April 28, 2008

International men of mystery

Ajantha Mendis is the latest in a long line of unusual spinners who kept batsmen and spectators guessing

Sri Lanka has had an illustrious line of freakish bowlers, from Murali to Malinga to, most recently, Mendis © AFP

Watching Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis bowl is like trying to hold a conversation with a naturally quiet person in a noisy pub. What was that again, Ajantha? Didn't quite catch that - can you repeat it? Sorry pal, I thought you said something else. Hey, can we go outside? Can't hear myself think in here.

Mendis's run-up is plain to the point of innocence, but his fingers are all subtlety, inscrutably resistant to sharing their secrets. The batsman is left groping, searching for cues and clues. Eh? Come again? What was that? Can you give me that once more? And finally: what happened?

His mixture of legbreaks, offbreaks, doosras, googlies and topspinners is a perplexity for statisticians too. Cricinfo is calling him "right-arm slow-medium" at the moment, but cricketers translate "right-arm slow-medium" as "bowls in the nets if he's lucky". If he plays county cricket, Playfair will have to consider a designation like ROBLB or RSM@#&%?!

Others have already settled on the designation "mystery spinner", the epithet conferred almost 60 years ago on the Australian Jack Iverson. Mendis and he certainly seem to share prodigiously strong middle fingers. The ball settled into Iverson's grip like a marble for the squirting. Mendis, likewise, looks simply to caress the ball as he propels it, barely involving the palm of his hand at all, and holding one particular variation as delicately as an entomological specimen. Both bowlers possess the cardinal virtue of accuracy, and a liking for long spells.

Where they differ seems to be in variety and spin. Iverson spun his stock ball, a googly, massively, but his variations considerably less: batsmen finally figured on playing him as an offbreak bowler, albeit one who looked like he was bowling legbreaks. Mendis doesn't spin any of his options enormously; it is the combination of them, and the difficulty distinguishing one from the other, that makes him a handful.

There is always excitement when a bowler like Mendis appears. Batsmen scratch their heads. Captains and coaches confabulate. Cricket's telephone exchange buzzes.

The original "mystery ball", and still perhaps the most delicious, is the googly itself, the offbreak delivered by the legbreak action conceived on his family billiards table before being hazarded on the sward at Lord's by BJT Bosanquet - and thus sometimes known as the "bosie", and also the "wrong 'un". It's somehow fitting that such a double agent of a delivery should have multiple aliases.

At first the googly posed more preposterous difficulties than its progenitor: the first to take a first-class wicket bounced four times. But it soon swept the world: the South African XI of a century ago included no fewer than four specialist purveyors, and the Australian team of 1910-11 featured perhaps the best exponent of all. Certainly it was the view of Johnnie Moyes, who saw all its antipodean advocates, Arthur Mailey, Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly included, that no Australian mastered the googly more thoroughly than "Ranji" Hordern.

Ramadhin surprised himself with the discovery that his quicker one seamed away with an ounce of extra effort © PA Photos

[Hordern] was without doubt an amazing bowler. He took a long run, brought his arm right over, was a length as well as a spin bowler, and of medium pace. He didn't seem to be flighting the ball, yet did so, as the batsman discovered when he tried to move down the pitch to him. That wasn't easy as Hordern was slightly faster through the air, but the temptation was there, as I found to my cost in Victor Trumper's benefit game, only to hear Sammy Carter say, "Got you, son"... Sometimes you could see the tip of the little finger sticking up skyward like a periscope of a submarine, but only if you were concentrating on it. If you did see it, you recognised the approaching "bosie".

The first googly in Australia bowled Victor Trumper; a googly was also the last ball to defeat Donald Bradman in a Test match. Simply by existing, it had an effect on cricket's ecosystem. "If this sort of bowling becomes general I'm packing my bags," threatened Archie MacLaren, before deciding he could live with it. It even enjoyed an oriental translation into the "chinaman".

No other delivery, in fact, has had quite the same impact on cricket, and by never really being improved on, it also caused cricket to revert to being a batsman's game. In an incisive 1950 critique of Bradman's impact on cricket, the Birmingham Post's cricket correspondent WE Hall observed.

In due course we shall come to see Bradman as an inevitable part of the evolution of the game. From Grace's integration of forward and back-play the art of batting advanced until, in [Jack] Hobbs, a technique was perfected to master the "new" bowling, as it has been called. It was the last of the qualitative changes in cricket, a fact realised by one writer who said that the game needed a new type of ball to do what the "googly" once did. But there has been no new type of ball, and the only development left to batsmen between the wars was the quantitative one which followed, as surely as mass production followed the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, mystery bowling is classically an individual pursuit, the result of lone experiment and lateral thought. Iverson is the archetype, his bowling having originated in a lifetime of nervous finger flicking with a table tennis ball; likewise were Iverson's protégé Johnny Gleeson, double-dealing Sonny Ramadhin, and whizz-banging Bhagwat Chandrasekhar self-taught cricketers.

Ramadhin and Chandra made the most of their bowling's hidden depths. Delivering a stock ball that spun from the off, both buttoned their sleeves at the wrist, as though to deflect the curious glare. Ramadhin bowled his offbreak with the middle finger down rather than across the seam, to sometimes startling effect. Ken Archer described playing with Ramadhin for a Commonwealth XI in September 1954 at seaside Hastings, when the bowler discovered that his quicker one seamed away with an ounce of extra effort; he could hardly bowl for his delighted laughter. Chandra's right arm was so withered from childhood polio that he could hardly hold a cup of tea to his lips. But with it he bowled googlies and legbreaks that seemed to set his whole body whirring like a child's spinning top. And like no other bowler, he haunted Viv Richards:

Iverson was the original mystery spinner, and originator of the 'marble-squirter's grip' © PA Photos

It took me a long, long time to come to terms with Chandra. He was the most teasing bowler I ever had to face, and I never quite knew whether I was in charge or not. That was his greatness. His ability to lure opponents into a false sense of security was deadly. How is a batsman supposed to dominate such a man? How can he build his own confidence when he does not know whether the bowler is faking or not? ... To this day he probably remains the one bowler for whom I have most respect. He could do things with the ball that seemed supernatural.

In the last two decades, Muttiah Muralitharan has been perhaps the most mysterious of bowlers, and certainly the most paradoxical: a wrist-spinning offbreak bowler. Indeed, to the interminable debate about Murali's action, a modest proposal might be worth making. One key exhibit in the case for Murali's legitimacy is footage of him, taken by Channel Four, bowling with his arm in a cast and spinning the ball every bit as far. What might be even more instructive would be if his wrist were immobilised instead - I suspect it would draw much of his bowling's sting, and in doing so demonstrate the locus of his energy.

Curiously, too, the doosra, the ball the offspinner has perfected to go the other way, might well predate him. Jack Potter went on Australia's 1964 Ashes tour as a right-hand batsman, but his part-time finger spin was just as impressive, for he varied his offbreak with a ball going the other way without apparently changing action. "If I had a ball like that," Richie Benaud told Potter, "I'd be practising at Lord's before breakfast." As a batsman, Potter preferred to keep it as a party piece, to flummox county pros, and amuse his keeper, Wally Grout, who wrote:

You had no chance of detecting it from the hand and could only hope to pick the direction of the spin through the air, a dicey business, particularly on the many English grounds with sightscreens ... [Gloucestershire's David] Allen muttered to me one day after Jack's wrong 'un had him swiping fresh air: "What's this fellow doing?" and though equally fooled I did my best to convince David that the ball had hit something on the wicket. In later matches the appearance of Potter at the bowling crease prompted a conference among the batsmen, one I should have been allowed to join. I was as much in the dark about Jack's pet ball as they were.

Potter's chief contribution to the history of mystery would be as a teacher, for it was he who, at the AIS Cricket Academy, inducted Shane Warne into the enigma of the flipper, a back-spun legbreak that zaps from under the hand, and burrows straight ahead like a commuter running headlong for a departing train. This ball came in line of descent from Clarrie Grimmett through Bruce Dooland, who imparted it to Richie Benaud at Trent Bridge in May 1956. For a time, when Warne bowled it the flipper was so popular it seemed to be on the brink of getting its own talk show.

In time, however, Warne turned out to be the cricketer who best demonstrated that mystery is temporary, mastery permanent. Warne talked a good mystery ball, but in action he was quite the opposite, generous to the point of exhibitionism in the way he shared his art. Perhaps no bowler in cricket history has been replayed more often: the legbreak to dismiss Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in June 1993 has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube alone. But study was no substitute for the experience of Warne's predatory presence.

For any modern bowling enigma quickly flushes out an army of Alan Turings: about je ne sais quoi they are soon saying quelle barbe. The googly of the last 20 years has been reverse swing, a decided advantage for Pakistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s but increasingly exoteric since then - to the extent, in fact, that Australia did not think it a skill worth mastering, and came a cropper against Simon Jones and Freddie Flintoff during the 2005 Ashes series.

Warne: demonstrated that 'mystery is temporary, mastery permanent' © Getty Images

The Australians are not usually so careless. Even when the doosra confounded them for one golden day at Bellerive Oval in November 1999, Saqlain Mushtaq taking 6 for 46, it was not through the lack of a plan so much as the forgetting of one. As Steve Waugh explained:

Fair enough, this is a special ball delivered with the skill of an illusionist, but it's also one we have talked about in detail and always have a plan to. We believe that Saqlain hardly ever turns his offbreak, and that his stock ball is the mystery delivery that turns like a legbreak. To counter him, we believe that early on, until you've got accustomed to the difference in flight and bounce of this ball, you should play him as a legspinner and use your pad to neutralise the occasional offbreak. However, for some reason we completely forgot about this strategy and paid the price, losing wicket after wicket to his "freakish" skill.

Saqlain took 4 for 205 in the next three innings as Australia swept the series clean. In other words, when mystery wears off, there must be a residue of skill and resilience. Indeed, many international cricket careers now unfold like whodunits solved in the first 30 pages; after that, the player is a quarry on the run, trying to stay a step ahead of his opponents.

The mysterious, or at least the unorthodox, can still have powerful short-term impacts; indeed, it is possible that the homogenising influence of television and coaching has enhanced the value of the unusual cricketer. It was noticeable that the four most effective bowlers in last year's World Cup were all gifted with decidedly homespun methods. None from the spinners Murali and Brad Hogg, the pacemen Lasith Malinga and Shaun Tait obsessed about "the channel" or "getting it in the right areas". They either spun the ball as much as they could, or slung it as fast as they were able.

None, however, has really prospered since, even Murali being below his exalted best in Australia and the West Indies. Malinga hasn't lingered; Tait is gone temporarily, Hogg permanently. The acid test of Ajantha Mendis, then, is not what he is doing now, but how his game is standing up in two years' time.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. He is the author of, among other books, Mystery Spinner, the biography of Jack Iverson