Holding steady at the top of the bowler and all-rounder rankings, Ravichandran Ashwin has definitely come into his own. Let's see what the numbers say.
Kapil Dev had spoilt the nation.
The man could bowl faster than his run-up; he could score 175 after coming in at 9 for 4; he could out-swing England in England; and he could smash four sixes in four balls to avert the follow on. A few steps for Kapil Dev (to catch Viv Richards), a giant leap for India’s 1983 World Cup campaign.
He was, undoubtedly, one of the finest all-rounders to play the game. But that was a long time ago, what came afterwards?
In late 2003, a stellar show in the Asia under-19 ODI tournament in Pakistan put an Indian seamer in the headlines. He took nearly thrice as many wickets as the next guy (with nine wickets coming in one match). He was a handy batsman too, scoring 94 runs over three dismissed innings. One more decent performance in a Ranji match and he was on the plane to Australia to play in the 2003-04 tour.
In case you haven’t guessed, it was Irfan Pathan. Yes, the same banana-swing-hattrick-hero-pinch-hitter-WorldT20-final-MoM-I’ve-regained-my-swing-jhalak-dikhla-jaa-contestant Irfan Pathan.
The T20 World Cup notwithstanding, his swift rise was followed by a steep descent in 2006, slipping out of national reckoning. Just when India seemed to get a bowler who could also bat, he seamed and swung no more.
India had been there before. Ajit Agarkar had scored a 100 at Lord’s, India’s fastest ODI 50, and had gotten to 50 ODI wickets faster than anyone else (stop rolling your eyes). But one tour to Australia brought his all-rounder career to a halt, out for a duck five innings in a row.
Where the hell was India’s next all-rounder?
Around the same time period that Pathan was confounding the Australians, a middle-order batsman took guard at the Chinnaswamy stadium in an under-17 Asia cricket council match in the January of 2004. He would score only four runs, and get dropped in the next match in favour of a young Mumbai batsman—Rohit Sharma.
Fast-forward to 2011, this middle-order batsman would make his debut against the West Indies, with Sharma having to wait on the fringes. He would go on to score his first century in only his third match, providing a consolation to the Wankhede crowd who had turned up anticipating Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th century (he was out for 94). Oh, he also snared 22 wickets during the series under trying circumstances—India having conceded the lead twice—en route to being named the man of the series.
Given how things had turned out in the past though, it was perfectly understandable that Indian fans were cautious before making the big proclamation.
Today, perched firmly at the top of the ICC bowler and all-rounder rankings, it is fair to say that Ravichandran Ashwin has gone from strength to strength over the past 20 months. Is it time to label him an all-rounder? But just what does it mean to be an all-rounder in Test cricket? How does Ashwin compare to his illustrious predecessors? And do all all-rounders fulfil the same role?
A little background
Loosely, an all-rounder is defined as someone who can bat in the top six and can contribute as a match-winning bowler.
Ian Botham’s performance in the 1981 Ashes (famously dubbed Botham’s Ashes) is the gold standard: he topped both the batting and bowling charts for England with 399 runs and 34 wickets.
In terms of long-term excellence, however, there isn’t a finer example than Imran Khan averaging more than 50 with the bat and under 20 with the ball over the course of 52 matches spanning a decade. Normally, either one of the statistical measures would be sufficient for world-class pedigree. (For what it’s worth, Ashwin averaged >43 and <24, respectively, in 2016.)
Over the history of Test cricket, only a handful of players have attained the levels of mastery over both bat and ball, and were to be bracketed as all-rounders. The above list contains some of the most famous names of the sport. All have crossed a certain minimum threshold: 45 Test matches, 2,500 runs, 150 wickets and a positive average difference. (Unfortunately, for various reasons, I had to leave out some illustrious names—Aubrey Faulkner, Tony Greig, Richie Benaud, Chris Cairns, Vinoo Mankad and more.)
Over the course of this article, we will examine Ashwin’s career progression and team role, vis-à-vis his counterparts, by looking at the real-time advancement of various cricketing metrics. A note of caution, though—since these are cumulative figures, any spikes later in the career would appear much smaller compared to the total. (An example, to illustrate this point: one month is 8.33% of a one-year-old’s lifetime, but only about 0.5% of a 16-year-old’s.)
Hence, due to the “streaky" nature of early career statistics, the values from the first 10 innings/Tests have not been represented (but have been included) in some graphs (these have been clearly mentioned under each figure).
In most graphs, for the sake of easier visualization, the data has been represented in a split-window approach of two graphs one on top of the other, each containing the data of five players.
Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at the first set of numbers.
The traditional metric of batting ability is the batting average (runs scored per dismissal). Historically, a batting average of 50 or more is seen as a measure of all-time greatness. Only two players from the all-rounder list have achieved this, following contrasting paths: Gary Sobers reaching it quite early, and Jacques Kallis getting there only by around his 70th test. Imran Khan’s late career showing is captured by his ever-increasing trajectory. The others hover between 27 and 40.
