In the history of international cricket, no player has done more for wrist-spin than Shane Warne. The Australian took a staggering 1,001 wickets during his career from 1992 to 2007.

During that era, the only other noteworthy wrist spinners going around were Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed, Paul Strang, Upul Chandana and Paul Adams.

Warne, with his flashy ways, did his best to make the art fashionable, but since it’s quite a difficult skill to master and can often lead to runs being leaked, teams often hesitated in playing wrist spinners.

And once these players called time on their respective careers, the impact of wrist spinners in international cricket steadily declined.

In the 2015 ICC World Cup, a total of three out-and-out wrist spinners featured among the 14 teams that participated – Yasir Shah (Pakistan), Imran Tahir (South Africa) and Tafadzwa Kamungozi (Zimbabwe).

But ahead of the upcoming World Cup in England, where just ten teams will participate, there are as many as 14 wrist spinners playing international cricket.

While there wasn’t a single left-arm wrist spinner back at the 2015 World Cup, there could be three this time around. During this four-year period, three out of the top five ODI wicket-takers have been leggies.

Wrist spinners likely to play in the 2019 WC

Countries Players
India Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav
Pakistan Shadab Khan, Yasir Shah
Australia Adam Zampa
Sri Lanka Lakshan Sandakan (Left-arm)
Bangladesh None
England Adil Rashid
West Indies Devendra Bishoo
South Africa Imran Tahir, Tabraiz Shamsi (Left-arm)
New Zealand Ish Sodhi
Afghanistan Rashid Khan, Qais Ahmad, Zahir Khan (Left-arm)

The middle overs of an ODI innings, after the first Powerplay and before the last, is often a time when the game simply ambles along. The batting team looks to consolidate the innings, setting up the base for some big-hitting at the end.

Since the past few years, though, the bowling team has started to attack in the middle overs. There’s a clear logic in trying to take wickets when the batsmen are looking to play within themselves, and the chief weapon for a captain at that time is invariably a spinner, especially one who tends to toss it up (four out of the top five ODI wicket-takers among spinners since the 2015 World Cup are leggies).

Top ODI wicket-takers since 2015 World Cup

Player Innings Average Wickets
Adil Rashid (ENG) 72 28.92 125
Rashid Khan (AFG) 54 15.00 123
Trent Boult (NZ) 54 24.59 107
Kagiso Rabada (SA) 64 26.71 103
Imran Tahir (SA) 58 27.26 90

In white-ball cricket, where batsmen are always searching for the boundary, it’s fascinating to see how wrist spinners have evolved over the years. Finger spinners will always have more control on their deliveries but in their quest of keeping things tight, they often close all doors to getting a wicket.

Wrist spinners, on the other hand, are thriving in this day and age of slam-bang cricket. Sure, there’ll be that odd delivery that drops too short or turns into a full-toss, but their courage to flight the ball and entice the batsmen has turned them into match-winners.

In an email interview with Scroll.in, Warne, one of the greatest bowlers the game has ever seen, shares his thoughts on the challenges a wrist spinner faces. The 49-year-old isn’t surprised by how the art he once mastered has grown in the recent past.

Excerpts:

In 1993, you bowled what’s widely known as the ball of the century. That one delivery showed the world what wrist spin was truly capable of and that art hasn’t looked back since. What made you take up wrist spin as a kid?

Growing up, I played at a club called East Sandringham Boys Cricket Club. We had a matting wicket, so if someone bowled spin, it was accentuated. The ball would bounce a lot more, it would spin a lot more. There was a senior out there who bowled both off and leg spin and really spun the ball a lot, which intrigued me. I used to like watching him bowl, I used to like watching Abdul Qadir bowl on the television. I was fascinated by how they could do it. So I decided to try it out myself and luckily enough, I was okay.

You could bowl six different deliveries in an over. Take us through your variations. How difficult was it for you to develop them?

Most of the time I just bowled a leg-break. I didn’t bowl much else. But I did have a wrong ‘un, a top-spinner, a flipper, a slider, a zooter, and a back-spinner. Plus the leg-break, with different versions of it. So I could bowl six different balls but I’d only do that if there was a huge partnership happening and we were desperate to get a wicket. If we were doing well and I was bowling well, I wouldn’t mix it up too much. I’d just be bowling hardly-spun leg-breaks with an aggressive field, trying to knock over batsmen by having more patience than them.

