. Since a higher BoI implies an inferior product of bowling average and economy rate, a positive difference (green) indicates that it was easier to bowl in the first innings. 

However, across the board, it is clear that it has been generally easier to bowl in the second innings compared to the first (see the overwhelming number of red/negative values). 

As in the previous articles, the overall BoI (across bowling positions one to seven) will be used as a baseline for each era. This may no doubt cause some under-representation of bowlers who bowled later on (especially spinners), but this is a good first-cut method in itself. 

In order to make the selection process more robust, a healthy wicket cut-off has to be applied keeping in mind the typical number of ODIs played by bowlers in each era. A cut-off is necessary to weed out statistical quirks (e.g., Sunil Gavaskar had an ODI bowling average of 25), but at the same time it should not be so high as to limit the playing field and eliminate a deserving bowler. 

As the ODI format gained popularity only in the 1980s, lower cut-offs should be imposed on bowlers from the first two eras. Therefore, the cut-off for the first two eras has been kept at 20 wickets, and for the subsequent periods, it has been raised to 25 wickets. Now that the cut-offs and baselines are in place, we can proceed to take a look at the champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODIs across ODI history.

In the first three periods, the West Indian bowlers dominated the second innings ODI bowling charts. Apart from the usual suspects of Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Winston Benjamin also came to the fore. 

Other legends such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee also feature in this lists, which shows the similarity of Test match bowling and opening bowling in ODIs back in the day. 

Barring Abdul Qadir, spinners largely had a tough time during the early eras. 

In the post-“opener enlightenment" period of the ODI, fast bowlers from Pakistan, Australia and South Africa excelled in the middle three eras. All-time great ODI bowlers such as Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Wasim Akram, Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Waqar Younis made their presence felt with their deeds on the field. Many spin bowlers featured frequently in the tables, signifying a revival of spin bowling. More importantly, Muralitharan topped the BoI ratio charts in two successive eras with BoI ratio values in excess of 2.5, which is all the more significant considering that he was a spinner. 

The highest BoI (second innings) ratio was achieved by Sri Lankan mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis in the seventh era, but he hasn’t been able to replicate his form ever since. The last three eras have also seen the emergence of several ODI specialists such as Kyle Mills, Sunil Narine and Jacob Oram. 

Several players from the “minnows" have also made it to the list. The last statement is not intended as faint praise—it is commendable that they still managed to dominate their counterparts with the limited opportunities afforded to them. Several spinners (many of the “mystery" variety) have also done well recently.

Barring the freakish BoI ratio values of Muralitharan and Mendis, the rest of the top bowlers of each era had BoI values less than 2.5. Additionally, the distribution of BoI ratios has been different across time as well. Some eras have been dominated by bowlers, while in some others they have struggled to scale BoI heights. 

Therefore, a BoI ratio cut-off of 1.40 can be used to separate the bowling champions from the “merely good". The choice of 1.40 is quite deliberate as only a handful of bowlers have breached this level in each era. The 1.40 level represents a 40% better performance (in terms of BoI ratio) with respect to the average bowler (bowling positions 1-7) of the particular era. 

But what about the longevity of these bowling champions?

Very few bowlers have been able to consistently outperform the field in the second innings of the ODI for a long period; almost every bowler in the table above can be considered to be an all-time great. The degree of longevity and excellence of these bowlers can be captured by counting the number of multiple appearances at a particular BoI ratio level. In the above tables, the bowler’s name and his nth appearance (in brackets) at 1.75 and 1.40 BoI levels have been documented.

For instance, Richard Hadlee made his second appearance at the 1.75 level in the second era (bowling second). Apart from Hadlee, only Holding, Akram, McGrath and Muralitharan have been able to scale such heights (>1.75) in more than one era. 

The 1.40 level has been breached by several other fantastic bowlers—Pollock, McGrath and the rest. Several other bowlers such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Brett Lee, Makhaya Ntini, Daniel Vettori and Shakib Al Hasan narrowly missed making the cut. 

Compared to the batsmen, it has been a lot tougher for bowlers to perform at high BoI levels for multiple levels; no doubt, they are less favoured by the ODI format.

Now to the teams which had these bowlers. At any point of time, did a team have a battery of these match-winning bowlers in the second innings of the ODI?

Taking all eras into account, between five to thirteen bowlers were able to clock a BoI ratio of more than 1.40, showing the exclusivity of the benchmark. 

Barring two eras, one single team had the highest stockpile of champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODI. Overall, teams from Pakistan, South Africa, Australia and West Indies were blessed with bowling personnel who outperformed their peers in more than one era.

The champion second innings bowler is probably Wasim Akram, who spent four ODI eras in the BoI ratio >1.40 bracket (two of them >1.75). Quite simply, there wasn’t another ODI bowler who dominated the second innings for as long as Akram did—which brings us to the 1992 World Cup final. 

The 1992 World cup final was contested between England, arguably the best ODI side of the time (definitely the best chasing side), and a resurgent Pakistan. Pakistan had barely scraped through the group stages courtesy of a rained-out match against the very same England side after being all out for 74 (which would have knocked them out). 

Facing elimination, the Pakistan team rallied around a mythical Imran Khan speech, where the team embraced the spirit of a “cornered tiger". After beating the fancied New Zealand twice, the team booked a spot in the final.

In the final against England in front of a record crowd at the MCG, Pakistan posted 249/6 in the first innings thanks to late flourishes from Inzamam-ul-Haq and Akram. Akram would then star with the ball as well; after knocking Ian Botham out early, he would be called into service again in the 35th over. 

After teetering at a perilous 69/4, England’s two champion chasers—Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother—added 72 runs in 14 overs, setting up the match for a thrilling finish. Who would give way? 

What happened next is part of cricketing folklore. The Force was certainly with Wasim Akram. Bowling around the wicket with the old ball under lights, he conjured up two unplayable deliveries, courtesy some hostile reverse swing at extreme pace. 

The first one swung in and straightened just a touch to beat Allan Lamb’s stroke. The second was even more emphatic—poor Chris Lewis has no chance when he brought his bat down to a vicious in-swinger which snaked its way to the stumps. 

The sullen, yellow duck television graphic accompanying Lewis’s walk back to the pavilion signalled how the situation had changed; the chase has been snuffed out in a matter of two deliveries. 

Akram running across the pitch with his forearms raised in celebration is one of the indelible images of World Cup history. A champion bowler had stopped chase-masters England in their tracks, and consigned them to the bridesmaid’s spot for the third time in five World Cups.

PaajivsPunter is an anonymous collaborative blog. They seek to write original, well-researched and thought-provoking articles. So far, they’ve written opinion pieces, commentary, perspectives, satire, analytical features and long-form narratives on cricket.

Data sourced from ESPNCricinfo.

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