Legspin's renaissance at T20 fest
Considered the toughest skill and one that has been marginalised in recent years for being extravagant in modern cricket, legspin has fought back, finding enough practitioners to make a serious return to the big stage through this World T20. Eight of the 16 participating teams have employed legspin with varying degrees of success, and the spinners have shown just how different one can be from another.
The spotlight has been on Imran Tahir, Amit Mishra and Samuel Badree, three men in their 30s, from distinctive backgrounds, who have trod difficult paths through their careers. In this tournament, they have brought their teams success, regularly troubling batsmen with variations of trajectory, pace, bounce, and of course, turn.
Between them, they have bowled during every pressure point in their teams' matches, especially the first six overs, with field restrictions, and the last few overs of wildly swinging bats.
Four other teams have been happy to use legspinners as well, with less impressive results. Pakistan have always relied upon Shahid Afridi's verve while Australia tried their luck with James Muirhead and were somewhat vindicated by the 20-year old's promise. There has even been one mighty performance from little-known Nizakat Khan of Hong Kong, while Afghanistan's Samiullah Shenwari and the Zimbabwean pair of Tafadzwa Kamungozi and Natsai Mushangwe were expected to be more effective. Their inclusions and importance within the bowling attack says much about how legspin has regained the faith of teams.
To take a look at these success stories, one has to start with Mishra. The 31-year-old has warmed benches for India the world over for several years. Despite a truckful of wickets in T20s, he had played just a solitary game for India in the format, nearly four years ago. His Asia Cup performance pulled him back into the team, and he started off with a superbly controlled spell against Pakistan, which earned him a Man-of-the-Match award.
He followed it up with another against West Indies. In both games, he used a slower pace and a tossed-up trajectory that can make the connoisseur smile. He picked up two stumpings and a leg-before decision among his four dismissals. He took three wickets against Bangladesh and two more against Australia, to end the Super 10s phase with nine wickets.
Badree is the only one who is set in the T20 format, having not played for West Indies in any other format. He bowls quicker than Mishra and Tahir but uses subtle variations. He took 4 for 15 against Bangladesh, weathered an attack from Australian openers to pick up two wickets, and sliced open Pakistan with three wickets.
Until now, Mishra has bowled at a better average and lower economy rate than Tahir and Badree. Among the three, Tahir is the highest wicket-taker, his figures boosted by a four-wicket burst against Netherlands, when South Africa were in a tough spot.
The bag of wickets would make him happy, having come after a home season in which he was dropped in Tests. In the group matches against England, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, he enforced major changes in the game with his subtle variations of flight and slick turn.
When asked after the Netherlands game about this success of legspinners, Tahir took a wider look at the use of spinners, but was not ready to divulge his plans just yet.
"Any spinner can change the game," Tahir said. "It's been proven in T20 cricket. If you look at IPL, a lot of games are won by spinners. You just need to go with a clear plan in T20 cricket. If you go half-half, it's going to be very hard to come back, if you go for two-three boundaries. I have a strong belief spinners play a big role in T20 cricket.
"I am not going to tell you what I've been thinking. I've got clear plans on what to do to each batsmen. Thanks to the technology, we can watch with our computer analysis guy [and see] a batsman's strong and weaker points. A clear plan, that's the word, and back yourself."
Mishra's spin partner, R Ashwin, spoke about how the legspinner has not been afraid of slowing his pace, and has remained effective in every situation imposed on him.
"As a combination, every bowling unit benefits from each other's success and bowling strengths," Ashwin said. "Amit has been one of our potent forces in this tournament.
"We've been using him in all the situations where they actually have to go for it. He doesn't give you a lot of pace so when the batsmen are going after him, it's a big chance because he's going to slow it down even more."
Over the last 11 years, legspin hasn't been used too widely in T20s. It started with Chris Schofield being picked in the England line-up for the inaugural World T20s in 2007. He was, quite understandably, overtaken by Afridi, who took 12 wickets in the tournament, and has been Pakistan's legspin flag-bearer in T20s most of the time.
Afridi took 11 wickets in the 2009 tournament, in which he was the central figure of Pakistan's title triumph but waned thereafter, taking just four wickets in 2010 and 2012. Surprisingly Australia's Steven Smith picked up 11 wickets in West Indies in 2010, using his entire repertoire.
Afridi has remained on the periphery in this tournament, not too effective but still a force to be wary of. His captain, Mohammad Hafeez, had shown faith in him but was more impressed to see how the legspinners have not been afraid to flight the ball.
"They have not been afraid to toss the ball up to the batsman, in these conditions," Hafeez said. "It is a good thing, as spinners are a wicket-taking option in this tournament. We have Shahid Afridi who has been with us for many years, and he has been doing this job for us."
The most notable aspect of legspin in this World T20 has been the use of the skill among the first-round qualifier teams, despite some of them faring badly. Certainly, Zimbabwe's gamble of using Kamungozi and Mushangwe in the three games didn't quite pay off but one has to laud them for rotating between the two inexperienced bowlers.
While Afghanistan would have expected better from Shenwari, Hong Kong got the most out of Nizakat in their greatest international triumph. The bowler with a Shahid Afridi-like leap bounded in against Bangladesh, picking up Mushfiqur Rahim among his three scalps in a night he and his team-mates will remember for the rest of their lives.
So why exactly has legspin worked in this tournament? The answer can be found between good form leading into the tournament, the turning and skidding pitches in Dhaka and Chittagong respectively and the belief of three men: captains MS Dhoni, Faf du Plessis and Darren Sammy.
It is the captain who has to give the legspinner every bit of respect, space and faith to make sure he is able to bowl four, ten or forty overs in a game of cricket. The World T20 has reinstated legspin as strong force and, as has been seen between 1990 and 2008, it can only make the game more watchable and healthier.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here