'Underestimated' Adam Zampa could be key in middle overs of T20 World Cup final

"I know my role and I thrive off those challenges. Spin bowling in the middle is something I really enjoy"

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Adam Zampa roars after snagging Babar Azam, Pakistan vs Australia, Men's T20 World Cup 2021, 2nd semi-final, Dubai, November 11, 2021

Adam Zampa is the leading wicket-taker since the start of the Super 12s stage of the T20 World Cup  •  ICC/Getty Images

Adam Zampa sees Fakhar Zaman coming. He bowls a fast, flat legbreak at 60mph/96kph into the pitch which skids through and is hacked out to deep midwicket for a single. He has conceded only five singles from the 16th over of a T20 World Cup semi-final; and for the fifth time in six games, his four overs have cost less than 24 runs.
Legspin is cricket's most expressive, most evocative art but Zampa's method is cold and clinical. His short stature means he can skid the ball through off the pitch while his biggest focus is control, ensuring that he bowls a length that is tough to get away. The contrast between his bowling and his colourful off-field persona is encapsulated by his haircut for this tournament: business in the front, party in the back.
Against Pakistan, Zampa comes on immediately after the powerplay and strikes a balance between attack and defence, with Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan both set but the scoring rate still in check. He hangs the ball wide to Rizwan, throwing it up above his eyeline but avoiding the arc of his slog sweep although with one exception - the six over midwicket. To Babar, he goes full, denying him the opportunity to get under the ball, best evidenced by his dismissal - a mistimed slog sweep to long-on.
He goes through his variations to Fakhar, with the combination of topspinners and googlies that are his staple to left-hand batters; and by the end of his spell, Rizwan's six is the only boundary he has conceded off the bat.
Zampa has not been the headline act of this World Cup but heading into Sunday's final against New Zealand, he is the leading wicket-taker since the start of the Super 12s and has opened up some breathing space at the top of Australia's all-time list in men's T20Is.
"I've always been underestimated," Zampa says, with no hint of a smile. "Even as a 15 or 16-year-old growing up in the country, there was always a city guy that was better than me or there's always been someone that turns their legspinner more than I do. Even after this tournament, there'll be another series that comes up and I'll be underestimated again. I kind of do thrive off that."
Zampa's success in this tournament is made all the more remarkable by his training period immediately before when Covid-19 restrictions rendered him unable to use Cricket Australia or even New South Wales' training facilities, leaving him to bowl at teenagers in the nets near his home in Byron Bay. "It was a weird lead-up," he says. "I did a lot of training at home but then came in mentally fresh."
He was hammered against England, conceding 37 runs in three overs as Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow chased a net run rate boost, but has thrived off the responsibility of being the frontline spinner in Australia's other five games while Ashton Agar has been left out.
"If anything, it has made my role a little bit clearer," Zampa says. "I know I'm in the team to get wickets through the middle overs and in some cases, depending on the match-ups, I'll bowl quite late in the innings as well.
"He took five wickets against Bangladesh, and he felt he didn't bowl well. And so that's a quality of a good player"
Marcus Stoinis on his team-mate Zampa
"I know my role and I thrive off those challenges. Spin bowling in the middle overs of T20s can be tough work but it's something I really enjoy. In this tournament in particular, I've tried not to be something that I'm not. I know what my strengths are and I do them to the best of my ability. I feel confident with my role in this team… wickets through the middle is what I'm trying to achieve and luckily, so far, I've been able to do it."
"I think he's been brilliant," Marcus Stoinis, Zampa's Melbourne Stars team-mate and close friend, says. "He took complete control of his four overs and of the innings at that stage where they were going really well. Zamps is getting better and better. He's super honest.
"He took his five wickets [against Bangladesh] the other night and he felt he didn't bowl well. And so that's a quality of a good player, I think - when you're picking apart your own game and you understand what exactly what you're doing."
Zampa has also made technical changes in the last 18 months in order to improve his control, adding to the sense of a bowler who, at 29, is approaching the prime years of his career.
"There's a few technical things that I like to keep track of," he explains. "I haven't changed too much but I just try and get a really short stride.
"If my stride length is really long, I don't get enough pace or spin on the ball. There's a couple of legspinners who have short strides: I think Imran Tahir is the best example, and he's got great control. So I feel like if I can get that stride right, it helps me with my control when I know where the ball is going.
"T20 cricket has changed. Guys are just willing to go harder earlier than they have in the past, so it does make it a bit challenging. I remember even five or six years ago, you'd bowl the seventh over of a T20 game and it would definitely go for four or five or six, and no one would really play a shot. These days, you've got to go into defensive mode a little bit earlier just because teams are going to come harder at you."
On Sunday, Zampa will come up against a New Zealand team that has been cautious through the middle overs during this World Cup, and have now lost Devon Conway, one of their better players of spin, to injury. If Zampa can keep things tight while extending his streak of a wicket in every game in this tournament, Australia will be confident of winning that phase of the game.
"New Zealand have something about them," Zampa says. "They've made a couple of finals in other formats and they've taken it really deep in this one so they're a formidable challenge. I don't think we'll be inside their heads. They're led really well and they've got experience as well. It's going to be a great battle."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98