Whilst there is a stock of high-performing fast bowlers that England currently have at their disposal, the role of a first-choice, out-and-out spinner is one that is still up in the air somewhat. Although Moeen Ali was the permanent incumbent following the retirement of Graeme Swann in 2013, he fell out of favour in the summer of 2019 and has since seen both Jack Leach and Dom Bess overtake him. Adil Rashid has also played the role of a second spinner frequently and being the only genuine wrist-spinner currently up for selection, his case is often championed for his variation and mystery.
Swann’s exit left a gaping hole in the side that had become the best in the world before spectacularly crashing back down to earth – unsurprisingly, given his 255 Test wickets – and ever since there has been the search for a spinner to emulate his achievements.
In our analysis, we analyse the current records of the four current players in with a shot of being England’s number-one slow bowler and see how they compare to Swann at various points throughout his career. All four are compared to Swann after the same amount of games as they have currently played, which stands as such: Moeen (60 appearances), the same as Swann gathered in his career as a whole; Rashid (19); Leach (10) and Bess (nine). All data is correct as of 20/08/2020.
Average and economy
The challenges for bowlers are twofold: can they keep an end tight?; can they be a wicket-taking threat? It can be particularly hard to possess an ability to do both concurrently – something Swann was an expert at – but how do the current crop rank at doing so?
As can be seen, Swann did not stray far from one area throughout the course of his career at any stage, even in the infancy of his time in an England shirt. He started as he meant to go on, having an economy of 2.87 and an average – the number of runs conceded per wicket taken – of 29.31 after nine games, whilst his final statistics were 2.98 and 29.96 respectively. At no stage did his economy rise above three nor did his average pass 31 – both excellent figures for any international bowler.
The only present-day bowler who can compete with these numbers is Leach, the 29-year-old’s economy of 2.85 being lower than Swann’s at any stage and 0.09 lower than Swann after the same number of games played. Meanwhile, Leach’s average of 29.02 is again better than Swann’s 30.92 at the same stage and his final average, too.
Current contemporary Bess is the most economical of all, however, going at only 2.68 runs conceded per over, although is let down by a higher average of 36.05, indicating his lower threat level. At the other end of the spectrum, both Moeen and Rashid are much more expensive and less-frequent wicket-takers than anyone else.
This may come as a surprise given Moeen’s extended run in the side over the previous six years, and that he was very much the number-one choice until around 12 months previously. Although his average of 36.59 is only marginally higher than Bess’, his economy of 3.62 is significantly larger than his fellow off-spinner. Rashid, meanwhile, has the highest figures in both categories, touching just below an average of 40 (39.83) and an economy of 3.75. Given that he is a leg-spinner it is probably expected for him to go for more runs than the generally more conservative finger spinners, it would also be fair to expect him to take wickets more regularly given his wrist-spinning unpredictability – something that is not the case.
Home and away
As is the case with many bowlers nowadays, their records in their home conditions can be drastically different from their achievements overseas due to alien environmental factors that prove a struggle to adapt to. Whilst many bowlers on the international circuit are generally a threat at home, given that that is where they have grown, developed and crafted their trade, transferring this to away pitches often sees a decrease in effectiveness. When looking at how England’s bowlers fare at home and away, it is once again Leach who leads the way as a stand-out performer.
A home average of 28, the lowest of the data set, is backed up by an average away from home of 29.59, a figure bettered only by Bess’ 25.75. However, Bess’ total at home is almost 20 runs higher than his total overseas, sitting at 44.3, making him very much the weakest bowler at home out of any.
Moving back to Leach, his current totals are better than Swann’s figures at any stage (28.94 at home and 30.88 away), highlighting how impressive his early performances in an England shirt have been. Of course, Swann’s greatness lay in his consistency, given that his averages were accumulated over six times as many games as Leach has played currently, but there can be no denying that Leach has been perhaps underrated in his international career to date.
Looking at the above graph, their respective differences of -10.72 (Rashid) and 8.99 (Moeen) are highlighted clearly – as too is Bess’ performance levels in the reverse. Looking at how Swann fared, his early displays showed a preference for playing overseas, slowly rising over the period of games nine to 19, albeit his final statistics indicated a slight penchant for playing at home.
Right- and left-handers
Generally considered, in order to maximise the threat delivered to both edges of the bat via the ball spinning away, there is a conclusion that off-spinners are more favoured to facing left-handers, left-arm spinners are more inclined to bowl at right-handers and leg-spinners can challenge batting types with their ability to spin it both ways. Does this ring true for the current English bowlers, though?
