Rob Steen: Slowly does it

Shahid Afridi may bowl a tad briskly for the purist, not to mention celebrate his triumphs a mite excessively, but when it comes to putting a smile on spinners’ faces during a World Cup, he’s done a bang-up job.

Together with fellow conspirators such as Imran Tahir, Robin Peterson, Ray Price, Yuvraj Singh and Graeme Swann, Pakistan’s captain, the joint leading wicket-taker with Zaheer Khan, made the 2011 tournament, if not a feast for the slow men, then certainly a three-course meal. Spinners took a record 290 wickets during the tournament and they took the new cherry 33 times – double the tally in the first nine World Cups. Heck, one dynamic duo – from New Zealand of all places – even shared it. Two of the most menacing spinners, even more improbably, wore South African green.

Granted, a rebirth was perhaps only to be expected in the subcontinent, but not to this extent, especially since stocks are appreciably lower than they were while Messrs Kumble, Muralitharan and Warne were in their simultaneous and lengthy pomp. Small wonder we romantics rather fancied the idea of Murali finishing his extraordinary international career by filching Glenn McGrath’s tournament record aggregate of 71 wickets (he finished on 68).

Let’s do the history bit. In terms of strike-rate, among those who have claimed 20 or more victims in World Cups, seven non-seamers have interloped into the top 20 – Afridi (seventh), Yuvraj Singh (10th), Brad Hogg (11th), Saqlain Mushtaq (12th), Muralitharan (16th), Warne (18th), and Mushtaq Ahmed (20th). The averages tell a similar story: Hogg eighth, Warne 11th, Afridi 12th, Murali 13th, Abdul Qadir 17th and Mushtaq Ahmed 18th. Among the scalp hunters, Muralitharan (second), Hogg (equal 10th), Warne (equal 13th) and Kumble (equal 15th) all figure prominently but, again, the picture is dominated by pace.

With scoring rates surging tournament by tournament (this year, for the first time, they broke the five-an-over barrier), stemming the boundary flow, unsurprisingly, has been an even pricklier matter. True, Bishan Bedi’s scarcely credible analysis of 12-8-6-1 for India against East Africa at Headingley in 1975 remains the most durable and probably invincible World Cup record of consequence, and the loose-tongued left-armer’s concession rate of 2.46 runs per over heads all those who have sent down at least 60 overs. Conversely, Zimbabwe’s John Traicos, the highest-placed spinner among those bowling 90-plus overs, lies 13th (emphasising how far the pendulum has swung in favour of the batsmen over the past decade, Shane Bond is alone among those 13 in having played in a World Cup this century – see Table 1). Meanwhile, only three spinners, Bedi (17), Warne (16) and Murali (15), lurk among the 28 who have tallied 15 or more maidens.

In terms of bountiful tournaments, McGrath’s 26 wickets in 2007 stand tallest, but Murali (23) and Hogg (21) ran him close that year, as did Afridi and Zaheer (both 21) this time. There have also been a goodly few matchwinning spells, most notably by Warne, who pre-empted Afridi by becoming the first man to take four or more wickets in an innings on four occasions.

No fewer than eight of the 11 most destructive analyses for Pakistan have been perpetrated by spinners, with Afridi responsible for four, all in the current tournament; Tahir outstripped the previous best return by a South African twirler on each of his first two appearances, again in this tournament; 28 years on, meanwhile, one of this site’s most respected contributors, Vic Marks, can still brag gently to his children about achieving England’s best to date (5 for 39). Such successes, though, amount to an exceedingly small hill of beans.

The balance doesn’t alter much when it comes to hard labour. Muralitharan (343.3 overs) has just overtaken McGrath at the World Cup summit, but the only other slow-men members of the top 20 are Sanath Jayasuriya (ninth), Daniel Vettori (12th), Harbhajan Singh (15th), Traicos (16th) and Kumble (equal 20th). In this century’s three tournaments, on the other hand, the most tireless toilers have been Murali (243.2 overs) and Vettori (205.4), with Harbhajan lying just behind Zaheer in fourth.

On the whole, though, recent history hasn’t been terribly encouraging. Among the 11 bowlers who have sent down 300-plus World Cup balls this century while conceding under four runs an over, Murali and Mohammad Hafeez are the lone spinners. Among the 63 with 10 or more wickets, Tahir ranks first in strike-rate, Afridi eighth, Suleiman Benn 11th and Murali 16th.