However, is it fair to compare a lower order-batsman with a top-order one? Wouldn’t the latter have a greater chance of making more runs since he can call upon greater batting support?
The first deviation between the definition of the all-rounder and career statistics appear in the average batting position (ABP). Sobers, Kallis, Keith Miller and Shakib Al Hasan are the only ones who have batted mainly in the top six. Ashwin’s average batting position belies his recent stint at No. 6—his career-to-date ABP is closer to Richard Hadlee’s and Shaun Pollock’s.
It must also be noted that the ABP only represents an average. One could mischievously conjure an ABP of 5 with an equal number of innings at numbers 4 and 6 (and none at 5). Hence, in order to take these values in context, we look to the batting position spread.
Some interesting trends emerge: Kallis predominantly batted at 3 and 4, Miller at 4 and 5 and Hasan at 5 and 6; Sobers batted all around the batting order, favouring No. 6 the most. Hadlee’s lower batting average can perhaps partly be attributed to his stints at 8 and 9.
In Sobers’s case, the ABP does not correlate with his most frequent batting position.
The real-time progression of ABP also gives great insight about the batting roles played by these all-rounders at different points in their careers. Kallis and Miller quickly transformed into middle-order batsmen; Khan, Hasan and Hadlee gradually batted one position up the order; Dev, Pollock and Botham were steady presences in the 11.
Sobers is the one genuine outlier amongst this bunch: he started much lower down the order, worked his way up, and then approached an ABP of 5 towards the end of his career.
From the various batting metrics, we can confidently say that Sobers, Kallis, Miller, Botham and Hasan neatly fit into the definition of top-six batsmen, while the rest batted lower down the order. On the other hand, Dev, Pollock, Ashwin and Hadlee could be seen as bowlers who could bat a bit.
However, the batting statistics give us only half the picture as far as their all-rounder credentials go. It’s time to take a look at the other half.
How well did they bowl?
The most important statistic for a bowler is the number of wickets. Wickets are relatively more finite than runs (20 wickets in a Test match). Hence, we need to draw on other information from the scorecards—such as balls bowled, runs conceded and bowling position.
Similar to the batting average, the bowling average is a measure of the bowling ability (runs conceded/wickets taken). This is quite a robust measure as it is the product of the economy rate (runs conceded/balls) and the strike rate (balls/wickets taken). An all-time great bowler typically boasts of an average in the sub-30 mark, with the top pace bowlers hovering around 20.
The progress of bowling averages charts a totally different journey for many players.
Dev, Kallis, Miller and Pollock have relatively consistent late careers. Botham had a spectacular debut but his performance steadily deteriorated, while Khan and Hadlee went the other way. Sobers had an ordinary start, struggled for a while and then found his footing after his 40th Test or so. As for Ashwin, the recent improvement in his bowling statistics is distinctly visible.
From a standpoint of bowling average alone, Hadlee, Khan, Ashwin, Pollock and Miller have exemplary overall performances.
The average bowling position (ABoP) reveals a little more about each player’s bowling role within his team.
Typically, a team has four or five designated bowlers (usually four). The bowling attack is mostly led by a fast-bowling pair, followed by a first-change bowler and a spinner. The first-change bowler could be another fast bowler or spinner based on the conditions.
Often, spinners plough a lone furrow from one end while the fast bowlers are rotated from another. Generally, spinners tend to bowl longer spells, and are less effective at taking wickets (on a runs conceded/wicket or balls/wicket basis), but typically grab more wickets per match.
From the ABoP, it can be seen that Khan, Dev, Pollock and Hadlee were the ones who were given the first use of the cherry. Miller’s and Botham’s numbers resemble those of first-change bowlers. Ashwin has been the lead spinner and Hasan the second spinner. Kallis was the fourth seamer, a rough indication of his role in the team—not good enough as a pace bowler to displace the top three in the team.
It may seem that Sobers too was not as important as some of the others from a bowling perspective, but his ABoP value of 3.5 or so does not tell the whole story.
Sobers, it must be noted, was capable of bowling in a variety of styles (both pace and spin)—and so he bowled at different positions. In fact, for 20% of his career, he bowled in the top two slots.
The above plots confirm the places of Dev, Hadlee, Khan and Pollock as new-ball bowlers. Miller, too, has operated with the new ball about 70% of the time, unlike the ABoP stat, which showed his position to be 2.3-ish.
Botham bowled mainly between 2 and 4 and Shakib and Ashwin, being spinners, naturally feature much later. Kallis didn’t bowl in ~15% of innings, and bowled behind three seamers for more than 60% of his career (with negligible innings at 1 or 2).
