It was a good pitch at Mohali, not damp, not a raging turner, not a slow, spongy surface where the ball has a cup of tea before it reaches the batsman. No, it was a surface on which New Zealand had made 180 after looking like they could reach 190. It was a pitch on which Pakistan had made 65 in five and a half overs before losing a wicket.
There were memories of England’s run-chase at the Wankhede against South Africa being whispered about. Then New Zealand turned to spin. Given their history, even given Dan Vettori, that is a bit like the Kirana gharana turning to rap for its audience.
It worked. And worked dramatically. Like it has throughout this World T20. From that point Mitch Santner and Ish Sodhi bowled 7 overs and took 3-40. Pakistan’s runaway train ground to a crawl. On a surface that was good for batting. At the Wankhede, in that dramatic England run chase where 11.69 runs were made per over, Imran Tahir bowled 4 overs for 28.
Afghanistan’s brightest star is not a rotund wicket-keeper but a chubby faced leg spinner called Rashid Khan. The highest ranked West Indian bowler is Samuel Badree and he doesn’t run in from many paces and hurl the ball fast. On more than one occasion, England have turned to Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali and Sri Lanka have had to relook at the crafty Rangana Herath. Australia have thrown up Adam Zampa of whom a lot will be heard in the years to come. And we aren’t even talking about India where spin bowling is always top of mind and a crisis call away.
It isn’t about leg spin bowling alone because Ravichandran Ashwin is the best in his category, Bangladesh still turn to Shakib al Hasan all the time and the West Indies have started using Suleiman Benn who looks as much like a classical spinner as some of us do pro boxers! Mohammad Nabi is as good as anyone going and I suspect a couple of Aussie selectors are wondering if Nathan Lyon should have been here.
I think the reason the slower spinners have been so successful is a reflection on how batsmen play the 120 ball game. The easiest ball to hit is the straight line ball, one that you pick off the hand and line up to hit back where it came from. If it is fast enough, you don’t even have to adjust your shot. So anything that causes the flow of the bat swing to change, maybe a ball that arrives slower than expected, or a ball that curves or turns away presents a challenge.
That is why good swing bowlers do well though sometimes the conditions defeat them. The seamer has virtually gone out of T20 because the tracks don’t seem to allow it (hence the migration to the old fashioned cutter that saw its zenith on matting wickets). That leaves the yorker, still the supreme delivery but one that extracts a heavy price if even marginally fuller or shorter, and the ball that turns.
Interestingly, once the attacking approach of T20 dies away and patience becomes an allowable virtue, many of these spinners struggle to take wickets. Imran Tahir and Samuel Badree are excellent examples of fine bowlers who are more valuable in T20 than in Test cricket. It suggests that when batsmen defend, don’t throw caution to the wind and instead nudge the ball for runs, the danger dissipates dramatically. The batsmen is no longer giving the bowler the opportunity to get him out and the bowler needs to have a wider repertoire.
So you see, the crafty guys of our game haven’t just survived in this power version of cricket but have actually flowered. And it often leads me to wonder why the rarest form of spin in our game, the left hand chinaman bowler isn’t being sighted. At 45, Brad Hogg is still sought after by an IPL franchise and there is much curiosity around Kuldeep Yadav. Maybe turning the ball into a right hander is thought of as dangerous given mid-wicket is the go-to area of shot making but a good googly (Tahir’s stock ball against the left hander) should be handy. And there are enough left handers going around.
The next World T20 is, sadly, four years away (though it won’t surprise me if that changes soon!) and maybe we will be including another kind of spinner in that article! Unless of course, the big bullies, the batsmen with clubs, have adjusted and taken the lead in this perpetually fascinating contest between bat and ball.