It is easy to get romantic about the abilities and consistency of the players from the past. We tend to remember great performances; so in our minds every ball that Wasim Akram bowled swung a mile, every Glenn McGrath delivery hit the seam on a good length and David Gower creamed every cover drive.
This romanticism can lead to it being easy to ignore the contributions of players who performed a role admirably, without generating the headlines. Kumar Dharmasena often bowled the difficult overs for Sri Lanka, from the end that Muttiah Muralitharan did not want to bowl from, and still kept the pressure on the batsmen. Ewen Chatfield did a similar role for Sir Richard Hadlee. They performed an important role for their team regardless of personal statistics.
However, a little digging can make it possible to understand how they helped their team. Hadlee averaged almost 10% better with Chatfield than without him. Dharmasena averaged roughly 10 lower in matches where he was not playing with Muralitharan. When he was asked to be the main bowler, he was personally more effective, but Sri Lanka were better served by him assisting Muralitharan.
Sometimes our first impressions about a player can be influenced by the highlights reel, rather than performances. Brain Lara, Kumar Sangakkara, Daniel Flynn and James Vince all were/are beautiful batsmen to watch. However, the first two had better careers than the other two. Sometimes a player who looks amazing is amazing, but equally looks can be deceiving.
There are also the converse – players who look average yet manage to perform consistently. Proteas' Dean Elgar starts out looking like he is going to get out every ball, yet he has a higher average as an opener in South Africa than either Gary Kirsten or Graeme Smith.
Another player like that is Mitchell Santner. The left-arm spinner hardly uses his front arm, does not turn the ball considerably regularly and lacks the sort of mystery deliveries that contemporaries possess. He has never even taken four wickets in an innings in a First Class match. It is very easy to wonder why he has ever been selected.
However, digging into the numbers reveals something very different. Santner performs a specialist role, and, surprisingly, does it better than almost anyone in history.
In New Zealand, the primary role of the spinner is to build pressure. That is not to say that spinners don’t take wickets, but just that it is not their primary role.
This is in part to New Zealand’s geography. It rains, roughly, every four days in the driest months, and every second day in the wettest months. For most of the country there is very little difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures, both being generally very mild. The Māori name for New Zealand is “Aotearoa” which means “land of the long white cloud” – an apt name. It is also very windy, with the majority of the country having average winds over 30 kilometers per hour. The result of cool temperatures, cool winds, clouds and regular rain makes New Zealand a very lush green land.
That translates to New Zealand pitches not deteriorating as quickly as they do in most other cricket playing countries. As a result, to avoid lots of draws, New Zealand pitches tend to be loaded towards bowlers on day one, rather than the day five. Subsequently, it makes the flow of Tests in New Zealand quite different to matches played elsewhere in the world.
That different match flow results in different roles for players to perform. The main role for a spinner becomes getting the ball to move through the air, and deceive the batsman that way. Accordingly spinners tend to pick up significantly fewer wickets in New Zealand, but a good spin bowler can still keep a batsman under pressure by subtle variations in speed, trajectory and spin, meaning the ball lands where the batsman is not expecting it to.
Using data science techniques, it is possible to classify the outcome of matches in New Zealand close to 95% of the time based on just four pieces of information about the spinners: wickets per hundred balls, wickets per hundred runs conceded, runs per over and the proportion of maidens. The two most useful in that classification is the economy rate, followed by the maiden rate. Ideally a spinner(s) would have a collective economy rate between 2.2 and 2.5 (lower than 2.2 often ends in draws) and bowl between 25% and and 40% of their overs as maidens. A low economy rate without many maidens suggests that the batsmen are able to take singles without risk, while a lot of maidens and a high economy rate suggests too many pressure-releasing boundary balls.
In those two factors, in home matches, Santner shines. He bowls 26% of his overs as maidens, and goes for 2.3 runs per over. That leads to a bowling average at home of 34.52. That seems to be a poor number, until you look at everybody else in New Zealand. Santner has the second best average of any New Zealand spin bowler in the country to have bowled at least 100 overs in the past 50 years. He also has the second best economy rate (minimum: 200 overs.) As a result, New Zealand have never lost a home match featuring Santner, and have only had three rain-affected draws.
Another important role of the spinners is to allow the quick bowlers to rest and at the same time maintain the pressure on the batsmen. The New Zealand quick bowlers are generally fit enough to bowl 24 overs a day, but not at 15 overs per hour without their performance suffering. If the team is going to get through that number of overs, then some overs need to be bowled by either spinners or medium pacers. If those overs create pressure, the quick bowlers are more effective.
It is possible to use advanced statistics to assess the impact of bowlers on their peers. After controlling for the number of overs of spin required, some interesting numbers emerge.
Using data from the last 10 years, the fourth innings of matches where a spinner has been asked to bowl 15 overs, the expected average of the New Zealand quick bowlers at home is 40.98 if Santner is not playing, as opposed to 26.41 if Santner is playing.
A similar difference also exists in the third innings. The pressure that Santner builds helps the quick bowlers bowl better.
The numbers are similar in domestic cricket. Due to his international commitments, Santner does not play a lot of domestic cricket but in his domestic matches in the past two years he has averaged 25.75 with an economy rate of 2.05. Ajaz Patel has been thought of as the gold standard for domestic spinners, but in the same timeframe he has averaged 30.22, with an economy rate of 2.86.
All of which makes the non-selection of Santner in the recently named squad somewhat puzzling. The only possible explanation is that he was dropped due to his performances in Australia.
There is no doubt that he was poor in Australia, but he was also being asked to do a job that he was ill-equipped for in Australia. No overseas finger spinner has 15 or more wickets in Australia at an average under 40 in the last thirty years. Selecting him for that tour was a poor idea to start with, and then dropping him because he did not succeed somewhere that he was never likely to succeed is baffling.
Ajaz Patel is a quality bowler, and may very well end up being a good selection. However, it is difficult to avoid feeling that he has been picked based on performances in Australia, rather than expected performances in New Zealand. Selection should not be about punishing players, it should be about picking those who are the most likely to help the team succeed, and in that aspect, Mitchell Santner is unrivalled.
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