Christian Ryan
Writer based in Melbourne. Author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

The daredevil dead art

Do slow left-armers lack something other spinners have?

Christian Ryan

December 9, 2011

Comments: 39 | Text size: A | A

Daniel Vettori celebrates getting MS Dhoni caught-and-bowled, India v New Zealand, 3rd Test, Nagpur, 3rd day, November 22, 2010
Vettori: where's the rip? © AFP
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A word - "easy" - lodged in the skull of the ever-watchful CB Fry when he saw the once-superfamous Wilfred Rhodes bowl. "A few quick steps, easy steps, a lovely swing of the left arm and the ball is doing odd things at the other end."

As a child whose hopelessness with his hands extended to me mutilating every corrugated iron sheet in the high school shed on my way to flunking Metal Work, it felt gravity-defyingly miraculous that these same ham-hands should enable me to grip, fling, float, control and more or less safely land a legbreak - if not, albeit, to spin the ball away far. Spin the ball away. That's why I persisted, knowing that the ball spinning away from the right-handed batsman is likelier to get him out than the ball spinning in. It bugged me at the time and it annoys the hell out of me now that the boy I used to bowl with, name of Hatton, could achieve the exact same effect - spin the ball away - with a saunter up to the crease and one whoosh of his arm.

His left arm. Hatton bowled slow left-arm orthodox. Like Wilf Rhodes. Same as Bedi and Underwood and Valentine and Lock and Iqbal Qasim and… And are any more coming? They say 10% of the people on this planet are left-handed. Merely three out of Test cricket's top 70 wicket-takers have been slow left-armers.

Perhaps Fry got the word wrong. Some rare mis-glimpse? But no. In 1969, Ray Illingworth, a right-armer, was operating in tandem with left-armer Derek Underwood on the fourth afternoon against New Zealand at Lord's. A "curious, mottled pitch", Wisden called it, and the ranks of the beaten and bamboozled swelled every half hour: Congdon, Hastings, Pollard, Burgess, Taylor, Wadsworth, Motz. But all at one end. Underwood's end. Illingworth finished that day with 0 for 24 from 18 respectable overs. Underwood's figures: 31-18-32-7. And all because of one thing. "The different direction of his spin," Illingworth believed, "gave him extra penetration."

So convinced was Illingworth by this thesis that a decade later, in a slim volume entitled Spin Bowling, he was declaring: "Over the years I have played cricket there have always been more off-spinners than left-armers, but that balance will soon be changed."

Thirty-two years ago he wrote that sentence. Still no change in the balance. Mihir Bose, a student of Indian cricket history, once linked the country's mooted shortage of left-hand batsmen with the subcontinental tendency to reserve that particular hand for post-bowel movement sanitation duties. Ramachandra Guha, another Indian cricket student, bit back - nonsensical! - and for evidence he reeled off names of slow left-arm bowlers: Palwankar Baloo, RJD Jamshedji, Vinoo Mankad, Bapu Nadkarni, Salim Durani, Bishan Bedi, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Doshi, Maninder Singh.

Such riches, Guha couldn't help marvelling.

Why so few, is what I'm wondering. Just nine - one a decade or so - and only a couple of them, Bedi and Nadkarni, with Test bowling averages the happy side of 30.

Down in Australia the all-time top left-arm slow man counts as old Jack Saunders, no household name he, and no cause for patriotic pride either - "the dirtiest chucker," said his captain Joe Darling, "Australia ever had" - whose 79 Test wickets materialised a century ago. More recently we've seen Brad Hogg, a postman turned cricketer, bowl slow left-arm unorthodox. His tongue puffing out sideways, his cheeks scarlet with exertion, Hogg would perform a series of arcane and convoluted calisthenics with his left wrist to ensure the ball didn't spin naturally away but instead spun in - like a seal balancing a beach ball on its chin instead of its nose. The chinaman bowler: was ever a cricketing invention so numbskull?

The leftie uses his thumb and two fingers. The leggie relies on his wrist, which might lead us to theorise that the leftie physiologically lacks the leggie's capacity to make a ball squirt, hang, drift, drop. Alas, no - anything but

We digress. If we agree that the left-arm spinner shares the same spinning-away advantage as the right-arm legbreak bowler, perhaps some equally in-our-face disadvantage is eluding us. The leftie uses his thumb and two fingers. The leggie relies on his wrist, a peculiarly bendable human joint, which might lead us to theorise that the leftie physiologically lacks the leggie's capacity to make a ball squirt, hang, drift, drop or hurry on after pitching.

Alas, no - anything but. Bishan Bedi's two fingers, strengthened by a childhood spent flicking marbles from his 10,000-strong marble collection, let him loop a cricket ball up past eyebleed-level then drop it like he'd shot it. A successor of Bedi's, Doshi, knew how to make a ball hang - "as though suspended in a cobweb", envied journalist (and right-arm park offspinner) Gideon Haigh.

Some failing in temperament, or aggressiveness, then; mightn't logic insist that left-arm spinners inherit the tie-and-doubletie-your-shoelaces caution of their right-arm offspinning brothers?

Again - and palpably - no. Alf Valentine's knuckles nearly grazed the pitch in his follow-through, such was his gusto. Johnny Briggs of England let the ball go with a finger flick so loud it was audible in the pavilion. Tony Lock's quicker one was quick enough to make batsmen enquire whether they'd been bowled out or run out. Phil Edmonds' stock ball pitched on leg stump and boomed into off stump; his stock mood veered between daredevil and ropeable.

Last Saturday morning at the Gabba I watched history's longest-lasting and most prolific left-arm slow man yet. Daniel Vettori's black undershorts peeped out of his backside every time he bowled, which told us his shirt was ill-fitting. What proceeded to happen after his undershorts exposed themselves was no less telling. If Mike Hussey - crease-rooted - was taking strike, Vettori would mix up a flat one, an airy one, a half-and-half one and a fast one, and the batsman would deferentially block the lot of them. If Michael Clarke - itchy, prancing - was on strike, Vettori would pursue the same strategy and the batsman would step down and smash him. TV cameras revealed not much visual clue of a Vettori finger flick. Those in the pavilion dolefully reported they could hear no sound.

Eventually Hussey succumbed: caught Frustration, bowled Boredom. Clarke kept on jumping down and swiping balls over the infield.

And something bugged me, again. Why wasn't the bowler giving the ball a tweak and a rip? Did Vettori not see how blessed he was to be born left?

Not he; just turned, glided in, and twirled down another one.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

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Posted by py0alb on (December 12, 2011, 11:57 GMT)

It's certainly a very negative tactic to bowl over the wicket - something none of the great finger spinners did very much, its more of a modern innovation by teams without a decent attacking spinner to try and use a lower quality spinner to simply hold up one end - which is exactly my complaint: left armers get typecast as defensive bowlers, whereas they should be going round the wicket and fizzing the ball up with flight and aggression, really putting the batsman under pressure every ball.

Arm balls are rubbish deliveries anyway, there is a reason why hardly anyone bowls them anymore. Sliders and undercutters are far more effective.

Posted by longdonkey on (December 12, 2011, 11:49 GMT)

@Sudheer Deoli & @4test90 - Vettori best left arm spinner and best left hand allrounder ever - DON'T THINK SO! Sobers was left handed!

Posted by   on (December 12, 2011, 5:37 GMT)

How about a review on the rarest breed of them all, the left-arm leg spinner

Posted by TommyJay on (December 12, 2011, 3:53 GMT)

Just read the comment from 4test90 about half an hour after the conclusion of the Hobart Test. It's probably true that Vettori will never play in a winning side vs Australia. And boy, NZ showed just how badly they struggle without him, didn't they? P.S. Jean-Marc, Adams was a wrist spinner.

Posted by Biggus on (December 11, 2011, 15:43 GMT)

@longdonkey-I have to disagree there with you. From my experience finger spinners coming around the wicket to the opposite handed batsmen is the way to go. I would almost never bowl over the wicket in that situation.

Posted by TontonZolaMoukoko on (December 11, 2011, 13:12 GMT)

An interesting article topic, however it's written in a stop/start manner, chooses to ignore several points and is therefore pretty flawed. The percentages have been dealt with in other comments, but with Vettori, Shakib, Rehman, Herath, Ojha, etc amongst others on the international scene, it's hardly a crisis for SLAs. Neither does the fact that Vettori got hit around by Clarke, who is an exceptional player of spin, mean that much in the big picture. Given the decline in both leg spin and fast bowling over the past few years, I'd say that left arm spin is in pretty rude health compared to other bowling actions.

Posted by 4test90 on (December 11, 2011, 12:10 GMT)

Sudheer is right about Vettori - this may sound harsh, but I honestly believe that if Vettori had never played for NZ, they may have had their Test status revoked by now. They have struggled badly for 20 years and without him they would be so uncompetitive the ICC would have had to act. He will probably go thru his long career never playing in a winning side vs Aust.

Posted by   on (December 11, 2011, 12:08 GMT)

No mention of Paul "Gogga" Adams whose left-arm googlies dillivered with a frog-in-a-blender action who flumoxed the hell out of poor Mike Atherton's tourists in 1995. See

Posted by   on (December 11, 2011, 7:51 GMT)

Considering the Kiwi teams of lat five years , Daniel Luka Vettori has to go down as the best left arm spinner of all time and the best left handed all rounder of all time.

Posted by   on (December 11, 2011, 5:24 GMT)

Why has Venkatpathy Raju's name been left off?

Posted by longdonkey on (December 11, 2011, 0:29 GMT)

@py0alb You could not be MORE WRONG. Left arm orthodox coming around the wicket is the wrong thing to do. People say it opens up the chance of a LBW which is true. If you work to a long term plan to get your dismissal a left arm orodox coming over the wicket is better. 1. By bowling over the wicket you dry up the runs - I know it's a defensive tactic but like Warne/McGrath dry up runs one end get wickets at the other - bowl in partnerships 2. Bowling over the wicket you bowl into footmarks getting variable bounce 3. Arm Ball - the arm ball opens up the chance of the LBW decision over the wicket but what it does is put indecision into the head of the batsman making him play at more deliveries spinning across him looking for a catch at slip, gully or silly mid off. The negatives are it lets the batsman pad up to a lot of balls but Warne's line allowed batsmen to do that and you can't say he wasn't effective. If you have a good arm ball you should minimise the amount of padding up.

Posted by   on (December 10, 2011, 20:09 GMT)

The simple reason that Dan doesn't rip the ball anymore is because of serious Back Injury.

He used to rip it like Warnie, and have the pace of any fast spinner....

Posted by   on (December 10, 2011, 18:51 GMT)

loved the article! good read.

Posted by   on (December 10, 2011, 10:11 GMT)

@ Barney Bent: Fantastic Comment..!!

Posted by   on (December 10, 2011, 9:42 GMT)

Hmmm... Brad Hogg's primary weapon was in fact his wrong'un, which coming from a leftie turned away from right handed bats. Michael Bevan too had a pretty devestating wrong'un when it landed in the right place. I think though that these guys did so well witht this delivery because they disguised it well, not simly because it turned away. Anyway a nice read, regardless of the slightly flawed mathematics. I wonder has anyone tweeted this to KP?

Posted by BarneyBent on (December 10, 2011, 1:36 GMT)

You might want to revise your maths. 3 of the top 70 wicket takers are SLAs? Only 10 are spinners at all. With that in mind, at a 10% rate of left armers, you'd expect only 1 SLA in the top 70 wicket takers. So if anything, SLAs are overrepresented, and are more than pulling their weight. You'd be better off asking why spinners in general are underperforming (typically, 1 in 4 bowlers in a cricket side are spinners, so you'd expect there to be 17-18 in the top 70). In fact, even if you account for this, and suggest that 25% of the top 70 should be spinners, and 10% of those should be left armers, SLAs are still overrepresented. They should comprise 2.5% of the top 70, but they actually represent 4.3% (3 in 70).

Posted by the4horsemen11 on (December 10, 2011, 1:13 GMT)

@Will Aston, Vettori has recently added a delivery that goes the other way, same as the doosra, whether or not its a genuine doosra i cant say as to me it seems the there is no defining point of a doosra except it spins the other way ...

Posted by Optimistix on (December 9, 2011, 22:35 GMT)

18 of the top 70 wicket takers were spinners, and 3/18 is more than 10%.

9 of the top 70 were left-armers, and 9/70 is also more than 10%.

This article is based upon comparing apples and oranges - poor form, I say!

Posted by   on (December 9, 2011, 18:31 GMT)

Kinda odd this article never mentions the SLA factory that exists in Bangladesh. The top two wicket takers in test cricket are SLAs, 3 SLAs in top 5. The top wicket taker in our domestic setup for the last few years have been a SLA, and different ones..

something odd is going on.. we only have SLAs, no quality off spinners or leggies, not even chinamen.. but a lot of SLAs.. and the spinners in the pipeline are also SLAs.. SLA overload here...

Posted by   on (December 9, 2011, 15:31 GMT)

Someone recently raised a very good point (I think it may have been one of the viewers on this site) and it was that no left armers seem to have a doosra. Try and name a left armer with a doosra and you will struggle. The primary weapon of any modern offspinner and yet there are pretty much no left-armers that bowl one.

