When one looks at Ravichandran Ashwin’s career stats, he is bound to be amazed. The off-spinner completed 300 Test wickets in just 54 matches – faster than anyone else in the history of the game – and currently has 311 scalps from just 57 games.
So, the question is bound to arise – where does Ashwin rank among the greats of the game? Is he one of the all-time greats, or indeed, the greatest spinner of all time? Is he in the same category as Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble?
To understand a player’s position in the pantheon of the greats of the game, it is useful to compare that cricketer with his contemporaries and see whether he is a cut above them. If that is the case, then that player is in a league of his own and a candidate for the category of the best players across the eras.
Therefore, the question has to be asked – Is Ashwin way ahead of the competition in this era or part of a general trend of success for spinners? While no one, at the moment, comes close to matching Ashwin’s prolificity, there are three other tweakers in the world game worthy of being put in the same category as him in terms of their performances.
Here is a list of those three spinners who can challenge Ashwin’s supremacy among the current generation of spinners.
#3 Rangana Herath
Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath has played 32 more Tests than Ashwin and has 104 more wickets than him. Not a bad record but one that Ashwin would better easily if he keeps progressing at his present rate of success.
But Herath’s career has been in two parts – the first when he was a sidekick to Muttiah Muralitharan and the second after he became the lead spinner in the Lankan team. This corresponds roughly to the period beginning from 2011.
If we look at Herath’s record since Ashwin’s debut, it’s incredibly similar to that of the Chennai lad. In this period Herath has played the same number of matches as the Indian off spinner – 57 – and has picked 305 wickets – just six short of Ashwin’s corresponding number. Ashwin’s average and strike rate (25.56 and 53.1 respectively) is almost the same as Herath’s numbers (25.74 and 55.3).
So, Herath is certainly a match for Ashwin but is he better? One can argue in the favour of the Sri Lankan leftie by pointing out that while Ashwin has struggled in unhelpful conditions of Australia and South Africa, Herath has been quite effective.
His performance on his team’s 2012-13 tour down under was very good and included a five-for. In fact, Herath was the biggest threat to the Aussie batsmen in that series. In South Africa, he produced a match-winning performance in the Durban Test of 2011 wherein he took nine wickets in the game.
Therefore, fans of the Lankan left-armer can argue for him being considered an even better bowler than Ashwin. While that is an interesting debate to have, one has to accept that Rangana is certainly not lesser than Ashwin in terms of quality.
#2 Nathan Lyon
Lyon is way behind Ashwin as far as plain stats are concerned – 293 wickets in 75 Tests with an average of 31.78 and strike rate of 62.1. However, while assessing Lyon, one has to remember certain handicaps he has compared to the likes of Ashwin and Herath.
While the Asian spinners play most of their cricket on helpful wickets, Lyon plies his trade usually on Australian pitches – the most unforgiving for finger spinners.
History tells us that among off-spinners, only the greatest have been able to achieve success in Australian conditions (eg. Erapalli Prasanna, Lance Gibbs etc.) while even modern-day greats like Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh failed to make a mark there.
So, for an off-spinner to last as long as Lyon has in the Australian side and achieve this much success is no mean achievement.
One only needs to look at Lyon’s far superior stats on these pitches compared to other spinners in recent times to appreciate the level of success he has achieved. ‘Gary’ averages 33.74 with a strike rate of 66.5 at home while Ashwin’s corresponding numbers in Australia are 54.71 and 97 respectively. Herath’s numbers are better in the land down under (average of 33.91 and strike rate of 67.3) but are based on just three matches.
While Lyon has not always run through the opposition on Asian wickets, it is also due in large part to the fact that home batsmen that he is bowling to in these countries are far superior players of spin bowling – unlike the Aussies of recent times who have looked hopeless against the turning ball.
But even in Asia, he has, of late, registered some very impressive performances and the numbers are only getting better.
On top of that, Lyon usually has to share the wickets with fast bowlers in his team who are far more lethal on Australian wickets. This is where the Asian spinners have a big advantage over him as they are the main strike bowlers in their teams.
Overall, Lyon's average of 31.78 and strike rate of 62.1 isn't too far from the numbers that Herath and Ashwin have generated is quite exceptional considering that the odds are against him. So, he too has a strong claim to being an equal of Ashwin if not better.
#1 Yasir Shah
While Lyon and Herath can stake claim to being at par with Ashwin based on parameters of performances that cannot always be enumerated, the one man who can actually break the latter's main records and therefore appear as a more visible challenger to his supremacy is Pakistan’s Yasir Shah.
His numbers are as staggering as Ashwin and he has been picking up wickets at an even greater pace than his Indian counterpart.
With 165 Test victims in just 28 matches, he has a great chance of breaking Clarrie Grimmett’s record of being the fastest to pick 200 Test wickets (36 matches). If he does achieve this, he can also threaten Ashwin’s record of fastest to 300 wickets.
What make Yasir Shah’s record look even more impressive is that he has hardly bowled on dustbowls, the sort of which are often seen in India and even Sri Lanka these days.
The pitches in UAE, where Pakistan play their home matches, give a better chance to the batsmen to succeed which explains his slightly higher average of 29.44 compared to his Asian rivals but the strike rate of 56.2 is not too far away from Ashwin’s.
He also produced two match-winning performances in England which boost his credentials though his experience in Australia was horrendous.
So, of all the bowlers operating in the world today and not just spinners, if there is one man whom Ashwin may be keeping a track on it will be Yasir Shah. Certainly a strong rival to Indian wizard.