Anil-Kumble
Anil Kumble has taken 619 Test wickets which is the highest amongst Indian bowlers © Getty Images

From Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte to the spin quartet to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha — India is a land that has produced plenty of quality spinners. Arunabha Sengupta crunches numbers to evaluate the different facets of their careers.

Unravelling the spin

The twirl of the ball, the loop in the air, the bite and the turn off the pitch. Fielders crouching like a flock of vultures. The hapless batsman beaten in flight, bamboozled by the turn, fooled by the guile. The very concept makes Indian cricket fans proud, nostalgic and prone to flights of romance.

In a cricketing nation yet to produce a bowler with a Test average of less than 25,the lore of the great spinners comes as a huge source of comfort. And India has produced a number of giants of the turning ball.

Palwankar Baloo turned his arm over way before India took the field in Test cricket, but he was acknowledged as one of the slow bowling greats. And down the years came Vinoo Mankad, Ghulam Ahmed, Subhash Gupte, followed by the metronomic accuracy of Bapu Nadkarni. Then the nation rejoiced in the famous spinning quartet of the 1960s and 1970s. After a relatively barren period, there was the flurry of unprecedented victories in the 1990s with Anil Kumble leading the way, helped along from 2000 by Harbhajan Singh. The legacy is carried forward in the modern day by Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin.

India may not have produced a fast bowler ranked among the best in the world, but it is indeed a country of great spinners — the very best of them. And as so often happens, the rosy film stretches across our retrospective views and gold dust gets sprinkled on the names of the past.

Especially the concurrence in the axis of time of four spinners ranging from great to good, in the form of Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, EAS Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan in the 1960s and 1970s, make the eyes rheumy with fond, occasionally fabricated, memories. There is the rather deep-rooted belief that those four bowlers, tweaking in tandem, in groups of three, was the golden age of Indian spin. Even the fabulous success of the Indian team with Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh sending down their versions of spin often fail to impress the previous generation.

That is understandable. The 1970s was a watershed moment in Indian cricket and romanticising is but natural. The past is always stamped with gold while the present carries the stigma of the modern age. Hence, commendable results in an era of shorter boundaries and phenomenally better bats against power-hitting batsmen are generally not looked upon as feats equivalent to the greatness of the bygone days.

The analysis of numbers is generally discouraged. The eras are different after all, the game has changed, the batsmen bat differently and all that. Besides, there are other considerations. Wickets have helped spin to varied degrees over the years. Before the 1960s, the global spinners’ average was better in the rest of the world than in India. After 1960s, it changed drastically and Indian wickets became far more spin-friendly. So, how do we account for all these deviations?

This is often the excuse furnished against cross-era analysis. After all, who would want precious beliefs smudged and twisted beyond recognition by a brutal bunch of numbers?

The argument about eras makes sense at a very superficial level. If we take the records of Kumble and Chandrasekhar we get averages of 29.65 and 29.74 respectively and a strike rate of 65.9 in each case. Does that mean their records are almost identical?

Of course not. Chandra’s strike rate of 65.9 in the 1960s and 1970s is far more impressive than Kumble’s in the 1990-2008 period. At the same time, Kumble’s average is actually a shade better than Chandra’s when normalised for their eras.

Comparison across eras is not at all impossible, or even far-fetched. For centuries the economists and statisticians have been drawing inflation and per-capita income graphs for periods of hundred years or more.

The trick is to find ways and means to normalise the performances so that we can lay them side by side across time without being biased for or against the various eras.

The method

Let us analyse and find out how the Indian spinners from the different eras of the game actually fared, and how they rate against each other. There will be many surprises, statistical drilldowns generally have plenty of them – and the shattered myths add to the mistrust of numbers. But, our objective will be to steer clear of stories, accounts, legends and drill down the performances as recorded in scorecards.

The technique we have used is the following.

We have taken 16 top spinners in the history of Indian cricket. These include the 13 with 100-plus wickets in Test cricket as well as three others with great numbers who did not play enough to capture 100 – Ghulam Ahmed, Bapu Nadkarni and Venkatpathy Raju. For each of these bowlers, we have proceeded to do the following:

  1. We have considered the time period between his debut and his last Test match
  2. We have evaluated the overall average of all the specialist spinners during that period
  3. We then take the bowler’s own career average
  4. Using these two figures, we have computed an Adjusted Average Rating (AAR) for the average of the bowler, scaling them with respect to the global average. For this purpose we consider the global average to be 100.

