How leg-spin turned T20 cricket upside down

Imran Tahir. Photo: BackpagePix

Few would have believed that when Twenty20 (T20) cricket was officially unveiled to the world in 2003, it would be the wrist-spinner who would come to dominate the format.

Prior to the arrival of Shane Warne on the international stage a decade earlier, leg-spin was largely considered a dying art, a relic of a time when potbellied men in baggy felt caps attempted to hornswoggle batsmen without being smashed out the ground too often.

On their day, they could be devastating, but these days were too infrequent for the likes of captains seeking to keep runs to a minimum. And when it came to one-day cricket, a leg-break bowler was assured of being the first name on the teamsheet – as 12th man.

How times have changed. The current International Cricket Council player rankings for T20 internationals place no fewer than seven wristspinners in the Top 10, with Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan and Pakistan’s Shadab Khan holding positions 1 and 2 respectively.

In one-day internationals, five of the Top 10 release the ball from over the wrist.

South Africa’s own Imran Tahir, he of the snaking 50-yard dash celebration, features prominently on both lists (7th in ODIs and 9th in T20s), and it was no surprise to see Zimbabwe’s batsmen failing to negotiate his wizardry in the recent series.
That Tahir, completely of his own volition, has mentored both Khans to the top of their game speaks as much to his qualities as a person as it does his abilities as a cricketer (upon completion of the first T20 in East London, he was also seen taking young Zimbabwe leggie Brandon Mavuta under his wing).

No one could have predicted that T20, a game dominated by the bat and then some, would also prove to be such a happy hunting ground for leg-spinners. The difficulty factor in being forced to control the ball under intense scoreboard pressure seemed to be a bridge too far, yet 15 years on, this theory has gone out the window.

Several reasons have been cited for these bowlers’ success.

The first is that right-hand batsmen, who make up the majority in most teams, tend to target the leg side in pursuit of quick boundaries. With right-arm wrist-spinners turning the ball away from the bat, the chances of batsmen miscuing their shot increases.

However, modern wrist-spinners are also extremely adept at the googly or wrong’un (Rashid Khan and Tahir being the world’s leading exponents), so ultimately the same challenges are presented to left-hand batsmen.

Another reason is that wrist-spinners tend to bowl with a lower trajectory of the arm than seam-up bowlers and finger-spinners. Because they have a lower point of release, the bounce of the ball is lower, and therefore it is more difficult for batsmen to get “under” the delivery to knock it into the stands.

On recent form, Tahir will once more ascend to crown the rankings in the white-ball formats. He is showing no sign of his 39 years – an age when most international players have hung up their boots – and if anything, the exultant sprint upon taking a wicket has added a yard or two.

Australia’s Brad Hogg, a left-arm wrist-spinner and World Cup winner, continues to play at the highest level at the age of 47, proving the worth of his chosen craft has no limits in the modern game.

With Tahir unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon, South Africa, having seen the global effectiveness of having two such spinners in a white-ball line-up, will no doubt be looking at options to partner the evergreen Protea.

The incumbent in this role is Tabraiz Shamsi, a left-arm iteration who to date has enjoyed moderate success without setting the world alight. The other candidate is left-arm orthodox finger-spinner Keshav Maharaj, who has performed magnificently in the Test and first-class arena.

Both men have enormous potential, but as yet would hardly be considered match-winners in ODI and T20 cricket.

One definitely worth blooding is Multiply Titans wrist-spinner Shaun von Berg, a stout, sometimes bespectacled figure cut in the finest tradition of leggies of yore.

Von Berg’s feats in the past few domestic seasons did earn him a call-up to the Test squad in Sri Lanka earlier this year (although he didn’t play) but during the recent Abu Dhabi T20 tournament he impressed all and sundry with powerful performances for the Titans against the best provincial and state teams in the world.

He is a wily campaigner whose box of tricks is exactly what’s required in the shorter formats. If Proteas coach Ottis Gibson is intent on looking at as many options as possible ahead of next year’s World Cup, he could do a lot worse than Von Berg.

A pair of leggies on English pitches could be the silver bullet South Africa needs to break their hoodoo at the prestigious tournament.