Spin bowlers December 14, 2009

Slim pickings

A pop star, a freak show, and one who couldn't take time off work. Spin bowlers have been an eccentric and endangered species in South Africa

Time was when a sentence containing the words "South African" and "spin bowler" didn't look as awkward as a pair of hungover one-night standers shocked awake by a bleak dawn. Trouble is, that time was long ago.

Ernie Vogler was, by the measure of many, the world's finest bowler in 1907. And there were three more where he came from on South Africa's tour to England that year - Reggie Schwarz, Aubrey Faulkner and Gordon White. All were legbreak and googly exponents.

Schwarz, a Londoner, learnt the googly from Bernard Bosanquet, the dastardly delivery's self-acknowledged "proud parent", and South Africa became the fulcrum around which spin bowling turned.

Briefly, that is. Schwarz and White were killed in World War I, while Vogler rapidly lost his mojo. His career dwindled to a damp demise in the leagues of England, Scotland and Ireland. Faulkner became a respected coach, but after his retirement he took himself off to London to establish the Faulkner School of Cricket, Ltd. What might have been had these four bowlers of the apocalypse for many batsmen been able to impart their knowledge and experience to succeeding generations?

Instead, South Africans can only imagine a way of cricket in which spinners are scheming wicket-takers feared for their slow poison. Around here, spin is a desperate measure taken only when the quicks lose the plot, or an afterthought before lunch, tea, or the close, or a way to squeeze in an extra over, or what happens to medium-pacers who discover they're really not much good at bowling medium pace.

Containment is the magic word in too much of the cricket played in South Africa. Consequently, most captains don't understand how to deploy spinners, or how to set fields for them.

Groundsmen couldn't give a damn about the blokes who are dealt an unfair hand if the surface does not deteriorate. The public's appetite is for runs hit hard and wickets taken emphatically. Subtlety? That's another way of saying boring, isn't it? Given all that, it is hardly surprising that South African spinners often regard themselves as the kid with the bursary.

So there should be no surprise that those of high quality are as few and far between as fence posts in the Kalahari. In fact, after Vogler and Co, the next big South African spin thing whizzed onto the scene in the 1930s, when Cyril Vincent fought a losing battle with his bosses to be allowed time off to play in the Currie Cup. Then, in the 1950s, came Hugh Tayfield. Another decade or so later, Alan Kourie and Denys Hobson arrived, and after them came Paul Adams. Tayfield and Kourie were orthodox and understated, while Hobson, who retired in the summer of 1984-85, was the last legspinner of genuine ability that South Africa have produced.

That Adams, a blinking neon advertisement for the lunatic fringe of what might constitute bowling, was able to survive his first formal coaching session, not to mention carve out an international career in a mentally laagered society like South Africa's deserves to be toasted at every opportunity. Still, there aren't many others to drink to. We present the contenders for our South African all-time XI.

Hugh Tayfield
His career marked the last time a South African spinner was considered as valuable to the cause as any fast bowler. An efficient reaper of wickets. Good-looking and debonair, a pop star before pop existed.

Paul Adams
Wild thing, he made South African hearts sing. Orthodoxy went out of the window when he twisted himself into his bizarre action. But the ball tended to pitch on target and turn sharply.

Cyril Vincent
Played just two Currie Cup matches, due to work commitments, in a first-class career that spanned 22 seasons. Was nonetheless selected for 25 Tests. An immaculate left-arm spinner who could bowl all day and knew how to hold a bat.

We'll be publishing an all-time South Africa XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your spin bowler click here

Telford Vice made his Test debut as a cricket writer in Barbados in 1992 - the match that marked the end of South Africa's isolation

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