Posted by   on (December 9, 2011, 13:37 GMT)

boring article...why not talk about left arm quicks?

Posted by Biggus on (December 9, 2011, 12:46 GMT)

I think it's a silly proposition really. Being an off-spinner myself my eyes light up when I see a leftie come to the crease figuring I'll come around the wicket, angle it in and spin it away. They have to play and straight ones threaten LBW while the one that rips away seek the edge of the bat. There are plenty of right handers playing the game and slow left armers should be a similarly dangerous prospect to all of those. Perhaps the SLA clan is really just in need of a stand out great to come along an make them fashionable again. Another Hedley Verity or a Bishan Bedi perhaps. That's all that I think is lacking. Too many of today's crop seem to be overly focussed on containment. I see too little spin and not enough flight. That's rarely been the signature of a really dangerous spinner.

Posted by mondotv on (December 9, 2011, 12:30 GMT)

This article doesn't make a lot of sense - if you count the number of great spinners and the number of great left arm spinners it probably works out about 1 in 10. Probably the author is getting confused because left arm fast bowlers easily break the 10% barrier. Generally 3 to 1 ratio of quicks to spinners so you want variety you'll generally play at least 1 left arm quick - that's 33% - and a lot of opportunity.

Dan Vettori never spun the ball a great deal and these days even less, but he's talll, gets a lot of bounce and varies his flight beautifully. So I'm a bit puzzled by the whole article because in general Vettori is the best bowler in the NZ lineup.

Plus lets not forget that these days most test line-ups have nearly as many left hand bats as right hands bats (because of the way the LBW law works) so where is the advantage for Dan Vettori?

BTW Christian you look to young to have seen Underwood but maybe he wore black undershorts as well :) I doubt it.

Posted by py0alb on (December 9, 2011, 11:38 GMT)

I think its a role that SLA's find themselves typecast in. Whenever I read a cricket book from any decade in the last 80 years it says "the left arm spinner's main weapon is his accuracy". Well no wonder we struggle to get wickets if all we have to aim for is accuracy. What happened to fierce spin and huge turn and cunning changes in flight and unpickable variations? It almost seems like none of this is encouraged lest it sacrifice some modicum of boring, boring accuracy. Most guides mention the arm ball as a variation and nothing else.

Furthermore, we're encouraged to bowl either over the wicket on a defensive line outside legstump, or around the wicket outside offstump with a packed off side. The only sensible line for a SLA is around the wicket pitching on middle stump, trying to hit the top of off, yet how often do you see this in a professional game?

I would recommend any young SLA's to try and copy Swann's mechanics but Warne's line and tactics.

Posted by ashlatchem on (December 9, 2011, 10:53 GMT)

If it's about let arm spinners who give it a rip why does he then need to talk about Vettori's inability to turn it massively? Although Vettori's ability to turn the ball is probably related to stress fractures in his back earlier in his career that's not the point. He does what he does (very well I might add) without having to be a great turner of the ball... Or at least Cricinfo seems to thinks so. His mastery of drift and subtle variations in flight, speed and length earned him a reputation as New Zealand's most dangerous player. It was that guile and ability to confuse the batsmen that sometimes turned what seemed like innocuous deliveries into unplayable hand grenades by the time they reached the other end - Straight from his Cricinfo profile.

Posted by Chris_P on (December 9, 2011, 10:28 GMT)

Ray Illingwoth believes the reason Derek Underwood took more wickets than hm was due to the ball spinning the other way? Surely you jest, Ray. You were a very average spinner, tough captain, gritty batsman, but very ordinary spinner. Derek Underwood, on some pitches was unplayable, something no-one ever said about your pies, pal. Did I say spinner to describe your bowling? You also never spun one ball, unlike Derek, Bedi et al.

Posted by   on (December 9, 2011, 9:56 GMT)

If there was a point to be made, it wasn't to be found in the statistic tht 10% of the population are left armers, but only 3 of 70 of the greatest wicket takers are slow left arm bowers, as that ignores the presence of any left arm quick bowlers in that top 70 bowlers. A more meaningful figure would be the ratio of slow left arm bowlers in that top 70, compared to slow right arm bowlers, and unless there's 27 offspinners in that list, the figure comes out to favour the lefties and their 10% ratio. Nor was there any consideration given to the idea that left arm finger spin has diminished as batting orders have become dominated by left hand batsmen, removing the left armer of his natural advantage. I enjoyed the writing style, but the content didn't really match.

