October 3, 2008

Better riper

Why legspinners are more proficient when they're older and wiser


McGain, 36 and just starting out at the highest level, needs to remember this is just the beginning © Getty Images

Thirty-five is an age by which you have probably started a rock band if you are ever going to. It is a good age, for many, a time when you know your limitations and have some hope of intuiting other people's, when you have clung onto youthful vigour yet learnt patience. You might not have the tricky business of living comfortably and happily sorted out, but you are sturdy enough to ride through little disappointments, and not so brash that you won't ask for help. It is a time, in other words, to be bowling legbreaks.

Australian legbreak bowlers - specialists, part-timers, the lot - have between them taken 2425 Test wickets. And it is little wonder that the ones aged 35 and up have captured theirs quicker, cheaper and with less fuss - strike-rate 63.68, average 28.25 - than those under 35, who fritter away 73.54 balls and give up 30.40 runs for each scarcely affordable wicket they winkle. The wonder is that the people who groom and select Test teams do not see this.

Legspinners are treated like any other cricketer. They are blooded when young and they are closer to their start than their finish by 35, that is if they make it to 35. Yet legbreaks are a special discipline. Legbreaks are hard. A cricket ball is something to be cupped in your hand and propelled pretty much at will - unless you're a legspinner. Then the expectation is that with a snap of your wrist you will create sidespin, topspin, backspin, reverse spin or no spin, hiding from the batsman any clue as to which is which, and you are expected to do this at a fair old clip, extracting an uncomfortable amount of bounce, floating the ball high enough to cause confusion but not so high that you overpitch, while landing it without fail on an imaginary handkerchief-sized blur. Muck one of these up and your punishment is to get clanged over a fence and to see the grimaces on your mates' faces in the field. Then your captain takes the ball off you. Often you are not invited back.

To dodge this fate the legspinner should toil alone in a wire net, or out in the backyard, away from judging eyes. He should do this for at least one decade but ideally two or more. Only then should he enter top-flight cricket. It is a barren and thankless existence. Still we deny our budding legspinners even that chance. Instead we despatch them, like we despatch everyone else, to centres of excellence. We pick them in emerging players tournaments. There the pressure is on the legspinner to bowl flatter, straighter, tighter, safer, to not look a dud in front of his peers and bosses. The legspinner would be better off, far better off, in his own yard, rehearsing his five kinds of spin, and grappling with such unpindownable concepts as trajectory and dip. Dip. When has a centre of excellence ever taught anyone how to do dip?

Dip was the stuff of magic that excited young Clarrie Grimmett's mind even before he swapped fast bowling for legspin on the advice of the school sportsmaster, a Mr Hempelmann. Before long Clarrie grew frustrated. He asked the great Arthur Mailey how his bosey worked, but that didn't get him far. It added to Clarrie's feeling that he was going nowhere. He moved from Wellington to Sydney to Melbourne to Adelaide in the hope a selector might notice him. He'd bowl in his backyard, hour after hour, at nobody, his fox terrier Joe fetching his balls back for him, eight balls at a time. For six years Grimmett did this. Twelve years he spent polishing his flipper, getting the pressure between his thumb and second finger just right.

 
 
Warne is 39. Imagine him out there now. If he'd begun Test cricket at 35 he would be coming up to mid-prime, his shoulder still supple, with the flipper of a Grimmett, the passion of a Philpott, the mind of an Armstrong, the all-round wicket-sniffing-out nous of, well, a Warne
 

Grimmett did not choose this way of life. He would rather Australia picked him straightaway. But in hindsight it was perfect. When finally they did pick him at 33, his body was young enough to still have all the tricks and his brain was old enough to know where and when to use them. Between the ages of 35 and 44 he flummoxed all comers, 192 of them in all, nearly six per Test, on the flattest of featherbeds.

But even this old legspinner's story did not end merrily. At 46, cunning as a crocodile, Grimmett was left off the boat to England, almost certainly on the say-so of gun batsman and selector Don Bradman, who almost certainly thought Grimmett too old. "Too old! Nuts!" exclaimed Grimmett's great pal Tiger O'Reilly, still fuming half a century later. Yet Tiger himself played only one Test beyond 35, against New Zealand, when he was 40. He took 5 for 14 and 3 for 19 - strike-rate 14, average 4 - and hurled his boots out the dressing-room window. Cricket's backstage politics had slowly soured his enjoyment, and his left knee had taken a hell of a beating.

It is no disrespect to O'Reilly, mightiest of leggies, to consider whether he could have been mightier. What if, instead of bowling enough balls as a young man in competitive cricket to wreck the knees of a camel, he had bowled those balls after turning 35? Legbreaks are no kind of preoccupation for someone still finding his way in life. They are a task for a mature man, at peace with himself, clear-headed enough to tackle the perplexing art of making a wildly flicked ball land and spin.

