Originally for The Sight Screen
Spin has rarely been given the importance it deserves in Pakistan Cricket. From the time when that most wily of operators, Sarfraz Nawaz, discovered the “dark art” of reverse swing, fast bowling has ruled the roost in this speed-obsessed part of the world. Everyone from the determined club cricketer to the eight-year old just starting to fall obsessively in love with the game wants to do one thing and one thing alone…bowl FAST!
Imran’s rise as the brand ambassador of the Pakistan School of Pace coupled with the advent of the two W’s, meant that spin always played second fiddle to the dazzling powers of pace. It was not as though Pakistan suffered from a dearth of spinners; this, after all, is the land that gave birth to Abdul Qadir, mentor to none other than the great Shane Warne. It is home to Mushtaq Ahmed, a World Cup winning leggie and Wisden Cricketer of the year at a time when both Murali and Warne were in their prime, and who can leave out the creative genius of Saqlain Mushtaq, the man who revolutionized off-spin with a simple flick of his wrist. These are all masters of their trade, yet don’t get nearly the same amount of mention as some of their fast-bowling compatriots. The reasons are many and open for debate, but what is certain is the rapidity of the turning tide in favor of oft-forgotten spin. Gone are the days when spin was looked on as only a second resort, for off late it has proven to be the most potent weapon in the Pakistani bowling arsenal.
Mohammad Hafeez became the first spinner in the history of Pakistan Test Cricket to open the bowling earlier this year, capping off what has been a remarkable year for Pakistani spinners. Three of them- Ajmal, Afridi and Hafeez- find themselves in the top ten ODI bowlers’ list, with Ajmal also leading the Test wicket-takers’ tally in 2011. Nobody expected such a massive turnaround after the Lords 2010 debacle, when in the form of Mohammads Asif and Amir, Pakistan lost the core of its bowling unit. In the aftermath of that loss, many would have understandably assumed the bowling unit to be devoid of a strike force. However, to do so would have been to ignore the sheer resilience and guile buttressing the ranks of Pakistan’s spin department.
The numbers make for some startling reading: In the 24 ODI games where the trio of Hafeez, Afridi and Ajmal have taken the field together, Pakistan has come out on top 15 times. Over the same period, the spinners have taken over 70% of the scalps and bowled nearly 60% of the overs. More importantly, they have achieved all this at a click under 4.0 RPO, with Hafeez bowling at a miserly 3.46.
Moving from colors to whites and replacing Afridi with Rehman, the numbers continue to be striking. Pakistan has only lost one out of the six tests when all three spinners have played. Even in that solitary loss, the spinners averaged an eye-catching 13. Overall in these battles, the slower bowlers have shared nearly 80% of the spoils and collectively averaged around the 23 mark. Contrast this with Umar Gul’s unenviable average of 42 in the same games, and it puts Pakistan’s reliance on spin into even harsher perspective.
Of course, playing predominantly on slow surfaces during this time frame has meant less assistance to the seamers, but that should not detract from the achievements of the spinners. The beauty of the current Pakistani spin set lies in its effectiveness regardless of conditions.
In Ajmal, Pakistan possesses quite simply the best spinner in the world. With his unrelenting variation and ability to befuddle even the likes of India, there are few that could disagree with that tag. Mohammad Hafeez is a cunning campaigner, whose deadly drift into the left-handers, accuracy in drying up the runs, and versatility to both open and close the bowling, make him an invaluable part of the side. It should surprise no one that since his return to Pakistan colors, in games where he has been allowed to bowl out his full quota of 10, the team has won a mind boggling 12 out of 14 ODIs.
Then there is of course, Shahid Afridi, consistently Pakistan’s best-limited overs bowler over the past three years. His ascent as a bowler after spending some fruitful time in the tutelage of Qadir in early 2008 has been meteoric. A spinner reborn, he has since bowled with a confidence befitting his magnetic personality. With Afridi’s rise and star-spangled celebration has come a fan following never witnessed by a Pakistani spinner. He was, to put it in celebrity terms, “big” before, but pundits would have been justified in questioning whether his performance merited the fanfare. No such questions can be raised now, as Afridi deploys his skiddy sliders and fast leg-breaks to repeatedly bamboozle his opponents into cutting and chopping themselves to their own demise.
In some ways, the duo of Younis Khan and Intikhab Alam (the latter a pretty handy orthodox spinner himself) are to be thanked for this resurgence in spin. It was under their management that the seeds were first sown for the spin-strangulation strategy that we see applied so efficiently by the team today. The triumph at the T20 World Cup in England should have been followed by a successful run, were it not for some crucial dropped chances at the Champions Trophy; it did, however, see the Pakistani spinners come into their own.
The recent powerplay rule change and a switch to using two new-balls, have both played their part as well. With extra fielders inside the inner ring, and a newish ball that suits both Hafeez and Afridi’s styles of bowling, the Pakistani spinners have been allowed to exert a stranglehold on opposition batsmen. Ones and twos, easily available previously due to a lack of a captain making aggressive field placements, have been converted to valuable dots. This in turn has led to pressure building up, with the subsequent poor shot selection, delivering those crucial breakthroughs that have become the hallmark of Pakistan’s limited-overs game. No longer is the middle period just a transition between the wearing new ball and the onslaught at the death. The Pakistani slow bowlers have transformed it into an action-packed segment of the match, where the contest is either tantalizingly set-up or most often just finished off.
The fact that current Pakistani supporters would much rather lick their lips at the prospect of an Ajmal or Afridi spell, compared to say an opening burst by Gul, is evidence enough of how the spinners have captured the fans’ fancy. Given the aggressive nature of the spin trifecta, the sheer aura of Afridi and the weaving magic of Ajmal, it wouldn’t be surprising if that eight-year old were to pick up a ball today and give it a real rip for a change.
Originally for The Sight Screen