July 6, 2009

After Warne, the drought

Australia have had golden ages of spin, but the greats have been few and far between, and the decision-makers haven't helped the cause any with their lack of faith

Spin bowling in Australia is currently worse than the economy, stuck in a depression with no immediate signs of recovery. The situation is so grim that for the third time in four Tests Australia may not pick a specialist slow bowler on Wednesday and instead will rely on three batsmen who double as part-time twirlers to quicken up the over-rate and burgle a breakthrough.

For the previous four Ashes tours spin was Australia's major weapon, with Shane Warne removing 129 home batsmen with his mystifying variations. He retired after the 5-0 triumph in 2006-07, a series England supporters don't seem to remember, and since then Australia's selection panel - and opposition batsmen - have demolished more contenders than Mike Tyson in his prime.

High expectations from supporters, selectors and team leaders are ruining a generation of moderate talent that would have been well suited to most eras of Australian cricket. The problem is the country has had two golden ages of spin bowling and everyone is measured against the most recent glory days. Stuart MacGill kept Warne company in the 1990s and 2000s, while Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett were even more frightening for batsmen in the lead-up to World War II. Two pairs of the greatest leggies in history arrived at the same time.

Apart from Richie Benaud, the country's second-most successful spinner with 248 wickets in the 1950s and 60s, and the offie Hugh Trumble, who toiled from 1890 to 1904, no other Australian tweaker has more than 140 Test victims. This is not the sort of standard that qualifies the country as a perennial spin-bowling force.

Instead of where have the good spinners gone, the question should be how did a pace nursery produce so many slow-bowling greats? Grimmett came from New Zealand and practised for a decade before debuting aged 33 and O'Reilly was a tough man from the New South Wales bush who pushed the ball through like a medium-pacer. Until Warne sped into the side - arriving, appropriately, in a Porsche - O'Reilly was unchallenged as the country's best spinner. MacGill ripped the ball more than Warne but with less control, crossing the country from Western Australia to more friendly surfaces in New South Wales, and prised 208 Test wickets, usually during his high-profile partner's absence. Had he been born 10 years later there would be no talk of downturns and no-turns.

After Warne exited the Test scene in the first week of 2007, MacGill was the initial replacement before knee and wrist problems allowed Brad Hogg to come in for the India series. By the end of that summer Hogg had retired and MacGill joined him two Tests into the West Indies tour. Beau Casson, a chinaman bowler like Hogg, was the back-up on that trip and played the final match, returning an encouraging 3 for 86 in the second innings. Only the selectors weren't impressed: he was overlooked for the India tour, was dropped briefly by New South Wales and is trying not to go troppo this winter in Northern Territory club cricket.

The legspinner Bryce McGain, then 36, was called for the India trip before returning home for shoulder surgery and a surprisingly quick recovery. His moment of glee arrived in the final Test in South Africa, but it soon became wretchedly unforgettable as he gave up 0 for 149 off 18 overs. Back in the subcontinent the rookie Jason Krejza was left to jostle for a starting place with Cameron White, who considers himself a batsman who bowls occasional legspin. White played all four Tests with little success and Krejza balanced 12 wickets on debut with 358 runs to become the next hope. After an ankle injury and another Test in Perth, he was sent back to Tasmania and gathered 11 wickets at 50.72 in four Sheffield Shield appearances, figures that were similar to those earning him a spot in the top team.

Nathan Hauritz was used three times and did enough not to be considered for the XI in South Africa, but following some useful one-day performances was the only specialist given one of 25 national contracts. A berth on the Ashes tour followed along with some heavy punishment in both the tour games, although he was able to deliver a dozen economical overs as the game against the England Lions wound down. However, his lack of conviction leaves Marcus North, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich expecting greater roles in Cardiff and throughout the series.

