The 1992 World Cup was quite different from the previous editions of the tournament in many ways and one of the most memorable events that took place in the competition was the off-spinning all-rounder Dipak Patel opening the bowling from New Zealand. The move, made by Martin Crowe, worked wonders as teams like India that play spin very well found it difficult to deal with that. Although it was a successful tactic for New Zealand, the other teams weren't quite interested in adopting the tactic. Years later, T20 cricket came into being and the Dipak Patel laboratory started to reopen.
Pacers bowling the opening overs of a cricket match has become a norm as the captains look to utilise the new ball as much as possible. In red-ball cricket and even in 50-over cricket, you don't often see spinners taking the new ball. But when it comes to T20s, where stopping the flow of runs is more significant than picking up wickets, the spinners have an important role when the ball is new and hard. The white Kookaburra doesn't swing or seam much and so it doesn't quite matter whether a pacer is bowling or a spinner until the runs are in check.
The first six overs of a T20 game are considered to be an important phase. Only two fielders are allowed outside the 30-yard circle and the field restrictions provide the batters with a great opportunity to get their teams off to flying starts and set a good platform. Numbers suggest that the teams having high powerplay run rates have high chances of being successful. India have been the most successful T20I side in the last five years and unsurprisingly their powerplay run rate has been higher than any team during this period (8.36).
So, it's important for bowling teams to make sure the opponents are not given enough scoring opportunities inside the powerplay and that's where the spinners come into play. In the early 2010s, MS Dhoni started opening the bowling with Ravichandran Ashwin in the IPL and found admirable success. Now, a decade later, it has started to become a common phenomenon to have spinners bowling inside the powerplay. If you look at the teams, you'll find specialist spinners bowling inside the powerplay with a very important responsibility of stopping the run flow.
Bangladesh have been the team using spinners most frequently in the powerplay of late, although most of those matches took place on slow and low wickets of Mirpur. But they now have at least three finger spinners who bowl regularly with the new ball irrespective of the conditions. Nasum Ahmed and Mahedi Hasan have made names for themselves as powerplay specialists. Shakib Al Hasan has bowled inside the first six overs so many times for Bangladesh and in the IPL and other franchise leagues. No wonder Bangladesh have been the most prolific team since 2021 in terms of 'powerplay wickets off spin bowling' with 43 wickets.
Not only Bangladesh, but the other teams in T20 cricket have also started to have more spinners bowling with the new ball. Moeen Ali was one of the architects of England's success with the new ball in the 2021 T20 World Cup. Maheesh Theekshana does it on a regular basis for Sri Lanka, Akeal Hosein for the West Indies, Imad Wasim for Pakistan and Ashton Agar for Australia. And quite interestingly, all of Nasum, Mahedi, Theekshana, Hosein, Moeen, Imad and Agar have an economy rate of well under eight-an-over.
In the last two years in T20Is, 25% of the powerplay overs have been bowled by spinners and 71% of the innings have spinners bowling at least one over inside the first six. Interestingly, the economy rate of spinners in the first six overs is seven-an-over which is much lower than that of the pacers (7.31) during this period. The average of batters also falls down significantly against the spinners, suggesting that the slow bowlers have been troubling the batters more often in T20Is.
The way spinners change their approach while bowling with the new ball is something very fascinating. You'll find a lot of spinners nowadays who look to fire the ball in, bowl with a flatter trajectory and at a faster pace and give the batters no room. They get through the overs quickly and often the batters don't have time between balls to understand what's going on and by the time they figure it out, the spinners run away with 24-25 runs off their four overs. Samuel Badree is considered the ultimate specialist powerplay spinner and he pointed out in an interview that you can't give width and be slow when you are bowling in the powerplay as a spinner.
Back to Moeen Ali. He had an economy rate of under six in the powerplay in the World Cup in the UAE and was hit for only one six in 11 overs he bowled inside the first six. Now one might argue if this tactic would be fruitful in the next World Cup in Australia. Well, the numbers will give hope to the spinners. Spinners have a lower economy rate (7.35) than the fast bowlers (7.46) in the last 12 months in Australia in T20 cricket and that's an encouraging sign. We have already seen the likes of Agar, Washington Sundar, Theekshana, Glenn Maxwell bowling with the new ball in Australia in the recent past in international cricket and the numbers suggest that it won't be a bad idea to open the bowling with spinners and get through the overs quickly.
With the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin and Sunil Narine showing the way and a number of spinners taking it forward, it's almost certain that we will see more and more spinners taking the new ball against the convention. The introduction of match-ups and analytics also have a big part in that. Spinners have, slowly but effectively, started to change the dynamics of powerplay bowling in T20 cricket. The Dipak Patel laboratory has surely reopened.