Watch ODIs, T20Is, IPL, BBL and you name it, any limited overs cricket, there is one common modus operandi when it comes to every team's choice of spinners - Wrist spinners over finger spinners. Every team has at least one in their playing XI. The reason they are preferred over finger spinners are of course, their wicket taking ability. But, shouldn't wicket takers be backed in test cricket too, where economy rates are supposed to be less of a concern? It has always been counter-intuitive for me.
A quick glance down the list of spinners who have bowled the most number of overs over the past decade in test cricket, defies this theory. Such domination of finger spinners! Only 15% of the overs among the top 10 are delivered by the wrist spinners. So, what can possibly explain this?
For starters, the art of wrist spin is one of the most, if not the most, difficult art to master in cricket. It is like touching your nose around your head, instead of taking a direct path. There are exceptions to this as with any other fact, but leg spinners find it more difficult to land the ball in the spot they want, ball after ball. But, therein lies the key to their success in the limited overs format.
Imagine being in the batsmen's shoes when they have little idea of where the next delivery is going to land. When the bowler doesn't know, the batsman has little chance. Add to it, the attacking intent of the batsmen in limited overs format, more often than not, they are pre-determining their shots and a change in length comes as a big surprise. How often do wrist spinners get a wicket bowling half volleys, long hops and full tosses ? Captains don't mind their wrist spinners going for runs if they pick up wickets at regular intervals in limited overs.
With test cricket, one big factor that negates the leg spinner's threat is the batsmen's mindset. Batsmen are willing to be more patient, they are not always on the look out for boundaries as they are in the limited overs format. This changes a lot of things. There is hardly any pre-determination of shots and there is hardly any frenzied dancing down the wicket. All this forces the bowler to be more disciplined than they are with the white ball. The lesser of the wrist spinners go searching for the perfect ball and often find themselves under pressure of delivering a near perfect length each time. This works against wrist spinners in general, except for the very talented ones, of course.
The googly, the flipper and the top spinner are all a blessing in the shorter format. No one is denying the fact that they can be replicated in test cricket. When a wrist spinner keeps adding all these deliveries to his arsenal, invariably, the stock ball gets hampered. With all these variations, there is a constant tweak in the wrist position. The googly is delivered with the back of the hand facing the batsman, the flipper is squeezed out of the thumb while the stock ball requires your wrist to face somewhere towards third man. When there is so much of tweaking in the position of the wrists between all these balls, no wonder the stock ball takes a beating. When the stock ball declines in quality, that is where the complexity of replicating the lengths becomes a harder task, than it already is.
It is not every day that there is assistance in the wicket and this means, the skippers expect their spinners to do the holding role. If you look at one common trait that all the wrist spinners that have made it big in test cricket had, it is their control and their repeatability in lengths. They were always able to provide their skipper the control when they were not picking wickets. For as long as the wrist spinners don't manage to find immaculate control like their counterparts, the finger spinners, we will, in all likelihood, see this pattern of finger spinners dominating tests and wrist spinners dominating the limited overs stage.
I have always been fascinated by the art of wrist spin and the complexity it brings with it. The flight, the drift, the spin, the revolutions and the dip! I just wish more leg spinners play test cricket and prosper as they do in the limited overs. But, I will take solace from the fact that if a wrist spinner finds a spot in the playing XI, he is going to be really, really good.