In the early years of the IPL, offspinners were the go-to spin bowlers. Late-career Muttiah Muralitharan kept the Chennai Super Kings’ middle overs tight, Harbhajan Singh rocked it for the Mumbai Indians, and before long, Sunil Narine and R Ashwin would come through. In the first five IPL seasons, offspin comprised 41% of the spin deliveries, compared to 24% for wristspin and 35% for left-arm orthodox.
In the years since, however, offspinners have slipped in popularity in limited-overs cricket, compared to slow bowlers of other descriptions. Globally this perhaps has something to do with the crackdown on the doosra, which many offspin bowlers have not been able to consistently deliver legally. (The carrom ball is generally much easier to pick from the hand.)
It has been no different in the IPL. Although offspinners deliver roughly the same proportion of deliveries, relative to other kinds of bowling, as in the early years of the last decade, the rise of wristspin has been marked. Where in the 2014 season offspinners, left-arm orthodox bowlers and wristspinners all delivered just under 15% of the overall deliveries bowled, the popularity of wristspin has grown significantly since then, largely due to their wicket-taking potential.
Offspin, however, hasn’t become completely irrelevant during recent IPL seasons. Alhough wristspinners might pose a greater wicket-taking threat, offspinners have generally been more economical – Narine, Murali, Harbhajan and Ashwin are all among the six most economical bowlers in the IPL (1000-delivery minimum). Perhaps it is worthy of note that most of the spinners on that list are unorthodox in some ways.
However, where offspinners once used to be deployed during the middle overs – the traditional stomping ground for spinners – they have now migrated to another part of the innings. Increasingly, the IPL is seeing offspinners in the powerplay overs, where most wristspinners do not tread. Since 2017, over 30% of offspin deliveries have come in the first six overs.
So what has this migration been about? First, offspinners are the most abundant variety of spin bowler, and perhaps the IPL was always going to find new uses for offies when wristspinners became preferred through the middle overs. Perhaps more importantly, however, as match-ups have begun to dominate franchise cricket, offspinners have begun to prove more useful against left-hand batsmen, who are generally reluctant to clobber offspinners to the leg side, against the turn. Few bowlers exemplify this as well as Mohammad Nabi. Against right-hand batsmen, he averages 56.33 and has an economy of 8.17. Against left-handers, he averages 16.25 and has an economy rate of 5.3.
Against left-handers in general over the last three seasons, legspinners and pace bowlers have had better strike rates, but offspinners have been the most economical by a distance, giving away only 7.06 an over. It is their low economy rate that drives their effectiveness, both in the powerplay and against left-handers.
There is a chance, however, that offspinners may play a bigger role than just being left-hander kryptonite in the early overs. With the IPL set to be played in only three UAE venues this year, pitches are likely to wear as the tournament goes on. If this is the case, lower, slower pitches are often a boon to fingerspinners, who rely on turn off the surface more than wristspinners, who can more reliably deal in deception.
In the CPL, for instance, where pitches have consistently been slow this season, offspinners have averaged 17.87 and maintained an economy rate of 5.48. Wristspinners have averaged 20.13 and gone at 6.16.
Whether fingerspinners become more prominent as the tournament wears on remains to be seen. There is little doubt, however, that when it comes to taking down left-handers, offspiners have a substantial role to play.