Warne content with spin's low-key role
Shane Warne had a bowl in the MCG nets on Tuesday. At 43, he is slim and fit, but he has plenty of rust to shed over the next couple of months, before his first match as captain of the Melbourne Stars. Even the greatest legspinner the game has seen was unable to land his first ball, a full toss. As Warne has been saying ever since his retirement, spin bowling is damn hard. Spinners need to be treated with patience.
It is nearly six years since Warne last wore the baggy green. Throughout that time he has been adamant that Australia's selectors should choose a spinner and stick with him. Show some faith. Give him a chance to settle in. Instead, they used 11 slow bowlers in Test cricket in four years. Not even Elizabeth Taylor discarded men at such a rapid rate.
But over the past year, Warne's words have been heeded by a new panel of selectors, who have chosen Nathan Lyon for 13 Tests, flinching only when they chose four fast men who ended up demolishing India in two and a half days at the WACA last summer. Now that patience has been shown, Warne wants Australians to accept that spinners in this country are unlikely to be match-winners over the next few years.
That doesn't mean they can't do an important job. Without question, there is depth in Australia's pace bowling stocks at the moment, from the older, tougher trio of Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Ryan Harris to the stars of the future, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc. If Lyon can play the kind of supporting role Ashley Mallett did to Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and co during the 1970s, he will have done his job.
"We're very lucky that we've got some super quick bowling, a great corps of quick bowling," Warne said. "It might be an era where the quicks dominate and the spinner takes a bit of a backward role and just does his job. When the time comes, when the pitches start to rag, whether it be Adelaide on day five or Brisbane on day five or Sydney - although Sydney hasn't turned for ten years - we get on a wicket that starts to really turn, that's when it's payday for them and they go 'hang on, it's my turn now'."
The idea of playing a spinner who was more foil than frontline wicket taker was common throughout the 1970s and 80s, from Mallett to Bruce Yardley to Greg Matthews to Tim May to Peter Taylor. It was only when Warne redefined legspin in the 1990s that the perception changed. The presence of Stuart MacGill as his backup re-enforced the notion that the spinner could, and should, deliver regular victories for his side.
"We've just got to have a bit of patience with them and let them develop," Warne said of the next generation of slow bowlers. "They're not going to be matchwinners from day one and in their first season take 50 wickets - no one has done that for ages in Shield cricket."
Not since MacGill has a spinner really dominated the Sheffield Shield. In the past decade, there have been 86 occasions when a fast bowler has claimed 30 wickets in a Shield season. In the same period, spinners have done it only five times (MacGill three times, Bryce McGain and Dan Cullen once each). That is as much a product of green seaming domestic pitches as a decline in the quality of Australia's spin bowlers.
The lack of turning surfaces has done little to encourage legspinners in particular. Queensland's Cameron Boyce is the only wrist-spinner currently being given regular Shield action. Steven Smith now considers himself a batsman who bowls occasionally, the same career progression that was followed by Cameron White. South Australia's Cullen Bailey was given a few chances last summer under the state's open-minded new coach Darren Berry, but hasn't been sighted this season. Nor is there an abundance of legspinners coming through the junior levels.
"I'll tell you why there's no wrist-spinners ... It's hard. It's not easy. You need encouragement," Warne said. "I think sometimes the captaincy at junior level that I've found with a lot of the kids playing is when they do get to 14 or 15 and they get smacked around the park, or they bowl a few double-bouncers, the encouragement is not there and they get taken off and they say this is a bit hard, let's just go with a medium pacer.
"A lot of people who had a lot of talent around 15 or 16 and wanted to do it then lose interest and go, 'well I might go to the beach instead, this is not much fun'. Cricket back in the under-age [levels] should be fun. If they can have fun as kids and have a bit of fun with the ball and get supported by their captain and coach, be encouraged rather than 'let's not do that, let's bowl really fast and don't get hit'. That's not really encouraging spin bowling."
It's not just the way spinners are used in junior cricket that has occupied the thoughts of those in cricket recently. After returning home from the World T20, where unconventional spinners like Ajantha Mendis, Sunil Narine and Saeed Ajmal were stand-out performers, Australia's T20 captain George Bailey said he hoped that Australia could one day find similarly unusual bowlers, which could only happen if they were encouraged at under-age levels. But Warne doesn't believe it should be a major point of concern.
"I don't think in Australia we do that. We do the basics, we're traditional," Warne said. "Sure, we do a few things out of left field and always look to improve the players, but I don't think we're into all the different [styles]. How do you coach it? If someone comes along that's really unique you'll embrace them and encourage them, but you're not going to go and teach doosras and all those sorts of things, because really, great if you can do it, but for me I'm all about the basics.
"It's all about the mindset and how they approach the game. Sure, you have to spin the ball if you're a spinner… That's the first thing you work on is spinning it and if you can make it go a few different ways, then great. But I wouldn't be coaching different sort of techniques that might push the 15-degree level."
And that goes to the heart of Warne's argument about the state of spin bowling in Australia. Get the basics right, play a role and don't worry if it's the fast men who take all the accolades. Because as Warne himself showed on Tuesday, it's not always easy to make the ball talk. Even if you were once the best in the world.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here