When T20 cricket was in its infancy more than a decade ago, there was a feeling that the format might sound the death knell for spin bowling. Questions were raised about whether spinners could survive in the era of big bats, small boundaries and flat pitches.
Cricket was changing and so was the mindset. The shortest format of the game posed a huge challenge for the spinners: not just how to survive, but how to succeed. Well, it took them some time to get into the groove, but spinners have become a crucial component in T20 cricket today. They are not only thriving but also succeeding amidst the carnage and onslaught. And the one breed of spinners that has stood out from the rest is the leg-spinner.
Mastering leg spin is difficult, yet it remains one of the most bewitching arts in cricket, and in the third T20I against England at the M Chinnaswamy stadium, Amit Mishra and Yuzvendra Chahal provided the perfect reason why leg-spinners were such a sight to behold.
The two leg-spinners plotted and executed England's downfall with rhythm, guile and aplomb. Chahal went on to record the best figures by an Indian bowler in T20Is. It was one of the many leg spin success stories in the recent times. The impact of the art has been immense in the shortest format. In the last 12 months, leg-spinners have dominated T20Is, averaging an impressive 19.52 runs per wicket at a strike rate of 17.46 – the best among all varieties of spinners. Three of the top five bowlers in ICC's T20I rankings are leg-spinners – Imran Tahir (No 1), Samuel Badree (No 3) and Rashid Khan of Afghanistan (No 5).
So what makes leg-spinners such a lethal force in the shortest format of the game? The one word that you repeatedly hear from players and experts is aggression.
"Leg-spinners are an aggressive variety, they always have to look for wickets, because that's the category of bowling to them," former India batsman and Tamil Nadu coach VB Chandrashekhar tells Firstpost. "Whereas the off-spinners and left-arm spinners are generally the ones who protect the runs, we don't rely on them so much to pick up wickets. A leg-spinner becomes a wicket-taking option; people will have to take chances against them."
Wickets, wickets and more wickets is the mantra for leg-spinners. Their aggressive approach fetches wickets and that too in abundance and that automatically applies the brakes on scoring.
"Leg-spinners are attacking as compared to the rest," Chahal tells Firstpost. "They do get hit sometime but they get wickets too. If you see the leg-spinners that perform well, they generally take wickets in a heap, like three-four of them," Chahal adds.
With aggression comes the risk of leaking runs. T20s can force a bowler to change his approach in really quick time, for the need of damage-limitation, especially when a batsman decides to go berserk. But the key to success is to be fearless.
"T20 is a game of fours and sixes. If a leg-spinner is fearless, bowls stump-to-stump, and if a batsman looks to go for a big shot, then there are high chances of getting him out," Mumbai leg-spinner Pravin Tambe, who had also been part of the Rajasthan Royals and Gujarat Lions in the Indian Premier League (IPL), tells Firstpost. "In T20s, if a leg-spinner looks to survive, then he gets more pounding. The percentage chance of a leg-spinner getting wickets is always high," he adds.
In all the three T20Is against England, Chahal was hit for a six off the very first ball of his spell. However, he managed to scalp a wicket in the same over in two of the three matches, and that too by taking the riskier route of pitching the ball further up. The more he bowled fuller the more he was praised by Mahendra Singh Dhoni from behind the stumps. This is where mindset becomes an important aspect in T20s.
"I knew that if I am bowling in the powerplay, I may go for runs and get wickets too. What I wanted to do was, if I am going for runs, I wanted to cover it up by taking wickets," says Chahal.
"His (Chahal's) mindset was so good, one has to be brave to be bowling in that first six overs. He keeps it very simple and believes in his own strengths. He doesn't complicate things. He has the heart to bowl in the powerplay. In spite of getting hit for six off the first ball, he still persisted and went on to get those six wickets (in the final match) which is fantastic," says former India and Mumbai leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule.
And it's this positive mindset that has helped Chahal succeed so far.
"I have been doing well since the start, so I have confidence in myself and self belief. I am bowling my variations with confidence. This makes a lot of difference," Chahal adds.
While leg-spinners tend to do well in this format, it's only the good ones who survive over a period of time. A good leg-spinner is not one who is simply creative, but one who can produce turn consistently on any pitch and have a good control over the line and length.
The science of wrist spin forms the foundation for a leg-spinner's success. When a leg break is delivered, the wrist action imparts a lot of revolutions on the ball, far more than what the finger spinners do. That allows the ball to drift towards the leg side of a right-handed batsman, and aerodynamics dictates that the ball dips earlier and faster. So a batsman looking to hit straight down the ground ends up hitting across the line, thereby creating an opportunity for a wicket.
"Wrist spinners are going to be more effective in terms of getting turn out of the pitch. If the off-spinner gets four inches turn, the leg-spinner is bound to get six to eight inches. The difference in turn and deviation is the big difference," says former India spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan.
"A leg-spinner gets a lot of swerve in the air and dip. With swerve and dip, it becomes that much more difficult to strike them or there is far more possibility of making mistakes," Chandrashekhar adds.
It's not just in T20Is, even in the domestic franchise-based T20 leagues around the world, leg-spinners have had a significant impact. In this season's Big Bash League (BBL), the leg-spinners - eight of them - have outperformed their counterparts in every department.
In the last three seasons of the IPL, the leg-spinners have been the go-to men for the captains.
The 2014 World T20 first brought the importance of leg-spinners to the fore, with Tahir, Badree and Mishra ruling the roost. Three of the top five wicket-takers in the tournament were leg-spinners. They averaged a staggering 14.35 with a brilliant strike rate of 16.13 and a relatively low economy rate of 6.75. Their success continued in the 2016 edition of the showpiece event. The two editions saw a total of 22 leg-spinners – 42 percent of the entire spinner strength.
What gives the leg-spinners an edge over the other kinds of spinners is the variety at their disposal: leg break, flipper, googly and top spinner. Well, there might be an argument that even off-spinners have had variations in the form of a 'doosra' and 'carrom ball', but most of those spinners have stopped bowling the variations following the ICC clampdown on chucking and this has provided a further success route for the leg-spinners. The variations help them to be multidimensional.
"The leg-spinner has more varieties to bowl in this format and that makes a huge difference," says Bahutule. "The white ball, depending on the pitch, sometimes turns more or skids through quicker. So the batsman has to really read the variations from the hand. He has to think twice and make two decisions - to pick it and then to hit it. That much time is not available in a T20 game. This is where a leg-spinner holds an added advantage," he adds.
What stood out in Chahal's bowling against England was his control over the length and variations. It was through these variations that he plotted the dismissal of England captain Eoin Morgan in the third T20I of the series in Bengaluru. Joe Root and Morgan had stitched together a 64-run run stand and Morgan was looking dangerous with 39 from 18 balls when Indian captain Virat Kohli brought back Chahal in the 14th over.
A googly wide outside off forced Morgan to go for a swipe across the line and he was caught at deep mid-wicket off a top edge. A crucial wicket at a critical juncture. Throughout the series, the England batsmen had found it difficult to pick Chahal's googlies and Morgan was one of them. According to Cricviz, Chahal bowled eight googlies, gave away just six runs off them and picked up two wickets. The dismissal of Morgan was well-planned, as Chahal would reveal to Firstpost.
"We had planned in the nets to bowl outside off, because hitting from that area is a bit difficult. If Morgan comes out, according to the situation, I had planned that I will bowl a googly outside the off stump," Chahal says.
"Every leg-spinner always has a googly as a stock delivery in his armoury," says Tambe. "It's an advantage because it sows seeds of doubt in the left-handed batsmen – 'Kahi ye ball googly na ho aur maarne jaounga to top edge na ho jaaye." (If this ball is a googly and I go for a big shot, I might get a top edge) And in that double mind, he might gift you a wicket, that's where a leg-spinner is more effective than a left-arm spinner," he adds.
The one thing that can make leg-spinners even more dangerous is the development and use of the the top spinner. Most modern day leg-spinners don't have a top spinner. They look to bowl the slider because even a flipper is a difficult ball to bowl. Only some of the greats like Shane Warne and Anil Kumble managed to utilise it to good effect. A leg-spinning delivery can be hit inside out over cover, a googly can be hit over mid-wicket with the turn, but a top spinner goes straight on with extra bounce, and if you try to slog on either side, you will get a top edge. It's a killer variation.
One aspect on which Sivaramakrishnan stresses the most is control. It is the the most difficult part for a spinner, especially a leg-spinner.
"Only if you have control over the deliveries you bowl, will you be able to control the batsman and get his wickets and once you get wickets, you can control the situation. Controlling the situation and controlling the batsman will arise out of control of your bowling. That is interlinked," the former India tweaker says.
The fact that Chahal bowled 64 percent (46 out of 72) of his deliveries on the length area in the England series was a testament to the immense control he possessed in his bowling. He bowled just two short deliveries in the entire series. That development of control needs a lot of hard work and practice. And this is where domestic and first class cricket plays a crucial role.
"The leg-spinners should not be exposed too much to T20 straightaway," says Bahutule. "Once they get their basics and art strengthened then they can be put in that arena of T20. Chahal has played for Haryana, Mishra has played Tests, so now they have developed that art and they know exactly what they are doing. They are confident about their ability and skill now. That makes a huge difference when bowling in the shortest format," Bahutule says.
Chahal has spoken about the importance of the first class experience, but Bahutule also went on to stress the value of a trusting captain to a leg-spinner.
"It (first class cricket) gives you a good feeling," says Chahal. "When you have played Ranji, IPL and India A matches, it gives you the confidence. I had done well (in those) and that gave me a lot of self belief. That helped me in the England series," the Haryana leg-spinner adds.
"The captain is extremely important for a leg-spinner, says Bahutule. "He is the one who can make or break him. He knows that the leggie might be hit for a few runs, but at the same time he might give you those two important wickets also. The faith and confidence that Virat showed in Chahal by giving him the ball in first six overs was immense, he knew that he (Chahal) might be hit, in fact he was hit in the first ball, but he believed in him and still persisted with him."
Kohli has in a way instilled that fearless approach in the spinners.
"Virat bhai has always given me the freedom," Chahal says. He said, "khul ke ball dalo, agar six, four lage to tension nahi lena (Bowl with open heart, don't be tense if you are hit for a four or six). And that gives you confidence because there is no pressure, neither from Mahi bhaiya, nor Virat, nor the coaches. Hence I can express myself fully and I have that confidence," Chahal adds.
The last three six-fors in T20s have all been picked up by leg-spinners: Adam Zampa in IPL 2016, Ish Sodhi in BBL 2017 and Chahal in the England T20I series. In the last one year, just two teams have used two leg-spinners together in a match - Afghanistan and India. Looking at the data, it is quite clear that the leg-spinners can certainly change results and make things happen and it won't be a surprise if more teams employ a two-leg spinner strategy often, going forward. And while most IPL franchises have retained their leg-spinners, the ones that have been released and the newcomers might be high in demand in the upcoming auction.
With stats inputs from Cricviz, Sampath Bandarupalli and Umang Pabari.