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The impending Test series between Bangladesh and New Zealand is going to showcase two of the finest SLA spinners of the game going head-to-head for opposite teams. In spin friendly pitches of Bangladesh, both bowlers are expected to do well. It might be an interesting exercise in idle prognostications to predict who will come out on top.

The SLA Wars: M Rafique vs. D Vettori

Published: 18th October, 2004

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The impending Test series between Bangladesh and New Zealand is going to showcase two of the finest SLA spinners of the game going head-to-head for opposite teams. In spin friendly pitches of Bangladesh, both bowlers are expected to do well. It might be an interesting exercise in idle prognostications to predict who will come out on top.

What is SLA spin?

Before we go into the details of statistical tea-leaves readings, let us refresh ourselves on the art of Slow Left Arm spin. This kind of bowling is generally left-handed off spin. Right handed batsmen finds this harder to play since the ball spins away from the batsman in the same fashion as leg spin. However, leg spin is considered to be more difficult since there is more variety to the latter. [See this BanglaCricket article or this article from Wickipedia]

A bit on Vettori

Masud can lead by example

Daniel Vettori

Daniel Vettori came on to the Kiwi scene at the age of 18 as New Zealand's youngest Test. Overcoming unfriendly pitches he raced on to become the fastest spinner to reach 100 Test wickets. 2003-2004 season was a particularly bad year from him coming off of a stress fracture in his back, but it will be foolhardy to ignore the guile of a spinner with an average in the 30s in Test cricket and a history that saw him taking 12 wickets against perennial rivals Australia. He is also quite useful with the bat and has over 1000 Test runs under his belt with a high score of 137*. [D. Vettori profile by Cricinfo]

A bit on Rafique

Masud can lead by example

Mohammad "century marsee" Rafique

Mohammad Rafique is one of the few Bangladesh players listed in the PriceWaterhouseCooper Top 50 and is a household name in Bangladesh.

One of the senior-most players in the Bangladesh team, he was more well known for his abilities in ODIs early on in his career. He was, however, selected to play in Bangladesh's inaugural Test against India and accounted himself well.

His career was almost derailed soon after when he was reported to the ICC for a suspect action. He was a bit tardy in taking remedial action and was out of the national team until 2002 when he was picked for the home series against South Africa. He showed his return to class and an aptitude for the long form of the game with a 6 wicket haul in the second Test against South Africa. He has not looked back since. He was the highest wicket taker for Bangladesh in the home Test series against England and the second highest during the away tour to Zimbabwe.

Like Vettori, he can be quite handy with the bat too and is known as a hard hitting lower order batsman. His 111 versus the West Indies in June of 2004 at St Lucia was key to Bangladesh achieving its first honorable draw in Test cricket. [M. Rafique profile by BanglaCricket]

And now reading tea-leaves

All predictions must have some basis on facts. Let's look at the cold hard facts (As an aside, I am focusing only on Tests)

PriceWaterhouseCoopers Test rating has Rafique ranked at 29 while Vettori is 40.

Consider also their overall Test statistics:

         
          Mat  Runs  HS   BatAv 100  50   W    BB  BowlAv 5w  Ct St
Rafique    12   375 111   19.73   1   0  46  6/77   31.60  3   4  0
Vettori    55  1357 137*  20.25   1   7 158  7/87   38.14  7  27  0

Looking just at the bowling average Rafique again comes out on top.

These overall statistics are colored by some soft facts. Vettori has the advantage of having a good battery of strike bowlers softening up the batsmen for him. On the other hand, Vettori did have to toil hard on the spinner unfriendly home pitches in New Zealand. Rafique's performance stands out as he is often the sole strike bowler for Bangladesh. Not only does he get tasked to take wickets, he is also tasked with keeping the run rate in check. His does not have quite the freedom to operate that Vettori does.