Posted by bestbuddy on (December 9, 2011, 9:38 GMT)

@SouksWidji, the reason wrist spinners bowl the flipper and slow left arm orthodox bowlers dont is exactly summed up by your statement " It requires disguising". Because it comes out of the front of the hand with the wrist in a wrist spinners position it means that the wrist spinner can disguise it while the SLA bowler can't. At the rest of these comment-writers, the whole point is that despite all these SLA bowlers playing recently, only vettori is close to the summit in terms of wickets (and even then he's not even close to halfway yet). Finally, the reason SLA bowler dont get as many wickets compared to other is that, even though the ball spinning away can be harder to hit, you have to play less balls than off spinners or legspinners, as you know most balls wont be hitting the stumps, unlike an offspinner coming in, or a legspinner with his added variation

Posted by   on (December 9, 2011, 8:49 GMT)

you realize Vettori used to turn it a lot more before he was forced to change his action due to back problems, right?

Posted by ghhhhh on (December 9, 2011, 8:24 GMT)

you realize Vettori used to turn it a lot more before he was forced to change his action due to back problems, right?

Posted by the4horsemen11 on (December 9, 2011, 8:18 GMT)

If you go back and look at his early days he did give the ball a rip and genuinuely spun it, but since his back injury he seemingly hasnt been able to do that, probably due to the torque placed on a spin bowlers back as they pivot. A pity that this article all boiled down to a simple explanation available to anyone who wanted to do a little research ...

Posted by TendiyaRocks on (December 9, 2011, 8:08 GMT)

It's a shame that you didn't even mention Shakib Al Hasan, the guy is prolly the best SLA around.

Posted by AidanFX on (December 9, 2011, 7:57 GMT)

This article ended on an observation and went no further. Could have addressed questions like "is this the norm for Dan through his career? "Is he coming to the end of his prime? Though just a few reflections may have been in order for the main subject of the essay.

Posted by binu on (December 9, 2011, 7:51 GMT)

A very profound article. Great to see grand thoughts on the game itself. Very refreshing as compared to the repetitive trash focussing on individuals and their problems, when and why they need to retire, how to score century and blah blah blah even from the so-called great commentators of the game.

Posted by bobagorof on (December 9, 2011, 6:15 GMT)

It wasn't too long ago that most of the spinners in international sides were left arm - England, South Africa and New Zealand relied on them almost exclusively in the late 90's and early 2000's. Nicky Boje, Paul Harris, Monty Panesar, Ashley Giles, Dan Vettori, Sulieman Benn, Neil McGarrell, Nikita Miller, Ryan Hinds, Rahul Sanghvi, Murali Kartik, Nilesh Kulkarni, Mohammad Rafique, Enamul Haque, Enamul Haque jnr, Manzarul Islam, Abdur Razzak, Shakib Al Hasan, Elias Sunny, Ray Price, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer and Sanath Jayasuriya have all played Test cricket in the past 10-12 years. 23 left-arm orthodox bowlers (or allrounders) is a pretty decent ratio in that time, particularly when most teams usually only field 1 spinner per match.

Posted by SouksWidji on (December 9, 2011, 6:11 GMT)

Consider the case of the "flipper": 1. It is bowled with the fingers, so it should be no problem for a Finger Spinner (left- or right-handed) to bowl. 2. It requires disguising, but this is a problem faced by both Wrist and Finger Spinners. So why is it only utilised by Wrist Spinners?

Posted by Masking_Tape on (December 9, 2011, 5:55 GMT)

Love how this article mentions one of the better SLA going around. Shakib al Hasan. Good stuff. Love it.

Posted by RandyOZ on (December 9, 2011, 5:36 GMT)

This article is extremely annoying to read. Ever heard of getting to the point Ryan? Dan 'no spin' Vettori is a better bat than bowl.

Posted by ygkd on (December 9, 2011, 4:42 GMT)

I can't say much on Wilf Rhodes - a little before my time unfortunately, but I have seen Vettori over many years and two points spring to mind. First, playing for NZ has not always given him the back-up you'd think he'd like, especially on tour. And second, slow left-armers might spin it in the same direction leggies do, but being orthodox - like right arm off-spinners, are still expected to have the same economical traits as offies, for some reason. As for Jack Saunders, who I think was far further back even than Rhodes, given today's rules would the CH... word have been uttered so prominently to his detriment? Probably not.

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Christian Ryan Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, was once the editor of The Monthly magazine and Wisden Australia, and now bowls low-grade, high-bouncing legbreaks with renewed zeal in recognition of Stuart MacGill's retirement and the selection opportunities this presents. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

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