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Bangladesh v India 2022/23

Kuldeep v Axar: Why, back home, finger-spin is likely to trump wrist-spin for India’s selectors

Kuldeep Yadav outbowled Axar Patel in Chattogram, but at home, India may opt for the latter
Abhishek Mukherjee by Abhishek Mukherjee
@ovshake42 15 minute read

Kuldeep Yadav’s terrific outing in the Chattogram Test match has put him in contention for the third spinner’s spot in the India Test side. However, the choice is not be obvious as it looks, explains Abhishek Mukherjee.

In 145 years of men’s Test cricket, only eight spinners have done the 2,000 run-200 wicket double. Of them, only two average under 25 with the ball. India are indeed fortunate to have R Ashwin (2,989 runs at 27.17, 443 wickets at 24.32) and Ravindra Jadeja (2,523 runs at 36.56, 242 wickets at 24.71) playing for them at the same time.

That Ashwin and Jadeja have to compete for a slot outside the subcontinent is largely due to India’s strategy to back four fast bowlers, something that has paid them rich dividends over the past few years. When India play at home, their numbers border on the absurd. There is little doubt that if both are fit, Ashwin (1,622 runs at 28.96, 312 wickets at 21.16 on Indian soil) and Jadeja (1,457 runs at 41.62, 172 wickets at 20.66) will feature in the upcoming Border-Gavaskar Trophy in India.


However, against Australia later this season, India are likely to field three spinners, for which they have two options. Debuting in 2021/22 in Jadeja’s absence, Axar Patel wrecked England with 27 wickets at a ridiculous 10.59 in three Test matches, and followed that with excellent home performances against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Even in Chattogram, where he sometimes did not seem to be at his best, he finished with match figures of 5-87.

Kuldeep’s eight Test matches have fetched him 34 wickets at 21.55 – undoubtedly exceptional unless pitted against Axar’s 44 in seven, at 13 apiece. In Chattogram, Kuldeep was named Player of the Match, not only for his 8-113 but also a vital first-innings 40.

Axar is undoubtedly the superior batter – the numbers in every format suggests that – but one can see the case for Kuldeep. What may also tilt the balance in Kuldeep’s favour is the fact that he bowls left-arm wrist-spin.

Right-arm bowlers outnumber left-arm bowlers (by about five to one in men’s Test cricket), while finger-spinners outnumber wrist-spinners. Left-arm wrist-spinners, the intersection of the two smaller sets, are the rarest genre of bowling.

The ones that are there find it difficult to compete against bowlers who take the ball away from right-handed batters, who, again, form the majority. Wrist-spinners are also more wayward: in Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works, Ben Jones and Nathan Leamon demonstrated that on an average, about 21.9 percent of balls by wrist-spinners are either too full or too short, compared to the 12.8 percent for finger-spinners.

A left-arm wrist-spinner who battles these odds to succeed at Test cricket is indeed special. It seems logical for India to back Kuldeep ahead of Axar, who had originally been drafted in as a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja.

Kuldeep’s battle against history

India has often been hailed as the Land of Spin. In reality, most of their giants have been finger-spinners. The two exceptions to this rule in the past six decades – Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble – were fast, unconventional wrist-spinners.

Since Subhash Gupte, India have not produced a traditional wrist-spinner who has achieved success over a sustained period. The unorthodox Chandrasekhar and Kumble are the only Indian wrist-spinners to have taken 50 wickets at home since 1970.

Curiously, a similar trend exists for overseas spinners as well. Since 1970, 13 spinners have taken 20 wickets against India in India. Of them, only three are wrist-spinners – but given how rare they are, that is not too unexpected.

Yet, of the 13, the six that average under 35 (Saqlain Mushtaq, Lance Gibbs, Derek Underwood, Graeme Swann, Nathan Lyon, Iqbal Qasim) none are wrist-spinners.

Shane Warne’s 34 wickets in India came at 43.11 apiece, Adil Rashid’s 23 at 37.43, and Danish Kaneria’s 31 at 39.58. Of other great wrist-spinners, Abdul Qadir took six wickets at 69.17, Stuart MacGill never played in India, and Mushtaq Ahmed played only once.

Given the extent to which he used his wrist, one may be tempted to add Muttiah Muralitharan to the list. He, too, has taken 40 wickets at 45.45.

On the other hand, if ranked by strike rate, Rashid (61) is third, after only Saqlain and Lyon. Kaneria (71) is fifth, Warne (81) is seventh, and Muralitharan (86) ninth – an overall improvement on the bowling averages ranks.

The problem, thus, is not picking up wickets – it has been about getting them cheaply. Of the 13, the four (if one includes Muralitharan) feature in the bottom five in economy rate.

One may theorise (but not conclude, largely due to lack of data) that on pitches that deteriorate rapidly over the course of a Test match, it is often wiser to ‘pitch the ball in the right areas and letting the pitch do the rest’ as the saying goes. Finger-spinners strike less just as frequently than wrist-spinners here, but their accuracy makes them more valuable on Indian turners.

That makes it more sensible to pick Axar ahead of Kuldeep.

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