BEING a spinner is tough. Unlike fast bowlers, who usually occupy three or four berths in the starting 11, spinners generally compete for one spot. Modern batsmen look to slog their loopy 50mph (80kph) deliveries out of the park from the first over. These are far less intimidating than the 90mph missiles that fast bowlers hurl at head height. The sort of pitch that spinners play on has a big influence on their effectiveness—they are useless on early-season grassy tracks in England, on which a turning ball refuses to grip. Sending down plodding balls for hours with no lateral movement to beat the bat can be a wearisome task.

Yet spinners are currently enjoying a prolonged purple patch. Over the past five years they have taken 40.5% of wickets in five-day Test matches, their highest share for more than 40 years. The percentage of batsmen that they dismiss in shorter one-day internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 internationals (T20s) is hovering in the mid-30s, having languished near 10% when those formats were first introduced, in the 1970s and 2000s respectively. What has caused them to bounce back?

To understand spin bowling’s current zenith, look first to its nadir (see chart). In the early 1990s, it was a truth universally acknowledged that the art had died. Of the 70 men to have taken at least 200 Test wickets in their careers, not a single one is a spinner who made his debut in the 1980s. Between 1971 and 1992, the five-year average for the share of Test wickets taken by slow bowlers fell from 45.9% to 19.9%. The “average” for these bowlers—that is, the number of runs conceded per wicket taken—ballooned from 30.7 to 42, while the same figure for fast bowlers remained at roughly 31.

Concerned onlookers suggested a number of reasons for the great decline. The most likely explanation was the demise of uncovered pitches. For most of cricket’s history, convention dictated that the turf could not be protected from the elements once a match had begun, which meant that spells of rain produced a “sticky wicket” conducive to spin bowling. That tradition began to disappear in the 1960s, as covers became fashionable. Robbed of this climatic assistance, spin bowling increasingly became a defensive option. Captains would only turn reluctantly to their slow bowlers to give the fast bowlers a rest, especially while waiting for a shiny new ball, which is granted every 80 overs and helps quicker deliveries with its extra bounce and swing. 

The spin renaissance began with Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, an Australian and a Sri Lankan who both made their debuts in 1992 and went on to become the two highest wicket-takers in Test history. Both men were renowned for their attacking verve, setting aggressive fields and seeking to bamboozle their opponents rather than containing them in the hope of inducing an error, which had become the default spin strategy. Both could deploy a dazzling array of trick deliveries, from the “flipper” (a skidding back-spinner) to the “doosra” (which looks to be spinning one way before breaking the other).   

Crucially, both men were able to emulate this red-ball success with the white ball. Since teams rarely lose all their wickets in the short forms of the game, frugal bowling is prized rather simply dismissing batsmen. Before the arrival of the aggressive Messrs Warne and Muralitharan, it had been assumed that slow bowling was a recipe for being tonked into the stands. For most of the 1980s and 1990s there was some truth to this, as spinners conceded about 5% more runs per over than their quicker teammates in ODIs. But from the mid-1990s onwards this gap reversed. Today, spinners concede 9% fewer runs per over than pace bowlers in ODIs and 11% fewer in T20s, thanks to trickery not just in lateral movement but also speed. Captains have become far more willing to use such bowlers offensively, at times even electing to open with them and put pressure on the top-order batsmen. With such an advantage in white-ball run rates, it is perhaps surprising that spinners do not get more than two-fifths of the overs.

Messrs Warne and Muralitharan were merely the leading lights in a generation of talented and swashbuckling spinners from around the globe, which included India’s Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq and New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori—each of whom took more than 200 wickets in both Test and ODI cricket. The growing specialisation within the sport means that few of today’s spinners are likely to match those tallies with the red and white ball. But across the three variants of the game, they account for half of the bowlers ranked in the top ten by the International Cricket Council. In Test cricket, India’s Ravi Ashwin and Australia’s Nathan Lyon are on track to join an elite group of five spinners to have taken more than 400 wickets. With the white ball, Afghanistan’s brilliant 19-year-old Rashid Khan could break all manner of records.

How far will the spin renaissance go? In the short formats, it seems possible that captains could end up giving spinners the majority of overs, since they tend to be more economical than quick bowlers. That is less likely in the five-day game, where the primary bowling metrics for the two groups have merely been converging. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little evidence that the Decision Review System (DRS)—a video-replay system that has been used in most Test matches since 2008—has disproportionately benefited slow bowlers. The theory goes that since spin bowlers take around 20% of dismissals by hitting the batsman “leg before wicket” (LBW), compared with 17% for quick bowlers, DRS must tilt the game in their favour, since around three-quarters of reviews are for this type of decision. But in fact, the system overturns the umpire’s call in favour of the batsman 34% of the time, compared to just 20% of the time for bowlers.

No breakdown of reviews by bowler type exists, but it seems unlikely that technology has caused the spin resurgence. Instead, thank a new breed of audacious and artful twirlers, capable of carrying the attack, rather than simply relieving it.