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The splendid Australian batsmen, those active, clear-eyed men who could smile at our fast bowling and make the best of our slow bowlers seem simple, were absolutely at sea. Here was something of which they had never heard, for which they had never prepared, and which was unlike anything in the history of cricket. Spedegue had got his fifty-foot trajectory to a nicety, bowling over the wicket with a marked curve from the leg. Every ball fell on or near the top of the stumps. He was as accurate as a human howitzer pitching shells.
Sadly, Spedegue, who claims 15 wickets on debut to rout Australia and clinch the Ashes, only exists in fiction, the eponymous hero of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Story of Spedegue's Dropper, published in 1929. How the real England team could have done with him last winter.
An unknown schoolteacher who the selectors risked playing after a secret 4 a.m. trial, Spedegue was the ultimate "mystery" bowler - the spinner who, armed with a novel method, deceives and destroys the opposition. Such players exist in real life, but they rarely spring from nowhere. The true mystery bowler is often attempting to resurrect a career that has foundered or never even got under way, and he will do well to make it last.
Other mystery men start younger. In the past two seasons, Saqlain Mushtaq, the Pakistani off-spinner, enjoyed great success with Surrey, and one reason was a delivery which few batsmen could pick: a ball that not merely drifted towards first slip - the off-spinner's traditional variation - but turned sharply, with no discernible change of action. This was a weapon that the Sri Lankan Muttiah Muralitharan also possessed, although "Murali" had many move tricks up his sleeve when he faced England, for the first time in a five-day game since 1993, in a one-off Test match at the Oval.
That this most unorthodox of orthodox spinners bamboozled the England batsmen was quickly evident from their leaden footwork and tentative strokes. He achieved a corkscrew effect from his wrist, and the ball turned and bounced as though dancing to wild, unfathomable music. Dav Whatmore, formerly Sri Lanka's coach, claimed Murali's wrist rotation was unmatched in history.
Like Shane Warne and a growing corps of leg-spin bowlers, Muralitharan and Saqlain have benefited from the general inability of modern batsmen to cope with slow bowling. Brought up with covered pitches, fast bowling, heavy bats and helmets, many have been so ignorant that not only skilled practitioners but modest part-time rollers took on the guise of little green men from the planet Zog.
Muralitharan and Saqlain have the pedigree to carry on doing well, but they may need new tricks if they are to stay ahead. Almost 50 years ago, another off-spinner, Sonny Ramadhin, swept all before him. With shirtsleeves and cap pulled down, spinning the ball either way with his fingers, and using an extraordinarily fast, windmilling action, he was the conjuror personified. Then Peter May and Colin Cowdrey countered him by getting outside the line and playing every delivery as an off-break. Ramadhin was never the same again.
Historically, off-spin has been short of innovation, though it can be claimed that its inventor, a farmer called Lamborn from Hambledon days, was the first mystery bowler in history. Then, all bowling was underarm and the natural break from leg, but Lamborn, a "plain-spoken little bumpkin", possessed a gift for spinning the ball past leg stump, much to his advantage.
Mystery bowling does not have to be new, just different. The underarm method was exhausted when players turned to roundarm bowling early in the 19th century, but it soon reappeared as a surprise tactic against batsmen attuned to facing tearaway roundarmers. And it survived as a shock weapon past the First World War - its final fling did not come until Trevor Chappell nearly ruptured relations between Australia and New Zealand by bowling a grubber as the last ball of a one-day international in 1980-81.
The research of R. J. Reynolds has revealed several interesting cases (see The Cricket Statistician, Spring 1997) in the last third of the 19th century. There was David Buchanan, who turned to lobs in his late thirties, and, on behalf of the Gentlemen, time and again gulled the Players, whose respectfulness suggested they were unaware that he was routinely punished by the schoolboys of Rugby. E. M. Grace frequently mixed lobs with roundarm, and nearly caused a riot when he bowled Harry Jupp, one of England's leading batsmen, with a high full toss at the Oval in 1865.
Nor was it uncommon during the 1870s to see bowlers resorting to "daisycutters". C. I. Thornton opened the bowling with them for Gentlemen of the South at the Oval in 1871 and, six years later, in the first-ever Test match at Melbourne, Thomas Armitage attempted to break Charles Bannerman's concentration with a spell of full tosses and grubbers - without success.
It may be no coincidence that lob bowling died out at around the time that the most brilliant and successful mystery ball in history, the googly, was developed. Tradition credits B. J. T. Bosanquet, another fast bowler grown weary of his work, as its creator; more likely, "Bosie" was the first who developed the ball - an off-break that looked like a leg-break - with the deliberate intention of misleading batsmen. "It is not unfair," he once said of his googly, "only immoral." In finest mystery tradition, Bosanquet's early efforts were greeted as an amusing diversion. His first googly to claim a county wicket in 1900 reportedly bounced four times before a bemused Samuel Coe, of Leicestershire, was stumped off it for 98, but within a few years Bosanquet had helped England win two Tests, and the power of the googly was established.
It proved a costly export. Bosanquet tutored Reggie Schwarz, who played with him at Middlesex, but took the secret to South Africa, where he in turn encouraged Albert Vogler and Aubrey Faulkner, who took 65 wickets between them when South Africa beat England 3-2 in 1909-10. (In that series, George Simpson-Hayward claimed 23 victims for England with lobs.) More damagingly, Bosanquet inspired the great tradition of Australian googly-bowling, which is still tormenting England in 1999.
Bosanquet's English imitators were numerous but erratic, though some who showed promise rose swiftly. Douglas Carr was an ordinary middle-aged club cricketer and schoolteacher who converted to googly bowing in his mid-thirties. Plucked from obscurity to play for Kent in 1909, within weeks he found himself representing England in a deciding Test match against Australia, and rapidly took the first three Australian wickets. But the parallels with Spedegue did not go that far. He was bowled into the ground by his captain, Archie MacLaren, and England failed to win.
Not that the googly was always enough, even for the best exponents. Few were clever enough to disguise it completely, and positive, quick-footed batsmen such as Jack Hobbs showed how the threat could be negated. Subtle variations were much prized. Clarrie Grimmett, whose early googly was relatively easy to pick, spent years perfecting the "flipper", the ball that hurried through, and dreamed of developing a "wrong wrong 'un", a delivery that looked like his googly but broke from leg - truly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Generally, the googly came out of the back of the hand rather than the front, but not always. While on army service during the Second World War, Jack Iverson, a lumbering fast bowler from Victoria, hit on a strange technique of spinning the ball by discharging it from between thumb and bent middle finger, and used it to baffle Freedie Brown's touring side in 1950-51. He was soon found to be vulnerable under fire, but his method did not perish with his short career. In the 1960s, Johnny Gleeson, a useful batsman/wicket-keeper at club level in Tamworth, New South Wales, saw a photograph of Iverson's bizarre grip and had a go at imitating it. He played 29 Tests for Australia and lived up to the tag of "mystery man" better than most.
The left-arm wrist-spinner's stock ball, the "chinaman", developed on the back of the right-arm googly craze, but has remained a rare art. Historically, chinaman bowlers have struggled for control even more than their right-arm counterparts. It may be significant that two of the better practitioners, Johnny Wardle and Garry Sobers, bowled other styles as well, and before Paul Adams appeared for South Africa in 1995 they had been unrepresented in Test cricket for almost 20 years. With an action that was even more exotic than his technique, Adams was a doubly perplexing proposition.
Of course, problems flourish in batsmen's minds, and a clever bowler knows that he need not necessarily invent a mystery ball, just talk about one. Shane Warne terrified England in 1994-95 by threatening them with his "zooter" (rhyming with footer rather than hooter). This is an Australian term for a flipper bowled from the front of the hand, though there remain people who insist that it is a figment of the imagination. As Gleeson pointed out: "You can only do three things: spin from the leg, spin from the off, or go in straight. The ball can't disappear or explode."
The crowd had begun by cheering and laughing, but now they had got beyond it and sat in a sort of awed silence as people might who were contemplating a miracle ... The slogging bumpkin from the village green would have made a better job of Spedegue than did these great cricketers, to whom the orthodox method was the only way. Every rule learned, every experience endured, had in a moment become useless. How could you play with a straight bat at a ball that fell from the clouds?
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times.