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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on October 6, 2008, 14:15 GMT

    Yes, and there is one more important parameter, for the aspirant legspinner does not have to "not play" in his early years. Let him practice his legbreaks for hours in the nets, in the nets, maybe bowl a little bit of something else, but work assiduously to become the best BATSMAN he can, playing cricket at whatever level be justified by his batting until challanging for first-class selection around his 30th birthday, armed with batting skills that make it easier for selactors to choose him. One can only speculate how many runs Warne would have scored for Australia had he been required to take this aspect of his game seriously, rather than slog around, in his early career. (He scored a fair few as it was, and certainly had real abiolity in that department).

  • Vipul on October 6, 2008, 9:12 GMT

    Wonderful article Mr Ryan! Being a leggie myself in my playing days I can relate to everything that you have written. There were countless occasions when I flighted the ball and manged to lure the batsman out of his crease but the keeper was just not good enough to effect the stumping. And invariably the next ball would end up being a full toss which would be promptly despatched to the boundary. The look on the faces of my team mates and skipper left nothing unsaid. And the next day while going through the score book the coach would only see the boundary against your name and not how many catches were dropped and stumpings missed off your bowling. Well I have to admit that your article has inspired me to take up this craft once again.

  • John on October 4, 2008, 2:24 GMT

    Great article and one, as a leggie myself, I can relate too. Philpott's book on bowling leg spin is a classic. It's well worth a read for any cricketer.

  • Zen on October 4, 2008, 0:11 GMT

    Isnt isnt it obvoius? the only reason Bryce Mcgain was chosen as first choice spinner is because he is being used as a scapegoat. Beu Casson did really well on his debut and will be a fine cricketer but will be ruined if he is used as a bowler in India, the buirial ground for most spinners a - at such a young age. So rather than destroy a young chance, they are sending in somone who is obvoiusly past it and has nothing to lose and somone who has a bit to learn, Jason Kresja ( I dont think i spelt his name right - sorry) but not somone who could be spoilt.

  • Govind on October 3, 2008, 13:11 GMT

    I read Cricinfo end-to-end(virtually speaking) every morning but am pretty lazy when it comes to posting comments. But this time I just had to tell you - I GET IT. I am now in my mid 20s and was a wannabe cricketer - did reasonably well opening the bat; but ever since watching Warne in my youth, I also wanted to be a leg spinner. I tried practicing for long overs on wickets but couldn't deliver under pressure and maintain enough accuracy to be considered seriously as a bowling option when presenting myself for selection. Nowadays, I play for fun and am seen only as a batsman. But I love bowling ball after ball in the nets. It is in this context that I can understand what you were alluding to - no more pressure to bowl flat,straight ones, try your heart out to get the flight, dip and turn and knowing in your heart, if you keep at it for a few years, your time will come... Such empathy could only arise from personal experience - I checked out your profile and found that to be true :)

  • StJohn on October 3, 2008, 9:54 GMT

    The article itself isn't entirely logical though: if you don't start bowling leg spin, or bowling it more competitively, until you're 35, how will you have developed the bowling maturity, composure & experience that comes with that age? Surely avoiding playing competitive cricket and just practising leg spin by yourself at home until you're about 35 isn't really the answer? But I agree with the general argument that selectors must be open-minded about picking older players, especially spinners who generally have more cricketing longevity than other types of players. To praise the Australian selectors, they do seem generally pretty good at that & open-minded about age - e.g. giving McGain a chance now (hopefully he'll get another one!); giving Brad Hogg & Stuart MacGill a chance last year when others might have wanted to go straight to the younger players; and even older fast bowlers, like Stuart Clark, have been given their chance (and what a success he has been!).

  • StJohn on October 3, 2008, 9:44 GMT

    It is a pity that Bryce McGain is off the Indian tour, although as Indian conditions are traditionally unkind to leg spinners, perhaps that might be better for him in the longer term: could have have succeeded in a debut series where the likes of Shane Warne & Abdul Qadir had limited success? Maybe we'll find out when on the next tour when McGain is about 40! He certainly should have been picked for the tour of the West Indies earlier this year - it's a bit 'Ray Illingworth' to have picked Beau Casson for that tour, he does alright, and then you drop him because you're worried Indian batsman might smack him about a bit. The Aussie selectors knew the Indian tour was coming up. If that was the thinking, why pick Casson for the WI at all instead of McGain, who was just as eligible then as for India? I hope McGain recovers from his current injury and gets another chance.

  • Ralph on October 3, 2008, 9:06 GMT

    A fantastic article! Well written, cheery, a pleasure to read.

  • Fergus on October 3, 2008, 6:00 GMT

    Bravo! Great piece all round, and it's a shame McGain is injured. I would have liked to see him on the big stage. There's always another day.

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