English cricket needs to embrace legspin again

Roly Jenkins Getty Images

You might not immediately know the name Roly Jenkins. He was a fine English legspinner who, if the conditions were right and the mood took him, made a mockery of the best batsmen of the day. Jenkins was born in Worcester at the back of the First World War and played all of his first- class cricket for that county. He was selected nine times by England, picking up 32 wickets at the most respectable average of 34 each. He gave the ball a rip and might have found more glory had he played on the harder pitches of Australia, say, or even South Africa, where he toured with England in 1948.

One bright midsummer's afternoon against Sussex, Jenkins had the young Reverend DS Sheppard in a pickle. Ball after ball, over after over, God's messenger embarrassed himself, but as Jenkins eventually came to accept, the good Lord looks after his own. Somehow Sheppard survived to make a few, but along the way Jenkins could not resist his own frustration: "Reverend, if I had your luck, I'd be the bloody Archbishop of Canterbury!" At the pulpit the next morning, Sheppard - who went on to bat for England incidentally - opened his sermon with: "Never go back, dear brethren of the church, never go back. Religious faith is like facing Roly Jenkins. Go bravely forward and go forward all the way."

At the time, there were three standout legspinners in the English game. Doug Wright at Kent; Warwickshire's Eric Hollies, the man who bowled Bradman for nought in his final innings; and Jenkins. Each had very different methods and style. Wright bowled it pretty quick and flat, a little like Bill O'Reilly, the great Australian. Hollies was a master of flight and subtle variation. Jenkins took risks, always looking to spin rather than contain. Their records in first-class cricket beggar belief - Hollies took 2323 wickets at 21; Wright 2056 at 24; Jenkins 1309 at 23.6. But wait, these fellows have nothing on "Tich" Freeman, who went before Wright in the garden of England. Tich lobbed them up from his five feet and two inches to claim 3776 victims at 18.4. To put this in perspective, Adil Rashid has 484 wickets at 34.7. Not bad; in fact, more than you might expect at a marginally less good average than you might hope for. Thus far, Rashid has played 161 matches to Freeman's 592!

"Somehow Sheppard survived to make a few, but along the way Jenkins could not resist his own frustration: "Reverend, if I had your luck, I'd be the bloody Archbishop of Canterbury!"

From then until now, the cupboard has been very bare. The effervescent Robin Hobbs, one of the game's best men, wheeled away for Essex - and just occasionally England too - with humour and skill. He played in a staggering 440 matches, taking 1099 wickets at 27. Damn good. But the England selectors gave him just seven opportunities: what a waste. Not until Ian Salisbury, 20 years later, did another man rip 'em from the wrist beneath the insignia of the crown and three lions. Briefly Chris Scofield fizzed before quickly fizzling out. Scott Borthwick played a Test more by luck than justification. He may yet play again as a batsmen and usefully do what men like Kenny Barrington did: make runs and offer a few leggies.

The fact is, English cricket has not looked after legspin for more than 50 years, and the past few weeks painfully confirm this. Hampshire have a gem in the 20-year-old Mason Crane. Lancashire have a good 'un in Matthew Parkinson. Word in the shires had them on a par last summer. During the winter, Crane came on a treat, taking 51 wickets at 21 each for Gordon Cricket Club in the strong Sydney grade competition. He also won four Man-of-the-Match awards, as well the O'Reilly Medal, which is awarded to the player of the season. Most remarkably perhaps, he was chosen for New South Wales, the first foreign player to achieve such a thing since Imran Khan back in 1984. Crane took five wickets in the match to put the seal on the 500 overs he bowled in club cricket.

Never can a bowler have been more ready to make an impact in the County Championship; except that Hampshire are yet to pick him. Three games in: one win, two draws with Yorkshire and Middlesex, both of whom hung on for dear life while the legspinner - that great tail-end tormentor - was, well, not there. Neither, incidentally, have Lancashire picked Parkinson yet this season. It is infuriating - for the two of them, for us, for English cricket and for the game at large. Legspinners are precious. They need care, patience, sympathy and love. Most of all, they need exposure. Five hundred overs in the winter for Crane; no more than 50 so far this summer - 20 of those in one-day cricket, the rest for the 2nd XI.

