Cricket: The “Best Bowling Attack” Hyperbole

Much has been made by those in the Australia cricket set up and press of late of the Australian team’s claim (via Craig McDermott and Peter Siddle principally) that it possesses the best bowling attack in the world.  This statement has come after Australia’s annihilation of England in the recently completed Ashes series.

There is no doubt that the Australia bowling attack bowled splendidly against England, led by Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson.  That said, I have been left to wonder over recent days as to whether the claim to fame as being the best bowling is merely hyperbole or has some roots in fact.

Obviously then it is important to consider the facts around who the best bowlers in the world currently are and then consider whether those best bowlers form the best attack.

The ICC Test Match Rankings are as good as place as any to start.  The current bowling rankings (updated to include the recently completed Ashes Tour) are:

Ranking Player Country
1 V.D. Philander South Africa
2 D.W. Steyn South Africa
3 R.J. Harris Australia
4 H.M.R.K.B. Herath Sri Lanka
5 Saeed Ajmal Pakistan
6 P.M. Siddle Australia
7 R. Ashwin India
8 M.G. Johnson Australia
9 P.P. Ojha India
10 T.A. Boult New Zealand
10 S.C.J. Broad England
12 M. Morkel South Africa
13 T.G. Southee New Zealand
14 Abdur Rehman Pakistan
15 J.M. Anderson England
16 K.A.J. Roach West Indies
17 B.W. Hilfenhaus Australia
18 N.M. Lyon Australia
19  Shakib Al Hasan Bangladesh
20 S. Shillingford West Indies

Australia has all four of its present bowling attack in the top 20 in the world at the moment, therefore, on first principals they have the best attack in the world will be the argument of some, particularly those who are ardent fans of the ICC rankings system. That said, there are many, me included, who hold little stock in the ICC system so it is necessary to dig a bit deeper in the form of the relevant bowling attacks.  Before doing so, the ICC Rankings are useful in one sense: it is possible to remove a number teams, and their attacks, from consideration here based on their lack of representation in said rankings: Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka have scant representation and can be removed.

Statistically, I am of a view that an analysis of the last 12 months of test matches would be the best way to examine who has the best bowling attack.  As the tables below show, a simple statistical representation is problematic.

Most Wickets (1 Jan 2013 to date):

Player Mat Inns Overs Runs Wkts Ave SR
SCJ Broad (Eng) 15 28 512 1722 66 26.09 46.5
JM Anderson (Eng) 15 29 567.5 1768 55 32.14 61.9
DW Steyn (SA) 9 18 357.4 901 51 17.66 42
TA Boult (NZ) 12 21 429.5 1154 46 25.08 56
RJ Harris (Aus) 9 18 328.3 895 46 19.45 42.8
NM Lyon (Aus) 12 24 455.4 1556 45 34.57 60.7
PM Siddle (Aus) 15 28 489.1 1316 45 29.24 65.2
GP Swann (Eng) 10 19 440 1466 43 34.09 61.3
R Ashwin (India) 7 14 355.2 923 41 22.51 52
MG Johnson (Aus) 7 14 235.4 669 40 16.72 35.3
Saeed Ajmal (Pak) 8 14 409 1062 39 27.23 62.9
VD Philander (SA) 8 16 278 686 38 18.05 43.8
S Shillingford (WI) 6 9 261.5 802 36 22.27 43.6
TG Southee (NZ) 8 15 333.3 898 36 24.94 55.5
N Wagner (NZ) 10 18 373 1271 35 36.31 63.9
RA Jadeja (India) 5 10 255.4 573 30 19.1 51.1
HMRKB Herath (SL) 4 8 234.3 605 25 24.2 56.2
Junaid Khan (Pak) 6 11 242.1 656 23 28.52 63.1
Sohag Gazi (Ban) 6 11 290.3 807 22 36.68 79.2
ST Finn (Eng) 6 10 179.1 670 20 33.5 53.7

Test Match Results (1 Jan 2013 to date)

Team Mat Won Lost Tied Draw W/L
South Africa 9 7 1 0 1 7
Australia 15 6 7 0 2 0.85
India 8 6 1 0 1 6
England 15 5 5 0 5 1
New Zealand 12 2 4 0 6 0.5
Pakistan 8 2 5 0 1 0.4
West Indies 7 2 4 0 1 0.5
Zimbabwe 6 2 4 0 0 0.5
Bangladesh 6 1 2 0 3 0.5
Sri Lanka 4 1 1 0 2 1

The problem arises with in the obvious discrepancy between the number of tests played by the various test match playing nations. It is impossible to compare statistically the efforts of those who have played for, for example, South Africa with those who have played for England because of the significant variance between in the number of tests played by the two teams.

That being the case, a different analysis is necessary.  The efforts of a bowling attack are best examined, in my view, in the considering who often they take wickets (strike rate) and the quantum of runs scored against the attack.  The later examination is one that ought be undertaken in two parts: a per average based and then by tallying the number of innings under 200 produced by the opposition of each team.

This table sets out the results of that analysis:

Team Strikerate Innings Ave Innings <200
South Africa 50 224.27 6
Australia 57.74 268.14 6
England 57.62 281.13 3
India 56.68 254.38 5

Based on this analysis, then South Africa must have had the better bowling attack in the last 12 months mustn’t they? They have the best strike rate in terms of balls bowled per wicket and have restricted their opponents to the lowest sum of runs per innings.

Deniers of this view will say that Australia possesses more fire power and has the great ability to run through teams as evidenced by the efforts of Johnson et al against England.  Whilst it is true that Australia’s bowlers went through periods against England of taking clumps of wickets for not many runs, did they dismiss their opponents this year for less than 100 at any point? The answer to that enquiry is no whereas the South Africans did so thrice in the year.

Australia’s bowlers and coach have earned the right to be overjoyed with their efforts against England.  They should be careful though that this present attack of hyperbole as to who possesses the best bowling attack in the world does not return to bite them on the metaphorical backside.  If nothing else, one can bet that Messrs Steyn, Philander and Morkel have been watching the press coverage of Australia’s statements closely.

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