Despite this, Peter Philpott was addicted to net practice by his sixth birthday. At 12 he was only four feet tall but spinning foot-wide legbreaks at grown men on matting wickets. He reached first-grade at 15 and was representing his state at 20, and in his off-season he'd go and play Lancashire League. A more eager trundler of legbreaks has never been born. And yet here's how Philpott, in A Spinner's Yarn, saw himself in 1965-66, when feeling neglectful of his young wife and his day job, he prepared for the thrill of his first Ashes series: "My usual enthusiasm was simply not there amidst this confusion of thought and emotion. I even felt strangely lethargic. I was constantly tired, recovered so slowly from a hard day's play, and when I was over-tired I began to feel the thwack of my pulse reverberating through my whole body."

Philpott was 31, and never played for Australia again.

And here's Kerry O'Keeffe, in According to Skull, on himself: "Announcing my retirement from all forms of cricket in 1981 was easy. I had chronic pain in my spinning finger and recurring problems with my right knee. Plus, I had fallen out of love with the game..."


Oldie but a goodie: between the ages of 35 and 44, Grimmett took 192 Test wickets © The Cricketer International

O'Keeffe was 31, also. Two concrete practice pitches were his "second home" at 11. He played his first Test at 21. Too late he realised he should have drunk less, practised less and perhaps obsessed less about accuracy, mistakes that could have been avoided had he started out, rather than worn himself out, at 31. He wished he'd spun the ball further. He wondered whether he should have enquired about the correct legspinner's grip, instead of persisting with an offspinner's grip.

All the while his rival for a Test spot, Terry Jenner, did not bowl a flipper - was never shown how and never asked how. Jenner turned to leggies at 15 and was training with the state squad by 18. Never did he quite feel settled. He raged at selectors, tried to second-guess how they wanted him to bowl, worried when a journalist pronounced him "finished" at 21, and eventually exiled himself in low-level Adelaide turf cricket - "white-hot with anger" - at 32, never to return. Jenner was about 47 when Rod Marsh and Richard Done taught him the flipper. The shame was, and is, that Test cricket has no place for a 47-year-old bowler of flippers.

What have we learnt from these sagas? Not one thing. Cameron White and Cullen Bailey, who are thought to be the future of Australian legspin, do not have many spare hours to be bowling at nobody in their backyards. White was playing first-grade in the country at 14, the city at 16, and captaining Victoria at 20. Now people have the hide to query why his legbreaks tend to be flattish, not flighted, and why they do not spin all that far.

Bailey has said: "My strengths are accuracy, and when the conditions suit, I can spin it. I'm not going to bowl massive legbreaks. I'll just be consistent, accurate and a good contributor." It sounds eminently sensible, now, when he's 23. When he's 35 he may well wish he'd aimed higher, spun wider, except by then his right shoulder will be falling off its hinges, and the selectors will have lost interest anyhow.

Under these circumstances Shane Warne, a titan in his youth, a colossus approaching middle age, looms ever more giant in our memories. Five-hundred-and-twenty-seven Test wickets by the age of 35 show he was never too young, surely. The 181 he took afterwards, though, are perhaps the more telling. Wickets arrived every eight overs, instead of every ten. They kept coming despite his busted and patched-up shoulder, and therefore in the absence of his googly, which he'd never much cared for, and his flipper, which had once been worth half of Australia's GDP. More and more Warne resembled a 42-year-old legbreaker of long ago, Warwick Armstrong, all bulk, bluster and brain, from whom the slightest variation in deviation was enough to render hapless English batsmen toe-tied. "The routine," explained Armstrong's biographer Gideon Haigh, "was perennial: an over or two of legbreaks, then the straight one, leaving the stumps disturbed or the umpire granting an lbw."

Warne is 39. Imagine him out there now. If he'd begun Test cricket at 35 he would be coming up to mid-prime, his shoulder still supple, with the flipper of a Grimmett, the passion of a Philpott, the mind of an Armstrong, the all-round wicket-sniffing-out nous of, well, a Warne. He'd have all these at once. And he would still be ours to enjoy.

Instead Bryce Edward McGain, aged 36 years and 200-odd days, will soon seek to persuade selectors of the havoc his legbreaks threaten. His admirers say he loops it, rips it, turns it, dips it. He oozes patience, we hear. He is not bashful about asking for help. He has even questioned Shane Warne about field settings, and Warne responded by tearing two icy-pole sticks into 11 pieces and scattering them around a tabletop. The sore back and shoulder currently bothering him need be no cause for despair. The trick for the selectors, and even more so for Bryce, is to remember that this is just the beginning.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne

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