Hampshire say they have picked their teams to reflect the early-season conditions. That means seamers and batsmen. Liam Dawson bats at six, and very good he is too. He also bowls tidy left-arm spin, which is handy because that's the holding spinner covered while the quicks have a blow. Four-day cricket matches are scheduled to last four days, but the feeling persisted that Hampshire were picking a team for the first two. Sure, there has been some bad luck - injuries to important bowlers during both of the drawn matches; 50-50 decisions going the way of the opponent, the usual stuff.

Not much got Richie Benaud going like England's negligence when it came to legspin. Truly he despaired of the counties and their captains who just didn't get it. The clich├ęs persist - all that nonsense about early-season conditions. It is about how good you are! Not even the dumbest of those captains would have left out Shane Warne - "If it seams, it spins," he loves to say. Warne would have played, and did for a few years, every day of the English season for every county, whatever the colour of the pitch, the feel of its grass or the threat in the sky above. But then Warne was the finished article and the best ever.

In this sense, he has not done legspinners any favours, for they are all compared to him. In another sense, he proved legspin to be essential rather than a luxury, but nobody in England has noticed. In Australia the craft is a given. In England it is surrounded by suspicion and mistrust. Hampshire argue theirs is not mistrust but practicality. The schedule had three championship matches in April - a time better suited to blossom and beating the bat with the seam than to dry pitches and hard-spun revolutions. The ECB should revert on this, especially as the new 14-match season should mean more space, not less.

Crane made his debut at 18 years of age and has played 50 first-XI games for Hampshire, 18 of which have been in the championship. Warne had played one first-class game by the age of 21 and six more by 22. After that he was a regular in the Victoria side and progressed so fast that the Australian selectors rushed him into the Test team, whereupon Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar smashed him all around the SCG. Stuart MacGill played a game for Western Australia at 23 but not was not a permanent fixture in first-class cricket for his adopted state of NSW until he was 26. These stats are highly relevant and suggest we should pull back on criticism of Hampshire.

MacGill believes Crane is being handled with due care and attention. In fact, he endorses the Hampshire selections, or non-selections, so far this summer. He knows Crane well, having met him almost every Friday morning at the SCG indoor school over the past six months to chew the cud and work the mechanics. He leads the Crane fan club, with a few of us not far behind. He reckons we should all take it easy and let Hampshire get on with getting it right. Rushing Crane won't help him, he argues. Be cruel to be kind. He also approves of Crane's selection in one-day matches, for, he says, they toughen a cricketer and, by their very nature, provide wicket-taking opportunities as batsmen throw caution aside.

"Legspinners are precious. They need care, patience, sympathy and love. Most of all, they need exposure"

You might ask what happened to English legspin, given that the days of Jenkins, Wright and Hollies appear to have been so fertile and those that followed so fallow. The 1960s were dull - the years of monochrome - and with the disappearance of the distinction between amateur and professional went the idea of risk and reward. Increasingly, county cricketers resorted to the professional instinct of survival and meanness. Discipline rode roughshod over dynamism and only the influx of overseas cricketers late in the decade reversed this maudlin state.

One-day cricket arrived and soon enough bowlers were persuaded towards the artisan ways of restriction over the artistry of taking wickets. In the mid-1970s, the fast-bowling craze set in and fewer teams picked a second spinner anyway. By the end of that decade the pitches were covered and quickly became more uniform in behaviour because of it. Surrey loam proved a fine and resilient soil: a soil that batsmen came to love and bowlers to resent. Next were the big bats, then T20, then smaller boundaries and now an Ongar soil that holds together with even greater resilience than Surrey loam. On top of all this, we live in an impatient age. Impatience won't work with legspin.

In summary, the temptation had been to rap Hampshire over the knuckles. The county has a strong squad, and looking at the scores from afar, it appeared that ignoring Crane had cost them a flying start. Instead, Giles White, the director of cricket, who is in constant touch with MacGill, argues they are taking good care of their precious cargo and that his name will be in lights soon enough.

We will watch with interest. This ancient art, fashioned and honed on the green grass of England long before the rest of the world caught on, is a magical and mystical thing of leggies, toppies and googlies; flippers, sliders and wrong'uns that capture our heart and ignite our soul. Right now, in the face of myriad options for the young born into the modern world, we need all the ignition of the soul we can get.