July 30, 2013

The ghosts of 1956

Australia have been tentative against Swann's offspin. At Old Trafford, where history's greatest spin performance was delivered, they must watch out for him

Are the ghosts of 1956 gathering to haunt Michael Clarke's men at Old Trafford?

The way the Australian batsmen poked and prodded against Graeme Swann was a reminder of that Test in July 1956 when Jim Laker took a world record 19 for 90 on a dusty turner. Australian batsmen through the years have struggled big time against quality offspinners: England's Laker, Fred Titmus, David Allen, Pat Pocock and John Emburey have all had more than a few days in the sun against Australia; so too South Africa's Hugh Tayfield, India's Erapalli Prasanna, Harbhajan Singh and R Ashwin, New Zealand's John Bracewell, and Lance Gibbs of West Indies.

But it was Laker who caused the most hurt to Australia's batting psyche against offspin. In 1956, the Old Trafford wicket proper was completely devoid of grass - as bare as the gnarled and parched rough that confronted the left-handers against Swann at Lord's the other day. When he saw curator Bert Flack enveloped in a cloud of dust as he swept the wicket with a Harry Potter-type straw broom, old Test champ Bill O'Reilly, arguably as good or a better legspinner than Shane Warne, angrily declared from his prime spot in the press box: "Good god, I'd get 12 wickets on that excuse for a wicket without bothering to remove my coat!"

Traditionally the majority of Australian batsmen have thrived in hitting legspinners through mid-off or cover. That they sometimes leave a gap betwixt bat and pad on those shots is mostly of no matter. But it does matter when the ball dips and darts back in towards the stumps. Attempt a cover drive and leave a gap between bat and pad against Swann and good luck. Chances are his ripping offbreaks, which invariably curve and drop, will turn back through the gate to clean-bowl you.

Doug Walters was a master in playing offspinners, and he came up against the best of them all in Prasanna, whose skill in bowling hard-spun, dipping deliveries that hit the turf and spat at the batsman like a striking brown snake was magical.

Walters came at you with an angled bat, so the more the offspinner turned and bounced the ball, the more likely it was that Walters would meet it right in the middle of his bat. He also read the length brilliantly, either going right back on to his stumps or playing well forward. Against the offspinners he never faltered or misjudged the length.

Prasanna was a wicket-taker and did not fall captive to averages. In 49 Tests he took 189 wickets at 30.38, a pretty high average, given that a lot of his Tests were played on the spin-friendly wickets of the subcontinent. However, weighed against that was the fact that he bowled against players who knew how to counter quality spin bowling. To be able to entice Australia's "corpse in pads", Bill Lawry, down the track for a stumping on his beloved MCG when his score stood at 100 was something akin to a miracle. In that 1967-68 four-Test tour, Prasanna took 25 wickets at 27.44, but it was the way he bowled, the guile and the attacking mindset, that stayed in the memory. Then in India in 1969-70, he took 26 wickets against Australia at 25.84.

Prasanna teamed with Bishan Bedi, a totally different type of slow bowler, a graceful left-arm orthodox spinner who approached the wicket rhythmically, like Fred Astaire gliding across the dance floor. On that Indian tour in 1969-70, Ian Chappell mastered Bedi but fought like hell against Prasanna, whereas Walters found Bedi's deliveries sliding across him from leg to off, a mighty chance to catch the edge of his angled bat. Yet against Pras he found it comparatively easy.

Prasanna was the ultimate artist as an offie. He threw the ball up and you could hear it fizz through the air. Seemingly at will, he could lure you forward or drive you back. Pras had a straight ball, sometimes it was a genuine offbreak that didn't turn, like the one that Swann knocked Chris Rogers over with in the second innings at Lord's, but in the main he concentrated on his stock offbreak. And dip and turn it did.

In WG's coaching manual, he writes of how the ball he called a "Spettigue" often confounded batsmen. WG aimed to bowl it high in the air with such skill that gravity took the high full toss and had it fall squarely on top of the bails

India's offspin duo Harbhajan and Ashwin have made Australia struggle, and Ashwin particularly helped spin out Michael Clarke's men in India's recent 4-0 win on absolute minefields. As Australia fell ingloriously to the Indian spinners, I wondered how they would cope against Swann, who might not be quite as good as Jim Laker was at his zenith, but in 2013 is better than Harbhajan and Ashwin put together.