From the variation of ABoP over time, we can see that in the 1980s, everyone except Botham was the top gun bowler for their respective teams. Sobers’s bowling chops are reflected in his continually improving ABoP. Kallis, on the other hand, was the fourth seamer for his team at best. Ashwin and Hasan have been important spinners for their sides.
The data for wickets per Test (WPT) further strengthens the earlier findings.
Botham regressed in his wicket-taking ability from his initial high, and Hadlee and Sobers improved to a great degree. Dev and Pollock had productive, stable careers. In spite of Khan bettering his career average, his wickets per Test declined—probably indicating that he bowled much less later on in his career. Kallis’s secondary role is confirmed with his WPT value being the lowest amongst the lot. Ashwin, in his short career, has seen many ups and downs.
Similar trends crop up again when we look at balls per Test (BPT). Kallis had a far lower BPT (~50%), indicating his bowling duties were much lighter than the other players’. On this basis, he could be labelled as a batsman who could bowl well rather than an all-rounder in the truest sense.
Every other all-rounder averaged at least ~180 balls per Test. Understandably, with the fast-bowling workload being far more strenuous compared to spinners', they end up bowling fewer balls per test.
In spite of Shakib being a spinner, his BPT is close compared to the pace-bowling all-rounders—this points to Bangladesh not burdening him with heavy bowling responsibilities.
Ashwin’s BPT values have gone up sharply in recent times—his bowling duties growing in the wake of a string of wicket-taking feats.
The plot above shows the spread of innings bowled over time for each player. Each solid line represents the length of a player’s bowling career; the gaps in the other set of lines indicate an interruption in bowling duties.
The extent of Sobers’s bowling load is clear, as is the case with almost all the others. Kallis did not bowl for significant periods of time, and Khan did not bowl near the end of his career.
Now that we’ve thoroughly examined each aspect of all-roundership, how about putting both together a composite view?
The currency of a Test match is runs per wicket. Both batting and bowling averages essentially come down to runs scored or conceded, respectively, for each dismissal or wicket taken.
For an all-rounder, the difference between the batting and bowling contributions gives an indication of his net value to the team, or net runs per wicket.
A lot of the all-rounders on our list clearly took a while to come to the positive end of the plot. Botham started off as an all-round statistical wonder before finishing with decent numbers overall. Only Kallis and Sobers boasted of a 20+ average difference, but as we’ve seen earlier, the contrast between their team roles couldn’t be starker.
Another (uncommon) way of expressing their contribution is to take a ratio of the two averages. A ratio would yield a dimensionless number, and would favour the better bowlers more due to the lesser denominator. A plot of this reveals that only four players—Khan, Miller, Sobers and Kallis—finished with a ratio of 1.5.
Moving on to another interesting question—who fits the bill as the all-rounder in the most traditional sense?
It must be noted that while there are all-rounders in ODIs who have opened both the batting and bowling consistently (Zimbabwe’s Neil Johnson comes to mind), the fast-bowling workload is quite immense in Tests, and so examples of all-rounders who batted up the order are hard to come by.
One way of checking their importance to the team would be to sum up their average batting and bowling positions. Since spinners bowl later, a correction of -2 has been applied (-1 for Sobers, considering his bowling variety) to get an adjusted sum.
Going by the average batting and bowling positions, and the adjusted sum values, Keith Miller fits the definition the most, followed by Sobers. In years to come, Hasan has a great chance to join this exclusive tier due to his middle-order batting position (and provided he can be effective as a bowler). What about Ashwin then?
The above plot also shows Ashwin’s value to the team, being the team’s leading bowler (like Kapil, Imran, Hadlee and Pollock). He might have been the only fifth man to score 300 runs and take 25 wickets in a series, and one of four to tally the 600 runs-60 wickets calendar year double (with Botham being the other common name in these two lists).
Ashwin, however, is still a bowler first and a batsman second. He might have had a recent fantastic stint at No. 6, but he wouldn’t figure any higher up in the batting order even if he were to score five more 100s in 2017. However, he would probably be dropped to make way for another spinner should he continuously perform poorly with the ball for a series or two.
In his relatively short career, Ashwin has shown great all-round credentials and is well-placed ahead of many legends around the 45-Test mark on many metrics. He has the highest wickets, WPT, five fors, and has the best batting stats when compared to others who batted primarily at No. 7 or lower (Dev, Khan, Hadlee and Pollock). However, whether he follows the path of Ian Botham or Imran Khan remains to be seen.
Ashwin, being a spinner, has a great chance of a longer career compared to pace-bowling all-rounders. With a longer stint at No. 6, he may even get to post higher scores as a batsman. With a little bit of help from the Indian pacers, he should be able to perform better abroad. He has a genuine shot at becoming the premier spin-bowling all-rounder of all time; but, his all-time status and legacy will heavily hinge on what he does with the ball.
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.
All statistics taken from espncricinfo’s Statsguru. Graphics by Ajay Negi, Santosh Kumar Sharma and Vipul Sharma/Mint.
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