Monday, September 27, 2010

How ‘bout them spinners

A casual glance at the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI bowlers shows an unusual top of the table. The top four bowlers are all spinners and three of them – Daniel Vettori, Shakib al Hasan and Ray Price – are left-arm spinners. Graeme Swann – up into third place after his recent successes in England’s ODI series with Pakistan – is the only off-spinner among them. Conversely, a glance at the Test bowling table shows that Swann is the only slow bowler in the top nine, with Harbhajan Singh sneaking in at number ten.

The early years of Test cricket were littered with spinners who reached Number 1 such as Billy Bates, Bobby Peel and Johnny Briggs, but in terms of the shorter form of the game, this current level of success is almost unprecedented.

From the first match played in January 1971 it wasn’t until December 1987 that a spinner managed to reach the number one spot. The early years had been dominated by the speedsters with the likes of Andy Roberts, Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall all enjoying lengthy stays in the number one position. When the breakthrough finally came after the 482nd One Day International ever played, it was a surprising name to make it. And after he had faded from view, it was another six years before another spinner equalled his performance. So – in nearly the first quarter of a century of ODI cricket, only one spinner was able to look down on the rest of the cricketing world.

Seen as the heir-apparent to Bishan Bedi, Maninder Singh debuted as a raw seventeen-year-old against arch-rivals Pakistan in late 1982 and beguiled opposition batsmen with his flight and guile. He was a huge success on India’s triumphant 1986 tour of England in which he took 12 wicket in the three-Test series and although suffering the ignominy of being Greg Matthews's final victim in the second Tied Test at Madras later that year, he continued his successes against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

His performances also picked up in the shorter form of the game and five years after his debut, his consistent, economical performances saw him move above Malcolm Marshall after taking 1-19 in his nine overs against the West Indies in Guwahati. However, it was an all-too brief stay at the top as two months later Richard Hadlee usurped him. The following year he regained the lead position for another six months before disappearing from the international game in 1989. He did briefly resurface in 1993 but with none of his earlier magic and his first-class career ended at the age of just 29.

His Test career followed a similar path and he peaked at number 6 in March 1987 after he took ten wickets against Pakistan at Bangalore. However, they weren’t enough to bring victory to the home side as Pakistan sneaked home by just 16 runs to claim a 1-0 series win.

It was back to the pacemen after Maninder’s short interlude and it wasn’t until 1995 that a certain Shane Warne managed to muscle his way above Wasim Akram for a brief stay at number one. The floodgates had been opened though, and Saqlain Mushtaq strolled straight through, bamboozling everyone with his newly-invented doosra and enjoying a 49-match stay on top. Muttiah Muralitharan enjoyed a lengthy stay at number one, and Anil Kumble also hit the heights back in 1996, but of the 32 bowlers to top the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI bowlers, only seven have been spinners. Graeme Swann and Ray Price will be hoping to become the eighth in the near future and – with ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 just around the corner – who would bet against them?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The new Number One

AB de Villiers originally started in international cricket as a wicket-keeping replacement for Mark Boucher, but he had such a successful start to his Test career that he is still the only South African to reach 1,000 Test runs within a year of making his Test debut. By that time he was knocking on the door of the world’s top twenty in the longer format of the game, but he subsequently suffered the “sophomore slump” and at one stage went 23 Tests without reaching three figures between December 2005 and January 2008.

But there was never any real danger of him being dropped, despite yo-yoing up and down the batting order and to this date he is yet to miss a match. His current streak of 61 Tests is second only to Mark Boucher’s 75 between 1998 and 2004 in terms of consecutive matches played for the Proteas.

He emerged from his batting doldrums in early 2008 and since then he has steadily marched up the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen towards his current career-best position of 11th. No longer does he have to play second-fiddle to those other two powerhouses Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith as he has become a true international class Test batsman in his own right. In 2008 he became the first South African to score a Test double-century in India when his unbeaten 217 at Ahmedabad helped his side to an innings victory.

As impressive as this recent run of form has been, his efforts in the shorter form of the game have been even more eye-opening. Earlier in his career it would have been easy to have considered him a latter-day Jonty Rhodes – electric in the field but not that consistent with the willow in his hand. Rhodes managed to reach the top ten in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI batsmen but failed to reach higher than 26th in Test cricket despite playing 52 Tests.

However, in the past couple of years de Villiers has made the transition from a player who could play useful cameos into the top-rated ODI batsman in the world. Most frequently he has batted at number 4 so he has rarely been able to take advantage of the first powerplay. Despite that, since the start of 2009 he has averaged 67.68 with a strike rate of 99 in his 25 ODI matches, which has propelled him to the top of the table, above MS Dhoni who had made that position pretty much exclusively his own for the last eighteen months.

Four other South African batsmen have enjoyed the position of being able to look down on the rest of the world from the lofty perch as the top-rated ODI batsman. The first was Hansie Cronje who had a brief six-match, eleven-day stay in late 1994 in an era dominated by Brian Lara. The only Protea so far to break the magical 900 point barrier in the shorter form of the game is surprisingly Gary Kirsten. Most often remembered as a gritty Test opener who once defied England’s bowlers for 878 minutes at Durban to save a match, he achieved this unique feat in 1996 at the end of a period in which he hit six centuries in 21 matches. Since then both Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith have enjoyed 60-odd matches in top spot.

Not content with being a talented sportsman in golf, hockey, tennis and rugby, he has recently illustrated yet another string to his bow by releasing a music album with Ampie du Preez on which he plays the guitar and sings two of the songs.

Having just reached 800 points for the first time, de Villiers has a way to go before he emulates Kirsten’s peak. In fact, no batsman in ODI cricket worldwide has reached 900 points since Brian Lara back in 1997. This could be a reflection on the increased number of matches played nowadays, but at the age of 26 he should be approaching his peak years as a batsman and – as the youngest man to top the table since MS Dhoni four years ago - he could be set to dominate for a number of years to come.