The formula is AAR = (100*Global Average/Bowler’s Average)

Thus, a greater rating shows a better performer. Loosely speaking, AAR greater than 100 indicates above average and lower than hundred below average

  1. The AAR is the normalised rating for the bowler in terms of average — giving an indication where he stood with respect to the average spinner of his era. This can be compared with other bowlers from different eras to get a suitable ranking of the bowlers across time. The problem of direct comparison between eras is thus eradicated.
  1. The steps 2 to 6 are repeated for strike rate as well, to find another measure to compare across eras.
  1. The steps 2 to 7 are repeated variously for Test matches in India and Test matches outside India to determine how potent the men were at home and away.
  1. After the comparisons, we will just mention where Ashwin and Ojha rank among all these bowlers, without placing them in the table. This is because their careers are still in progress and it may not be fair to place them alongside the other gentlemen before they have encountered anything close to the end of the career slumps that have affected most of the names here.
  1. Most of the inferences will be drawn after looking at all the home away tables for the average and strike rate ratings.

So let us start with our cohort of bowlers, ranked according to wickets taken:

Spinner M W Ave SR
Anil Kumble

132

619

29.65

65.9

Harbhajan Singh

101

413

32.37

68.5

Bishan Bedi

67

266

28.71

80.3

Bhagwat Chandrasekhar

58

242

29.74

65.9

EAS Prasanna

49

189

30.38

75.9

Vinoo Mankad

44

162

32.32

90.6

Srinivas Venkataraghavan

57

156

36.11

95.3

Ravi Shastri

80

151

40.96

104.3

Subhash Gupte

36

149

29.55

75.7

Dilip Doshi

33

114

30.71

81.7

Shivlal Yadav

35

102

35.09

81.9

Venkathapaty Raju

28

93

30.72

81.7

Bapu Nadkarni

41

88

29.07

104.1

Ghulam Ahmed

22

68

30.17

83.0

 

Adjusted Average Rating

Now let us rank these gentlemen according to the adjusted average rating.

In the case of Kumble, we find that the global average of specialist spinners during 1990-2008 (his playing days) had been 35.41, while he himself averaged 29.65. Contrast this to Bedi, who had a better average than Kumble (28.71) but who played in an era when global average for spinners was 33.13. The proportion bowler’s average: global spinner average is more favourable to Kumble. Hence, Kumble tops the table and has an adjusted average rating that is higher than Bedi’s.

Adjusted Average Table – Overall

Spinner (Overall)

Span

M

W

Ave

Global Spin Ave

Adjusted Average Rating

Kumble

1990-2008

132

619

29.65

35.41

119.43

Doshi

1979-1983

33

114

30.71

35.70

116.25

Bedi

1966-1979

67

266

28.71

33.13

115.40

Raju

1990-2001

28

93

30.72

35.34

115.04

Chandra

1964-1979

58

242

29.74

34.07

114.56

Nadkarni

1955-1968

41

88

29.07

33.03

113.62

Prasanna

1962-1978

49

189

30.38

34.16

112.44

Harbhajan

1998-2013

101

413

32.37

35.83

110.69

Yadav

1979-1987

35

102

35.09

36.44

103.85

Gupte

1951-1961

36

149

29.55

30.50

103.21

Ghulam

1948-1959

22

68

30.17

30.28

100.36

Mankad

1946-1959

44

162

32.32

32.24

99.75

Venkat

1965-1983

57

156

36.11

34.14

94.54

Shastri

1981-1992

80

151

40.96

38.48

93.95

 

While Kumble’s extraordinary longevity — topping the table after stupendous performance across 132 Tests — will come across remarkable but hardly surprising, we do have some apparently baffling results. Dilip Doshi ends up at number two while Raju is snuggled after Bedi and before Chandra at four.

The other surprises include Nadkarni finishing ahead of Prasanna, and Shivlal Yadav ahead of Gupte.

Nadkarni’s miserly approach is one of the reasons for his high ranking in terms of averages, and the corresponding table for strike rates will automatically show that Prasanna was a far more lethal spinner.

