Perhaps it was simply an unfortunate coincidence that early in the second Test at Old Trafford, shortly after Sky Sports had put up a graphic showing the top 10 bowlers in the world rankings – a list occupied entirely by fast bowlers – the camera lingered on Roston Chase. And with apologies to Chase – an underrated all-rounder who would go on to claim his third Test five-wicket haul – the juxtaposition was irresistible. Chase and his gentle “nude spinners” (named because invariably there is nothing on them) may not in themselves be the issue. But as an emblem of the broader decline in international spin bowling, it’s as good as any. Just where have all the great Test spinners gone?
Naturally this is a somewhat pointed question, and one therefore requiring supporting evidence. Since the start of 2019, Test spinners have delivered just 33% of the overs and taken 29% of wickets: the lowest since the mid-1990s. Spinners average 37% more than fast bowlers and also – surprisingly – concede runs at a faster rate. Some of these trends have been unfolding for longer than others. But the direction of travel is unmistakable.
In any case, however, this is something that goes beyond numbers. Rather, it is a crisis of tone and role. With a few exceptions, the modern Test spinner is a support act, an honest trier: someone to get through overs, keep things tidy and give the quicks a rest. With the exception of Pakistan’s Yasir Shah, they are invariably orthodox finger spinners. On a helpful pitch, or in Asian conditions, they may even occasionally run through a side.
But even the best of them – Nathan Lyon, Ravi Jadeja, Keshav Maharaj – are rarely their team’s star player or biggest threat. And ultimately, very few of them raise the pulse. Where are the stars and the showmen, the conjurors and the freaks, the trump cards and the fizzing mysteries? Put simply: where are the spin bowlers you would pay to watch?
The answer, of course, is that most of them are playing in the sort of places where – current restrictions aside – there are actually people paying to watch them. Perhaps the world’s most coveted bowler right now is the mesmerising enigma Rashid Khan, who has played 211 Twenty20 games but just eight first-class matches, all for Afghanistan. Then you have West Indies’ Sunil Narine, Nepal’s Sandeep Lamicchane, India’s Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, the Afghan prodigy Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Pakistan’s Shadab Khan, Australia’s Adam Zampa. In sharp contrast to the Test rankings, the top nine bowlers in the Twenty20 world rankings are all spinners. There is, as it turned out, a golden generation of spin bowlers out there. It’s just not playing Test cricket.
Partly this is a tale of the slow and inexorable divergence of the red and white ball, the increasing specialisation of roles, the law of the market. Ever since the inception of T20, it is spinners who have been most ruthlessly incorporated into its culture of game theory and optimisation, its exhaustive search for competitive edges and favourable match-ups. AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli both say that the basics of their technique do not radically change from format to format. An awkward 90mph riser aimed at the ribs will pose the batsman a question whatever the game. Only in spin bowling are the skillsets of Tests and T20 so dramatically and diametrically opposed.
T20 spin coaches talk about the specialist skill of “getting cut”: of deliberately bowling short and wide to encourage the batsman to cut for a harmless single. Samuel Badree, spin coach at the Delhi Capitals, says the new generation of leg-spinners is wary of over-flighting the ball, preferring to bowl quicker, flatter, with minimal turn. These are not, by and large, the same traits you want on a fifth-day dustbowl, with fielders around the bat and a sensation of slow, suffocating menace.
This isn’t simply a shift in emphasis. The batsman training herself to clear the ropes, or the fast bowler practising his yorkers, is still fundamentally improving their game. By contrast, many of the skills that make a great modern T20 bowler actively make them a worse Test bowler in the process. Perhaps the best example of this is Ashwin, who in extensively remodelling his offering to stay ahead of the curve in T20, has diluted the A-game that took him to No 1 in the Test world rankings: a game based on flight and shape, on consistency and perseverance and subtle rather than startling variations.
For those less gifted than Ashwin, a stark and often simple choice awaits. Richie Benaud always used to tell young leg-spinners that four years was the minimum tutelage required to hone their stock delivery. By contrast, a young leggie playing T20 can become financially secure within a couple of years. Not only that, but they can enjoy the best coaching and training facilities, the biggest crowds, the esteem of spearheading an attack rather than simply supplementing it. If you’re someone such as England’s Matt Parkinson or India’s Ravi Bishnoi, one of the stars of the recent Under-19 World Cup, which vision of the game appeals more? Which path makes more sense?
It used to be that if you wanted to know where cricket was heading, if you wanted to see the next big thing, or glimpse the next groundbreaking idea that would move the game forward, Test cricket was where you went. Watching Chase and Bess wheeling away gamely in Manchester, it struck me that – with the greatest of respect to both – this hasn’t been true for a while.