New Delhi: Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja was expected to play the lead role on the fifth day of the fourth Test at The Oval between India and England. The pitch had seemingly flattened out, barring the “rough”, especially outside the left-hander’s off-stump, which was primed for Jadeja to exploit.
Instead, on an intriguing final day, India’s much-vaunted pace attack once again enhanced its reputation, with Jasprit Bumrah running through the English middle-order in a reverse-swinging post-lunch spell that also saw him claim his 100th Test wicket.
The pace bowlers once again bowled India to victory, this time by 157 runs, after claiming 14 of the 20 English wickets to fall in the Test. This included seven of the wickets to fall on the final day.
The win is India’s first in 50 years at The Oval, which holds a special place in the annals of Indian cricket.
It was here that on 24 August 1971, Indian cricket breached two important milestones — the first-ever Test win on English soil, as well as the first series win in the country.
After drawing the first two tests, India won the third by four wickets, capturing the series 1-0 under the captaincy of Ajit Wadekar.
The victory, however, was built on the back of the team’s spin trio — B. Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi and S. Venkataraghavan. Of the 20 English wickets to fall that day, 15 went to the specialist spinners. Eknath Solkar took three, but even he alternated between bowling slow-medium pace and spin. The other two English batters were run out.
Five decades on, there is a paradigm shift in Indian cricket. India lead the Test series 2-1 based solely on the ability of the pace bowlers. In the four Tests of the series so far, the pacers — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj — have accounted for 61 of the 70 English wickets to fall. Jadeja has taken six, while there have been three run outs.
Such has been Kohli’s reliance on his fast bowlers that there has been no place in the playing XI for Ravichandran Ashwin, one of the best spinners of his generation and the current world No.2 Test bowler in the ICC rankings, in all four matches played so far.
The series is only adding to the reputation of India’s pace battery, a talking point in the cricketing world for a while now. The reputation, as numbers show, is well-earned.
India’s pace battery
Between 2011 and 2021, India’s pacers have taken 922 wickets, outshining the spinners, who have taken 877 in 108 Test matches, both at home and abroad.
This is the first decade since the 1970s that Indian pacers have outdone their spin counterparts.
It’s a far cry from the days when India relied on spinners not just in Asian countries, known for dusty turners, but in the SENA nations — South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia.
In the 1970s, for instance, Indian spinners took 643 wickets through the decade, as opposed to 291 wickets by the pace bowlers in 119 Test matches (47 of them outside Asia).
Pacers, led by Kapil Dev in his heyday, performed way better in the 1980s, taking 528 wickets, but they were just pipped by the spinners with 546 wickets in 88 Test matches.
In the 1990s, spinners took 517 wickets, led by Anil Kumble, while pacers chipped in with 471 wickets in 70 Test matches. By the 2000s, with India’s pace bowling stocks improving, their wicket tally increased to 783, but at the same time, spinners continued their dominance by scalping 868 wickets.
But now, India’s pace bowling strength is at a level where even on flat or turning home pitches, they have begun chipping in with wickets.
Between 2011 and 2021, India has played 54 Tests in Asia, with the pacers taking 304 wickets, and the spinners 673.
In contrast, in the 1990s, India played 41 matches in Asia, in which pacers took 223 wickets, while spinners took 392.
Effective number of pacers — best in 2021
In the 1970s, Syed Abid Ali, Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri were the only pace bowlers India had.
By 1978, Kapil Dev made his debut, and he led the attack until the 1990s, along with Roger Binny, then Chetan Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar.
In the 1990s, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Manoj Prabhakar and Kapil Dev were the only pace bowlers to get more than 50 wickets.
They were overshadowed by the likes of Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and even Venkatapathy Raju.
Using ESPNCricinfo’s bowling statistics, ThePrint has devised a measure to calculate the number of effective pace bowlers that team India has used in Test matches through every decade. We used the Laakso and Taagepera method to arrive at the figure.
According to this analysis, until 2000, India averaged more than three pace bowlers every year in its line up who could take a ‘substantial’ number of wickets. The benchmark for ‘substantial wickets’ changes depending on the total wickets taken by pace bowlers in that decade.
For instance, if in a decade 100 wickets are taken, of which 93 are by three bowlers and the rest by others, then the effective pace bowlers’ number will be 3. If four bowlers take 25 wickets each, then the effective pace bowler strength will be 4.
From 2000 to 2010, on average, the team played about 3-4 pace bowlers every year. Post 2010, the team has had at least four pacers playing in a year. But in 2021, the number of effective pace bowlers stands at 5.3 — the highest in 50 years.
What this means is that the reliance on one or two pace bowlers has come down drastically in the last few years. Due to the availability of more quality pacers, the division of labour has been better.
This is quite visible from the fact that between 2001 and 2010, India’s top pacer, Zaheer Khan, accounted for about a third of all the wickets secured by Indian pacers.
But between 2011 and 2021, though Ishant Sharma has taken the most wickets, 234, his tally constitutes only a fourth of all dismissals by Indian pacers.
In fact, over the last one decade, pacers have taken so many wickets that by 2021, of the top 10 bowlers who took the most number of wickets since 1971, half are pacers.
This, however, isn’t to say that pacers in the other eras didn’t do their bit.
In the 1970s and 80s, whenever India played outside Asia, pacers took about 25 per cent of the total wickets, which rose to 53 per cent in the next decade after Kapil Dev made his international debut in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Kapil’s record is, however, an anomaly. Not only did he end up with 434 Test wickets, holding the world record for a while, in the 1981-90 decade, he alone took about a third of the total wickets India managed in non-Asian countries.
The improvement in the pace bowling department came in the 1990s and 2000s, when fast bowlers took about 60 per cent of the total wickets on foreign pitches, a figure that has now jumped up to 76 per cent in 2011-21.
Spinners still relevant
Part of the reason why India’s pacers are now outperforming spinners is also because in the last two years, the country has played more series abroad.
In 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, India played a Test series in New Zealand. So far in 2021, the team has played a total of three series — one against Australia and two against England, one at home and one abroad.
Apart from this, India also lost to New Zealand in the final of the World Test Championship, which was also played in England, at Lord’s.
Spinners still dominate series played in India. Data shows that since 2016, of all the Test series played in India, spinners have accounted for two-thirds of the total wickets.
Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have taken the most spin wickets in India since 2015.
Decade-by-decade data also shows that whenever a Test match has been played on an Asian pitch, about 60 per cent of all the wickets have been taken by spin bowlers.
Post 2019, India has played only one series at home, against England, which saw left-arm spinner Axar Patel dominate. Patel ended up with 27 wickets in the four-match series.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)