The low rankings of Gupte, Ghulam and Mankad perhaps bear testimony to one factor that cannot be accounted for by numbers — the quality of close catching. There is also the other factor of Mankad playing way beyond his best days, but we cannot ignore the tales of catching woes that plagued the Indians of the 1950s.

But, from the mid-1960s to the present, arguably this variation due to fielding has had far less influence.

Another surprise may be Venkat finishing almost at the bottom of the pile, but this fact should not astonish those followers of the game who have analysed the numbers of the spinners closely enough. Venkat is not the only example in Indian cricket who had a stature way beyond his performance because of being bracketed with exceptional colleagues plying the same trade.

Home and Away

If we delve a bit deeper and look at the home-away analysis, the reasons for Raju’s high rating become clear. He was indeed a very successful bowler at home, achieving an average even better than Kumble. Similarly, Doshi was a fantastic bowler in India when spinners were not having the best of the time in the country.

And while Bedi did have excellent figures in India, he did bowl at a time when the general average of the spinners suggests very helpful wickets at home.

Venkat again just manages to beat the 100-mark average rating, while Shastri, expectedly, is the only spinner who turns out to have been below average in India.

Adjusted Average Table — Home

Spinners in India

Span

M

W

Ave

Spin Ave in India

Adjusted Average Rating

Doshi

1979-1983

21

77

25.38

37.19

146.53

Raju

1990-2001

16

71

24.00

32.04

133.50

Mankad

1948-1959

23

103

26.53

34.93

131.66

Kumble

1993-2008

63

350

24.88

32.56

130.86

Nadkarni

1955-1966

25

53

27.86

34.02

122.11

Harbhajan

1998-2013

55

265

28.76

34.37

119.50

Bedi

1966-1979

30

137

23.99

27.60

115.04

Yadav

1979-1987

28

77

34.10

37.90

111.14

Prasanna

1962-1977

22

95

26.94

29.26

108.61

Chandra

1964-1979

32

142

27.69

30.05

108.52

Gupte

1951-1961

21

84

30.34

32.13

105.89

Ghulam

1948-1959

14

44

30.59

31.76

103.82

Venkat

1965-1983

32

94

30.64

30.68

100.13

Shastri

1980-1991

38

73

38.93

35.50

91.18

Now let us look at the away averages. It is often justifiably argued that the true quality of a spinner is determined when they bowl on tracks not specifically suited to them. Here we see Doshi falling towards the lower bracket while Raju brings up the rear with very ordinary numbers. To be precise, the bowling average of Raju outside India is atrocious, and the ones of Mankad, Venkat and Doshi are just a little better.

As may be expected by the close observer of the game, Chandra emerges at the top of the list, Gupte, Prasanna, Bedi, Ghulam and Kumble also make it on the positive side of average. One major spinner who has failed overseas in a big way is Harbhajan.

Adjusted Average Table — Away

Spinner outside India

Span

M

W

Ave

Global Ave (outside India)

Adjusted Average Rating

Chandra

1967-1979

26

100

32.66

35.35

108.24

Nadkarni

1959-1968

16

35

30.91

32.67

105.69

Gupte

1953-1959

15

65

28.52

30.02

105.26

Prasanna

1962-1978

27

94

33.85

35.63

105.26

Bedi

1967-1979

37

129

33.72

34.66

102.79

Ghulam*

1952-1955

8

24

29.41

29.99

101.97

Kumble

1990-2008

69

269

35.85

35.99

100.39

Yadav*

1981-1986

7

25

38.16

35.97

94.26

Harbhajan

1998-2011

46

148

38.83

36.13

93.05

Shastri

1981-1992

42

64

42.85

39.28

91.67

Doshi

1981-1983

12

37

41.81

35.21

84.21

Venkat

1967-1983

25

62

44.40

35.15

79.17

Mankad

1946-1955

21

59

42.42

31.73

74.80

Raju

1990-2001

12

22

52.40

36.03

68.76

 

* Small Sample

Before drawing conclusions from the data, let us look at the three corresponding tables for strike rates.

Strike Rate Tables

A look at the overall table for strike rate makes it clear that Chandra has been the most lethal spinner for India ever. Prasanna is there close to at the top as well followed by Kumble, but the gap between Chandra and the rest is huge.

