CricViz Analysis: Spinners under the scanner

CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde investigates the evolution of Nathan Lyon and Ravi Ashwin.

One of the primary reasons why India’s series against Australia is considered to be such a great opportunity for the visitors is the strength of their pace attack. Since the start of 2015 India’s quicks have the second lowest average in the world and they head into this series with a set of pace bowlers that can rival Australia’s much vaunted trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. With five frontline bowlers to choose from India have more depth than the hosts.

Yet while the focus of attention on the bowlers in the build up to the series has largely been on the quicks, the nature of cricket in Australia and the balance of both teams means the spinners—Nathan Lyon and Ravi Ashwin (and possibly Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav later in the series)—are going to have a huge—perhaps decisive—role to play.

Pitches in Australia may not spin much—the average turn of 3.59° is the second lowest in the world after New Zealand—but they are flat—the average innings in Australia since 2013 lasts 108.2 overs – the second longest in the world after the UAE. These conditions place a responsibility on the spinner to at least hold up an end to allow the pacers to be rotated in what are often hot temperatures. The balance of both teams—India being without Hardik Pandya and Australia leaving Mitchell Marsh out of the side for the first Test—has only increased the responsibility on both spinners. With no genuine fifth bowling option on either side the spinners will be required to do more bowling. The consequences of them struggling in this role are more serious as well with only part-timers to protect the three quicks from a heavy workload and possible injury—something which could have repercussions for the entire series. 

Australia is a finger spinner’s graveyard. The hard and bouncy pitches suit pace bowlers while wrist spinners can generally spin the ball on most surfaces but with negligible assistance from the pitch the task for finger spinners becomes significantly harder. In Tests in Australia since 1990 finger spinners have an average 48% higher than wrist spinners. Even Muttiah Muralitharan, the greatest off spinner of all time, averaged 75.41 across five Tests in Australia.

Ashwin and Lyon are two very different finger spinners whose careers have been closely intwined. Lyon is an old-fashioned off spinner who relies on overspin and dip from a classical side-on action; Ashwin is a new-age off spinner who bowls a wide array of variations on a flatter, faster trajectory. Both men are the products of their surroundings: Lyon’s approach is better suited to bouncy Australian pitches while Ashwin’s is better suited to turning Indian pitches.

It is unsurprising that in the early phase of their careers both men showed a clear preference for home conditions. Up until the end of 2015 Lyon averaged 17.39 runs per wicket fewer in Australia than in Asia and Ashwin averaged 34.24 runs per wicket fewer in Asia than in Australia. 

A comparison of Lyon and Ashwin’s bowling in Australia illustrates the stark contrast between the two bowlers. Lyon’s slower speeds and fuller lengths have been significantly more effective than Ashwin’s faster speeds and shorter lengths. Note how Lyon, despite bowling fuller, extracts more bounce – something that is likely to be explained by the overspin he imparts on the ball as opposed to Ashwin’s sidespin.

It is sensible and entirely understandable that both men have sought to learn from one another. When India last toured Australia in 2014-15 Ashwin admitted he tried to learn from Lyon’s approach and when Australia last toured India in 2016 Lyon said he had been trying to learn from Ashwin as part of a more large-scale adjustment to bring success Asian conditions.

For Lyon the results have been remarkable. On dry Asian pitches where the ball turns a lot and bounces less, finger spinners are encouraged to bowl flatter, faster and shorter to discourage the batsmen sweeping and give them less time to respond to the unpredictable turn. A comparison of Lyon’s bowling in Asia before and after 2015 shows how his method was transformed and a glance at his average illustrates how successful this was.*

In a way Ashwin is at a disadvantage in this comparison. The nature of conditions in Asia—dry pitches that take big turn—meant that when Lyon succeeded in Asia it was spectacular: 68 wickets at 24.72 since 2016. But for Ashwin success outside Asia is likely to be less obvious. Might it look something like 18 wickets in six Tests at 31.94? Because that’s what Ashwin managed in South Africa and England despite not being fully fit. Reproducing those figures in Australia would represent a huge success.

Encouragingly for India closer analysis suggests Ashwin’s significantly improved returns in South Africa and England were the product of a significantly adjusted method. In Ashwin’s six Tests in South Africa and England—his only Tests in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) since India’s last tour of Australia—Ashwin bowled notably slower and notably fuller. These are changes which bode well for the challenge of Australian conditions. If Ashwin continues to bowl as he did in South Africa and England it is likely his dismal record in Australia will improve. 

Speaking to the media after India’s warm-up match Ashwin explained that it would be “silly” for him to try and bowl like Lyon because it would require major changes in the biomechanics of his action. Yet the evidence suggests that this year Ashwin is already bowling more like Lyon does outside Asia by decreasing his speed and bowling fuller.

Mindless replication would be foolish, no two bowlers are the same, but learning from those who have had success makes sense – Lyon in Asia is first hand evidence of that. As Ashwin embarks on the toughest challenge of his career he could do worse than bear that in mind. 

* Interestingly there are signs that Lyon’s Asian adjustments have crept into his bowling in Australia. In the Ashes last year Lyon bowled faster and shorter than in any home series of his career. Despite this he still had a good series, taking 21 wickets at an average of 29.23, but he was helped by the biggest turning Brisbane pitch since 2006 and an England batting order packed with his favoured left-handers. A strong Indian batting order brought up on a diet of spin bowling is likely to pose a greater challenge. It will be fascinating to see what approach he takes: his new flatter and faster Asian method or his traditional slower and fuller Australian method.

Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz. @fwildecricket 

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  1. […] As Freddie Wilde pointed out on this site just a few days ago, Ashwin has transformed his approach for bowling in SENA countries, in a manner that suggested he could compete far better on this tour than he did last time he was in Australia. Ashwin bowled slower on return to South Africa, and then subsequently on return to England. […]

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