The success of Shahid Afridi and Imran Tahir at the World Cup has laid to rest fears that the art of leg-spin had died with the retirement of the charismatic Shane Warne.
Warne, probably the greatest leg-spinner to grace the sport, fooled batsmen with his wizardy and guile before retiring in 2007 with 708 Test and 293 one-day wickets for Australia.
But his legacy lives on with Pakistan captain Afridi, South Africa’s Tahir and even Canada’s portly Balaji Rao proving wrist spinners remain a force to reckon with in limited-overs cricket.
The inspirational Afridi has zoomed to the top of the World Cup bowling charts with 14 wickets in three matches, including two five-wicket hauls and a return of 4-23 in the third.
Pakistan-born Tahir, who was drafted in for the World Cup after qualifying to play for South Africa, has met with immediate success with seven wickets in his first two matches for the Proteas.
Even Rao, who turned out for Tamil Nadu in Indian domestic cricket before migrating to Canada, has starred with six wickets with his crafty mix of leg-spin and googly.
“A leg-spinner is needed in one-day cricket, especially in the middle overs to provide variety to the attack,” said India great Anil Kumble, whose own wrist spin fetched him 619 Test and 337 one-day wickets.
“No one should ever write off a leg-spinner.”
Afridi, better known as a swashbuckling batsman with the fastest one-day century off 37 balls to his credit, says he loves bowling his quick leg-breaks to hassle the batsmen.
“I always focus on my bowling,” the 31-year-old Pakistan captain said. “I just try to bowl wicket to wicket and keep it simple.
“Sometimes I get turn and sometimes the ball goes straight through with a good chance to get a leg-before.”
Canadian captain Ashish Bagai, distraught after his team failed to chase
down Pakistan’s modest 184 in Colombo, said Afridi was almost unplayable during his return of 5-23.
“We started off with the approach of trying to milk him for 30-35 runs, but once he gets wickets he gets right on top of you,” said Bagai.
“He gets his variations going and then it gets harder and harder.”
Tahir, who turns 32 on March 27, fashioned South Africa’s win over the West Indies with the key wickets of Devon Smith, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Devon Thomas and Shivnarine Chanderpaul in his 10-over spell.
Wrist-spinners have always been a handful in the World Cup.
Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir bagged 24 wickets in two editions in 1983 and 1987. Compatriot Mushtaq Ahmed, now England’s spin bowling coach, took 26 wickets in 1992 and 1996.
But Warne remains unsurpassed, claiming 32 wickets in 17 World Cup matches in 1996 and 1999 with a best of 4-29 and an incredible economy rate of 3.93 runs per over.
That tally would have been higher, but Warne was thrown out at the start of the 2003 edition in South Africa after testing positive for a banned diuretic.
Few will forget Warne’s brilliance in the 1996 World Cup semifinal in Mohali, when his 4-36 saw the West Indies crash from a comfortable 165-2 to 202 all out in chase of Australia’s 207.
Four years later in England, Warne played a crucial role in Australia’s title-grabbing run with 4-29 in the tied semifinal against South Africa and 4-33 against Pakistan in the final.
Batsmen will write off leg-spinners at their peril.