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Saurashtra player Jaydev Unadkat in action during the Ranji Trophy 2015-16 final match between Mumbai and Saurashtra in Pune. (HT)
Saurashtra player Jaydev Unadkat in action during the Ranji Trophy 2015-16 final match between Mumbai and Saurashtra in Pune. (HT)

Shift in balance of bowling in Ranji

In the last 40 years, pace bowling in Ranji Trophy has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. There’s finally a balance between pacers and spinners

Tight call...probably gonna go with India," said South Africa tearaway Dale Steyn in a recent Twitter interaction, when asked about the best fast-bowling unit in Test matches today. With or without the endorsement of one of the most potent exponents of pace bowling in modern times, the building of India’s pace arsenal over the past decade or so—in numbers, prowess and variety, and across cricketing formats—has been a stunning story of evolution.

That national story has been told. What’s not been traced as much is the story a level below it. That story was in full expression on 9 December 2019, on the opening day of this year’s Ranji Trophy, the premier domestic cricket competition in India.

In 10 of the 18 matches that started that day, the side batting first was unable to last till stumps.

In nine of those 10 matches, much of the damage was done by fast bowlers. The Saurashtra trio of Jaydev Unadkat, Chirag Jani and Prerak Mankad skittled Himachal Pradesh out for 120. Saurashtra themselves struggled against Vaibhav Arora and Pankaj Jaiswal of Himachal. Rex Singh took 8 wickets to dismiss Mizoram for just 65.

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Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

We looked at data for the top 30 wicket-takers in five Ranji Trophy seasons spread over the past 40 years to see how the balance of power between pacers and spinners has changed.

The flowering of pace bowlers in Ranji Trophy has been a slow burn, going from taking the shine off the new bowl for spinners to becoming weapons in their own right. The scales titled from spinners to pacers to, finally, something in the middle.

Barring the last decade or so, teams were not relying on pacers in a big way to take wickets. In each of the Ranji seasons of 1977-78, 1987-88, and 1997-98, among the top 30 wicket-takers, the number of pacers never crossed 13 and their share of wickets never crossed 40%.

Domestic cricket in the 1970s and the 1980s was a period of flat tracks that offered little to pacers, teams batting forever, and matches being settled on first-innings leads. As the game evolved, and the players and fans asked for a more judicious balance, with administrators moving to make the game more competitive and result-oriented, the balance of power shifted.

Pace bowling was in vogue and how. In the 2007-08 season, among the top 30 wicket-takers, there were 18 pace bowlers and they accounted for nearly two-thirds of the wickets. The needle had swung from one extreme to the other. Data for the 2017-18 season suggests it seems to have settled at a place where there’s something for both pacers and spinners (chart 1).

Another measure of this balance is the presence of these two sets at the very top. In 1987-88, there wasn’t a single pace bowler among the top five wicket-takers.

Conversely, in 2007-08, all five were pace bowlers, led by Sudeep Tyagi and Praveen Kumar of Uttar Pradesh, and R. Vinay Kumar of Karnataka, each of whom had modest national careers. Between pacers and spinners, it’s more evenly poised now (chart 2).

It’s not just how many wickets each of those two profiles is taking. It’s also how much work each profile is being asked to put in. On an average, spinners do bowl a lot more overs than pacers.

Of the 150 records we looked at for these five years, there was only one pacer among the top 20 bowlers in terms of overs bowled in a season. That was Paras Mhambrey, who delivered 306 overs in nine matches for Mumbai in 1997-98.

Among this top 30 wicket-taking set, the distribution of work between spinners and bowlers, in terms of overs bowled, has been converging. In 1997-98, on an average, spinners bowled about 45% more overs than pacers (317 versus 218 overs).

In 2017-18, as spinners bowled less, this gap narrowed to just 9% (235 overs versus 215 overs) (chart 3).

While bowling around the same number of overs, pacers were ensnaring more wickets. As tracks became more responsive, and the pool of pacers increased, it also restored the convention of pacers generally conceding fewer runs than spinners for every wicket. For example, in 1987-88, the season to forget for pacers, they conceded nearly three runs more per wicket than spinners.

Since then, though, pacers have conceded fewer runs than spinners for every wicket (chart 4). Data for 2017-18 shows that though spinners bowled fewer overs than before, they are still among the wickets and are getting tighter.

All this points to a more judicious balance between pace and spin. That augurs well for Indian cricket.

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