Interestingly, Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan spin magician, struggled against the Australians away, although he always enjoyed bowling to them in Galle, where the ball spun prodigiously.

Swann, who admitted that the high full toss he delivered to trap Chris Rogers lbw at Lord's wasn't exactly the greatest ball he has bowled on the Test stage, will be chuffed to discover that the delivery would have warmed the heart of WG Grace. For in WG's coaching manual, a copy of which Greg Chappell was delighted to find in England back in 1975, he writes of how the ball he called a "Spettigue" often confounded batsmen. WG aimed to bowl it high in the air with such skill that gravity took the high full toss and had it fall squarely on top of the bails.

The Australian batsmen played Swann at Lord's as though he was hurling hand grenades at them. They were tentative, prodding forward in hope more than real conviction. There was hardly anyone looking to rotate the strike. Even Clarke, the best player of spin in the team, got down the track and hit one over mid-on for a stirring four, yet too often he was anchored to the crease, as if to say to all and sundry, "If I go, god help the others."

Then there's Shane Watson. Wherever he bats, Watson is a stand-and-deliver merchant. There is a seeming laziness about his batting, for he waits for a ball to hit for four and ignores chances to hit singles and annoy the bowlers. Watson will drive majestically for the odd boundary, but that is all. It makes life very easy for the England attack. They always seem to have Watson facing: a batsman squarely in their sights. Whether opening or down the list, the batsmen must rotate the strike to break the rhythm of the bowler. On a turning track the best place to play good spin is up the other end. If both batsmen are of like mind, the strike is rotated often and the score ticks over nicely.

Usman Khawaja looked all at sea against Swann at Lord's, but in the second innings he showed backbone and better judgement. Yet he too, as with Steve Smith and Phil Hughes, won't work the singles enough against the spinners. Smith looks comfortable against Swann, but only when he goes on the attack. He has shown poor judgement of length on two occasions, going back to a Swann half-volley to get an lbw at Trent Bridge, then forward for a bat-pad catch at Lord's off a ball that was almost a long hop.

The time has come for the Australians to take the attack to Swann. Trent Bridge's slow pitch and the fact that he had to ease himself back into the fold after an elbow injury made Swann's bowling not quite up to the standard we expect. At Lord's, while he took 5 for 44 and 4 for 78, he still wasn't quite back to his best. That makes him doubly dangerous at Old Trafford. He'll be out to demolish Australia. Can he do a Laker? Well, he's good enough to run through this Australian batting line-up on most surfaces.

Swann, like Laker, has a good sense of humour. After getting 10 for 53 in the second innings at Old Trafford, Laker stood at gully in the fifth Test at The Oval, and when Lock caught Colin McDonald in the leg trap and Australia's score stood at 1 for 3, Laker laughed aloud: "I've got nowt to play for now!"

The good spinners take risks. They are prepared to give a bit to get a bit. Laker wanted wickets. He had an "away ball" that was different to Swann's square spinner, the one that invariably does what he wants, skidding on straight. Laker's away ball sometimes turned if he didn't get it quite right.

I once set the scene. "Okay, Jim. They've six to win, one ball to go, the opposition are nine down and the slogging right-hander is on strike. The away ball is the obvious one to deliver. You bowl it and instead of going slightly away, the ball turns. What happens?"

"We lose."

David Warner, whose Achilles heel was always spin, has improved against this form of attack and he must come back into the side as an opener. That is his natural spot and where he has had most success. Another Australian who should play at Old Trafford is offspinner Nathan Lyon. He needs to concentrate on his stock offbreaks at different paces and deliver them from different points on the crease. Change of pace and subtle changes in angle will help Lyon attack and defend in the same package.

Realistically, unless the Australians go after Swann in a sensible fashion - rotating the strike to break his rhythm and pattern of having men all about the bat - Old Trafford for Swann might well turn out to be a Laker-like wicket harvest.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell