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Pick an abiding memory from each of the 11 World Cups so far, and the chances are it won’t feature a spinner. For 1975 and 1979, your mind might turn to Viv Richards’s run-outs of Australia’s batsmen and his destruction of England’s bowlers, while 1983 was all about India stunning West Indies, and Kapil Dev’s running catch to dismiss that man Richards.
In 1987, Mike Gatting’s fatal reverse sweep cost England the final against Australia, and in 1992 Imran Khan’s cornered tigers triumphed for Pakistan—again at the expense of England.
Four years later, the story was plucky Sri Lanka upsetting the odds on an emotional night against Australia. In 1999, the Australians, as if piqued by that experience, went on an unstoppable run, aided by Herschelle Gibbs’s catch-that-never-was to reprieve Steve Waugh, and the Lance Klusener-Allan Donald mix-up in the semi-final.
In 2003 and 2007, it was more Australian triumph, before M.S. Dhoni sent India into raptures in 2011 with the match-winning six into the Mumbai night sky. Four years ago, it was Australia, again, seeing off their trans-Tasman co-hosts New Zealand.
But spinners? Sure, there was Shane Warne’s force of personality in that Edgbaston semi-final in 1999, but neither he nor Muttiah Muralitharan ever took a World Cup five-for. In fact, of the leading ten wicket-takers in World Cup history, only two are slow bowlers: second-placed Murali, who claimed 68 in 40 matches for Sri Lanka, and New Zealand left-armer Daniel Vettori, in 10th, who claimed 36 in 32. The rest, led by Glenn McGrath, are seamers.
The 50-over game has been the playground of swaggering batsmen and hair-raising fast bowlers. Deprived of the close fields and disintegrating pitches that can make them such a threat in Tests, spinners can be made to feel like those guests at a party the hosts had forgotten they’d invited.
Twenty20 is different, because the onus on batsmen to score off every delivery brings the thinking slow bowler into play. Some ordinary leg-spinners have made their name in T20s. But in 50-over cricket, in which batsmen have more time to build an innings, you need tricks up your sleeve to force an error. Orthodox finger-spin may be able to keep things tight—but it’s unlikely to run through a side.
So, all will not necessarily be lost for a certain type of spinner when the 2019 World Cup gets underway. And that type of spin bowler will have to be able to turn it both ways. Unpredictability will be the key.
Look at the list of leading wicket-takers in ODI cricket since the last World Cup, and wrist-spin features prominently. As of May 11, top of the pile was England’s leg-spinner Adil Rashid, with 126 scalps, followed by Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, with 123. In fifth place was South Africa’s Imran Tahir, with 92, and in sixth was India’s left-armer Kuldeep Yadav, with 87. In other words, there is room for the twirler with a well-disguised googly. More than that, the delivery has become indispensable.
Much is made about the question of English (and Welsh) pitches, and plenty of the conjecture is misleading. Test pitches in the UK can be bowler-friendly, especially if the touring team traditionally struggles against swing and seam—this has been England’s route to series wins over, say, Australia and India.
Then there are the overhead conditions, which remain in the lap of the gods. It is thought that some grounds are more conducive to swing bowling than others when the clouds roll in, which is often the case on an English summer’s day. Trent Bridge, Lord’s and Headingley all tick this box: the mantra for the captain winning the toss is ‘look up, not down’.
But, contrary to the general view of British weather, there will be sunny days during the World Cup. More importantly, the pitches will be prepared by the ICC, who are in charge of the tournament, and not the England and Wales Cricket Board, whose primary concern is to lay on a winning team for the packed houses that routinely watch Test cricket.
The emphasis will be on run-friendly pitches and totals over 300. No one, it seems, wants to see teams trying to defend scores of 220, even though low-scoring ODIs can offer theatre of their own.
The tournament has also been scheduled to ensure pitches remain relatively new. When the UK hosted the 2017 Champions Trophy, the fact that only three grounds—Cardiff, Edgbaston and The Oval—hosted matches ran the risk of pitches growing tired in the latter stages. England, in particular, were spooked by what they regarded as a sluggish track during the semi-final in Cardiff, though the fact that Pakistan waltzed home by eight wickets with 77 balls to spare didn’t support their theory.
But there will be no such excuses this time, which will place extra pressure on bowlers who can transcend the basic premise that one-day cricket these days is very much a batsman’s game.
Only a brave captain in English conditions will apportion many of his 15 powerplay overs to a slow bowler, so their role will be to hurry through the middle of an innings. This is where the best teams will have two spinners working in tandem.
One of the reasons behind England’s rise to the top of the rankings has been the manner in which Moeen Ali’s off-spin has dovetailed with the leg-breaks and googlies of his close friend Adil Rashid. While Rashid has been encouraged by captain Eoin Morgan to attack, regardless of the runs he concedes, Ali aims to keep it tight. The pair complement each other perfectly.
India, too, look well-equipped to keep batsmen quiet. Kuldeep Yadav troubled England’s batsmen in their own conditions last year with his hard-to-decipher left-arm wrist-spin, while Yuzvendra Chahal has learned to bowl leg-spin in the cauldron of the IPL. Throw in Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm arrows, and India’s slow bowlers will be hard to get away.
As you’d expect, the other Asian teams aren’t short of options either. Bangladesh have the guileful left-arm spin of Shakib Al Hasan and the youthful off-breaks of Mehedi Hasan. Pakistan rely heavily on Imad Wasim’s flattish left-armers, and Sri Lanka possess the likes of Dhananjaya de Silva, Milinda Siriwardene and Jeffrey Vandersay.
Perhaps the most intriguing Asian combination, though, belongs to Afghanistan, for whom Rashid Khan—the world’s leading Twenty20 bowler—has developed the best googly in the game. Even Jos Buttler has admitted he finds it difficult to pick. Then there are the off-breaks of veteran Mohammad Nabi and the 18-year-old Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
South Africa will be able to unleash the energetic leg-breaks of Imran Tahir, and Australia boast the under-rated Adam Zampa, to say nothing of the off-breaks of Nathan Lyon and all-rounder Glenn Maxwell. New Zealand can point to leg-spinner Ish Sodhi and slow left-armer Mitchell Santner, and West Indies to the round-arm off-breaks of Ashley Nurse.
These men will not simply be there to make up the numbers. At the time of writing, five of them—Tahir, Kuldeep, Chahal, Mujeeb and Adil Rashid—were ranked in the world’s top 10. Another five—Nabi, Santner, Pakistan leg-spinner Shadab Khan, who has been struggling with hepatitis, Shakib and Mehedi—feature in the top 30.
Thanks in no small part to Twenty20, the days when spinners were treated as ‘step-and-fetch-it’ bowlers—the disdainful description favoured by Ian Botham— are over. Their challenge in England this summer will be to overcome the game’s inbuilt bias towards batsmen, and prove that slow and steady can still win the race.
(Lawrence Booth is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack)