The new spin kings of the Caribbean

It’s six years since England last toured the West Indies for a Test series and since then the ongoing development in West Indies regional cricket has continued to be towards the spinners. Thirty years ago every regional team had two or three decent pacers, now each plays at least two spinners. Times have changed.

In the last first class game at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, site of the first Test, 23 of the 32 wickets to fall went to spin. In the last game at the second Test venue that figure was 18 out of 25, and at the third Test venue 20 out of 31. Three matches, 61 of 88 wickets going to spinners. Where pace once ruled, spin is now king.

That hasn’t translated to West Indies’ Test cricket though. Since England last played Tests in the Caribbean, they’ve been through a number of spinners, but essentially, five main contenders. Three still contend: Benn, Bishoo, and Permaul. This domestic season, the first extended one, has brought to light three other serious contenders yet to play international cricket: Warrican, Jacobs and Khan.

The two to have dropped out of the reckoning are Shane Shillingford and Sunil Narine. Both have dealt with suspect actions and both are reduced with their new actions. Narine will continue to play in the limited overs teams, but Shillingford needs greater domestic form to push his way back in.

The man who replaced Shillingford – Sulieman Benn – is the West Indies’ number one spinner currently, having taken 34 wickets at 32.05 in Tests since he returned to the team in mid-2014. However, if you take out the two matches against Bangladesh where he harvested 14 cheap wickets, he’s struggled to be incisive, with 20 wickets at 45.80. Still, it would be uncharitable to discount the matches against Bangladesh, a team who usually play spin well. Benn deserves to keep his place… for now.

Pushing him for the spinner’s slot, and likely for a second spinner if needed, are the Guyanese spin twins, Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul. Both have previous Test match experience, Permaul’s the more recent, and Bishoo’s the more extensive. Both have had a fantastic First-class season. Permaul sits atop the wicket-takers list with 63 at 14.49 and Bishoo is not far behind with 57 at 17.59.

On the surface, with five spinners heading the wicket-takers list (Veerasammy Permaul, Devendra Bishoo, Imran Khan, Jomel Warrican and Damion Jacobs), spin bowling looks rosy in the West Indies, but all isn’t quite as it seems. Despite at least five years of spinners dominating, batsmen still haven’t figured out how to counter them. Any spinner able to spin the ball reasonably hard and hit a consistent line and length is almost guaranteed an average in the low 20s. Guile barely required. Stats should be adjusted accordingly.

West Indies selectors have quite rightly not put too much stock in these inflated (or deflated really) figures, but with Benn being nearly 34, it’s time for them to look to the future. Beyond Bishoo and Permaul, two other spinners have come to the fore in the last year.

One is Barbados’s Jomel Warrican. A slow left arm spinner who bowls with an economical action, the young bowler harvested wickets as part of a decent Barbados team. 49 wickets at 14.98 was quite a statement, and pushed him ahead of Ashley Nurse by the end of the season as the team’s number one spinner.

The other was Jamaica’s Damion Jacobs. Continuing the trend of success for spinners taking the ball away from right handers, the fifth placed of the top bowlers is a late-developing leg-spinner. Jacobs just turned 30, yet only made his First-class debut a year ago. With Nikita Miller and Odeon Brown to get past, it’s understandable that he didn’t get a chance sooner.

Despite his age, Jacobs shouldn’t be discounted for future higher honours. Clarrie Grimmett to name one, only made his Test debut at the age of 33 (although, to use two conflicting examples, Bryce McGain made his debut 36 and Bob Holland at 38). Leg-spinners can take longer to develop, and have some of their best years (Shane Warne in 2005) at older ages than other bowlers.

Returning to the figures, spinners averages are significantly lower than what they’d get in a country with better pitches and batsmen. Take Sunil Narine’s domestic FC average as a benchline. He’s scalped wickets at a barely believable 11.54. That needs adjusting upwards get his true worth.

One way of doing this is calculating the overall average of all spinners in the Regional 4-Day competition. A long evening with Cricinfo and a spreadsheet later, and I worked out that the average of all spinners who bowled relatively often (either at least 10 wickets in the season or more than 0.5 of a wicket a game in their FC career) this season was 23.28.

That’s pretty low. Compare it to So spinners figures in the West Indies should be taken as relative to this low bar. Slip under it and you’re performing above average, above it and you’re below par.

Applying this metric and we see that the likes of Permaul and Bishoo are well under par averaging in the teens. Permaul and Warrican lead the way with averages around 14, Jacobs and Bishoo are a little further back around 17, but still impressive, and Imran Khan’s figures suddenly look not as great, only slipping marginally under the average, taking his wickets at 21.89. With four spinners performing better than him, Khan slips out of the equation for now.

Having benchmarked West Indies’ spinners against their peers, I also wanted to see what their figures would look like in a country where spinners find it harder. In the 2014 County Championship Division 1 season, the average spinner (calculated in the same way as before) would have taken their wickets at 39.63. That is a factor of 1.7 higher than in the West Indies, so to compare spinners across competitions, we times West Indies’ averages by that.

Permaul and Warrican’s averages adjust to 23.96 and 25.50 respectively. That gives them lower averages than the likes of Jeetan Patel and Adil Rashid, the best performing spinners in an seemingly unusually spin unfriendly year. Bishoo and Jacobs’ averages adjust to 29.05 and 30.32, giving them better averages than the likes of Simon Kerrigan and George Dockrell.

If you do the same with the Division Two figures (a division much friendlier to spinners with an average of 32.71), Permaul beats all comers, Warrican and Bishoo had a year similar to Gareth Batty’s 2014, and Damion Jacobs compares favourably with Monty Panesar and Danny Briggs.

In the end, these stats are instructive but not conclusive. Bishoo is currently the first in line behind Benn, jumping above Permaul probably due to more extensive Test experience and the selectors reluctance to go into a Test with two left-arm spinners. Warrican and Jacobs now need to show they can repeat or better their seasons. If they can, West Indies’ spin stocks may be healthier than they have been for a long time.

Originally published 12-April-2015

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