IT took spinners almost 15 years of hard toil to underline that they had a major role to play in one-day internationals. Not till the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in '84-85 did spin bowlers make the psychological breakthrough and prove to the cricket world that they could hold their own in pressure situations. More than anyone else, it was leggie Laxman Sivaramakrishnan who helped bring about this revolution. Siva was the highest wicket taker in that tournament which India won—close on the heels of their historic triumph in the '83 World Cup. By the time of the '92 World Cup, New Zealand were using off-spinner Dipak Patel as an opening bowler.
The enhanced role of the spin bowler has brought variety back into one-day cricket, for years dominated by military medium pacers who pegged away on an off-stump line to tie down batsmen. In '83 we won the World Cup almost enti- Photographs byrely due to the efforts of our medium-pacers. Spinners like Ravi Shastri played only a minor part in the triumph. Today, not only do spin bowlers come on before the 15-over fielding restrictions are lifted, they are even brought on to bowl at the 'death'. Both Saqlain for Pakistan and Kumble for India have been known to bowl the last over of the innings, something unheard of even a decade ago.
The selectors have once again packed the side with medium-pace bowlers, with Tendulkar, Ganguly and Jadeja expected to play their part with the ball as well. But I feel that in addition to Kumble, off-spinner Nikhil Chopra too can prove very useful. Kumble has experienced English conditions before, he has had a stint with Northamptonshire and took over 100 wickets in the '98 season. He is one of the most experienced spinners in the world today with over 200 wickets in both Tests and one-day internationals. Then again, Chopra is turning out to be a very useful bowler in one-day cricket. He gives the ball some flight, and has a good loop, but his greatest asset is his wicket-to-wicket line.
It will be bitterly cold in the first half of the English summer, and spinners have a particularly tough time gripping the ball under these conditions. But I believe that at the international level, there can be no excuses. After all, despite the energy-sapping heat, fast bowlers have been pretty successful in Indian conditions. Besides, cricket is played more in the mind than on the field. If you can handle the pressure, you can handle anything. A good spin bowler can deliver the goods, whatever be the conditions. Even if the pitch does not afford much help, he can extract turn if he really spins the ball. And he can always buy his wickets with flight. This is what I admire in Daniel Vettori. The young Kiwi left-arm spinner loves to give the ball lots of air and tries to beat the batsmen in flight—just like the spinners of yore. I have seen him 'buying' his wickets in one-day internationals, which, for a genuine spinner, is always a great sight. In the '87 Reliance World Cup, Zimbabwe's veteran off-spinner John Traicos never wavered from a perfect length. And the ball with which he had Sunil Gavaskar stranded and stumped was a real beauty. While India has always been a spinner's paradise, I had a pretty good series in England in '86. That was our last major victory on foreign soil and I enjoyed myself thoroughly in that series.
Coming back to Saqlain, it's his drifter that has troubled the best of batsmen. Even Tendulkar struggled to read it in the recent Indo-Pak series. Saqlain, with his tremendous strike rate of almost two wickets per match, has had great success on the county circuit and should make a real impact in this World Cup as well. Here is an example of a genuine spinner being able to bowl his side to victory, whatever the conditions. Warne has for years been terrorising English bats-men in particular. He's currently going through a lean spell and for the first time since his debut finds himself dropped from the Test side. But I have no doubt he will come good when it counts. The World Cup is the biggest cricket event of them all. And great players always rise to the big occasion.