The Nadkarni puzzle solves itself as well. We find the man who had such a great adjusted average rating ends up at the bottom in terms of strike rate. His average, as already mentioned, was maintained by the miserly attitude to giving away runs, while he was seldom one to capture wickets at a quick frequency.

Overall table for strike rate

Spinner

Span

M

W

SR

Global SR

Adjusted SR Rating

Chandra

1964-1979

58

242

65.9

89.1

135.20

Prasanna

1962-1978

49

189

75.9

89.6

118.05

Kumble

1990-2008

132

619

65.9

76.5

116.08

Gupte

1951-1961

36

149

75.7

84.5

111.62

Bedi

1966-1979

67

266

80.3

86.3

107.47

Harbhajan

1998-2013

101

413

68.5

73.2

106.86

Yadav

1979-1987

35

102

81.9

87.3

106.59

Doshi

1979-1983

33

114

81.7

84.4

103.30

Ghulam

1948-1959

22

68

83.0

82.8

99.76

Raju

1990-2001

28

93

81.7

81.5

99.76

Mankad

1946-1959

44

162

90.6

85.8

94.70

Venkat

1965-1983

57

156

95.3

86.8

91.08

Shastri 1981-1992

80

151

104.3

91.6

87.82

Nadkarni 1955-1968

41

88

104.1

89.6

86.07

Turning to the spin strike rate in India, we find once again Chandra comfortably perched at the top and Nadkarni just above Shastri at the bottom of the table. We also find that Doshi was a fantastic force to have in India during his time. At the same time, Yadav’s numbers show that he was also quite a wicket-taker when he bowled in India.

While Prasanna, Gupte and Harbhajan were potent bowlers at home, Bedi was not really that penetrative and took wickets with a frequency below the average spinner in India during his days.

Strike Rate at Home

Spinner in India Span

M

W

SR

Overall Spin SR in India

Rating (SR)

Chandra 1964-1979

32

142

64.6

82.3

127.39

Doshi 1979-1983

21

77

73.3

93.1

127.01

Yadav 1979-1987

28

77

76.3

92.0

120.57

Kumble 1993-2008

63

350

59.4

71.5

120.37

Mankad 1948-1959

23

103

75.4

88.0

116.71

Raju 1990-2001

16

71

62.5

72.6

116.16

Prasanna 1962-1977

22

95

70.4

81.1

115.19

Gupte 1951-1961

21

84

76.7

85.6

111.60

Harbhajan 1998-2013

55

265

64.1

71.4

111.38

Ghulam 1948-1959

14

44

80.4

82.2

102.23

Bedi 1966-1979

30

137

75.8

74.9

98.81

Venkat 1965-1983

32

94

88.0

80.8

91.81

Nadkarni 1955-1966

25

53

105.1

92.0

87.53

Shastri 1980-1991

38

73

102.3

87.7

85.72

It is the table for away strike rates that really separates the man from the boys and shows the incredible value of Chandra. He stands head and shoulders above anyone else in this regard. And as in the case of average, we see Raju, and also Doshi, Mankad and Venkat being brutally exposed by these numbers.

In fact, only Chandra, Prasanna, Gupte, Bedi and Kumble end up on the positive side of the mediocre when the action shifts overseas.

Strike Rate Away

Spinner away from India Span

M

W

SR

Overall Spin SR away

Rating (SR)

Chandra 1967-1979

26

100

67.7

91.3

134.86

Prasanna 1962-1978

27

94

81.4

92.1

113.14

Gupte 1953-1959

15

65

74.4

84.1

113.04

Bedi 1967-1979

37

129

85

89.5

105.29

Kumble 1990-2008

69

269

74.5

77.1

103.49

Harbhajan 1998-2011

46

148

76.3

73.6

96.46

Ghulam* 1952-1955

8

24

88

82.9

94.20

Shastri 1981-1992

42

64

106.1

92.6

87.28

RG Nadkarni 1959-1968

16

35

102.6

88.7

86.45

Yadav* 1981-1986

7

25

99.3

85.8

86.40

Doshi 1981-1983

12

37

99.2

85.6

86.29

Venkat 1967-1983

25

62

106.4

88.5

83.18

Mankad 1946-1955

21

59

117.2

85.4

72.87

Raju 1990-2001

12

22

143.7

83.4

58.04

* Small sample

Where do Ashwin and Ojha stand?

At the peak of their careers at the present moment, the current ratings of Ashwin and Ojha are the following

Overall

Spinner

M

W

Ave

SR

Rating (Ave)

Rating (SR)

Ashwin

21

107

28.65

59.1

121.33

118.44

Ojha

24

113

30.26

67.5

119.40

116.08

At Home

Spinner

M

W

Ave

SR

Rating (Ave)

Rating (SR)

Ashwin

15

95

24.12

51.1

122.01

119.57

Ojha

20

101

27.51

63.5

122.10

107.24

The duo have played too few Tests overseas for a reasonable rating. As the numbers indicate, at the current moment, the two rank right in the top bracket in both the categories at home and away. It may be scandalising for some to read this, but their record is better than most of the spinners of the past.

However, as mentioned earlier, a spinner’s career is prone to ups and downs and at this point of time it does not make much sense to compare the present pair with the other august names in the list.

Some clarifications

One may argue that we have not ignored Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in our analysis. But, then neither have we ignored the extremely weak New Zealand sides against whom the spinners of the 1960s took bucketful of wickets and against whom India achieved their first ever overseas series win.

Also, we have not discounted the Packer era West Indian and Australian sides, or the early Sri Lankan.

The normalisation that we have carried out, using the average and strike rate of all the specialist spinners, is expected to balance out most of these extreme conditions.

Inferences — General

We see that the spinner’s art has changed significantly over the years.

  • The global average for the spinner was the lowest in the 1950s, after which it climbed to the 34-35 region and remained more or less constant.
  •  The period in the 1950s show a better average for the spinners away from India than in India. In the 1960s and 1970s the conditions in the country became much more suited to the tweakers. In the 1980s one witnessed another fluctuation before once again India became the preferred place for the spinners from the 1990s.
  • The strike rates for the spinners have undergone a spectacular improvement down the years, while the average has remained more or less consistent. It is just an indication that the modern batsmen take more chances, play more strokes and score approximately the same against the spinners in less time. Indications are that cricket has turned faster. Of course modern day shorter boundaries and extreme bats are definite causes for that, but the spinners of the current day have coped with these changes excellently.

Inferences about the Indian spinners

There are quite a few eye-openers in the tables alongside some well-known facts.

  • Chandra was by far the most lethal bowler for India, way ahead of the rest in the frequency of taking wickets. This is especially true overseas where the difference between him and the others is huge.
  • Gupte and Prasanna were fantastic tweakers away from India, successful and penetrative.
  • The greatness of Kumble as a potent force at home and a useful one away is also apparent across the tables.
  • Doshi was an exceptional spinner at home, and Raju was not far behind. In India they were comparable to the very best. However, away from home their records were rather ordinary. In spite of the glitter associated with his name, the same can be said about Mankad.
  • Both Doshi and Yadav seem to have benefitted in the tables generated for home by bowling in an era when not too many great spinners travelled to India. Some who did were Derek Underwood and Abdul Qadir, but they were not really successful. It was a bleak period for spinners, probably due to the adjustments necessitated by the One-Day game and the tactics employed by the hugely successful West Indians.
  • Kumble and Bedi had comparable figures overseas while the former was decidedly more lethal at home. Bedi, as his overall strike rate also indicates, seems less likely to run through an innings than Chandra, Prasanna, Kumble or Harbhajan at home, or Chandra and Prasanna overseas.
  • Nadkarni’s figures underline the well-known fact he was always a difficult bowler to get away, and that kept him going at a splendid average. Yet, he was seldom a wicket-taking spinner.
  • Venkat, if we go by his reputation, is hugely over-rated and it is rather unfair to the stature of Prasanna, Chandra and Bedi to club him alongside them. The name of the group has stuck and will remain, but he was nowhere near the standard of the other three. In fact, he struggles in comparison to even much less heralded Indian spinners before or since.
  • The current-day spinners have so far done a wonderful job of being right at the top. At home they are comparable to the very best. Of course, they have not played too many games overseas to merit a comparison and an actual evaluation can be done only when their careers draw to a close.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)