Why wrist spinners are unlikely gods at the Cricket World Cup

The heroes of this World Cup are not the devastating batsmen who can whip the leather off the ball. They’re the magicians who manipulate it in an art form frowned upon for a long time.

If ever there was proof that wrist spinners – a bunch who either have a passing resemblance to philosophy students or take on Shane Warne’s dimensions – are cricket’s new gods, the havoc wreaked by India’s unfathomable duo in their World Cup clash against South Africa was it.

Yuzvendra Chahal (4/51 off 10 overs) and Kuldeep Yadav (1/46 off 10) took five of the nine South African wickets to fall in the game, gutting the Proteas’ batting effort by not allowing them to recover from a rocky start during the middle overs of the match.

Southampton wasn’t the first time the two had done a passable impression of twirling ticking time bombs at South Africa’s batsmen: they took a combined 33 wickets last year in a Proteas home series in which the hosts were on trial by wrist spin and found it all such a mystery they lost the rubber 5-1.

In all fairness to the Proteas batsmen, Chahal and Yadav have befuddled all before them and been anointed “the strongest spin bowling partnership in the world at the moment” by their captain Virat Kohli, a man as grudging with his compliments as he is with his wicket.

India’s devastating twins

Former South African left-arm spinner Robin Peterson agrees wholeheartedly: “I like the way they bowl in combination. They’re prepared to toss the ball up, they don’t bowl flat. They try and turn the ball to get you out.

“Those two are more traditional wrist spinners, unlike [South Africa’s] Imran [Tahir], they invite you to try and hit them down the ground and they don’t bowl quickly enough for you to try and hit them square of the wicket.

“I think those two in combination are probably the best around as a combination. In terms of what Chahal and Kuldeep have done, I think you have to say they’re probably the two premier wrist spinners in combination in white ball cricket.”

Another ex-Proteas spinner, Paul Adams, who added to the unorthodox intrigue he brought as a Chinaman (a left-arm wrist spinner) by throwing in the infamous “frog in a blender” bowling action, explained why the two were a constant menace to a batting line-up.

“Chahal and Kuldeep are different kinds of spinners, a Chinaman and a leg-spinner,” he begins. “Having that variation is quite good because you have left- or right-hand batsmen. The option to take the ball away from the batsman is something I always look at because it takes it out of the hitting zone.”

Wrist spinners are must-haves

The Indian spinners are but two of a new breed of bowler dotted along the teams in the World Cup and dominating One Day International (ODI) cricket. There was a time when wrist spinners were not trusted by the game and its captains, thanks to a tendency to be inaccurate, not knowing which end of the bat is which and a lack of athleticism in the field.

But since the advent of Twenty20 (T20) cricket, wrist spinners have moved from optional extras to must haves, with names like Chahal, Kuldeep, Tahir, Rashid Khan (Afghanistan) and Adil Rashid (England) mentioned in hushed tones for their ability to make you look silly when pickpocketing your wicket.

Adams remembers too well what being an extra in his team’s movie was like, and the reasons given for it: “A lot of the time it was ‘the other guy bats better than you’. There was an obsession with the batting and the allrounders.

“Every now and then I got a game but for a good couple of series I was twelfth man – I must have been twelfth man for a good couple of hundred games.”

Now, it appears every team has to have a wrist spinner because of the currency they bring to an ODI – wickets throughout an innings – in an age where T20 cricket has put batsmen’s belligerence on steroids and scores north of 300 have become the norm.

According to Peterson, wrist spinners put brakes on the new mentality of “see ball, obliterate ball” by sowing seeds of doubt in the batsman: “The thing is what wrist spinners do is take wickets. When you play against a team like England, with a long batting line-up, you want to make sure you have enough variation in your attack to knock them over.

“If you don’t knock them over they’ll hurt you in the last 10 overs because they bat down to 10. The thing is wrist spinners can spin the ball both ways and they can beat your inside and outside edge. When you have that indecision as a batsman you’re never quite sure, and if you’re not picking it you’re under even more pressure to score.

“You’re never out of the game with a wrist spinner. Even if a team gets off to a good start they can come in the middle and just affect the game with their variations. You’ve still got to pick the ball, you can’t just come in and knock it around for ones – that delay in the batsman’s decision-making is what causes them problems.”

The unlikely saviour: T20

Ironically, the same T20 cricket that helped teams break the 400-run barrier in ODI innings is the same game that helped wrist spinners back into mainstream white ball cricket.

“When T20 came people were thinking the spinners were the ones who were going to get hit but they’ve been the economical ones,” says Adams. “That’s why as a coach now I’m big on bringing spinners on board and having the options of different spinners.

“The mindset of T20 cricket has almost given wrist spinners a rebirth and shown how dangerous [they] can be, especially a wrist spinner that has a good googly. Batsmen can’t line them up, and once teams saw that they incorporated them into the 50-over game to an attacking mindset.”

Such is the power of wicket-taking that even the old issue of accuracy gets overlooked.

“Today’s game is not about containment,” Peterson explains. “So you’re willing to let a wrist spinner go for 60 in his 10 overs, and if he gets three wickets you know your chances of winning the game are on.

“It’s not so much the runs per over, it’s about the strike rate. People always used to look at runs per over but if you look at how they’re striking they don’t bowl many balls per wicket, that’s what you want.

“When the ball is not swinging or reversing in white ball cricket you need a bit of magic, someone to outfox and out-manoeuvre the batsman.”

Adams agrees, with a caveat: “But you still have to have control – you can’t be bowling half-trackers and full tosses. And you can’t just say I have to play because I’m a wrist spinner.”

Finger spinners losing their grip?

So where does this leave the old finger spinners, for so long the captain’s trusty lieutenants and now the wrist spinners’ poor cousins?

“There’s still a role for quality finger spin,” Peterson reckons. “I think quality spin is quality spin. When the ball is not doing anything the wrist spinner comes into play, and this might sound a little weird, but when the wickets turn the accuracy of your finger spinner comes into play more because he just needs to be more accurate.

“The only way a finger spinner gets into a one-day team is if they can hold a bat and contribute with the bat. Finger spinners have to offer a package now. A classic example is Pakistan’s Imad Wasim: he can bat, he can field and he’s excellent with the ball.

“So there’s still a role for a finger spinner, it’s just that the prototype of the player is changing – you need to be good at two out of three disciplines to play.”

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