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Analysing Australia’s most successful ODI bowlers

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Roar Guru
19th December, 2020
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In my previous articles I examined which Australian cricketers have played in the most ODI wins and which ones have had the highest career success rates.

I have also analysed which batsmen performed best in wins and losses. In this article I will look at bowling performances in wins and see who stands out.

A bowling analysis is in some ways easier than for batting. The bowling average already combines strike rate and economy rate to produce a balanced measure. It can certainly be argued that economy rate is more important in ODIs than Tests, but I’m not about to play around with the bowling average as a definitive measure. Wickets still win matches – just watch a new batsman scratch around in the death overs after a wicket has fallen.

This analysis is limited to players who participated in at least 30 wins for Australia. It seems there are significantly fewer bowlers than batsmen who have a career stretching to 50 wins, so this measure had to be relaxed a little. There is also a minimum number of wickets per match of 0.5 to eliminate absolute part-timers.

Let’s see who tops our list for average economy rate and strike rate:

Bowling average Economy rate Strike rate
1 Dennis Lillee (14.64) Dennis Lillee (3.12) Mitchell Starc (22.50)
2 Mitchell Starc (17.45) Geoff Lawson (3.36) Clint McKay (24.2)
3 Glen McGrath (17.88) Terry Alderman (3.37) Pat Cummins (26.1)
4 Terry Alderman (18.33) Greg Chappell (3.60) Brett Lee (26.7)
5 Clint McKay (18.51) Glen McGrath (3.64) Mitchell Johnson (26.8)
6 Geoff Lawson (18.52) Paul Reiffel (3.75) Dennis Lillee (28.1)
7 Carl Rackemann (18.92) Bruce Reid (3.77) Glen McGrath (29.4)
8 Jason Gillespie (19.69) Craig McDermott (3.78) Brad Hogg (29.4)
9 Mitchell Johnson (19.82) Rodney Hogg (3.78) Carl Rackemann (29.7)
10 Brett Lee (20.54) Carl Rackemann (3.81) Jason Gillespie (29.8)

In general, economy rate favours bowlers from earlier periods, while the modern-day bowlers have better strike rates. As a result the bowling average is a bit of a mix.

Bowling average
Dennis Lillee was, if anything, even more effective in limited-overs matches than Tests, topping both the bowling average and economy rate tables by a fair way. His nearest rivals are modern-day strike weapon Mitchell Starc, who has topped the wicket tables in two world cups, and our other great all-round pace bowler, Glenn McGrath. It seems the greatest rise to the top in all formats.

There are some surprising names as we move down the top ten. Clint McKay was underrated and discarded. In Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson and Carl Rackemann we had some real ODI bowling firepower in the 1980s.

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If we relax the cut off to ten matches, others who would enter the top ten would be the quality bowler Ryan Harris, early firebrand Len Pascoe, bowling all-rounder Tony Dodemaide and speedster Shaun Tait.

Economy rate
This list is dominated by bowlers from the 1980s. Glen McGrath and Paul Reiffel are the two most recent bowlers on the list. And interesting entry is Greg Chappell, who was a true all-rounder in ODIs, taking 1.23 wickets per match in wins.

Strike rate
The rankings here are dominated by modern-day bowlers and headed up by our current wicket-taking machine, Mitchell Starc. However, there are a number of names here that maybe wouldn’t be expected, such as Clint McKay having the second-best strike rate in history. Lee, Cummins, Starc, Lillee, Johnson, McGrath – McKay does seem odd. Note also that Brad Hogg has been our most effective wicket-taking spinner with his left-arm wrist spin and well-disguised wrong un.

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The peer difference percentage

The above analysis is not bad, but ODI bowling has changed so much that the results are skewed. Bowlers from the 1980s and 1990s benefit from the lower scoring rates of the time. As in previous articles, I will use the peer difference percentage to compare players over eras. This measure compares the performance of a player in wins against his fellow players in those same wins. This measure aims to determine how important a player was in his successful matches.

Let’s recast our table using the peer difference percentage.

Bowling average Economy rate Strike rate
1 Dennis Lillee (+33.17) Glen McGrath (+16.58) Mitchell Starc (+27.8)
2 Mitchell Starc (+32.3) Geoff Lawson (+16.26) Brett Lee (+21.9)
3 Glen McGrath (+27.05) Terry Alderman (+15.53) Clint McKay (+21.2)
4 Clint McKay (+23.4) Dennis Lillee (+15.52) Dennis Lillee (+21.0)
5 Pat Cummins (+21.48) Nathan Bracken (+8.80) Carl Rackemann (+18.04)
6 Carl Rackemann (+21.48) Josh Hazlewood (+8.19) Pat Cummins (+17.1)
7 Terry Alderman (+20.18) Bruce Reid (+7.79) Damien Fleming (+14.9)
8 Geoff Lawson (+19.41) Xavier Doherty (+7.77) Mitchell Johnson (+13.5)
9 Craig McDermott (+18.91) Jason Gillespie (+7.07) Craig McDermott (+15.2)
10 Damien Fleming (+18.27) James Hopes (+6.75) Glen McGrath (+12.8)

Bowling average
Starc and Lillee remain the two standouts here, with Starc making up some ground but not quite enough to knock DK Lillee from the top. McGrath and McKay maintain their top-five status, but the big winner here is Pat Cummins, who rockets into fifth all-time from outside the top ten. Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming also find their way inside the top ten.