Top Curve
Australia's spin stats
  • SPINNERS IN THE 2008-09 SHEFFIELD SHIELD

  • Nathan Hauritz (offspinner, NSW): 16 wickets at 35.25 in 4 matches
    Chris Simpson (offspinner, Qld): 16 at 41.68 in 11
    Aaron O'Brien (left-arm orthodox, NSW): 14 at 40.57 in 9
    Jason Krejza (offspinner, Tas): 11 at 50.72 in 4
    Dan Cullen (offspinner, SA): 10 at 77.70 in 5
    Adam Voges (left-arm orthodox, WA): 9 at 27.22 in 10
    Jon Holland (left-arm orthodox, Vic): 9 at 49.11 in 4
    Cullen Bailey (legspinner, SA): 8 at 27.50 in 2
    Beau Casson (left-arm wrist-spinner, NSW): 7 at 85.14 in 7
    Bryce McGain (legspinner, Vic): 5 at 31.80 in 1
    Dan Marsh (left-arm orthodox, Tas): 5 at 54.40 in 10
    Cameron White (legspinner, Vic): 4 at 57.25 in 5
    Daniel Doran (legspinner, Qld): 4 at 100 in 5
    Aaron Heal (left-arm orthodox, WA): 3 at 90 in 2
    Josh Mangan (legspinner, WA): 2 at 79.00 in 3
    Xavier Doherty (left-arm orthodox, Tas): 1 at 87.00 in 2
  • TOP 10 SPINNERS BY WICKETS

    Shane Warne: 708 wickets, 145 matches, 25.41 average
    Richie Benaud: 248, 63, 27.03
    Clarrie Grimmett: 216, 37, 24.22
    Stuart MacGill: 208, 44, 29.02
    Bill O'Reilly: 144, 27, 22.59
    Hugh Trumble: 141, 32, 21.78
    Ashley Mallett: 132, 38, 29.84
    Bruce Yardley: 126, 33, 31.63
    Ian Johnson: 109, 45, 29.19
    Arthur Mailey: 99, 21, 33.91

Bottom Curve

In the lead-up to the squad announcement Allan Border, a former selector, pushed for Jon Holland, a left-arm orthodox from Victoria with only five first-class games on his resume. Domestically, the spin situation is so bad that after Warne retired he was asked to speak to the state captains about how to use slow bowlers. The leaders expected all their spinners to have the control, turn and bluff of Warne. If anybody had told them that was impossible, they were ignored. When fours arrived in flurries the twirlers were replaced by the faster, more economical operators, then saved for an over before the interval or to give the main men a rest.

Three years ago Queensland's Daniel Doran took five wickets in their Sheffield Shield final victory and appeared on track to develop into the state's first national legspinning representative since Trevor Hohns, who retired after the 1989 Ashes victory. Jimmy Maher had more idea about haute cuisine than how to employ Doran, who scraped 10 wickets at 70.50 in a full campaign. He has been a worried fringe player ever since, appearing in four games last season for five breakthroughs and more pain.

Last month Cricket Australia hosted a spin summit at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, where Warne told the attendees that slow bowlers must not be an afterthought. Once again, educating the captains was another key theme. "[Spinners] don't bowl after all the quicks have finished, and then [are told]: you have a bowl because no one can get a wicket," Warne said. "You can bring them on early."

One thing Australia don't miss is well-qualified coaches. Terry Jenner, who played nine Tests in the 1970s, was Warne's mentor and monitors the bumpy progress of Dan Cullen and Cullen Bailey in South Australia. Greg Matthews (61 wickets in 33 Tests) and Kerry O'Keeffe (53 in 24) offer advice in New South Wales; Ashley Mallett (132 in 38) has been a travelling consultant and Murray Bennett (6 in 3) is one of Hauritz's confidants. At the Centre of Excellence the spin coach is John Davison, a former state offspinner and Canada representative, and Warne and MacGill pop in to talk wrists and dip. But on tour Troy Cooley, the fast bowling mentor and swing expert, is in charge of the spinners as well.

Despite all of this knowledge, the lectures and the talk of giving slow men a proper go, the decision-makers start to shiver after a couple of bad days. Without long-term faith in spinners at all levels, the quality of options will not become high enough for a sustained Test career. And that's not five wickets a Test, like Warne, but a couple in each innings and some venom on the final day.

It's a brutally tough discipline, which no longer seems understood in Australia, and one that has been mastered by only a handful of greats. There were 46 years between O'Reilly's last Test and Warne's first, leaving Australia to pray for a Benaud or Trumble to fill the gap sometime soon.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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