Waiting for the next great finger-spinner, 1997

A spin-doctor writes

Ashley Mallett



Shane Warne brought legspin back to life © Getty Images
Enlarge
The genius of Shane Warne has led to a surge of interest in spin bowling. Warne keeps his method simple - walk-up start, eyes focused, wrist cocked and an enormous surge of power through the crease. Until he came along, many feared wrist-spin was a lost art, gone the way of the dinosaurs, who vanished years ago when Planet Earth failed to duck a cosmic bumper.

Yet, at the same time, finger-spinners have been finding it harder than ever to take wickets. People advance all kinds of reasons for this, like heavy bats. I don't believe this. A heavier bat might mean bigger sixes and harder-hit boundaries, but it also means more mis-hits and edges that carry into fielders' hands. Any off-spinner worth his salt would love to bowl to batsmen like Graeme Hick and Robin Smith - and Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. But the modern generation of finger-spinners is simply inadequate.

Spin bowling lost favour in the early 1970s. John Snow won the Ashes for England, led by Ray Illingworth, in 1970-71 and pace dominated the epic series of 1972. Illingworth was a masterful captain. He used Snow brilliantly and had Derek Underwood to tie down one end. On a rain-affected wicket, Underwood lived up to his nickname of Deadly. But on a flat wicket, which was more normal in Test cricket, he kept things tight as a drum. And Illingworth's use of him greatly influenced other captains round the world: a barrage of pace with a slowie to keep up an end was the less than subtle trend. A spinner was let loose in attack only on a spinning minefield.

Then, after West Indies were crushed 5-1 by the Australian pacemen in 1975-76, things moved a stage further when Clive Lloyd developed his strategy of using four fast bowlers in a system of constant quality pace, with rest periods built in for the bowlers, but no respite for the batsmen. Applied to the letter, the plan allowed for each bowler to deliver 18 six-ball overs.

Spinners could not be part of such a scheme. Even outside West Indies, Test spinners soon became support staff, useful for keeping things tight while the quicks were rotated at the other end. I have first-hand experience of this. In 23 Tests from 1968 to 1975 I took 100 wickets, yet only 32 in 15 from 1975 to 1980. When they were given the odd chance, spinners suffered by bowling to wicket-keepers picked primarily for their ability to bat: batting line-ups had to be bolstered to withstand the pace barrage. To retain a Test place (outside India) in the mid-1970s, slow men usually had to double as batsmen, or field like Trojans, or both. A mind-set was established. Emerging spinners were urged to keep it tight, a trend increased by the growth of one-day cricket.

Most of the spinners who emerged in this climate were rollers who gave the ball a gentle release rather than a real tweak. They would turn the ball adequately on the soft pitches of England or New Zealand, or the flat plasticine wickets of Sydney grade cricket, but in Adelaide or Perth the ball would go through cannonball straight.

But what that meant was a generation of top batsmen who did not know how to confront great spin when it arrived. It took an unusual piece of cricket to prove the rule. In 1988-89 Allan Border took 11 for 96 at Sydney. It was, admittedly, a poor track, but if a roller like Border, who would never get wickets on a true surface, could do that, it told us that batsmanship against spin had sunk to the depths.

Then came Warne. He bowled the leg-break with over-spin, the flipper and the top-spinner; he did not need to bowl the wrong'un too often. Instead of the googly against the left-hander beating the bat by a fair margin, his top-spinner took the edge. Smart. Above all, he was accurate. During the bleak years for spin, the idea was that finger-spinners were more accurate and could be trusted. Turn to history and you will find that many of the most accurate bowlers of all time were leg-spinners: Grimmett, Wright, O'Reilly, Barnes, Gupte, Benaud, Kumble, Warne.

The wrist-spinner can sometimes get away with a shortish delivery, anyway, because of the work he achieves on the ball, given that he is using a combination of fingers, wrist and arm. The ball bounces high and often tucks the batsman up

The wrist-spinner can sometimes get away with a shortish delivery, anyway, because of the work he achieves on the ball, given that he is using a combination of fingers, wrist and arm. The ball bounces high and often tucks the batsman up. The delivery might cost him one run whereas an orthodox spinner's short one would not usually have steepling bounce and would get the full treatment. And when the ball is wet, The wrist-spinner has a decided advantage. Offies hold the ball very tightly, with fingers widely spaced across the seam; that makes purchase very difficult.

Warne has also re-asserted mastery in the air. During the 1960-61 West Indies v Australia series, Garry Sobers and Norman O'Neill often blocked half-volleys from the spinners, then launched into stinging drives against seemingly identical deliveries. I thought they were merely resting: block one, belt one. But in 1967 I found myself in Clarrie Grimmett's back garden in Adelaide. He was 75, I was 22. After I bowled two balls at him and he middled them both, he called down the pitch: "Son, give up bowling and become a batsman. I could play you blindfolded!" Then he talked good sense about flight.

Grimmett knew how easily a batsman could read the exact spot a flat-trajectory ball would pitch as soon as it left the hand. If he is looking down on the ball, he holds all the aces, like a fighter pilot diving out of the sun on his prey. I realised that O'Neill and Sobers were blocking only the balls that had genuinely beaten them in flight. Such balls are spun hard, dipping acutely from above eye-level.

This is the lesson. A spinner must try to make things happen, not merely bowl accurately and wait for the batsman to make a mistake. In this sense, there is no difference between finger-spin and wrist-spin. Many people believe that one is easy and the other difficult. But the off-break with maximum spin is just as hard to bowl with control as a leg-break - and it takes greater toll on the fingers. Men like Lance Gibbs and Jim Laker had huge calluses. Warne's problems have been with ligaments; he does not appear to damage his skin so much. The philosophies are the same. It just happens that right now there are more good leg-spinners than finger-spinners.

They need not despair. Their turn will come, and when the right bowler emerges he will find modern batsmen ripe for the plucking. But the bowlers need to learn to attack and contain simultaneously; and their coaches need to get out of the belief that the two types of spin are so different that the coaching of them has to be segregated. The principles are the same. And the real secret of both is flair.

Ashley Mallett is director of Spin Australia, which encourages and promotes the art of spin bowling. He played 38 Tests for Australia as an off-spinner.

© John Wisden & Co