English T20 finally gets legspin fever

Imran Tahir doesn't hold back while appealing BCCI

Imran Tahir's stint at Durham in the Vitality Blast will take his collection of England's 18 first-class counties to seven. It is too much to hope that Tahir, a veteran at 39, will one day manage to collect the whole set, even if he has been a mainstay of domestic T20 cricket in England for the past ten seasons, but it is quite a list.

But Tahir's signing is also a reflection of a growing trend in the county game. One in three teams in this season's T20 Blast has secured the services of an overseas legspinner and as many as 16 of the 18 teams can be expected to put legspin in their mix. Only Gloucestershire and Leicestershire might miss out.

While counties used to use their overseas quota on top-order batsmen or fast-scoring all-rounders, there has been a gradual shift in their approaches to who they should sign. Teams now use data analysts to help with recruitment, and the numbers show that legspinners are the men to go for.

There is more to the signings than just their worth on the pitch, of course. Rashid Khan, the teenage sensation from Afghanistan, has won the hearts of fans across the world since shooting to worldwide fame a year or so ago; it is no surprise that ticket sales for his three games at Hove are booming, with Sussex recording sales 68.8% higher for their first home match (vs Surrey on 13th July) compared to last year's equivalent.

"This year, counties appear to have cottoned on. And a study of the wrist-spinners in this year's competition should provide evidence as to why they are such hot property in 20-over cricket"

By now, few need a reminder that 20-over cricket was presumed to be the format that would make legspinners, with all their perceived exoticism obsolete. Adam Hollioake, who played four Tests and 35 ODIs for England and who led Surrey to the inaugural Twenty20 Cup in 2003, said: "Straight away, we thought 'spin bowlers are going to get hit out the ground'. We thought they'd be hopeless." Instead, it has brought them to the fore; the top T20 franchises around the world pay over the odds to secure the services of Khan, Ish Sodhi, Shadab Khan and Samuel Badree.

But England's counties have been slow to follow this lead, perhaps influenced by a cooler climate, smaller grounds and in-built conservatism. While Tahir, Shahid Afridi and Adil Rashid have been mainstays of the tournament since its formation 15 years ago, last year's winners, Nottinghamshire, were the first victorious team since Sussex in 2009 to pick a legspinner - Sodhi - in the final.

Back in 2009, legspin was still viewed as a gamble. That year, Will Beer took 2 for 29 in their win against Somerset, but he was at the start of his career and was viewed as a risk; Sussex captain Mike Yardy brought his own 65mph left-arm darts into the attack before taking the risk. Now, legspinners are seen not just as attacking options, but as containers; not just wicket-takers, but economical too.

This year, counties appear to have cottoned on. And a study of the wrist-spinners in this year's competition should provide evidence as to why they are such hot property in 20-over cricket; the leg-spinning class of 2018 exude control throughout an innings, and can be relied upon in the Powerplay or at the death.

ESPNCricinfo's Smart Stats, unveiled ahead of the 2018 IPL, help contextualise more rudimentary data, and take the differences between high-scoring and low-scoring matches, and phases of the game into account.

Analysis of legspinners' Smart Economy Rates - which take into account the rate of other bowlers in a match, and the phase of a game - in their T20 careers since 2015 shows just how effective they are.

There are no prizes for guessing that Rashid Khan comes out on top, with a Smart ER of just 4.62 in that period. Other overseas spinners are also miserly: Hampshire's mystery Afghani spinner Mujeeb ur-Rahman has a Smart ER of 5.23, while Northants' Seekkuge Prasanna (6.44), Essex's Adam Zampa (6.52), Tahir (7.16), and Sodhi (7.22) are not far behind.

But the stats also show just how successful domestic bowlers have been in the Blast. Lancashire's exciting prospect, Matt Parkinson, was the highlight of their otherwise-unsuccessful T20 campaign last year, and weighs in with a Smart ER of just 4.8.

