It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Steve Smith’s absence was enough for England’s victory at Headingley to be a fait accompli.
In the 2015 World Cup the top seven wicket-takers were all quick bowlers.
The stats reflect a tournament that was remembered, at least on a bowling front, for raw pace: Mitchell Starc was man of the tournament, Trent Boult’s in-swingers were devastating and Wahab Riaz’s spell to Shane Watson in Adelaide lives long in the memory.
The pace-dominated stats weren’t merely down to Australia’s bouncier decks – in fact it was a trend that continued throughout the 12 months. In the calendar year of 2015 just one spinner (Imran Tahir) squeezed inside the top-ten ODI wicket-takers. Fifty-over cricket was a paceman’s domain four years ago, as it had been for the decades preceding it.
Fast forward to 2018, however, and a rapid shift has seen the stats completely flipped, so much so that last year eight of the top ten ODI wicket-takers were spinners. As a result, the mindset for the upcoming World Cup has changed. Make no mistake, the side with the best-performing spinners, in particular wrist spinners, will go three-quarters of the way to taking the trophy home.
The evolution of wrist spinners as key white-ball weapons has been sudden and, for the purists, satisfying. The nuance that players like Rashid Khan and Imran Tahir bring to the game moves the contest away from merely bowling fast and swinging hard. Further, it has brought another dimension to the previously monotonous middle overs. Where once overs 15-40 were seen as a drain on ODI cricket that needed fixing, they’re now seen as the period where the game is largely won.
Aaron Finch touched on the importance of such overs earlier this year. “I think if you look at stats around the world, the majority of teams’ powerplays are pretty similar, and the majority of teams’ back ten overs are pretty similar as well. So it’s just those middle overs (that differentiate sides),” he said.
As such, it was no surprise to see Australia draft in young gun leggies Lloyd Pope and Mitchell Swepson to its World Cup training camp. Set to face the likes of Khan and Tahir plus Adil Rashid, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Ish Sodhi, the Aussies need as much practice against wrist spinners as possible.
Australia’s first opponent at the World Cup, Afghanistan, boast the highest (Khan) and fourth-highest (Mujeeb Ur Rahman) ODI wicket-takers in 2018. Add to the mix the miserly Mohammad Nabi, and the opening clash is by no means a gimme.
For the Aussies, Adam Zampa’s strong recent form is a huge plus. Add to the mix the experience of Nathan Lyon, and they boast stock that can at least compete with the best.
While Test wickets in England offer assistance to the seamers, one-day wickets generally don’t. It’s for that reason variations through the air become a crucial asset. English wickets will also dry out as the tournament progresses, something we saw when England and Wales hosted the 2017 Champions Trophy, aiding the spinners.
“I think spin will play a huge part in this World Cup,” Finch said last week.
“The English wickets are a bit drier than people think, and the white ball doesn’t swing a huge amount. Once the wickets dry out towards the end of the tournament, (spin) will be a big factor.”
He also stressed that putting a blanket over ‘English wickets’ is simplistic, and that run-fests likely at Trent Bridge, for example, will contrast with the spin-friendly decks at Old Trafford.
“I think there will be high scores, but that will be ground dependant, not so much a tournament characteristic.”
Last year England played host to two ODI series, against India and Australia. The top two wicket-takers in both those series were spinners. In the Australian series Rashid and Moeen Ali (both 12 wickets) were some way ahead of the next best (eight wickets). It’s an indication of what we’re likely to see in 21 days when the World Cup kicks off, because this time, more than ever before, it’s spin to win.