Since it’s such a difficult skill, wrist spinners often get hit. How did you cope with that and not let it affect your plans?

Every bowler, especially a spinner, is going to get hit for runs. If you try to fight that and worry about that, then you have a negative and defensive mindset. If you have an aggressive mindset and don’t worry about the runs, it’s amazing how many more wickets you take. Easy to say and harder to do, but the sooner you can stop worrying about the runs, the better-off you’ll be.

Rajasthan Royals
Rajasthan Royals

Each format of the game poses a challenge of its own. How did your approach change from Tests, to ODIs, to T20s?

I found one-day and T20 cricket easier to bowl in. Because everyone was trying to smash you out of the park, which you knew and kept fielders for at the boundary. So I found it easier to bowl in the shorter formats. I found Test cricket a lot harder. As a bowler you’re sort of expected to get whacked around in one-day and T20 cricket. So if you did well, you’re a genius. If you got smashed, well, that’s what’s expected to happen.

How do you think the art of wrist spin has evolved from the 2015 World Cup to the upcoming one?

I think at the moment batsmen are worried about wrist spinners in the middle overs. And that’s what a spinner’s job is in the middle overs. If they can take wickets at that time, the team batting first will end up just trying to bat out the overs and post a decent score. So the spinners have got such a big role during that period. I think a wrist spinner has evolved into a more attacking weapon rather than just a fifth bowler.

You have young wrist spinners coming up to you for advice all the time. What do you think is the one constant thing you talk to them about?

I love it when leg spinners want to have a chat and come up to me. The one thing I always talk to them about is being aggressive, attacking, and trying to spin the ball as hard and far as they can. If they do that, I say they’ll do pretty well. As soon as they start bowling to defend runs and stop thinking about wickets, they’ll find themselves in trouble.

There is a wrist spinner in almost every international team at the moment. This, of course, wasn’t the case during your time. What are your thoughts on this change?

To see so many leg-spinners now and to see captains rely on them for winning games is just great. All the teams want a leg-spinner, and most of them have one now. It warms my heart to see so many of them.

Top wicket-takers among spinners since 2015 WC

Player Type Innings Average (Wickets)
Adil Rashid (ENG) Right-arm wrist spinner 72 28.92 (125)
Rashid Khan (AFG) Right-arm wrist spinner 54 15.00 (123)
Imran Tahir (SA) Right-arm wrist spinner 58 27.26 (90)
Kuldeep Yadav (IND) Left-arm wrist spinner 42 21.74 (87)
Mohammad Nabi (AFG) Right-arm off-spinner 57 26.90 (73)
Yuzvendra Chahal (IND) Right-arm wrist spinner 40 24.61 (72)
Graeme Cremer (ZIM) Right-arm wrist spinner 52 30.24 (66)
Mitchell Santner (NZ) Left-arm orthodox 55 34.71 (63)
Moeen Ali (ENG) Right-arm off-spinner 65 49.70 (57)
Shakib Al Hasan (BAN) Left-arm orthodox 46 34.26 (57)

You captained the Rajasthan Royals to the Indian Premier League title in the T20 tournament’s inaugural season. Now, you’re the brand ambassador for the franchise. What’s your assessment of the RR squad for IPL 2019?

This is the strongest squad Rajasthan Royals have ever put together. Everybody involved with the franchise, including myself, will be disappointed if we don’t reach the playoffs. Because with the squad we have, with all the players available for the first 11 games - Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Steve Smith - we have so many match-winners in there. Combine those players with the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Sanju Samson, Jaydev Unadkat, Krishnappa Gowtham, and more, we end up with a terrific team. We also have great backup foreign players. So I think the Rajasthan Royals can win it this year. I’m expecting big things, and I’m sure everyone’s tipping us as the favourites.

Any new player you’re most excited about from the Royals?

There have been some terrific signings, some great young prospects. But I think Ashton Turner is someone I’m really excited about. The way he played against India recently - in a pressure situation, in only his second One-Day International, pushing for a World Cup spot, trying to level the series - was just pure class. So I think his is a name people will remember.