Twirlymen July 23, 2011

Nuts, bolts and spin

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

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
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Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo