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The role of spin bowlers in the World Cup: The early years

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Roar Guru
12th April, 2019

When the first ‘prudential’ World Cup started in 1975 very few of the teams had any meaningful preparation prior to the event.

There was confusion among many leading players – Sunil Gavaskar, for example – about the tactics and strategies involved in the new game. However, there was a unanimous view among the pundits about one thing: the spinners had little role to play in the limited-overs game.

This view was manifested in the extreme in the final at Lord’s, where not a single over was bowled by a spinner. Both teams picked four quickies each, and part-time medium pacers like Clive Lloyd, Greg Chappell and Doug Walters were used as the backup bowlers.

The semi-final match between England and Australia also saw no slow bowling, although in this case the venue (Headingley) had something to do with it as well. The only spin bowling in the knockout stages came from left-arm spinner Hedley Howarth, the brother of future New Zealand captain Geoff. He bowled four steady overs at the Oval.

Things improved only marginally in the next World Cup as Phil Edmonds earnt the honour of becoming the first spinner to play in a World Cup final. In direct contrast, the 1996 final saw four Sri Lanka spinners bowl 37 overs against Australia.

The role of spin bowlers in the limited-overs game changed drastically over the two decades from the first World Cup. In this article I will be focusing on the role played by the spinners in the first six tournaments between 1975 to 1996.

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England 1975
As stated earlier, fast bowlers were the dominant force in this event, and both Derek Underwood (England) and Ashley Mallet (Australia) were used sparingly by their teams. Even India, the great spinners hub, went into this event with only Bishen Bedi and Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan in the team, and only the latter-named played in the opening-day fixture against England.

In this scenario impressive performances from the spinners were rare and mostly came against the minnows. Howarth took 3-29 against East Africa and Bedi bowled a miserly spell against the Africans (12-8-6-1).

Gary Gilmour (Australia), Dayle Hadlee (New Zealand) and three West Indian quickies led the wicket-takers list.

England 1979
Yet again the bowling honours were mostly restricted to the quickies, with Mike Hendrik becoming the highest wicket-taker, taking ten victims. While the spinners struggled, even Asif Iqbal with his part-time slow-medium pacers took nine wickets.

Again there was very little to write about spin success in this event. Left-armer Edmonds did achieve the highly respectable figures of 12-2-40-2 in the final, but his first wicket came only after the tall Bajan had effectively ended the match as a contest.

Similarly, Viv Richards with his gentle off spinners took 3-52 in the semi-final against Pakistan, but they were cheap wickets as the Pakistan middle order was trying frantically to keep pace with rapidly rising asking run rates.


Perhaps the most significant contribution from a slow bowler in the event was by Somachandra De Silva, the Sri Lankan leggie. His 3-29 against India ensured the first ever ODI success for Sri Lanka, still an associate member nation.

West Indies' Viv Richards cuts the ball away during his record-breaking innings of 189 not out.

Vivian Richards (S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

England 1983
India won the World Cup in memorable fashion at Lord’s, but their bowling throughout the event was dominated by the medium pacers, with spinners Kirti Azad and Ravi Shastri playing the support role. Kirti Azad, a batsman-cum-off spinner, bowled just three overs in the final. His only noticeable effort came in the semi-final against England when he took 1-28 from 12 overs and, alongside medium pacer Mohinder Amarnath, completely stifled the English progress during the middle overs. The original plan was for the two to share the fifth bowler’s duty but they ended up bowling 24 economical overs together.

The West Indies, the beaten finalists, as usual depended on their quickies, with Larry Gomez and Viv Richards sharing the fifth bowler’s duty. England used Vic Marks, a containing rather than a wicket-taking off spinner. Still, he bowled intelligently to finish with 13 wickets. But the most impressive spin bowling came from elsewhere – Abdul Qadir made his ODI debut against New Zealand at Edgbaston.

Batting first, the Kiwis made good progress, with the openers putting on a half-century stand. Yet, the introduction of the leggie completely buffed them. They had no clue how to play him. John Wright; Bruce Edgar; big hitter Lance Cairns, who was promoted in the order; and skipper Geoff Howarth all perished as Qadir completed a remarkable spell with figures of 12-4-21-4. Later he scored 41* with the bat. Although the Pakistanis were badly beaten – their top three all got ducks – Qadir was the obvious choice for the man of the match.

He was man of the match again against Sri Lanka for taking 5-44. Chasing 236 for victory from 60 overs, the Lankans were well placed at 2-162 but then the magic of the Lahore leggie proved too much for them as they slumped to 224 all out.

He also bowled well against the West Indies in the semi-final and completely deceived Desmond Haynes to bowl him. But here the Pakistanis simply didn’t have enough runs on the board.

There was more success for the leggies as Somachandra De Silva had a memorable spell against the Kiwis, finishing with figures of 12-5-11-2. Sri Lanka won by three wickets, their only success in the event.


Elsewhere the Aussies still persisted with their idea that pace bowling is the way to go, but the ageing Lillian Thomson failed to impress. For new boys Zimbabwe, off spinner John Traicos bowled steadily, but like Vic Marks, he was a containing bowler.

Cricket ball generic

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

India and Pakistan 1987
The hosts, the sponsors, match duration – everything changed, and as the World Cup came to the Subcontinent, the spinners came to the forefront. All the teams gave greater attention to their spin attack, and it was quite appropriate that the fate of the final was effectively decided with Allan Border bowling left-arm spin and dismissing his opposite number, Mike Gatting, as the England captain attempted a poorly executed reverse sweep.

Although Pakistan, the pre-tournament favourites, failed to lift the trophy, Abdul Qadir again had a memorable tournament. Even well-set batsmen struggled against his magic – Tim Robinson getting out bowled for 33 at Rawalpindi was just a replay of Desmond Haynes at the Oval four years earlier. It seemed to me even the Pakistan keeper Saleem Yousuf often struggled to read Qadir.

India pinned their hopes on the two left-armers Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri. They bowled well in the group matches, but when Mike Gatting started a counter-attack in the semi-final, they failed to react properly. It seemed that they didn’t have any plan B. They started to bowl, flat targeting the middle and leg stump, and Graham Gooch took this opportunity to sweep his way to a matchwinning hundred. It wasn’t a great spectacle from the crowd’s point of view, but it carried great significance for his team.

England, on the other hand, had the two offies: John Emburey and Eddie Hemmings. AndIt was veteran Hemmings who became the hero here, taking a career-best 4-52 to take his side to the final. Hemmings, almost 40 at the time, had enjoyed a long county career with Nottinghamshire but rarely got the opportunity to play for England – in fact prior to the match at Mumbai his only significant contribution for England was scoring 95 after coming in to the wicket as a night watchman in the fifth Ashes Test at SCG in 1982-83. Even at county level he lived under the shadows of Sir Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice. But here he stole the limelight as the Indian lower order panicked under pressure.

Peter ‘Who’ Taylor started the World Cup as Australia’s main spinner but soon lost his place to young Tim May. May didn’t take many wickets but showed good temperament under pressure. Allan Border did an excellent job as a part-time left-arm spinner.

New Zealand came into the event with three frontline spinners – John Bracewell, Stephen Bock and Dipak Patel – but they failed to make much impression. For Zimbabwe, veteran John Traicos, leading the side this time, was his usual self, bowling steadily.


Just as the spinners started to play a bigger role in the limited-overs games, the batsmen also started to change their tactics against the slow bowlers. The 1987 World Cup saw frequent use of the sweep – both conventional and reverse – shot. Gooch swept almost everything on his way to a hundred against India, while Dave Houghton, the Zimbabwean wicketkeeper-batsman, used the reverse sweep to great effect against the New Zealand spinners. Less successful was Mike Gatting’s ill-fated attempt to reverse sweep in the big final at the Eden Gardens.

Also, while the spinners bowled much more regularly, the bowling leaderboard was still dominated by the quickies. Craig McDermott (18) and Imran Khan (17) were the two leading wicket-takers. Both picked up wickets regularly in the slog overs, bowling fast and straight. Maninder Singh came joint third, with Pat Patterson (West Indies) picking up 14 wickets each. Patterson from Jamaica impressed everyone despite bowling from a shorter run-up.

Australia and New Zealand 1992
Mushtaq Ahmed had taken over from Abdul Qadir as Pakistan’s leading leggie, and he featured prominently in the Pakistan success in the final, taking 3-41. But it was a little-known off spinner from New Zealand who emerged as the big surprise in this event. With his family originating from India but being born in Kenya, Dipak had a long county career with Worcestershire and was once considered as an England prospect. But eventually he represented New Zealand, and he had a modestly successful 1987 World Cup, but bowling with the new ball in the 1992 World Cup, he surprised many opposition batsmen.

