Stats across eras 8: Spin and pace domination over decades

A more detailed look at how fast bowling and spin have served the teams since the turn of the last century © Getty Images

Statistics may not tell the whole story, but numbers are the footprints and tell-tale evidences left by cricketers across time. Having looked at the best bowlers down the decades, Arunabha Sengupta now turns his attention to how spin and pace coexisted over the years, and how spin bowling was evidently affected by one-day cricket.


In part seven of this series we looked at the best bowlers by decades.


In that episode we also noticed that pace and spin have for long gone neck and neck in terms of bowling averages before something happened in the 1970s which created a chasm which was widened in the next decade. We had conjectured that it was the effect of one-day cricket.


Now let us take a more detailed look at how fast bowling and spin have served the teams since the turn of the last century.


Recovering the information is not exactly cakewalk. Bowlers have changed over the years and certain types – lob, loop, medium-paced leg spinner and other exotic varieties have gradually walked off into the record books after collecting their caps from the umpires the last time.


Yet others have continued to confuse matters – being adamantly unclassifiable into one category or another. Gary Sobers, Bill Johnston and Tony Greig have been the major culprits in this regard, Sachin Tendulkar and Chris Harris the minor ones.


Additionally, the grey areas between fast and medium pace, medium and slow medium make it even more complicated. Harold Larwood and Wally Hammond, and later Michael Holding and Mohinder Amarnath are all categorised by the databases of Wisden as pace bowlers.


To take a detailed look at the effect of pace and spin on the cricket world across time, we therefore followed a simple procedure. For each decade, we looked at the ten best fast bowlers/medium pacers, and ten best spinners. Some of the War ravaged decades had to do with a few less. Depending on the decades, we stipulated a minimum number of wickets for a bowler to be considered for selection in the top ten.


For players who bowled both pace and spin, we used the excellent method of staunch evasion. We did not consider them at all. Luckily, none of them did crop up in our top ten for each decade, except for the rather obdurate Johnston of the 1940s and Sobers of the 1960s.


Following this we tabulated the composite average and composite strike rate of the best pace bowlers and spinners separately for each decade.

Stats across eras 8: Spin and pace domination over decades

Comparison of averages for spinners & pacers over the decades

The result are as follows, and the variation of average can be also determined from the graph given above.


Decade 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s

Pace Average

17.44 31.32 25.93 25.8 21.52 25.25 23.69 21.09 22.3 23.58 22.96

Spin Average

23.36 30.38 25.7 32.59 24.36 27.82 30.38 33.03 28.22 27.58 27.51

Pace Str Rate

43.77 73.33 56.45 65.97 57.55 61.8 52.71 48.93 51.38 49.01 47.62

Spin Str Rate

43.6 69.25 69.02 85.19 72.73 82.53 77.15 78.96 67.29 58.66 59.88



*  Considering the top ten pacers and spinners for each decade



Equal partners till 1970



As we can see, when the pitches were becoming standardised, pacers and spinners performed equally in terms of average and strike rate.


Till the 1930s, the best spinners are very slightly ahead of the very best pace bowlers. Even in the decade of Bodyline, Hedley Verity, Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly and Walter Robins made sure that the spinners were right up there. However, from the 1930s, the strike rates for the spinners grew distinctly higher.


When Tests resumed after World War II, the spinners struggled for a while, but closed the gap in the decade that followed. The 1950s was the saddest period for batsmen, with a large group of excellent world class bowlers turning their arms over on helpful surfaces.


The quality of this crop can be made out from the fact that the two spinners to miss out from making our list of top ten for the decade are Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, with the ranks filled in by the likes of Jim Laker, Johnny Wardle, Tony Lock, Richie Benaud, Subhash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad and others. At the same time, the pace bowler clocking in at No 11 for this decade is a certain Ray Lindwall, finishing behind Freddie Trueman, Wes Hall, Brian Statham, Keith Miller, Alec Bedser, Alan Davidson, Frank Tyson and others.


Run making became easier in the 1960s, and the averages of both the fast men and the tweakers went up in tandem, but the gap remained small.



The ODI Effect



However, in the 1970s, the situation changed drastically. In a pace dominated decade, the spinners gradually took the back seat as almost all the captains relied on their fast men to pick up wickets. In the 1980s, the divide became even wider, the spinners being relegated to virtual serfdom. A huge yawning chasm in the middle of the graph above demonstrates this. The two forms of bowling have never been so different before or since.


Two things can be inferred from this:

  1. One-Day cricket had a major effect. Spinners slowly became men for containment rather than picking up wickets. Even in India, the mid to late 80s saw a striking dearth in wicket taking spinners. It is quite incredible that Iqbal Qasim managed a superb average and strike rate during this era and is seldom acknowledged as one of the greatest spinners.
  2. Helmets that appeared in 1978 did not make much of a difference to the fast bowlers who kept finding new ways to get wickets. The performance of the best pacemen improved in the 80s. This has been dealt with in Part 6.


The 90s witnessed the advent of a new generation of spinners who grew up playing limited overs matches, and learnt how to purchase wickets in spite of the ODI overdose. Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Stuart MacGill, Saqlain Mustaq and Mushtaq Ahmed provided a healthy breath of rejuvenation to the fascinating art. At the same time, the pace bowlers continued to thrive, making the 1990s another difficult decade for batsmen.


The first ten years of the new century saw an overall deterioration in bowling standards. However, the best spinners in the game did improve. The incredible averages and strike rates of Muralitharan and Warne during this period are majorly responsible for the steadiness of the figures of the slow bowlers.


It is extremely interesting to contemplate carrying out this same exercise once this decade is over and infer if the Decision Review System (DRS) and Hotspot had a significant effect on the bowling figures. However, we have to wait a few more years for that – if Test cricket survives.



(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