As T20 cricket has developed, the value which spinners can offer a bowling attack has become increasingly clear. The ability to take the pace off the ball and force batters to create their own has become a key tactic in stemming the flow of runs, and invariably this has a positive impact on a team’s ability to take wickets as well.
You need only look at the current T20I bowler rankings for evidence of this. In first place is South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi, and he is followed by Rashid Khan, Ashton Agar, Adil Rashid and Mujeeb Ur Rahman – all spin bowlers. Tim Southee follows in sixth, before another four spinners round out the top ten.
Even if you already recognise the importance of slow bowling in T20 cricket, it’s extraordinary to note that nine of the top ten bowlers in the game are spinners, and it’s made even more incredible when juxtaposed against the two other formats of the game. In the ODI bowler rankings, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mehedi Hasan are the only two bowlers representing the spin fraternity in the top ten. In Test cricket, the difference is even more stark: Ravi Ashwin is rated the second-best bowler in the world, and the rest of the top ten bowl pace.
Afghanistan is perhaps the best case study to demonstrate just how valuable these bowlers can be in the shortest form of the game. After barely registering on the cricketing map a decade or so ago, they are now the seventh ranked T20I team in world cricket, ahead of established nations like Sri Lanka, the West Indies and to a lesser extent Bangladesh. And while they have a number of talented players, it’s their spin bowling attack which has led the way.
Few would argue that Rashid Khan has not been among the best, if not the best, T20 bowler in the world for a number of years, and he has played a pivotal role in the ascent of cricket in Afghanistan. At the international level, he averages an elite 12.63 and incredibly concedes just 6.21 runs per over. Only two other players in Afghanistan’s history to have picked up at least 20 wickets in the shortest form of the game have even managed to average under 20 – one was the pacey Hamid Hassan, who played his last game in 2016, and the other is the aforementioned Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
At the international level, Mujeeb averages 17.72 in his 19 games, and has been even more economical than Rashid, conceding just 6.15 runs per over. For context, no other player in Afghanistan’s history has conceded less than 6.5 in T20Is. These two have come together to form the most formidable duo in international T20 cricket, and before you argue that they have enjoyed the benefit of playing weaker opponents, take a look at the havoc they’ve wreaked in the BBL.
The below graph shows where the two of them sit in terms of all-time bowling averages in the second strongest domestic T20 competition in the world. Rashid has far and away the best average among qualified players – 17.45 compared to Tom Curran’s 19.3 – while Mujeeb is back in 11th with an average of 21.24.
Of course, there’s more to being effective in T20s than wickets, so we looked at economy rates too. Again with the qualifier of having to have played at least 20 matches, below are the top five economy rates in BBL history.
This time, it’s Mujeeb’s turn to sit out in front, and he is way out there. His economy rate of 6.14 is easily the best among qualified players, while Rashid Khan is right there alongside him in second. Incidentally, all three of the other players on the above graph also bowl or bowled spin, further highlighting its importance.
These two maestros from Afghanistan have become two of the pre-eminent bowlers in T20 cricket both internationally and domestically, and virtually the only players keeping them company are fellow spinners. Interestingly, however, very rarely do these players excel even nearly to the same extent in the longer forms of the game. They also rarely bowl what most would consider traditional spin. Instead, they rely far more heavily on subtle pace variations, and an ability to turn the ball both ways while giving away very few signals to the batter about what they intend to do.
It’s a new art form entirely, and the likes of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Adil Rashid and more have honed it to the point where they have become the most valuable players in the T20 game. And while spinners certainly have an important role to play in Test and ODI cricket, as the world rankings show, it’s in the shortest form of the game where they have made more of a mark than ever before.