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Nuts, bolts and spin

Amol Rajan's history of spin bowling is often refreshingly procedural

Sahil Dutta

July 23, 2011

Comments: 4 | Text size: A | A

Cover image of <i>Twirlymen</i> by Amol Rajan
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There is something seductive about spin bowling. To be able to inspire fear without the threat of physical pain seems an enticingly deviant science. Nobody has managed it more thrillingly than Shane Warne, and in the summer of 1993 when he landed that ball, Warne ushered in a golden age of spin that made countless young cricketers take up the craft.

One of them was Amol Rajan. By his own account his cricketing career ended in failure, but Rajan has since cultivated his obsession into this enthusiastic and exhaustive history of spin bowlers and their craft.

He now writes a weekly column - inevitably called Rajan's Wrong 'Un - for the UK's Independent. Though he's not a full-time cricket journalist, Rajan's book features interviews from many of the game's leading lights as he develops his subject. What makes the book a success, though, is its meticulous unearthing of volumes of writing on spin bowling through the years. It allows him to chronicle what he describes as the evolution of the form. Starting with the underarm merchants from the time of the game's origins, and going on to "fast spinners" like Sydney Barnes at the turn of the century, the brief mystery of Jack Iverson after the war, India's phalanx of spinners in the 1970s, the barren years of the 1980s, and ending with Warne and Murali from the '90s.

Having clearly dedicated too many hours of his adolescent life trying to master the ability to deliver revs on a ball, Rajan's focus is more on the mechanics than mentality of spinners. He recognises that mindset is important, and in attempting to unite the exponents, keenly emphasises their general quirkiness. Yet his fanaticism is more apparent when he describes the technical aspects of spinning the ball. Like many who took up spin seriously after Warne's 1993 summer, Rajan is a fan of Peter Philpott's spin bible, The Art of Wrist-Spin Bowling. Throughout the book you can hear Philpott's echo as Rajan lovingly describes a multitude of different grips, releases, front-leg positions and plenty else besides.

It is refreshing to read such geeky biomechanical insight. Vast swathes of analysis, particularly on TV, focus on bowling strategy rather than mechanics, and spin is an area - especially with Richie Benaud absent from most screens these days - rarely interrogated.

In his chronology Rajan gets to do what popular historians love most: debunk a series of fondly held myths. Think the flipper was Clarrie Grimmett's invention? Think again. Walter Mead and WG Grace had the early versions. Saqlain Mushtaq invented the doosra? Of course not. Jack Potter was bowling it in the 1960s. What's more, we learn that Graeme Swann, often perceived as a "classical" purveyor of his craft, actually "has become a world-class offspinner by using a completely unconventional grip".

It's not all wrist positions and third-finger leverage, though. The book is packed with enough anecdotes about his spin-bowling protagonists to keep the scope wide and the pages flipping. William Clarke, one of the 19th century's great players, and underarm pioneer of wrist-spin, is brought to life with a tale of how his combustive temper led him to stub a cigar out on a train carriage porter's hand. Closer to people's memory, there is the retelling of the meeting between Abdul Qadir and Warne, where the two sat on the floor spinning an orange to each other until the early hours, discussing the finest nuances of their trade.

In the sweep from the game's origins to the present day we also learn about the types of bowling that have disappeared. Every era will throw up factors that help some disciplines thrive while marginalising others. The sticky wickets of uncovered pitches helped the all-round bowling ability of Barnes. Operating at around 70mph, he relied on a bat's-width of turn, drift and seam to become cricket's greatest bowler. Pitches today would make life difficult for his kind but Hawk-Eye has helped overturn the tendency to not give batsmen out lbw on the front foot, and allowed finger-spinners like Swann to flourish.

What frustrates through the book is that Rajan's overwhelming fondness for spinners too often seems indiscriminating. I lost count of just how many were "great", "masterful" or "almost peerless". Also, there is no mention of some of spin's colourful subjects. Puss Achong, the man whose bowling the term "chinaman" was coined for, is missed out, along with Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, and there is barely a mention of England's rogue left-armer Phil Tufnell.

Yet this doesn't detract from the overarching argument of the book: that while mystery may dazzle fleetingly, it is mastery that endures. You can have a doosra, slider and carrom ball, but it's the stock delivery that is most precious. It's an argument that sounds obvious now, but demand for "mystery" just a few years ago led England, for example, to many a duff selection. In a summer where Harbhajan Singh and Swann go head-to-head, Rajan's insightful story of spin is welcome accompaniment.

Amol Rajan
Yellow Jersey; £16.99

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by Deuce03 on (July 24, 2011, 19:34 GMT)

Oh, for goodness' sake... Murali does get a mention in this review (albeit a brief one) but bear in mind this is a review of a book, not a book, and will not contain all the content that the book does. The reviewer is not obliged to talk about Murali endlessly; he's there to review the quality of the book and perhaps reference the occasional anecdote from it. Sometimes it's more interesting to hear about players the world has forgotten rather than just go on and on about someone every five-year-old knows has taken more wickets than anyone else. Perhaps if the book diidn't contain any Murali you might have a point, but it seems that it does.

Posted by   on (July 23, 2011, 22:12 GMT)

Murali was good, definately good.. His records against india and bangladesh show for themselves... I remember Bangladeshi Batsman playing Warne like a club bowler, guess he conceded around 6 an over in that test match

Posted by   on (July 23, 2011, 9:41 GMT)

@johnathonjosephs Even if Murali was not good as Warne (which is what many people think) They should have definitely talked about him. i mean common highest wicket taker in ODIs and Tests, should earn him a spot in the hall of fame in spin bowling dont you think?

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (July 23, 2011, 8:53 GMT)

Talking about greatest spinners and not talking about Murali? what a disgrace to cricket. I liken Warne to Holding. Holding ushered in a period of fast bowling in the West Indies side that was devastating, but he was not the best. Malcolm Marshall was the best (perhaps the best of all time). Shane Warne ushered a period of spin bowling, but he was not the best. Murali devastated all his records

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Sahil DuttaClose
Sahil Dutta Assistant editor Sahil Dutta grew up supporting England during the 90s. Despite this, he still enjoys the game. His unrequited passions for Graeme Hick and, in latter years, Vikram Solanki gave him a stoicism that guided him through an Economics degree and a stint working at the European Parliament. He maintains the purest love for Tests and the whims of legspin bowling and still harbours hope that he could be the answer to England's long search for a mystery spinner. As it is, his most exciting cricketing experience was planning a trip to Australia for the 2006-07 Ashes with two utterly indifferent friends. Unfortunately his lung collapsed shortly before his planned departure and the pair were left to wander around from Test to Test, unprepared and clueless. Any comparisons with England are far too obvious to make. That cancelled holiday inspired an Ashes blog which led, via some tea-making at the Wisden Cricketer, to the ESPNcricinfo towers.

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