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Feature

Taking stock: where does traditional finger-spin fit into T20?

Forget about flight and deception, in the shortest format offspinners are just looking to give the batter one

Cameron Ponsonby
15-Jul-2021
Gareth Batty bowls  •  Getty Images

Gareth Batty bowls  •  Getty Images

The best advice in life is often the simplest. A moment where an expert in their craft cuts out the noise and hones in on one driving philosophy. For example, when coaching up-and-coming spinners, former Australia offspinner Ashley Mallett would boil the game down to this: "a spinner attacks and defends with the same stock ball."
That hard-spinning, dipping delivery that brings four fielders around the bat into play during a Test match, will be the same hard-spinning, dipping delivery that will see a player mishit you to the fielder on the boundary in a one-day game. Don't try anything fancy, be your true self and only then you'll be your best self. A rare piece of advice that will see you right on a first date, a job interview or managing a spell in the middle overs.
The problem is the world is changing. We now play Twenty20, you lied on your CV and your online persona is far better than the reality. Just being yourself will be a disappointment, and your stock ball will be too.
"There is no place for your traditional ball that has loop or drop [in T20]", says Surrey's former England spinner Gareth Batty, "because they'll either have wonderful skills and hit you straight, or just slog you for six."
And yet, for at least the third consecutive season, batters are scoring slower off offspinners than their legspinning counterparts. And all whilst those same weapons that Mallett and all other offspinners have sworn by for decades are now being used against them. The overspin that would mean the ball would hit high on the bat, now just means additional bounce that allows the batter to get underneath the ball. That full-ish length that would draw the batter forward? In the arc, out the park etc.
Consider the single as the barometer of success in cricket. In Test cricket, a single is a win for the batter, in the one-day game it's a draw, and in T20 it's a win for the bowler.
"A stock ball in T20 cricket is basically the ball you can bowl to get a batter off strike," Batty says. "You're giving up the run. For a traditional bowler that might mean a quicker ball into the hip and having no square leg. So, for instance, it's quick enough and full enough that you can't rock back and pull it, but not too full that you can be hit back over your head. Let's call that a stock ball. How different is it [to Batty's first-class stock ball]? It's like chalk and cheese."
People often say how difficult it is for batters to switch between formats, but rarely seem to consider that for bowlers, particularly spinners, the process can be equally challenging.
Any player that is not trying to get better and trying to diversify their game is a sitting duck, particularly in T20
Gareth Batty
"The motor skills needed in your body are so different. If you have a good base - and you can probably use two guys who have a decent base over time in myself and Simon Harmer - then you can slip from red-ball to T20 if you switch your mind to it. Because you know you have that stock ball and can be very accurate if you want because you know your grooving is good. But the switch from white-ball then to red-ball - absolute nightmare. So difficult. Because you're almost sometimes trying to bowl your worst ball to be your best ball in T20 cricket. So that might be out wide on the return crease when someone's running at you or you might be bowling a drag down into the wicket."
The stock ball is an offspinner's night bus home on a Thursday. After a heavy evening of playing T20 cricket and doing all the things you shouldn't, your stock ball will be the thing you can rely on to get you back, so you can still be up and make a living the next day.
"If you watch me in T20 prep", said Dom Bess after his career-best 7 for 43 against Northamptonshire, "I do a lot of red-ball because I think that's where the majority of the skills are. In white-ball I think the skills are there but white-all is a lot to do with your mentality - getting underneath the bat, and being quite smart with skills like that."
The problem, however, is that by rewarding "poor" practices in T20, spinners regularly return to four-day cricket with a hangover.
"The skillset required for four-day cricket, to be very good at it, is something you need to spend a lot of time on to get," Batty says, "and a few T20s can stunt that growth and that muscle memory to keep it locked in."
Nottinghamshire's Matthew Carter, whose 13 wickets at an economy of 7.21 has been a vital part of Nottinghamshire's dominant group campaign, agrees: "When you transfer to red-ball it does take three or four overs for your brain to function properly and remember that red-ball is all about that up and down and putting revs on it."
It's a dilemma that confronts young spinners across the country. The desire to be successful across all formats vs the desire to maximise your red-ball potential and develop that "grooved stock ball" that will take you to international honours. It is perhaps not a coincidence that arguably England's top three finger spinners in Jack Leach, Bess and Amar Virdi have played just 17 T20s between them, with Bess playing all but one of them and Virdi yet to play a white-ball game at all.
Carter says this concern that playing T20 cricket might damage his red-ball ability was one that he also dealt with early in his career.
"When I first started, for two or three years, yeah [I worried]. I just wanted to concentrate on getting in the red-ball team and making an impact there. But, once you stop and think about it, if you can get that little bit in between where you can still bowl in red-ball cricket and transfer to white-ball pretty quickly, well then you're pretty much set."
Easier said than done perhaps, but Carter is correct. It's also a contradiction that Batty volunteers, explaining that as damaging as it may be to your stock-ball development to play T20, a large part of him also believes it's a good thing for young spinners to play white-ball cricket.
"Four-day cricket is changing. And we saw this winter with Leach and [Rishabh] Pant, how [Pant] just went at it in the middle of a Test match, into the rough, with men back and he just didn't care. And it was exhilarating batting, it was wonderful batting. And Leach didn't do a lot wrong. But the reason that I bring that up is that Leach wouldn't have played a lot of white-ball cricket. Had he bowled in more white-ball cricket he'd have had more answers."
Batty stresses that the result may have remained exactly the same. But the point is that Pant would've had to draw on a skillset that was more difficult than the one required to hit Leach's "traditional" bowling.
So what does this mean for the traditional finger spinner in T20 cricket?
"What is tradition?" asks Batty. "Every era has a different skillset that requires you to be successful. Put your stamp on it and take it forward. Any player that is not trying to get better and trying to diversify their game is a sitting duck, particularly in T20."
Perhaps the answer is to not be concerned about the game we know being left behind, but to be excited by the one we don't that's coming in the future.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby