Indian wrist spinners no longer second-class ODI citizens

Old timers will note that the dark decades of the 1970s and 1980s were the worst for a wrist spinner when they were on the list of endangered species all over the cricketing world.

Recently, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have done well against the Sri Lankans and the Aussies in the middle overs.   -  AP

The shoe is finally on the other foot.

For years now, wrist spinners in India had to wonder what they had to do to get the selectors’ attention. After Anil Kumble’s last one day international (ODI) in 2007 till the end of 2015, a grand total of three wirst spinners had played for India in ODIs (not counting the batsmen-turned-part-timers, of course). In case you’re wondering about their names, they are Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma — who played a cumulative 55 ODIs in these eight-odd years. Spare a thought for poor ol’ Amit Mishra — the man with an ODI average of under 27, and the Indian with the most IPL wickets — but hardly got a chance to play against the big boys.

Player nameMatches playedWicketsBowling average
Amit Mishra284726.14
Piyush Chawla253234.90
Karn Sharma20-

Table above: List of Indian wrist spinners who played for India in the ODI format between 20th March 2007 and 31st December 2015.

Coincidentally, Indian badminton has experienced an upswing since 2007. Is this due to a case of young boys with powerful wrists taking up the game after being dissuaded by the fates of Indian wrist spinners unfolding on and off the field? Jokes aside, back then, it wasn’t a stretch to call Indian wrist spinners as second-class ODI citizens. Why, even during the peerless Anil Kumble’s playing career, after Harbhajan Singh burst on to the scene, the legend didn’t feature many times in the Indian team — missing 153 games in the process.

If one had switched on the television or an online stream to watch the latest ODI series featuring India, he/she would have certainly wondered what the fuss is all about. With Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal spinning a web against the Sri Lankans and the Aussies in the middle overs, the hard times faced by the practitioners of wrist spin seemed to be a distant memory; even forgotten, perhaps. However, old timers will note that the dark decades of the 1970s and 1980s were the worst for a wrist spinner when they were on the list of endangered species all over the cricketing world.

Spin bowling started losing favour in the early 1970s. John Snow headlined the 1970-71 and 1972 Ashes with Derek Underwood playing a parsimonious support act. A few years later, after losing Test matches against the Australians and Indians in the 1975-76 season, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies turned to build a four-man demolition squad of fast bowlers which would terrorise batsmen world over for more than a generation. Naturally, other teams followed suit with fast bowlers of their own; even India, who often opened with a gentle medium pacer before tossing the ball to the members of the spin quartet, had found Kapil Dev in the golden age of fast bowling. The ones to suffer from this fast bowling tilt were the spin bowlers, and the situation only turned from bad to worse during the subsequent decade of the 1980s.

Particularly, one of the most difficult cricketing skills to master — wrist spin — had few takers during the dark decades of the 1970s and 1980s when Pakistan's Abdul Qadir was fighting a lone battle to keep the art alive. Since wrist spin involves spinning the ball using a full flick of the wrist and fingers, it is notoriously difficult to control and even more difficult to master. Invariably, a wrist spinner would bowl a bad delivery every other over which would duly be dispatched to the boundary. Hence, they were often labelled as high risk options, especially with teams coming to grips with the ODI format where run containment was a premium. In the aforementioned time period of the 1970s and the 1980s, fast bowling was seen as the key to Test match success and spin was largely relegated to a defensive role; there were fears that wrist spin would totally disappear from the circuit. Batting skills against spin also took a backseat.

 Player nameMatchesWicketsBowling average
1Abdul Qadir5721632.31
2R. J. Shastri6914139.51
3Iqbal Qasim3213124.99
4J. E. Emburey5512039.65
5B. Yardley198928.64
6Tauseef Ahmed288729.57
7J. G. Bracewell358237.28
8Maninder Singh348138.8
9P. H. Edmonds337639.76
10D. R. Doshi237434.35
11N. S. Yadav267038.71
12S. L. Boock215735.22
13N. G. B. Cook155232.48
14R. J. Bright204641.13
15R. A. Harper244527.82
16N. D. Hirwani74220.71

Table above: List of spinners who captured the most Test wickets between 1st January 1980 and 31st December 1989.

The list of spin bowling wicket-takers in the trough of the 1980s tells the tale of wrist spinning gloom and doom. Ploughing a lonely furrow for the tribe of wrist spinners, the effervescent Abdul Qadir is perched firmly at the top with 216 wickets at a bowling average of 32.31; Ravi Shastri, with 141 victims off his left-arm-whatever at a bowling average of nearly 40, is next in the list. Fourteen more finger spinners dot the list after Abdul Qadir, before the next wrist spinner appears in this list, namely Narendra Hirwani — who snared 42 wickets (16 of them in one game). Finger spinners were dotting the team sheets with such regularity that drinking games involving their inevitable selection could have been invented.

Amit Mishra in action during the fifth ODI between India and New Zealand in Visakhapatnam in October 2016. Mishra has an ODI average of under 27 and the most IPL wickets, but has hardly got a chance to play against the big boys.   -  K. R. Deepak


The face of wrist spin would change with the emergence of Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed and co. in the 1990s. For nearly a decade and half, they bamboozled batsmen with their guile, control and variations. Shane Warne dragging Australia back from the dead in the 1999 World Cup semifinal and Anil Kumble bundling out six West Indians for 12 runs are fond memories of that era. Unfortunately, after their retirement, wrist spin went underground for a few years yet again. In the era of ODI cricket that followed the retirement of the various wrist spinning doyens, the field turned barren with captains choosing safety and miserly spinners of the orthodox and mystery variety. However, in what has been a pleasant twist, the art-form has seen a renaissance in recent times. The lessons from the slam-bang nature of T20 and the fielding restrictions in the middle overs of the ODIs (hitherto the "boring" part of the ODI) have turned the situation on its head.

Player nameMatchesWicketsBowling average
Imran Tahir436827.02
A. U. Rashid466832.05
A. Zampa274031.10
M. J. Santner404236.80
M. M. Ali422859.50

Table above: List of ODI spin bowlers with the best bowling averages since 1 April 2015, against the top nine ODI nations (minimum 25 wickets).

Since the 2015 World Cup, finger spinners have found the going tough in ODI cricket. The most successful spin bowlers since the last World Cup have all been wrist spinners (minimum of 25 wickets against the top nine ODI teams). In what has been a clear role reversal, New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner has been the only reasonably successful (if you can call it that) finger spinner at a bowling average of ~37. After getting drubbed in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, though a bit late to the game, it is no wonder that India turned to wrist spinners of their own.

This recent revival of wrist spin in ODIs has been due to a host of factors. One, pitches all over the world have been flat with the conditions being loaded in the favour of batsmen (the average score since 1st April 2015 has been 272 runs); fielding restrictions have only added fuel to the fire with fewer boundary riders in the middle overs — meaning, today’s batsmen are going hell for leather more than ever; factors such as dew — which are almost a given during day-night matches held in the sub-continent — make it more difficult for the finger spinner to thrive.

Therefore, in today’s times, the best antidote for aggressive batsmen (the majority of whom are right handers) is to impart more spin on the ball and take it away from their preferred hitting zones on the leg side. Funnily, wrist spin needed batting to evolve to current T20-fuelled ballistic levels and to be countered with a high risk, high reward bowling deterrent. With the spinning of the Powerplay wheel and a combination of other factors, wrist spinners are surviving and thriving by remaining relevant even on the dreariest of surfaces in the shorter formats. It is early days still, but following worldwide trends, Indian wrist spinners are perhaps no longer second-class ODI citizens.

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