In the modern age of uber-talented batsmen relentlessly unfurling scoops, sweeps and slogs to pepper boundaries, there is one rare art that still proves a bowling attack’s great equaliser in one-day international cricket.
A quality leg-spinner is, and always will be, worth their weight in gold, the craftsman who can bamboozle and stem the tide that increasingly dictates the flow of an international limited-overs encounter. Their ability to operate at multiple stages of an innings, easing the burden on seamers tasked with facing ever-more-skilled batsmen armed only with two new balls that don’t often reach the point of reverse swing, is as critical as it is desperately sought.
In previous eras, wrist-spin was the scarcest of skills, that mysterious knack bestowed upon only the gifted few. Come this summer, however, it will be showcased like never before, with 12 operating at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup and only two teams – Bangladesh and West Indies – not unleashing a frontline option.
Of those, one of the most exciting is Pakistan’s 20-year-old Shadab Khan, a bundle of tricks and treats who boasts 47 wickets across 34 games at a tick over 29. But just why are he and contemporaries such as England’s Adil Rashid – who has taken more wickets than any bowler since the previous World Cup – so difficult to face?
“Because wrist-spinners spin every way,” Shadab tells the ICC. “If there is spin there it’s very difficult to play if you bowl in good areas, and it’s very difficult to play on any surface. That’s why it’s important. With a leg-spinner, yes you may score runs, but he is a wicket-taker. You’re always looking for wickets so that’s why we’re always in the game.”
With run rates above six an over now almost a formality in most encounters, the task of bowling groups has evolved, from control to conquer. The weight of runs may be impossible to stop, but chipping in with wickets can at least manage the damage.
“It’s a very important role,” says Shadab. “With batting [friendly] tracks the par score will be 300 so, if you take wickets in the middle overs, you have a good chance to win games. On these batting surfaces we have to take wickets, otherwise they’ll score 350-plus, so if you take the wickets you can contain them under 300. To contain them under 300 is very good.”
Such is the depth of tweakers in the tournament that there could even be some internal competition among the likes of Shadab and Rashid. For Pakistan’s star, however, merely being on the field is a relief, having missed the five-match one-day international series against England through illness. After coming through 10 overs in the warm-up game versus Afghanistan, he feels fresh and ready to fire. “I feel better,” he says. “I’m in very good rhythm. I practised one or two days and bowled very well yesterday so I’m good.”
His return is a welcome one for Pakistan, who followed up a 4-0 loss to England with a warm-up defeat against Afghanistan. Their final pre-World Cup practice, against Bangladesh, was abandoned due to rain. But Shadab has no doubts a team renowned for being able to deliver on the big stage – as evidenced by their Champions Trophy victory on these shores two years ago – will be ready when the showpiece commences.
“In the England series,” he adds, “every game we were close. In the crunch situation we didn’t win but we played very good cricket, competitive cricket. Our batting is in good form, our bowling hasn’t performed so far but, if you take one or two wickets, then they can slip up.”
Tasked with delivering those scalps will be their young twirler, the leg-spinning X-factor capable of altering the course of bat-dominated occasions.