Left to themselves

Monty Panesar's performance in Mumbai inspired us to look at England's rich history of excellent (if often eccentric) left-arm spinners

Steven Lynch

December 3, 2012

Comments: 6 | Text size: A | A

Colin Blythe bowls, 1914
Colin Blythe: took 100 Test wickets before quitting because of his frail condition due to epilepsy © PA Photos
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Johnny Briggs
In Sydney in 1894-95, the little Lancashire spinner Briggs was the first man to get 100 wickets in Tests - just, beating the Australian "Terror" Turner by a day or two. Once described by CB Fry as "a professor of diddling", Briggs took 15 for 28 (14 bowled and one lbw) in a Test in South Africa in 1888-89, and an Ashes hat-trick three years later. But he was epileptic - some said the strain of striving for that 100th Test wicket took its toll - and suffered increasing ill health. He died in 1902, not long after his 39th birthday.

Bobby Peel
Vying with Briggs for an England place at the end of the 19th century was his Roses rival, Yorkshire's Peel. A useful batsman (despite once bagging successive pairs in Australia), Peel also passed 100 Test wickets. But a fondness for beer caused him problems - famously in Melbourne in 1894-95, when, after England had followed on, he turned up well-oiled to find his side back in with a chance. He had to bowl 40 overs, and responded with 4 for 77 to help his side to a famous win. Drink eventually led to his dismissal by Yorkshire, although an oft-repeated story about him relieving himself by the sightscreen is now thought not to be true.

Colin Blythe
The next slow left-armer to reach 100 Test wickets was Colin "Charlie" Blythe, a gentle man who took 15 wickets in a Test against South Africa in 1907, the year after helping Kent win their first official Championship title in 1906. Also in 1907, he took 17 Northamptonshire wickets in a day, still a record. But Blythe, like Briggs, was epileptic, and was eventually thought to be too frail for the rigours of Test cricket (a withdrawal that left one critic wondering how England would ever win another match). He was not felt too frail for war, though, and died near Passchendaele in 1917, aged only 38.

Wilfred Rhodes
A Test player for more than 30 years, Rhodes was a cunning bowler, and improved his batting enough to move from No. 11 in the England order to No. 1 (and to share a famous stand of 323 with Jack Hobbs in Melbourne). Economical of action and words, Rhodes was not a huge spinner of the ball - but he was canny enough to know that if the batsman thought it was turning, half the battle was won. He was persuaded out of international retirement at 48 for the deciding Test of the 1926 Ashes, and helped England to victory at The Oval with 4 for 44 in the fourth innings. Rhodes went blind some time before his death at 95, but for years he was a regular spectator at Headingley, able to tell whether the batsman was timing it well by the noise of ball on bat.

Charlie Parker
After all those 100-wicket bowlers, here's one who only played one Test: but Parker made up for that with 3278 first-class wickets, including 108 for Gloucestershire in 1935 when he was 52. Parker should have played more for England, but blotted his copybook by grabbing Pelham Warner by the lapels in a hotel lift and accusing him of ruining his career. Since "Plum" was an MCC grandee, sometime chairman of the Test selectors, and editor of the Cricketer, this was not a wise career move.

Hedley Verity
It's said that Wilfred Rhodes didn't step down as Yorkshire's senior spinner until he was satisfied a worthy successor had come along: Verity, tall and unassuming, was the man. Verity made his first-class debut in 1930, and collected 64 wickets at 12... by the following year he was playing for England. In 1932 he took 10 for 10 against Nottinghamshire, still the cheapest ten-for in history, and in all claimed 1956 wickets during the 1930s (144 in Tests) at less than 15 apiece. And then war intervened again: Verity was killed in action in Italy in 1943.

Johnny Wardle
The irascible Wardle might have been the greatest chinaman bowler in history - but successive Yorkshire captains thought wristspin was too frivolous, and insisted he bowl orthodox slow left-arm spin. He still took over 1800 wickets before falling out with Yorkshire in 1958, with 102 of them coming in Tests, where he would occasionally give a glimpse of what might have been with some sneaky wristspin. For much of his career Wardle battled for an England place with Tony Lock, Surrey's feisty slow left-armer, who finished up with 174 Test wickets: Wardle and his supporters were unhappy as they felt Lock was a thrower.

Derek Underwood
For around 15 years from 1966, England's preferred left-arm spinner was Underwood, who had taken 100 wickets for Kent in his debut season of 1964 when only 19. Quicker through the air than most, Underwood was a particular handful on rain-affected pitches, bowling England to a famous victory over Australia on one such at The Oval in 1968. He was hard enough to contend with on normal tracks, and finished with 297 Test wickets. Underwood's pre-eminence meant few chances for the long-serving Norman Gifford, who played his first Test in 1964 and his maiden one-day international 20 years later, a week shy of his 45th birthday, or Yorkshire's bouncy Don Wilson, who expected to get a wicket with every ball, and looked affronted when he didn't.

