May 19, 2008

Where spin is a sin

West Indies' rich legacy of pace bowling is mostly history, so why are they still not giving spinners a fair go?


Cameo appearances: the likes of Dave Mohammed (above, centre), Amit Jaggernauth and Sulieman Benn have made it to the side only sporadically © Stanford 20/20
 

An old sore was scraped open during the recent Sri Lanka tour of the West Indies, once again splitting camps and raising questions over selection policies. The issue that resurfaced was why spin bowlers had not found a space of comfort on West Indian teams. The answers suggest it is an old and bitter debate that circles issues of power, ethnicity and nationalism.

The squad currently in training for Australia's tour includes three specialist fast bowlers: Jerome Taylor, Fidel Edwards and Daren Powell, along with Dwayne Bravo; Amit Jaggernauth (offbreaks), Sewnarine Chattergoon (legbreaks) and Sulieman Benn (left-arm orthodox). Dave Mohammed, who was in fine form during the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) Twenty20 tournament that ended last Sunday, is not in, and columnist Fazeer Mohammed questioned the omission, as well, of Nikita Miller, who was the leading wicket-taker in the regional first-class series.

There is little to suggest that the final squad will carry more than one bowler outside the fast framework, especially given the venues. The question will indubitably arise again: what does West Indies have against spinners?

Looking through the dispassionate lens of history, it appears a matter of identity and power. West Indies cricket came to glory through its fast bowlers and locked itself into an alignment that equates power with speed. And although the speed is no longer what it was, the power base it constructed will not let it lose its place.

For in the beginning there was pace. Seeking Test status in the 1920s, to make their case West Indies found strength in fast men like Learie Constantine, George Francis, Herman Griffith and George John. This was their bowling armoury (supported by the medium pace of Joe Small and occasional legbreaks from Teddy Hoad, Ernest Rae, Clifford Roach and others). It set up an identity of sorts - nothing sharply defined, but something of a formula upon which team selections could rest. Spin bowlers were not a dominant part of that equation.

Something unusual happened when the team was preparing for the England tour in 1950. Selectors took a chance on two uncapped players who had been frightfully impressive at home, and that was how Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin injected the flavour of spin into the West Indies team.

 
 
Lloyd complained after the loss to India in 1976, when he played three spinners, that there were 'guys who bowled spin, not got people out'
 

They mystified, and more importantly took wickets, to see West Indies to their celebrated victory at Lord's. But they were an aberration on account of their sheer talent. Spin bowlers were confined mainly to practising their craft in rural areas, and it was because Ramadhin had got a job at Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd, and had caught the influential eye of one of the managers, that he appeared on the radar of the selectors.

The squad for the 1950 tour had three quicks and four spinners, but by the end of the decade West Indies were slipping again, despite the presence of the ultimate allrounder, Garry Sobers. By the time Clive Lloyd came, the team was not a winning one. He defined the period from 1969 to 1973, when Sobers and then Rohan Kanhai captained the team, as the "most depressing" for cricket in the region. The team had no Test victories in four consecutive series: against England in 1969 (0-2), then 0-1 to India in 1971 at home, followed by five draws with New Zealand at home in 1972, and then 0-1 against Australia, again at home in 1973. Lloyd complained after the loss to India in Port-of-Spain in 1976, when he played three spinners, that there were "guys who bowled spin, not got people out."

The most dismal loss was when Australia trounced West Indies in the 1975-76 series. The traumatic experience at the hands of the Australian quartet of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker and Gary Gilmour probably settled the matter for Lloyd. He had found Andy Roberts and Michael Holding and they were going to form half of his attack. The rest is history. A steady stream of big, powerful, fast bowlers emerged - Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Sylvester Clarke, Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson, Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose, the Benjamins - Winston and Kenny.

The West Indies team became the most dreaded on account of these speed demons, and thus was victory defined. West Indies' identity as world champions was tied to their fast-bowling arsenal, and it has not yet been able to shake that link, despite losing the status. After Ambrose and Walsh retired, the team never mustered a strong bowling attack. A few have come and gone; there are a couple of promising ones now, like Taylor, but nothing like a pack hunting at any one time.


Those two little friends of mine: Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine have been two of all too few Test-winning spinners from the islands © The Cricketer International
 

Worldwide, flat wickets have become the trend, some say to ensure five days of cricket, others to give fast bowlers a harder time. In the West Indies, the pitches at Bourda and Queen's Park Oval have been traditionally flat, but Sabina Park and the Kensington Oval were known to have been fast, but now there are complaints that even those have flattened considerably.

Spinners are more prevalent in world cricket, and there have been some outstanding ones who really take wickets. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan come easily to mind, but there have been so many - Bishan Bedi, Abdul Qadir, Jim Laker, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Monty Panesar, Richie Benaud, Maninder Singh, Mushtaq Ahmed, Anil Kumble, Daniel Vettori - one wonders why spin has remained so low on the West Indies list despite its own high-quality players like Lance Gibbs, Ramadhin, Valentine and Sobers.

