How the Guyana Amazon Warriors have built a dynasty on their spin strength
No team has pushed the theory of spinning to win in T20 to the limit as they have done
Any fool knows the story of spin bowling in 20-over cricket. In 2003 everyone thought spinners would be useless; within a couple of years it was clear they could hold their own, and they gradually grew to dominate the format as they do today.
Well, not quite. Despite their continued success, spinners are still underbowled in T20. In each of the game's three distinct phases - powerplay (overs 1-6), middle (7-15), and death (16-20) - spinners concede fewer runs per over and take wickets more cheaply than seamers do. But conventional T20 thinking still dictates that bowling spinners in the powerplay or at the death remains a risky business, with the underlying assumption being that there is greater variance in their returns - that is to say, when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Even now, spin accounts for only around 40% of overs bowled worldwide in the format, the same proportion as seven years ago.
Several teams have noticed this apparent inefficiency. A handful of sides this year - the Chennai Super Kings, the Dhaka Dynamites, the Comilla Victorians, Zimbabwe, and the Birmingham Bears - have bowled more overs of spin than pace, and in each case their spinners have proved cheaper than their seamers. But no team has pushed this theory to its limits as much as the Guyana Amazon Warriors.
Fifty-eight percent of Guyana's overs this CPL season have been bowled by spinners, almost an exact inversion of the usual pace-spin split. They boast a formidable attack, featuring right-arm offspin (Chris Green, Shoaib Malik), right-arm legspin (Imran Tahir, Qais Ahmad, and briefly Shadab Khan) and left-arm fingerspin (Chandrapaul Hemraj). Overall, their spinners go at just 6.28 runs per over, while their seamers go at 8.89. Throw in their brilliant batting line-up, and you get a team that won 11 games out of 11 this season on their way to the tournament's final on Saturday.
No longer does their success simply reflect a ruthless exploitation of conditions. For four turgid seasons, from 2013 through 2016, just 6.46 runs were scored per over at their home ground in Providence; but since the start of 2018, that figure is 7.98. Spinners are still significantly more effective there than seamers, but the pitch is not the raging turner it once was.
And it is not just spin in general that has served Guyana well. Instead, they saw a way to use the overarching nature of prevailing T20 wisdom and ruthlessly exploit the inefficiency within. Bowling your best fast bowlers at the start of an innings is Captaincy 101 in T20. But according to Newton's Third Law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: because they always face seamers early on in their innings, opening batsmen tend to be much better against pace on the ball.
Guyana's response has been to bowl spin in the powerplay - lots of it. Close followers of T20 will protest that this is hardly a novel tactic, but what is distinct about the Amazon Warriors is the scale on which they adopted it.
Never before in a single T20 season have a team's spinners bowled more overs in the powerplay than Guyana's did in 2019: 60 overs, compared to just 12 by the seamers. On six occasions, they have used a spinner to bowl all six powerplay overs. Only once before has a single spinner bowled more powerplay overs in a season than Green.
"The key to managing bowlers is understanding when they are best suited to bowl" says Malik, who has captained the side through the season. "[Working out] at what times and against which batsmen they would be most suitable. You can have those plans before going into the game, but it is also imperative that you can adapt on the day, because you never know what situation may arise."
"Everyone knows the threat of the West Indian batsmen with their power game," Green says, "and particularly early on, we feel like there's an opportunity to expose a couple of the batters and hopefully get a few early wickets using our spin stocks."
"We find that the local players certainly don't play legspin as well as they do other types of bowling," Amazon Warriors coach Johan Botha, who himself delivered a fair amount of powerplay spin for the Rajasthan Royals in 2011 and 2012, says. "So Imran, Shadab and Qais' overs have been very important for us. It's definitely a bit of a match-ups thing."
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Green himself has bowled 48.7% of his overs in the powerplay since the start of the 2017-18 Big Bash, going at 6.04 runs per over in the process.
He is a tall, quick bowler, relying on subtlety, guile and speed as much as spin, and his experience on the global circuit means he reads the short-form game better than most. This CPL, his Powerplay overs have gone at 5.39 apiece.
"It's something I enjoy doing," he says. "I really embrace the challenge of bowling up front. Being an offspinner in cricket in general - the feeling, or perception, is that particularly to right-hand batters there's not a massive threat. "I make subtle changes and variations [Green is unusual among Australian spinners in having a carrom ball], and add things on here and there. I'm really happy with the way my game's continuing to progress."