Phil Edmonds
Fresh out of Cambridge, floppy-haired Edmonds befuddled the Aussies with 5 for 28 on his Test debut at Headingley in 1975 (the match ultimately ended when the pitch was vandalised). He won 50 more caps over the next dozen years, taking 125 wickets in all, his hair thinning at roughly the same rate as his captains', although they were usually tearing theirs out after another of Phil's theories. He survived the yips (which he overcame by bowling almost from a standing position with no run-up), numerous earnest conversations with his Middlesex skipper Mike Brearley, and a dressing room amused and antagonised in equal measure by his widespread business wheeler-dealing and his wife's bestselling tell-tale tour accounts. Finally Middlesex rejected Edmonds' suggestion that he should play as an amateur, and he turned to business full-time.


Ashley Giles celebrates as Brian Lara looks on disconsolately, England v West Indies, 1st Test, Lord's, 5th day, July 26, 2004
Ashley Giles celebrates his 100th Test wicket: Brian Lara, The Oval, 2004 Tom Shaw / © Getty Images
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Phil Tufnell
Phil followed Phil at Middlesex, although the laddish Tufnell was rarely confused with his lordly predecessor Edmonds. "The Cat" took 121 Test wickets despite few pretensions to batting or fielding, or being thought of as a bit of a liability on tour: his bowling - a classical left-armer's loop from a hop-skip-and-jump run-up - was good enough (and incisive enough on helpful pitches) to make up for that. Tuffers' county career finally ended in 2002 when he nipped off to take part in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, which he won, amid suggestions that some of his former team-mates were voting furiously to keep him in the jungle as long as possible.

Ashley Giles
Now England's limited-overs coach and Warwickshire's director of cricket, Giles played an unsung part in the 2005 Ashes success, flicking the winning runs in the crucial three-wicket win at Trent Bridge that put England 2-1 up. In all, he took ten wickets and scored 155 runs in that famous series. The previous year, after being slated in the press, he had threaded a classic slow left-armer's delivery through Brian Lara's gate for his 100th Test wicket. In all, despite injuries that famously once led his approach to the crease to be likened to a wheelie-bin, Giles took 143 wickets in 54 Tests before the aches and pains finally won out.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013

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Posted by   on (December 4, 2012, 16:53 GMT)

I'm another of the left spinner brigade (I excelled in blowing flighted filth!). Loved this article regarding those who were a bit better at the trade than I ever was.

Posted by Vivek.Bhandari on (December 4, 2012, 8:39 GMT)

You have somehow left out Richard Illingworth (mind the spellings), who took a Test wicket with his first ball; and also, played the World Cup 1992.

Posted by   on (December 3, 2012, 21:10 GMT)

Excellent article. We left arm spinners are a delightfully weird bunch. Johnny Briggs and Charlie Blythe must be the patron saints of the movement. It would have been nice to mention that Blythe was also a violinist. Excellent decision not to give Tony Lock his own paragraph; this article is about bowlers, not throwers.

Posted by   on (December 3, 2012, 9:26 GMT)

Lovely article! Especially as I am a left arm spinner. I play cricket for Old Merchant Taylors Cricket Club in Northwood, and we have another left arm spinner who is certainly very eccentric. He has played for the club since 1962 and has a record of every wicket he has taken for the club for the last 50 years. The fact that I also have a record since I started in 1999 suggests I am no different!

Posted by ghost_of_len_hutton on (December 3, 2012, 5:28 GMT)

Nice piece, but apart from a brief mention of Tony Lock, he doesn't get his own paragraph. Why? Surely 174 test wickets at 25 rates a mention - a record far superior to Giles, Tufnell and Edmonds for a start.

Posted by landl47 on (December 3, 2012, 4:45 GMT)

Derek Underwood was the best bowler on turning wickets I've ever seen, of any type. If he had bowled on the Indian wickets we have seen on this tour he'd have been virtually unplayable. He played his career in England where the wickets weren't too responsive to spin, but still finished with 297 test wickets @ 25 and almost 2500 first-class wickets @20. He wasn't as good a bowler as Shane Warne on pitches which didn't take a lot of turn, which is why I rank Warne ahead of him, but give him a turning wicket and he would rip through any team in the world.

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Steven Lynch Steven Lynch won the Wisden Cricket Monthly Christmas Quiz three years running before the then-editor said "I can't let you win it again, but would you like a job?" That lasted for 15 years, before he moved across to the Wisden website when that was set up in 2000. Following the merger of the two sites early in 2003 he was appointed as the global editor of Wisden Cricinfo. In June 2005 he became the deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He continues to contribute the popular weekly "Ask Steven" question-and-answer column on ESPNcricinfo, and edits the Wisden Guide to International Cricket.

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