Parkinson, a 21-year-old from Bolton, has certainly made an impression in his fledgling white-ball career: he impressed the national selectors so much in his inaugural Blast campaign last year that he was given a List A debut on the England Lions tour of the West Indies. If he maintains such statistics it is inevitable that T20 leagues worldwide will take an interest.

Just as impressive are the Smart ERs of Adil Rashid (6.8), Brett D'Oliveira (6.93), and Mason Crane (7.18), a trio of diminutive talents who are turning the ball less, and bowling flatter and shorter than when they made their debuts.

Rashid, of course, will feel the added pressure of a disenchanted set of Yorkshire fans. His white-ball-only deal was met with displeasure by most of the members and Yorkshire, threatened by relegation in the Championship remain eager to persuade him to change his mind. He will need to impress again in the shortest form to win back favour and to prove the decision was a good one.

Strikingly, it is hard to find a legspinner who is a weak links in a county side. In fact, since 2015, the average economy rate across all bowlers in the Blast is 7.94. All of the frontline leggies likely to play in the first round of matches have a Smart ER lower than that figure in the same time period, with Dawid Malan (7.95) and Scott Borthwick (8.12) (who has failed to build on his solitary Test at the end of England's 2013-14 Ashes disaster) the only wrist-spinners with worse data.

Expect legspin to feature not only in the middle overs, but in the Powerplay and at the death, too. Four years ago, Samuel Badree's rise to become the number one-ranked T20I bowler was based on bowling two or three overs of skiddy wrist-spin in the Powerplay, barely turning the ball, but relying instead on changes of pace and subtle variations. Similarly, much of this year's cohort has experience bowling in the Powerplay. Mujeeb and Khan have 19 Powerplay wickets between them since 2015, with Smart ERs of 6.11 and a miserly 4.00 respectively.

Domestic spinners can be successful despite fielding restrictions, too: Max Waller opened the bowling four times for Somerset last season, and since 2015 has combined figures of 5 for 37 across his six Powerplay overs - he has only been hit for one boundary in that time. There's nothing to say legspinners shouldn't be used at the death, either. Across all major T20 tournaments since last year's Blast, spin has proved more economical in the death overs than pace, and yet just 16% of deliveries in overs 16-20 are bowled by spinners, compared to 36% in the innings overall.

As can be seen below, there is a trade-off between wrist-spinners who take wickets at the death with a high economy (Critchley) and those who keep things tight without offering so much threat (Waller). Only the best of the bunch - Parkinson, Rashid, Khan, and Zampa - can do both.

The Blast's set of leggies have impressed in the slog overs on the whole. Of the seven wrist-spinners who have bowled more than ten death overs since 2015, three - Sodhi (8.27), Waller (8.49), and Ingram (10.92) - have Smart ERs that are significantly worse than for the rest of the innings, but Khan, Zampa, Prasanna, and Rashid are all successful there.

Rashid is particularly impressive: his Smart ER in overs 16-20 is 3.63, and his 21.4 death overs have yielded 12 wickets and only nine boundaries. Don't be surprised if Yorkshire use him alongside Tim Bresnan in the latter stages of an innings this year.

The next few weeks should give an idea as to whether legspinners will dominate this year's tournament. If they do, the Blast will be following the global trend. That is not something they have always been able to claim.

Legspinners in the Blast
Birmingham: Josh Poysden; Derbyshire: Matt Critchley; Durham: Imran Tahir, Graham Clark; Essex: Adam Zampa; Glamorgan: Colin Ingram; Gloucestershire: None; Hampshire: Mujeeb ur-Rahman; Kent: Joe Denly; Lancashire: Matt Parkinson; Leicestershire: None; Middlesex: Nathan Sowter; Northants: Seekkuge Prasanna; Notts: Ish Sodhi; Somerset: Max Waller; Surrey: Scott Borthwick; Sussex: Rashid Khan; Worcestershire: Brett D'Oliveira; Yorkshire: Adil Rashid.