December 9, 2011

The daredevil dead art

Do slow left-armers lack something other spinners have?

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