Unsurprisingly, things have been a bit different on the subcontinent, though not as different as might be imagined. In the first two World Cups played there, in 1987 and 1996, the three highest wicket-takers, Craig McDermott (19), Phil DeFreitas (18) and Imran Khan (17) were all quicks, with Roger Harper (16) and Kumble (15) the most productive slowies. Harper (118) reeled off the most overs but the next hardest-working spinner, John Emburey, ranked seventh and Maninder Singh 10th.

The two best economy rates among those bowling 20-plus overs, moreover, were achieved by two more avowed non-spinners, Brian McMillan and Curtly Ambrose, though the next three most effective stiflers were Qadir, Kenya’s Aasif Kadim and Harper, while Emburey, Traicos, Pat Symcox and Neil Smith were also in the leading 10. Of the eight best strike-rates, though, just one belonged to a spinner, Zimbabwe’s Paul Strang.

YET CHANGE WOULD SEEM TO BE AFOOT. In the 10th World Cup, spinners more or less ruled, OK: four of the top six wicket-takers and the top five economy rates (and eight of the leading 10 – see Table 2). Among those bowling 25+ overs, moreover, twirlers were responsible for three of the best four strike-rates (see Table 3).

Now let’s have a look at the ol’ scoreboard – ie. the ICC rankings, which demonstrate that spin, if far from king, is certainly a far cry from the peasant rabble it was following the retirements of Kumble and Warne. The ODI Top 10 published on April 4 was led, again, by Vettori, with Price and Swann second and third followed by three further spinners in Abdul Razzak, Ajantha Mendis and Afridi. At the end of the Ashes series, meanwhile, the Test Top 10 featured Swann, Harbhajan, Shakib and Vettori.

Ten years ago there were three spinners in that Test chart; five years ago there were two; in March 1991 the loftiest non-seamer was India’s comet-esque leggie, Narendra Hirwani, 16th. Are we scenting a revolution here, perhaps even something bearing a passing resemblance to an equal footing not seen since Richie Benaud, Subhash Gupte, Jim Laker, Hughie Tayfield and Johnny Wardle were running amok in the second half of the 50s?

Indeed, things may be about to get even better. It was Swann who recently expressed his deep and undying gratitude for the Decision Review System. Thanks to Hawk-Eye’s projections and predictions, batsmen are now more likely to be outed for the odious but popular crime of stretching down the pitch with malice and pad aforethought; as a consequence, he reckons, his lbw count has soared by 50 per cent. Now umpire reviews have also been adopted for one-dayers, it’s hard to picture Swanny’s smirk vanishing in a hurry.

TABLE 1  

Best Economy Rates in World Cup History (runs per over; min. 90 overs; * = spinner)
Bob Willis (England) 2.66
Chris Old (England) 2.68
Sir Richard Hadlee (New Zealand) 2.88
Michael Holding (West Indies) 2.95
Curtly Ambrose (West Indies) 3.03
Malcolm Marshall (West Indies) 3.08
Joel Garner (West Indies) 3.21
Andy Roberts (West Indies) 3.24
Ian Botham (England) 3.43
Courtney Walsh (West Indies) 3.46
Shane Bond (New Zealand) 3.50
Gavin Larsen (New Zealand) 3.52
John Traicos* (Zimbabwe) 3.57
TABLE 2 

 
Best Economy Rates in 2011 World Cup (runs per over; min. 10 overs; * = spinner)
Ajantha Mendis* (Sri Lanka) 3.14
Suhwaradi Shuvo* (Bangladesh) 3.30
Ray Price* (Zimbabwe) 3.44
Mohammad Hafeez* (Pakistan) 3.50
Saeed Ajmal* (Pakistan) 3.57
Kyle Mills (New Zealand) 3.58
Daniel Vettori* (New Zealand) 3.60
Shahid Afridi* (Pakistan) 3.62
Sean Williams* (Zimbabwe) 3.63
Ravi Bopara (England) 3.78
TABLE 3  

Best Strike Rates in 2011 World Cup (balls per wicket; min. 25 overs; * = spinner)
Imran Tahir* (South Africa) 16.9
Kemar Roach (West Indies) 21.2
Shahid Afridi* (Pakistan) 21.2
Robin Petersen* (South Africa) 22.4
Lasith Malinga (Sri Lanka) 22.4
Dale Steyn (South Africa) 23.0
Christopher Mpofu (Zimbabwe) 23.1
Tillakeratne Dilshan* (Sri Lanka) 23.2
Zaheer Khan (India) 23.2
Andre Russell (West Indies) 23.2

All figures correct to the end of the 2011 World Cup

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