Comparing Indian middle orders overseas

Few things upset Indian cricket fans more than the a low score where India bat. If India concede 600, its a lesser humiliation than if India are bowled out for 120. This is how generations of Indian fans have been brought up. A healthy total on the board implies respectability, even if it is essentially hopeless as a cricketing matter (since, if the opposition attack is better than India’s, the opposition will score even more runs, making an Indian win impossible).

The Kohli-era Indian side has been single minded in its pursuit of 20 wickets. They pick enough bowling to take 20 wickets and then fit in whatever batting they can. This approach has (unsurprisingly) been very successful. But it has also produced lower totals more frequently.

There are at least two generations of Indian men who sit in front of their TV sets and find this preference for competitiveness over respectability utterly humiliating. What is so wrong with picking the extra batter, they wonder? The answer, as a cricket matter, is obvious - picking the extra batter weakens the bowling (especially since none of the current Indian batters can bowl), and weakening the bowling makes India less likely to win. Batting is the reactive, defensive art in Test cricket. Bowling is the attacking art. Adding a few extra runs with the bat and giving up extra runs with the ball in the process is a losing proposition as a cricketing matter. But it is comforting if you’re humiliated by your team being bowled out for low scores from time to time.

I’m afraid these Indian men are not going to like what the record shows.

We know the career record of every player at the start of every Test match. We also have accessible ball by ball records for most Tests since 1999, and all matches since 2003. It follows from this, that we know the bowling career record of every bowler at the start of almost every delivery in Test cricket in the 21st century, and every delivery since the start of 2003.

From this, we can gauge the quality of bowling confronting batters in any given Test. We can say with precision what the bowler standing at the start of the run up has achieved until then in Test cricket. We also know the batting position of the batter who is facing up.

I organized all this data, and calculated the following things:

  1. The number of deliveries delivered by bowlers who averaged at least as good as 28 (i.e. <= 28) runs per wicket (RPW) to batters batting in the middle order (3,4,5,6), and the outcomes.

  1. The number of deliveries delivered by bowlers who averaged worse than 28 (i.e. > 28) runs per wicket (RPW) to batters batting in the middle order (3,4,5,6), and the outcomes.

I organized all these records by India’s Away Test cycles (Tests outside Asia - in ENG, AUS, NZ, SA and WI). In the end, just for fun, I’ve added the record of the Indian middle order (excluding Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid) outside Asia from 2001-12.

The table speaks for itself. The current Indian middle order exactly as good as the previous, much storied middle order. It faces bowling which is significantly superior to the bowling the previous middle order faced. From 2001-12, the Indian middle order faced 3.1 deliveries from weaker bowlers (ave > 28) for each delivery from a stronger bowler. This continued, more or less from 2013-17, and so did the run output of the middle order away from home.

In the current cycle (2018-21), things have been different. Stronger bowling makes up 50% of the bowling India have faced. When they’ve had weaker bowling to play against, they’d made the most of it.

These records also have to do with the conditions. On some tours (such as India’s 2002 tour to England and 2003-04 tour to Australia), the wickets have generally been flat. Only 4 out of 8 Tests produced a result on those two tours. 25 Test hundreds were scored in those 8 Tests, and the average 10 wicket total was 442. By comparison, since 2018, in England and Australia, 55 100s have been scored in 42 Tests, and the average total 10 wicket total is 279.

The comparison between the 2003-04 and 2018-19 tours to Australia is instructive. On both tours, Sydney and Adelaide offered featherbeds (in 2003-04, so did Melbourne). The Australians had a number of bowlers in 2003-04 with very good averages upto that point (Gillespie, Lee, MacGill). But the conditions flattened them.

16 out of 29 team innings in 8 Tests in the two series (2002 in ENG, 2003-04 in AUS) produced at least 350, and only in 2 (out of 29) was a team bowled out for less than 250 (India at Lord’s in 2002 and Australia at Adelaide in 2003).

The only time India faced bowling of sustained quality on pitches where the ball seamed consistently, was in New Zealand in 2002-03. These pitches were memorably described by Harbhajan Singh as “gardens”.

The current Indian middle order is fine. They’re as good or bad as any other modern Indian middle order. Sachin Tendulkar, and to a lesser extent, Rahul Dravid, were extraordinary players. So is Virat Kohli to some extent. But the rest are about the same.

The current era has seen a happy confluence of bowling depth and conditions. Would the current crop of bowlers in England, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa have been as effective in the 2001-2005 period? They wouldn’t. But they would have done better than the bowlers who were around at the time.