The return of the fingerspinner
In the recent Australia-West Indies series, Suleiman Benn was the joint leading wicket-taker for the visitors. Nathan Hauritz took the same number of wickets as Benn, though he was outdone by teammates Johnson and Bollinger. As I write, the leading wicket-takers in the South Africa- England series are Graeme Swann and Paul Harris.
There was a theory floating round in the early part of this decade that the conventional finger-spinner was an endangered species, and that fairly soon he would be confined to Asian habitats. Wrist-spinners, and weird finger-spinners like Muttiah Muralitharan, would survive and even thrive elsewhere, but the common or garden tweaker was destined to die out. Yet here we are with series in Australia and South Africa with the spinners in rude health and doing very well.
And it's not as though these four are particularly special. Neither Swann nor Hauritz is a Jim Laker or Erapalli Prasanna, neither Benn nor Harris are a patch on Bishen Bedi or Derek Underwood. They don't have mystery balls, they don't turn it square, they don't try doosras. They are merely good bowlers, with Swann perhaps verging on the borders of very good by dint of having the wit to exploit what he has learned in a dozen years on the county circuit.
It is most heartening to see them being decently successful, especially since I have been watching these games on TV. When the fast men are on, you can perhaps see the keeper, first and second slip in the far distance and it is not visually obvious that the batsman is in serious danger, whereas when a spinner is on and there are four or five fielders crouched round the batsman, you can feel the steam building up in the pressure-cooker - and these last few weeks, we have had gratifyingly extended views of batsmen being boiled like sponge puddings. (At the ground, it is all too likely that the crowd of close catchers serves mostly to obscure one's view of the batsman and all you see of a wicket is a hand emerging from a heap of fielders, clutching an Excalibur which has suddenly become small, red and round rather than long and steely.)
The key is that those fielders are crouching round the bat. Harris and Benn are not really any better as slow left-armers than the likes of Ashley Giles or Nicky Boje who were plying their trade in the early years of the decade, but they have the benefit of captains who think they have a chance of taking wickets and give them the fields to do it with. You can generate all the bat-pad chances you like, but the wickets column will remain empty unless there is someone there to snaffle them, and far too often in the '90s and early '00s, perfectly respectable spinners were presented with fields which indicated that the skipper just wanted them to keep the batsmen quiet for a bit.
Mike Atherton was good player of ordinary, rather than extraordinary, spinners and therefore did not think that they would get anyone else out and set Phil Tufnell almost exclusively defensive fields.. Saurav Ganguly the batsman used to view slow left-armers much as a hungry man views an all-you-can-eat buffet and treated any of the breed unfortunate enough to be sent along to play for India with barely-disguised disdain.
Andrew Strauss and Graeme Smith, on the other hand, have both had periods of being found out by spin bowlers and Ricky Ponting's inability to play more than an over of Harbhajan Singh without getting out is the stuff of legend. Captains who have had trouble batting against spinners are obviously more likely to repose their confidence in them as bowlers.
But it is still up to the bowlers to perform, and Benn, Hauritz, Swann and Harris - with the help of their captains – are doing a fine job of proving the doomsayers of a few years ago wrong.