"Part of it is his pace and his height," says Botha, "but it's also the length, the change of length, and the change of pace. He reads the game very well. For a fingerspinner, that's got to be one of the keys: to try and stay one step ahead of the batsman, know when to give them a single - it's an underrated skill.
"It's so important to get good players off strike. If you just bowl and try and bowl dots every ball, the good players line you up and they're eventually going to get you. We've seen it happen a couple of times to us in this tournament, and certainly our batters have done the same to other teams - they've lined bowlers up.
"Greeny's good at changing angles - he bowls over, he bowls around, he makes subtle changes in the field to take the batsman's commitment away from the shot a little bit, and he forces them to look for ones and twos."
Botha and Green are a distinctly modern coach-player partnership. If it were not for a series of impressive showings in Sydney derbies against Botha's Sixers, Green might have been an improbable pick in any league ahead of last year.
Now he is something of a regular on the franchise circuit, having spent two seasons with Guyana and another at Botha's Multan Sultans side in the PSL. They also worked together at Cricket Australia's spin camp in Brisbane in May, and Green credits Botha with helping him become more comfortable bowling over the wicket; he generally bowled around at the start of his career.
"I was a very left-field replacement option for a tournament like this last year," Green admits, "and I wasn't a big household name - I'm still not - but he gave me the opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands." He has had indications from Australia's selectors that his performances are not going unnoticed.
While Green has been ever-present in the powerplay, the rest of Guyana's spinners have all done their bit too. Tahir's success in that phase in the World Cup inspired Surrey to bowl him up front before Guyana followed suit, while Shadab had done so in the Big Bash for the Brisbane Heat.
Perhaps the unlikely star has been Hemraj, not least given Botha's admission that he didn't know until the second game of the tournament that he bowled at all.
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"Our assistant coach [Rayon Griffith] said to me: 'You know this guy bowls pretty good left-arm orthodox?' We pushed him to bowl more in training after that. Leading up to it he didn't bowl at all in training, so I didn't see him bowl."
In their third game, Malik threw Hemraj the new ball, and he struck immediately, skidding one on from around the wicket to bowl Barbados' star man Alex Hales. Against Guyana's bogey team, Trinbago Knight Riders, Hemraj repeated the trick, dismissing Javon Scantlebury-Searles and Denesh Ramdin - both promoted up the order to counter the early spin threat - in the third over, and later getting Lendl Simmons.
All things considered, it represents a useful return for a man signed for just US$5000 in what Botha calls a "dream draft".
In their new book Cricket 2.0, Freddie Wilde and Tim Wigmore make some predictions for the future of T20. One of those is that spinners will bowl more; they conclude with the thought that "one team may even make history by delivering all 20 overs by spin". In fact, Guyana almost gazumped that prediction before the book's publication date; against the Tallawahs, they ended up bowling 15.3 overs of spin in the 16.3 overs that Jamaica took to get bowled out.
"More and more teams are seeing the value of spin," Green says. "If you look at the world's top T20 bowlers, the majority are spinners - nine out of the top ten [in the ICC's rankings] are spin bowlers.
"But fast bowlers will always still make up the majority of a team. I feel like that's ingrained in cricket - bowling at the death, or up front, the majority of teams will continue to lean that way until there are more spinners that can bowl at different times.
"I think it's almost a human instinct. Facing a ball coming down at 80-90kph as a batsman, you feel a lot more comfortable than facing a ball coming down at 140-150kph. Even though you may be struggling to hit a spinner off the wicket, if you asked the majority of batsmen, they'd tell you they'd rather face Imran Tahir or Chris Green than Jofra Archer or Mitchell Starc.
"It's almost a natural aspect of our make-up, thinking I'd rather face spin because I don't feel like I can get hurt, or I feel like I can hit more sixes with the ball coming slower."
Malik agrees. "It is frowned upon to bowl spinners at the death of the innings, and sometimes even with the new ball," he says, "so I guess that's why teams usually only operate with one spinner, who will bowl after the powerplay.
"But why should it be frowned upon? As a captain, you have to look at them as bowlers and not categorise them into spinners v pacers. You have to think, 'Who will get me a wicket here?' or 'Who will bowl the most economical spell?'"
Perhaps remarkably, Botha says that his team largely eschews team meetings, and debrief "very quickly" after games. He trusts Malik, Green and Ben Laughlin to make decisions on their own.
The other key to Guyana's success has been their batting, and in particular the stellar performances of unheralded opener Brandon King.
King's T20 record before this season read: 267 runs in 18 matches, with a fairly conservative strike rate of 119, only one fifty, and no innings as an opener. But he had shown glimpses of his ability against spin in the previous year's tournament.
You'd never have known it from raw statistics alone - four dismissals in 24 balls against spin, compared to two in 81 against pace - but King's ability to score quickly against slow bowlers was made apparent, primarily in one particular innings against Barbados Tridents in 2018. In a game best remembered for Mohammad Irfan's remarkable spell of 4-3-1-2 at the start of the St Kitts run chase, King had stuttered his way to 15 off 32 balls, before smiting both Steven Smith (twice) and Ashley Nurse for sixes, and eventually skying to long-on for 60 off 49.
CricViz data shows that the vast majority of King's runs - not far off 90% - against spin come in front of square. He is almost a throwback in the way he trusts his power game and clean hitting over innovation or deft touches.
"Last year when he played for St Kitts, we saw that he had some power," recalls Botha, "but he had a bit of a mixed role. He was at No. 4 some games, then he was down at No. 7 - they never really gave him a clear role.
"I knew he was opening for Jamaica in the Super50 [the domestic List A competition]. But even when we got together in that first week before the tournament, he didn't think he was going to open. At the draft we knew that we wanted him as our opener, and in that first week we wanted to make him feel comfortable with it.
"Credit to him, he said, 'Yep, I'm comfortable with it', and it was just about us making him believe, saying, 'You're going to do this for hopefully the whole tournament - barring injury, or a real slump in form, we're going to give you every game'.
"Shoaib has been a huge factor in all of this. The times they have batted together, you could just see that Shoaib's helped him go through the gears. [In Qualifier 1] you could see them talking through the next three or four overs, to get to a certain point in the innings when they could open their shoulders and expand their game."
That match, in which King hit the highest ever individual CPL score - 132 not out - was a real-life counterexample to the idea that nobody cares about franchise cricket.
It was played in front of a full house in Providence. "The ground announcer read out the teams while the other game [the Eliminator] was going on, and the crowd went absolutely mad," laughs Botha. "That was a goosebump moment, where I just thought, 'Gee, this is the sort of day you want to be involved in.'"
Botha's pitch-side interview moments after King reached his hundred was one of the moments of the tournament. He struggled to hold back tears, seeing his investment in King come to fruition. "It was just the whole build-up," he says. "We had people from outside, even past players from Guyana Amazon Warriors, having a go at us, sending messages and saying, 'What are you guys doing picking him as your opener?'
"We'd been speaking about it, for one of our top four to get a really big one. Brandon had the opportunity to continue and he didn't stop. You often see scores of 101, 103 and out in T20, but he carried on and kept hitting boundaries until the end."
"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," the heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once said. On Saturday night it was Barbados - a side that Guyana had beaten three times out of three in the season - that dealt the blow.
Asked to bowl first by Jason Holder, Guyana unsurprisingly threw the ball to their spinners to start. But Hales - who had struggled against Hemraj previously - decided to go down swinging alongside Johnson Charles, and after four overs of spin up front, the Tridents were 34 for 0.
Guyana dragged things back in the middle overs, and had the game in their hands at 119 for 6 with four overs to go when Tahir bowled out. But things fell to pieces, as Barbados again chose to attack. Jonathan Carter, and then Nurse, went ballistic, adding 52 in the final four overs of seam to lift them to an imposing 171. In the chase, Guyana got stuck. They fell behind the required rate in the fourth over, and never got near it again. It was their fifth time in the CPL final, and their fifth defeat.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Guyana side is that there is a distinct feeling that there is more to come. Their middle order is a who's who of future West Indies stars, with Malik at No. 4 sandwiched between Shimron Hetmyer and Nicholas Pooran, and Shrefane Rutherford and Keemo Paul coming in lower down. And yet those West Indians have only three fifties between them in the tournament, starved of the strike by the remarkable top order.
Against the Tallawahs, they were 8 for 4 after eight balls, but Ruthreford - who had only batted in three of the previous seven games - led the recovery with Malik, and the two took the Warriors to a winning score.
"The guys coming through are so exciting, the batters in particular," says Green. "Hetmyer, Ruthreford, Pooran, King, Hemraj. They've grown up watching Pollard, Bravo, Narine, Simmons dominate on the world circuit. Rather than watching them playing Test cricket, these guys have grown up watching T20 cricket evolve, and have set their sights on that and have become that type of modern cricketer who can take the game away at the drop of a hat.
"It's almost like a 'watch this space' with a lot of them. It's like a new era of West Indies cricket."
Twenty-over cricket has produced few real dynasties, as talent comes and goes and stability is at a premium. But on the evidence of this season, Botha's Guyana could soon become one.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98