The answer has to do with power bases. Pace was the seed of West Indies' power. And as in situations where a power base feels threatened, the instinct is to defend it. The power of pace has largely been epitomised in players of African descent, and according to one observer, in this West Indian culture, spin bowling has not been seen as "manly", which may be a factor in why it has not been absorbed across the board.

The spinners who have emerged have mainly come from Trinidad and Guyana, and are of Indian descent. The list includes Inshan Ali, Raphick Jumadeen, Rangy Nanan, Dinanath Ramnarine, Mohammed, Jaggernauth and Mahendra Nagamootoo. (This may also account for the fact that the best players of spin have been Brian Lara of Trinidad, and Carl Hooper and Robert Christiani of Guyana.)

Although there are a few exceptions (Valentine, Gibbs, Hooper, Roger Harper, Albert Padmore) spin has traditionally been the forte of players of Indian descent, and Indian players, it must be remembered, were invisible on the West Indies Test team for nearly a quarter of a century before Ramadhin appeared, and thus would hardly have made their impact within the power base.

While it would be fair to say that no spinners have in the recent past shown any more outstanding ability than fast bowlers have, it is also reasonably apparent that more fast bowlers with promise have been given more chances than their spinner counterparts.

Ramnarine, the WIPA president, and probably the best spinner of recent times, says: "Spinners have to work doubly hard to justify their selection. They play one match in, one match out. There is no way you can develop as a Test cricketer like that. You ought to play 25 matches to have a real appreciation for Test cricket. When he got 300 wickets, Shane Warne said that he was now learning how to get people out. It is a serious statement.

 
 
The power of pace has largely been epitomised in players of African descent, and according to one observer, in this West Indian culture, spin bowling has not been seen as 'manly' and this may be a factor in why it has not been absorbed across the board
 

"I think spinners should be a critical part of any West Indies team now. Wickets are not conducive to fast bowling, we need to find the balance for the attack. A lot needs to be done for spinners. The art ought to be encouraged. There should be specialised training for them."

Nanan, a leading spinner during the days of the pace quartet, agrees that spinners have not had a fair chance on West Indies teams, and that it is primarily because selectors and captains are too impatient. He cites a string of one-shot spinners - Inshan, Jumadeen, Derick Parry. "Nobody got a long run, to play Test after Test," he says. Also, "captains of West Indies teams didn't really know how to set fields for spinners.

"Cricket is a game of angles," and you had to think differently for spinners. The best captain for spinners was Lara, he says, because Lara grew up among spinners (like Rajindra Dhanraj). "If Shane Warne was living in the West Indies nobody would have heard of him. It took 15 Tests before he made any breakthrough.

"Now we don't have quality fast bowlers, but fast bowlers still get in the side. The spinners today are not of outstanding quality, but you have to motivate yourself to train hard, and how much can you do without a chance?"

Ramnarine thinks the whole attitude towards spinners has been wrong, but can't say why. "I can't answer that. I have been trying to work it out, when you consider that at the regional level it is the spinners who do well. Something, to me, is not quite clear."

It might become clearer if one considers that just as cricket power lay in the hands of the white elite until it was wrested away after 50 years of struggle, so too the resistance to spin is caught up in the issue of control. Lloyd, for example, the man at the helm of the fast-bowling dominance, and head of the WICB's Cricket Committee, was recently quoted as saying that his formula for returning West Indies cricket to glory was to open a school for fast bowlers.

The crop of fast bowlers over the past decade or so belies the claim that fast bowling is still a prowess worthy of boast for West Indies. They simply have not produced enough of the right calibre to merit that claim. In the face of the shifting conditions of cricket pitches, of the developed capacity for spin worldwide, of the need to produce a balanced attack, the attention to spin has been peremptory.


Carl Hooper was a good batsman against spin, and a decent spinner himself - which may owe to his Guyanese origins © AFP
 

A small group of spinners worthy of attention currently exists in the region but selectors continue to baffle by selecting those considered to be the lesser talents. It is almost as if they are doing it to reinforce a case against spinners, said one disgusted supporter. He, like many others in Trinidad, chose to boycott the recent Tests against Sri Lanka to protest the exclusion of Jaggernauth of Trinidad in favour of Benn of Barbados. The selectors, it was claimed, were being insular again.

It is one of the troubles plaguing West Indies cricket. Understandably so, given the nature of the union that created West Indies cricket out of a series of independently run Caribbean nations. The rejection of spin is just one element of a difficult bundle that cannot be unravelled without fully confronting its racial, ethnic and nationalistic components.

It seems more of a struggle to let go of the element that once instilled fear in opponents, more of an inability to accept that fast bowlers of current times do not invoke dread; as also a reluctance to enter a world that will require a redefinition of what constitutes a powerful team.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

Comments