In the opening fixture, as Australia started their chase of 249, Patel shared the new ball with Chris Cairns. It seemed that the idea was to keep David Boon quiet; the Tasmanian was very good in using the fast bowler’s pace to take advantage of the field restrictions. Interestingly, here Boon cracked a fine hundred before being run out, but neither he nor any other Aussie batsman could handle Patel properly as he finished with 1-36 from ten overs.

Many of us thought that this was a one-off experiment – indeed in the next match against Sri Lanka fast bowlers Danny Morrison and Willie Watson shared the new ball – but Patel was back with the new-ball duty against South Africa, taking 1-28. He continued to use the new ball successfully throughout the event as none of the opposition openers seemed prepared for this novelty.


Mushtaq Ahmed with 16 wickets was joint second with Ian Botham in the wicket-takers list. Wasim Akram took 18 wickets. Mushtaq’s effort is especially impressive given that the injury to Waqar Younus had put extra pressure on him. Imran used him as a wicket-taking bowler, frequently giving him an attacking field.

In direct contrast, the English team seemed to stick to the age-old strategy of using a slow bowler as a defensive weapon. That’s why they went for Richard Illingworth over Phil Tufnell in the final. Tufnell was a poor fielder and a real rabbit with the bat, but as a bowler he had far greater wicket-taking potential than Illingworth.

In the final, Illingworth bowled steadily, taking 1-50 from ten overs. But the feeling was that there was not enough pressure on the Pakistan batting during the middle overs as Javed Miandad and Imran Khan rebuilt the innings. The experts, Sunil Gavaskar in particular, were highly critical of the negative tactics by the English.

India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka 1996
For the first time in World Cup history two world-class spinners faced each other in the final. Mutiah Muralitharan led the Sri Lanka attack while Shane Warne was in the opposition camp. It was the Sri Lankan spinner who came out on top here. He was his usual miserly self, conceding just 31 runs to take one wicket. Interestingly, his only victim was Warne, who he had stumped by the keeper.

Other spinners supported Murali well, with part-time spinner Aravinda De Silva taking 3-42 in nine overs. Overall the Sri Lankan spinners bowled 37 overs among themselves, and although the Aussies at one stage reached 1-137, they never managed to gain momentum and at the end were restricted to 7-241. Sri Lanka easily reached their target with De Silva leading the charge.

Shane Warne bowls

Shane Warne (Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Anil Kumble (India) emerged as the top wicket-taker in this World Cup, with 15 victims. But he disappointed in the semi-final at Eden Gardens. With the Sri Lankan openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana smashing the opposition pacers with ease, the Indian game plan was for Anil Kumble to share the new ball. But the Sri Lanka openers both perished in the opening over and it was De Silva, one of the finest players of spin bowling, who handled Kumble’s bowling with ease. Perhaps the Indian captain should have changed his plan after the double success in the first over.

The most interesting display of slow bowling came from the West Indies, previously the hub for fast bowling talents. In the quarter-final match against South Africa at the National Stadium in Karachi, three West Indies spinners bowled 26 overs among themselves. Earlier, a fine hundred by Brian Lara had helped the West Indies reach 8-264, which was very respectable in those days.


In reply the South African top order started well but failed to dominate the slow bowlers. Roger Harper, in the twilight of his career, took 4-47. Jimmy Adams took 3-53 with his left-arm spin. Kieth Arthurton bowled six overs, taking 1-29.

It should be mentioned that many commentators, Geoffrey Boycott among them, described Arthurton’s bowling as left-arm slow rather than left-arm spin. He would bowl around the wicket and bowl flat, targeting the middle and leg stump with little attempt to turn the ball. The idea was to give the batsmen minimal opportunity to free their arms. Also, because he bowled fairly quickly, the sweep shot became a bit risky. Recently I have seen Shakib use this type of bowling in limited-overs games.

So in about two decades there was a big change in the role of slow bowlers. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing which spinners come to the forefront in the upcoming World Cup. I would like to hear the views of the Roarers in this regard. I have a feeling that Adam Zampa might emerge as a surprise package for the Aussies.