Australia news December 15, 2011

Australia's spin struggle exposed by CA study

As offspinner Nathan Lyon strengthens his claim to be Australia's No. 1 slow bowler, a study commissioned by Cricket Australia has revealed how the art of spin withered after the retirement of Shane Warne.

Lyon's emergence is made to look all the more remarkable by the study's findings, which expose a crippling lack of genuine opportunities afforded to graduates of junior cricket, and a poverty of patience and understanding for spin's subtleties.

The study, conducted this year and obtained by ESPNcricinfo, was done by CA and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to better understand why spinners struggled to make a lasting impact in Warne's wake.

Following Warne's exit from Test cricket in the first week of 2007, Australia's selectors tried 11 spin bowlers in search of the right practitioner at the national level.

In the Sheffield Shield competition, opportunities for spinners have diminished with time, their roles often limited to defensive commissions. Lyon, the most recent spin bowler to be tried for Australia, made a promising start, benefiting from a longer-term approach to his development in the team and the sympathetic captaincy of Michael Clarke.

The study involved 24 Australian spin bowlers of a variety of ages, including 10 international representatives, another five first-class players, and nine state junior cricketers. Research was undertaken by CA spin coach John Davison, CA/AIS analyst Wayne Spratford and University of NSW professor David Mann.

Its conclusions relate that spin bowlers were given fewer chances to grow and develop their skills relative to batsmen and fast bowlers, when the background of most spin bowlers dictated that they should be given more.

"Spin-bowlers should be given more time to develop than other cricketers," the study's authors wrote. "In general they have played five-six years of cricket before they start to bowl spin. It is commonly acknowledged that a certain volume of practice is required to develop an expert level of performance in any given type of skill (often cited to be 10,000 hours), and as a result spin bowlers will be older than their peers by the time they have acquired a sufficient volume of practice."

Slow bowling is commonly arrived at as a cricketer's skill of choice after other options have been tried. The study points out that spin requires more complex skills and ideas that are more easily reached and understood in adulthood.

"Cricketers generally need to develop a general motor-program ('muscle-memory') for bowling before they can progress to bowling spin," the study said. "This is much like a swimmer should learn to do free-style before they can specialise in other strokes.

"Many of the ligaments and muscles in the shoulder, wrist, and fingers may need time to sufficiently grow and develop before children are ready to bowl spin. Junior cricketers, generally, have a preference to 'make-it' as a pace bowler first, and may only take up spin as a 'default' if they are not good enough, fit enough, or sustain injuries when bowling pace. Several of our key first-class/international spin-bowlers did not start bowling spin until they were 17-18."

Significantly, the study found that spin bowlers commonly experienced a 25% drop in the amount of overs they bowled in matches when they made the transition from junior cricket to first-class competition.

"Opportunities to bowl in games diminish considerably when players transition out of junior cricket," the study said. "Spin bowlers generally decrease their bowling by 25% when they finish junior cricket, typically at a point when they should be increasing their volume of bowling."

As spin bowlers develop in Australia, their opportunities to bowl further and gain a greater level of skill are limited by a combination of unhelpful captains, conditions and 21st century leisure habits. The study suggests that in general, young slow bowlers do not practice on their own often enough, as previous generations had done.

"Many of our spin bowlers do not perform the volume of bowling that we observe performed by other sportspeople that reach high levels of achievement," the study said. "Spin bowlers tend to be practising less by themselves and restricting most of their practice/play to official team training and games. This may be an effect of a changing society where there are less opportunities for backyard/informal play, and more distractions such as computer games and television."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo