July 24, 2011

A spinner's flight plan

Ashley Mallett
The great spinners visualised their wickets and deceived the batsmen in the air. But why are today's bowling coaches almost always fast men?

In my first over in Test cricket, to Colin Cowdrey at The Oval in August 1968, I appealed for lbw decisions for the first four balls. The fifth ball was the decider. Cowdrey went well back and the ball cannoned into his pads halfway up middle stump. Umpire Charlie Elliott raised his index finger, and "Kipper" touched the peak of his England cap and said to me, "Well bowled, master."

In hindsight Cowdrey was a pretty good wicket, given that he had conquered the spin of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine at a time when I was trying to track down an ice-cold Paddle Pop in Perth.

Test cricket is the ultimate challenge for the spin bowler. Sadly Twenty20s and ODIs bring mug spinners to the fore. They skip through their overs and bowl "dot" balls, which their legion of hangers-on believe to be something akin to heaven. Test spinners are all about getting people out. After all, the best way to cut the run rate is to take wickets.

Before getting into big cricket I felt the need to have a coaching session with Clarrie Grimmett. I was 21, living in Perth, and Clarrie, a sprightly 76, was based in Adelaide. To my mind a spinner cannot be doing things all that brilliantly if he thinks he is a pretty good bowler but doesn't get many wickets. That was my lot, and I sought Clarrie's advice. Two days in the train from Perth to Adelaide, then a short bus ride to the suburb of Firle, found Clarrie at home. He was up the top of an ancient pepper tree.

There he had hung a ball in a stocking. He handed me a Jack Hobbs-autographed bat, and having dismissed my protestations that I wanted to learn spin bowling, not batting, he said with a broad grin: "Well, son, there was a youngster I taught to play the square cut on the voyage to England in 1930 and… Don Bradman was a fast learner."

Clarrie swung one ball towards me and I met it in the middle of his bat. We then went to the nets. Clarrie had a full-sized turf wicket in his backyard. He wandered to the batting end. He wore no protective equipment - no box, no pads or gloves. Just his Jack Hobbs bat. "Bowl up, son," he cried.

My first ball met the middle of his bat. He called me down the track. "Son," he said, "Give up bowling and become a batsman… I could play you blindfolded."

As it happened I had a handkerchief in my pocket. He put that over his horn-rimmed glasses and my second ball met the middle of his bat. When he had stopped laughing he proceeded to give me the best possible lesson on spin bowling. He talked about spinning on a trajectory just above the eye line of the batsman.

Eighteen months later I was playing a Test match in India. The Nawab of Pataudi was facing, and while he was not smashing my bowling all over the park, he was clearly in control. I had to find a way to arrest the situation, so I thought of Grimmett and the necessity of getting the ball to dip acutely from just above the eye line.

It worked. The dipping flight fooled him to the extent that he wasn't sure exactly where the ball would bounce. Pataudi pushed forward in hope rather than conviction, and within four balls Ian Chappell had grabbed another bat-pad chance at forward short leg.

A spinner needs a plan to get wickets at the top level. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all, but it is not about reinventing the wheel.

Grimmett had many a plan. He told me that he often saw the image of a batsman he was about to dismiss in his mind's eye. When the wicket fell, he was nonchalant, for this was the action replay. Nowadays visualisation is an official part of cricket coaching.

The key to spin bowling is how the ball arrives. If the ball is spun hard and the bowler gets lots of energy up and over his braced front leg, he will achieve a dipping flight path that starts just above the eye line and drops quickly.

Grimmett firmly believed, as does Shane Warne, that a batsman had to be deceived in the air. Warne's strategy at the start of a spell was to bowl his fiercely spun stock legbreak with subtle changes of pace. Similarly my idea was to stay in the attack. There is nothing worse for a bowler than to go for 10 or 12 runs in his first over. Psychologically you are then playing catch-up to make your figures look reasonable.

If a spinner doesn't plan he doesn't change his pace and thus does not break the rhythm of the batsman. It is crucial to a Test spin bowler's success that he attacks with subtle changes of pace

As an offspinner I found if my off-side field was in order the rest fell into place. My basic plan against a right-hander was to have the ball arriving in a dangerous manner: spin hard and drive up and over the braced front leg. And I wanted to lure the batsman into trying to hit to the off side, against the spin, to look at the huge gap between point and my very straight short cover. When a batsman hit against the spin and was done in flight, the spin would take the ball to the on side - a potential catch to bat-pad or short midwicket. Sometimes this plan doesn't work - the batsman might be clean-bowled, or if the ball skipped on straight, caught at slip, or it would cannon into his front pad for no result.

If a spinner doesn't plan he doesn't change his pace and thus does not break the rhythm of the batsman. It is crucial to a Test spin bowler's success that he attacks with subtle changes of pace.

I had played 10 Test matches and taken 46 wickets when Bob Simpson, the former Australia opening batsman and Test captain, sidled up to me and said: "You need a straight one."

I eyeballed Bob and said that some of my offbreaks went dead straight and "they don't pick them". He went on to say that I needed a ball that, to all intent and purpose, looked as if it would turn from the off but would skip off straight. I could "bowl" what they call a doosra today, but when I played, offspinners did not have ICC carte blanche to throw the ball. I felt it was wrong to throw, so I discarded the whole thing.

In Tests a batsman is challenged by pace and spin. My aim was to take 100 Test wickets in 20 Tests. But I got there in my 23rd - the same as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Garth McKenzie - after which circumstances changed. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson joined forces, and man, you tried to grab a wicket anyhow while those two were on the hunt. My next 15 Tests brought little in way of wickets, but my experience helped me in a coaching sense. I knew how unloved and untried spinners felt.

Somehow the cricket world brought forth a bunch of national coaches who didn't know the difference between an offbreak and a toothpick. Some were celebrated ones, like South Africa's Bob Woolmer. His idea of combating spin was ludicrous. He had blokes trying to hit sixes against Shane Warne's legspin. As splendid as he was against any opposition, no wonder Warne excelled against Woolmer-coached sides.

It is amazing that all national sides pick ex-fast bowlers as their bowling coaches. At least in England, Andy Flower, easily the best coach in world cricket, recognises the role of the spin coach. Mushtaq Ahmed, the former Pakistan legspinner, teams with David Saker, the fast-bowling coach, to help the England bowlers.

For years Australia have floundered in the spin department. Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, is a fast-bowling man, not one for spin. Australia has suffered; a lot of the blame can be attributed to the stupid stuff going on at the so-called Centre of Excellence in Brisbane.

Australia have had three great spinners: Grimmett, Bill O'Reilly and Warne. If Grimmett had played 145 Tests, the same as Warne, he would have taken 870 wickets. Different eras, of course, but you get the idea of how good Grimmett was. However, the best offie I ever saw - by a mile - was the little Indian Erapalli Prasanna. Now there was a bowler.

Offspinner Ashley Mallett played 38 Tests for Australia

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