Cricket World Cup: Spin's the thing

Iain Fletcher finds the twirly men are central to success today
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The Independent Online
COULD IT be that a World Cup which was supposed to be all about seam bowlers is won or lost by a spinner? In among the frenetic and the brilliant these past few days, the true cricket aficionado will have taken the greatest pleasure from the performances of Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq.

The old blond bombshell did it once again on Thursday when it mattered most. His performance in the semi-final was astonishing: 10 overs, four wickets for just 29 runs was the perfect riposte to the critics. Yet if Australia are going to beat Pakistan he has probably got to do it all again, and that could be a crucial difference with his opposite number. Saqlain does not work under that pressure.

John Emburey, the former England off-spinner and now a leading coach of the slow bowler's art, certainly believes so. "Warne is a fantastic bowler but because of the weakness of the rest of the bowling he has to take wickets, and he knows it," he said. "Now the pitches are drier he has turned the ball and looked dangerous again - but the Pakistanis are wonderful players of spin.

"It's interesting that Steve Waugh has used him as a main weapon of pressure: when a wicket has fallen he has brought Warne on because he immediately threatens the new batsman and could easily take another couple of wickets, but he has also used him at the death when the slog is on.

"Wasim uses Saqlain more conventionally, but he has a better bowling attack and Shoaib as the spearhead. Saqlain is allowed to bowl to restrict and has normally bowled when the field can be spread, but it has been fantastic to see both bowling to attacking fields with slips and silly points. It has really put the batsmen under pressure."

The idiosyncrasies of Lord's today, with its slope and small square boundaries, make life more difficult for the slow men. Both have the full repertoire of spinners, zooters, sliders and balls that go the other way, but it all comes to nowt if a batsman keeps planting his front leg and swinging the ball high into the stand. In such circumstances, and in a game of such magnitude, a precise game-plan, Emburey said, is crucial.

"I think it is vital that Saqlain bowls from the Pavilion End and turns the ball," Emburey said. "Both need to `rip it' and both are best when attacking, but they have to think who they are bowling to. Mark Waugh is a wonderful player, but he often gets out to offies, while his brother will try and dominate with the slog-sweep. Maybe Wasim should keep Saqlain away from Steve Waugh and bowl him at Ricky Ponting, who is less sure against quality spin.

"Warne will be more attacking, even though the Pakistanis are superb players of spin, and he is a player for the big occasion as he keeps proving. It is fantastic that these two have such a part to play in the final because they really are excellent bowlers. Both are big wicket takers, turn the ball a lot and have captains who trust them and, surprisingly for the one-day game, use them as weapons."

At the end of today one of those captains will hold aloft the World Cup and it could be because of a single decision taken in the cauldron of competition involving a slow bowler, the traditional whipping boys of the one-day game.