Dawson’s Tweak – A comparison of England’s recent spinners with those of Australia/New Zealand/South Africa

The conundrum of how to replace a retiring spin bowler is a challenging one.

In the past few years, England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all had to deal with such an issue with varying degrees of legendary departure and success.

England have had to find a replacement for Graeme Swann, he of 255 wickets in 60 Tests @ 29.96.

Swann’s retirement during the 2013/14 Ashes plunged England into a spin-bowling quandary. Credit: John Garghan

Australia’s Test side lost the greatest wicket-taker of them all in 2007, a man of 708 wickets in 145 Tests @ 25.41 – Shane Warne.

South Africa do not have the same rich history of spin bowlers that the two sides above have (they have frequently deemed the part-time offies of JP Duminy to be a sufficient spin attack), but between 1995 and 2011 they had the services of their three top wicket-taking spin bowlers: Paul Adams (134 wickets in 45 Tests @ 32.87); Nicky Boje (100 wickets in 43 Tests @ 42.65); Paul Harris (103 wickets in 37 Tests @ 37.87).

We never need an excuse to watch Paul Adams bowling again.

Between 1997 and 2014, New Zealand had the bespectacled Daniel Vettori, with 361 wickets in 112 Tests @ 34.15, to hold up an end.

With England in the sub-continent, the supposed demise of spin-bowling on these isles is as topical as ever.

The charge levelled at England is that they are not using specialist spinners such as Jack Leach (68 wickets @ 22.58 in last year’s County Championship), opting instead for the likes of all-rounder Moeen Ali.

The cupboard is bare but not many county players would reckon Zafar Ansari is a better left-arm spinner than Jack Leach of Somerset. It is true Leach, who is still a novice, took many of his 68 wickets last summer on turning pitches at Taunton, but what are England playing on out here?

Vic Marks, The Guardian, 31 October

In fairness to England, they did pick a specialist once in Simon Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was dropped after one Test with a batting average of infinity and a bowling average of infinity. An equal Test batting and bowling average probably makes him an all-rounder though, doesn’t it?

With Zafar Ansari’s injury, England could have listened to the claims of Leach (who has just taken 3/7 in a List A game for England Lions) but have instead called up Liam Dawson – another who has been selected as much for his batting as his bowling.

I was very surprised. I didn’t expect it all, but it’s a great opportunity and very exciting. People see my season [in 2016] as only getting 22 wickets and say it is poor, but I did bowl well and I did give Hampshire control and that’s something hopefully I can do if I play in the Test match. That’s my job and that’s been my job for the last three years at the Ageas Bowl.

Liam Dawson on his call-up

So let’s analyse England’s spinning selections, and compare it to those of the other three nations.

As part of the analysis, we will make the following assumptions:
A batting average of 30+ indicates all-rounder status.
A batting average greater than bowling average indicates genuine all-rounder status.
A batting average of 40+ indicates specialist batsman status.
A bowling average of 30- indicates specialist bowler status.

First-Class averages of England spinners when making their Test debut (with ages at time of debut in brackets)*

Bat Ave. Bowl Ave. Ave. Deficit
Liam Dawson (26) 34.17 37.47 -3.3
Zafar Ansari (24) 31.27 34.46 -3.19
Adil Rashid (27) 35.71 34.08 1.63
Moeen Ali (26) 38.72 40.43 -1.71
Simon Kerrigan (24) 9.28 26.52 -17.24
Samit Patel (27) 40.27 40.91 -0.64

*Dawson, of course, is only in the squad and may not make his debut this month.

Three all-rounders, one genuine all-rounder, one specialist batsman, one specialist bowler.


Bat. Ave. Bowl Ave. Ave. Deficit
Ashton Agar (19) 33.6 29.39 4.21
Nathan Lyon (23) 9.89 45.57 -35.68
Michael Beer (26) 9.2 43.31 -34.11
Xavier Doherty (28) 13.54 48.8 -35.26
Steven Smith (21) 56.22 48.85 7.37

**Smith, though one of the world’s top batsmen now, was originally selected as a leg-spinning all-rounder who batted at 7. Blond, aggressive and bowling leggies, they hoped he was Warne Mk II.

Australia’s approach to picking an heir to Warne was to throw in an inexperienced youngster.

Beer, Lyon and Agar had all played fewer than 10 FC matches before their debuts, while Smith had played only 13.

Before Smith, they tried Bryce McGain, Jason Krejza, Cameron White and Beau Casson in the search for their new spinner.

If you were a spinner in Australia between 2007 and 2013, you were getting a Test cap.

One genuine all-rounder, one specialist batsman/genuine all-rounder, three bowlers.

New Zealand

Bat Ave. Bowl Ave. Ave. Deficit
Mitchell Santner (23) 29.84 57.84 -28
Ish Sodhi (20) 21.44 52.14 -30.7
Mark Craig (27) 22.39 42.88 -20.49
Bruce Martin (32) 18.25 35.96 -17.71
Todd Astle (26) 23.9 35.39 -11.49

New Zealand’s search for an accompaniment to, and then replacement for, Daniel Vettori has seen them adopt the unorthodox tactic of selecting bowlers with increasingly higher bowling averages, but with fairly solid batting averages for specialist bowlers.

Martin and Craig were experienced cricketers upon their selection, whereas Sodhi and Santner had played 14 and 22 FC matches respectively.

Five TBCs.

South Africa

Bat Ave. Bowl Ave. Ave. Deficit
Tabraiz Shamsi (26) 8.19 24.9 -16.71
Keshav Maharaj (26) 22.92 26.62 -3.7
Simon Harmer (25) 27.89 32.85 -4.96
Dane Piedt (24) 15.38 24.28 -8.9
Imran Tahir (32) 14.23 25.19 -10.96

Despite having the least illustrious spin-bowling history of the bunch, South Africa have selected spinners with consistently the best FC bowling averages and usually with more than a soupçon of FC experience.

Four specialist bowlers, one bowler.

How have all the selected bowlers fared, and what about the individual averages of those who currently wear the crown?

Tests Wickets Average
Moeen Ali 35 95 39.72
England 53 140 41.46
Nathan Lyon 60 217 33.48
Australia 115 246 37.07
Mitchell Santner 11 27 37.92
New Zealand 47 128 45.93
Tabraiz Shamsi 1 2 75
Keshav Maharaj 2 4 40.5
South Africa 35 107 37.93

Statslife is always of the opinion that stats don’t lie.

On this basis, Statslife would probably have made the following predictions in terms of each player’s debut:

i Simon Kerrigan will have a long and fruitful England career.
ii Ashton Agar is Australia’s next great all-rounder.
iii Nathan Lyon will last approximately three Tests.
iv New Zealand will call-up an 18-year-old chinaman bowler with an FC bowling average of 63 for the Test against Bangladesh on 12 January 2017.
v A South African bowling line-up of Shamsi, Maharaj, Harmer and Piedt will rewrite cricketing records.


England have generally selected spin bowlers with batting averages higher, and bowling averages lower, than those selected by Australia and New Zealand.

In spite of this, it is Australia who have hit upon the longest-serving and best-performing tweaker in Nathan Lyon.

South Africa’s impressive FC bowling averages have not yet borne fruit on the biggest stage of them all.

Perhaps it’s time to give Simon Ross Harmer (20 wickets in 5 Tests at 29.40) another call?


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