Left-arm Leach is once again the man that stands out, his positioning in the bottom left-hand corner of the graph indicating how well he has fared against both batting stances thanks to an average of just 15 against right-handers and 21.87 against left-handers. Bess has generally done better against right-handers too – perhaps surprising given that he is an off-spinner – with an average of 20.14 compared to almost double at 40 against left-handers. Moeen, meanwhile, has an almost identical record against both, averaging 28.61 (RH) and 28.69 (LH) respectively.
When comparing this to Swann, it can be seen that he struggled against right-handers early on in his career albeit was better against left-handers. However, as time went on he began to tighten up against right-handers and, although he still performed better against left-handers when looking at his career as a whole (27.22 compared to 32.95), this is still well down on his average of 58.38 against right-handers after nine games.
One man who has not fared particularly well against either is Rashid. Although his average against right-handers (40.14) is not the worst in the data set, his left-handed average of 51.36 is by far-and-away the weakest of any bowler within this set.
Do they get the best batsmen out?
As can be seen, Leach has a fantastic record against top-five batsmen, conceding a miserly 17.37 runs per top five wicket taken which is the best of any player here by a considerable margin. Fellow Somerset man Bess is the only other player to come close, his average of 31.21 being the sole individual alongside Leach who has a sub-40 average. At the other end of the spectrum, Rashid has a sky-high figure of 62.95, which is not only the highest of the set but also the biggest difference from his overall average – as can be seen below.
With an average difference of 23.12, he is the archetypal spinner who preys on less knowledgeable, tail-end batsmen to deceive and outmanoeuvre, but struggles significantly more against higher-order players. Also, as was the case with his ability against right-handers, Swann saw his comparative difference lessen as his career progressed, moving from 17.95 to 11.48 by the time his time came to an end.
With Leach and Bess actually performing better against the better players, the man with the lowest difference and is affected the least against higher players in comparison to his record as a whole is Moeen, who sees his average rise by just 5.44.
Early containment and last-innings threat
Looking at a spinner’s role as a whole, usually, they are given two tasks: keep it tight and hold up an end in the first innings; attack more on a worn pitch in the second innings. As the pitch deteriorates the more conducive it becomes to spin, and prior to this, when conditions are less spin-friendly, they are expected to go at a minimal rate and allow the fast bowlers to rotate from the other end.
The man who has been the best at first-innings stifling is Bess, going for just 2.69 runs-per-over (RpO), whilst Leach too has a very respectable economy of just below three (2.94). Even Swann’s whole career yielded a first innings economy of just over three (3.06), showing how impressive their individual performances have been. Ali and Rashid have gone for considerably more earlier on in a match, figures of 3.61 and 3.74 respectively, although Moeen’s greatest skill lies in his ability to dismiss teams late on in a match.
His second innings strike-rate of 46.2 is bettered only by Leach’s 43.8, and sits well below Swann’s career strike-rate of 58.3 – perhaps surprising given that Swann is widely regarded as the most dangerous English spinner of recent decades.
Taking all of these statistics into account, our definitive Bowling Index has ranked these players and shown who is the most – and least – effective. Given that bowling statistics are required to be low as opposed to high, the lower the Index the better.
The best performing bowler, according to our model and analysis, is Leach, whose Index of 254.08 sees him well below Swann’s overall career of 293.54 and shows just how good his opening ten performances have been. Interestingly, Moeen is only fractionally behind Swann at 296.36, whilst Bess and Rashid are less well represented at 353.76 and 376 respectively.
Of course, it must be remembered that, as already alluded to, Leach has displayed these numbers after just ten matches – Swann was able to perform so consistently high over 60 matches, which is where his genius lay. With Moeen only just higher than him, it suggests that the Worcestershire spinner has been under-rated in his Test career to date, performing at a level only marginally worse than Swann from the same number of games played.
With Bess the current holder of the shirt, these findings suggest that he is perhaps fortunate to still be in possession amid pressure from his fellow Somerset man Leach. Additionally, the clamour for Rashid to return to the red-ball scene looks to be unfavourable based on his record. As a nailed on, first-choice is still to be decided, this suggests that, based on their previous performances, if they want to select the best out-and-out spinner then the England hierarchy are overlooking their most effective option.