Economy rate
There are some significant differences here, evening up the economy rate performance through history. The miserly Glenn McGrath shoots to the top of the table and Dennis Lillee drops to a still excellent fourth. Geoff Lawson’s ability to keep things tight leaves him in second place. No fewer than five 1980s and 1990s bowlers drop out of the top ten: Greg Chappell, Paul Reiffel, Craig McDermott, Rodney Hogg and Carl Rackemann. They are replaced by more recent stars Nathan Bracken, Josh Hazlewood, Xavier Doherty (he took few wickets but kept it tight), Jason Gillespie and James Hopes.

Strike rate
Despite the adjustment to this measure benefiting the older bowlers, it is still Mitchell Starc who reigns supreme and by a wide margin. Brett Lee and Dennis Lillee both jump up, while the underrated Carl Rackemann enters the top five. Damien Fleming and Craig McDermott are the new entrants.

This leaves us with the following bowling attack of winners:

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  • Mitchell Starc
  • Shane Warne
  • Dennis Lillee
  • Glen McGrath

Xavier Doherty is the only spin bowler on the above lists for economy rate, but the overall bowling average difference is more important. On that measure Shane Warne easily takes the spot with a +12.5 peer difference percentage. The only other slow bowler to play in 30 wins with a positive peer difference percentage is Brad Hogg at 2.6 per cent.

Other notables
This analysis was restricted to bowlers with at least 30 wins. If that were relaxed to ten wins, the following new players emerge.

The admirable Ryan Harris played in only 15 victories, but his raw bowling average of 15.51 sits only behind Dennis Lillee. Rhino took a wicket every 20.5 balls – less than every three and a half overs – by far the best of any player with at least ten wins. That leaves a peer difference percentage for bowling average of over 41 per cent, more than 20 per cent better than his nearest rival, the great Lillee. I’ve said it before – Ryan Harris. What. A. Player.

Medium pacer Tony Dodemaide had the fourth-best bowling average in history from his 16 wins, with an economy rate behind only Lillee and Simon Davis. Express bowler Shaun Tait only played in 23 wins but has a strike rate beaten only by Harris and Mitchell Starc.

Finally, Michael Kasprowicz finished on 29 wins, just outside the cut-off for this analysis. With just one more win he would have finished eighth for all-time bowling average peer difference percentage.

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Conclusions

The best at bowling first
When bowling first with the crowd fired up, it’s Dennis Lillee leading the way narrowly from Mitchell Starc. If I did the peer difference calculations, I imagine Starc may just come out on top. The remainder of the top five for bowling averages are Geoff Lawson, Lenny Pascoe and Shaun Tait. Another player not previously mentioned jumps into this list at sixth-best of all-time is Andy Bichel.

The best at defending a target
When defending a target with the batsmen coming at you, the best is surprisingly Tony Dodemaide with a bowling average of just 12.68, driven by a miserly economy rate of 3.09. The top five is made up of Dennis Lillee again, Ryan Harris and Glen McGrath, with the surprise this time Greg Chappell. His medium-pace cutters netted 1.7 wickets per match at an average of just 15.83. The other surprise in the top ten is Simon Davis, who experienced ten victories in the late 1980s at a bowling average of just 18.66.

The best losers
With a minimum ten losses, it is late 1970s paceman Lenny Pascoe who comes out on top by a fair way with an average of 25.19. Lillee is there or thereabouts as always and this time is joined in the top five by Doug Bollinger, Nathan Bracken and Michael Kasprowicz. When defending a target unsuccessfully, Mitchell Starc and Clint McKay enter the top five to join Bracken, Lillee and Kasprowicz. When bowling first it is again Dennis Lillee, joined by Glen McGrath, Craig McDermott, Rodney Hogg and Nathan Bracken.

The winning team: batsmen and bowlers
After this bowling analysis and combined with our previous batting order we get a winning team that looks something like this:

  1. David Warner
  2. Mark Waugh
  3. Dean Jones
  4. Mike Hussey
  5. Michael Bevan
  6. Glenn Maxwell
  7. Adam Gilchrist
  8. Mitchell Starc
  9. Shane Warne
  10. Dennis Lillee
  11. Glenn McGrath

That looks pretty hard to beat.

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If you’re interested, a team of the best performers in losses looks like this:

  1. Matthew Hayden
  2. Usman Khawaja
  3. Mike Hussey
  4. George Bailey
  5. Marcus Stoinis
  6. Alex Carey
  7. James Faulkner
  8. Lenny Pascoe
  9. Dennis Lillee
  10. Doug Bollinger
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