Looking a bit deeper

Let's look deeper at the statistics. Rafique has only played 12 Tests to Vettori's 55 and does not yet have a 7-fer. On the other hand, Rafique has been achieving a 5-fer every 4th Test as opposed to Vettori's every 8th Test. This statistic may be deceptive though. Rafique is usually the sole breadwinner for Bangladesh while Vettori is hunting in a pack where he may not have 5 wickets to grab once the captain throws him the ball.

The numbers seem to be giving Rafique the edge, but is it sufficient to predict their performances in the upcoming matches? Perhaps we need to focus on their most recent performances. Consider the last 5 matches.

          Mat  Runs  HS   BatAv 100  50   W    BB  BowlAv 5w  Ct St
Rafique     5   218 111   31.14   1   0  15  4/121  41.73  0   2  0
Vettori     5   108  53   18.00   0   1   8  4/158  82.37  0   0  0

Clearly Rafique has had a better run. Vettori had a horrible series against South Africa at home while Rafique had the luxury of a series versus Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the 5 match windows is too statistically insignificant. What if we expanded the window a tad bit? Consider the last 10 matches.

          Mat  Runs  HS   BatAv 100  50   W    BB  BowlAv 5w  Ct St
Rafique    10   313 111   19.56   1   0  43  6/77   29.04  3   3  0
Vettori    10   472 137*  39.33   1   3  16  4/158  76.62  0   5  0

The disparity remains and Rafique still comes out on top. But do also consider this. If Vettori's current average is 38.14 and his last 10 match average is 76.62, he must have had an excellent average early on in his career. And he did. Vettori, while much younger than Rafique (Rafique is 34 while Vettori is only 25), has had a 7-year long career so far and his average was 33.86 at the end of his 5th year. Clearly, Vettori is an exceptional bowler but has been going through a recent bad patch.

Does this in anyway impact our comparison between the two bowlers? If Vettori was so good early on, there is always that distinct possibility that he may regain his earlier form. Let's look at the two players at comparative times of their careers. Here are their stats after 5, 10 and 12 matches (12 because that is how many Test matches Rafique has played).

        Mat    O       R   W    BBI    Ave   5 10
Rafique   5  228.2   571  19   6/77   30.05  2  0  
Vettori   5  202.5   483  18   5/84   26.83  1  0 
Rafique  10  487.5  1233  42   6/77   29.35  3  0   
Vettori  10  451.5  1139  34   5/84   33.50  1  0 
Rafique  12  566.5  1454  46   6/77   31.60  3  0 
Vettori  12  548.5  1371  41   5/84   33.43  1  0

Other than an outstanding first 5 matches, Vettori has had his average rise to low to mid 30s for the next 5 years and then saw a slow rise to the 38 we see today during the last two years. Rafique on the other hand has maintained a solid 30 (+/- a few decimal points) average throughout his career.

What's the verdict?

Everything points to Rafique being in a superior position to Vettori coming into tomorrow's first Test. But can I put my money where my "mouse" is? I am not so sure. While I expect Rafique to come out on top, there are several factors that may yet play havoc with my prognostications.

  • The batsmen facing Rafique are in general far superior to the batsmen facing Vettori
  • Bangladesh does better away than at home
  • Rafique's last Test performance was a cause for concern. He is not spinning the ball as much and instead seem to be pitching more straight. Is he losing his touch? After all he is near the end of his career and Vettori has many more years ahead.

With those wimp-out comments, I will have to add that there are some other contenders for the SLA hall of fame. I will be doing a disservice to them if I did not at least mention their names in passing.

  • S Jayasuria of SL
  • R Price of ZIM
  • N Boje of SA
  • A Giles of ENG

Coda

While I was working on this article, it seems events on the ground has overtaken me. I point you all to this thread on the BanglaCricket forums - Rafique vs Vettori

 

About the author(s): Dr. Zunaid Kazi is an almost fanatical Bangladesh cricket supporter with almost non-existent cricket playing skills. He compensates for this deficiency by spending an inordinate amount of time following all things cricket. Zunaid is also an administrator at BanglaCricket and goes by the nick "Zunaid" and is affectionately or otherwise referred to as Doctor Z.

 

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