English cricket's relationship with legspin has long been mysterious, even dark. Richie Benaud hated this. Bill O'Reilly scoffed at it. Probably it is the conservative nature of county captains and coaches, who fear the unknown. Legspinners are mavericks in one way or another. Theirs is a point of difference that is understood by few and embraced by fewer still.
Thus, notwithstanding Alastair Cook's mammoth feat of artistry, will power and concentration, the best English bits of the Abu Dhabi Test were the performances by Adil Rashid. In the first innings he took a beating but kept coming back for more. This was the stuff of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - "Tis but a scratch," he says when King Arthur chops off his left arm and adds that "it's just a flesh wound" at the loss of his right. Indeed, when the Black Knight is reduced to nothing more than a stump, he screams abuse at King Arthur, who rides away incredulously: "You yellow bastard, running away huh!" The irony in such a one-sided contest will not be lost on Rashid, as it was not lost on Shane Warne when he began his Test career against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground with figures of 1 for 150. Ravi Shastri gave Warne a pasting that day but never fails to recall the chubby blond boy who refused to submit. Aka Rashid, the Yorkshireman out of Mirpur in Pakistan. Thank heavens for an immigrant population.
Warne took four wickets in his first four Tests but was given a fifth, something a young English legspinner would not presume. Rashid now has five wickets in one Test, after a second-innings show that so nearly brought the curtain down in England's favour. He bowled beautiful legspin, pitching in that threatening space underneath the batsmen's eyes. They used to say that leggies and left-arm orthodox finger spinners should float it up outside off stump to encourage the drive. To hell with that. Fire it into middle stump and watch it rip is the way to go, especially if the ability to rip is within. James Anderson took a couple of lovely catches in dismissals that appeared from a dream. Had it been Warne, then fine. But it was Rashid, an Englishman for goodness sake, and the viewer was entranced. If only Messrs Benaud and O'Reilly had seen this. Seen the light.
"If you haven't tried legspin, you should. Mainly you will land the ball in the side netting, sometimes you will land it in the next-door net. It is so damn difficult, it is not funny"
Rashid should have played for England in the Caribbean but conservatism denied him. England had plans and legspinners don't do plans. They are prone to a hemorrhage of runs and this loses control and stuffs up plans. To pick legspin you have to inherently believe in legspin, to trust it and nurture it. Legspin needs courage, from both practitioner and selector. And, as Warne likes to remind us, legspin needs love.
Years ago, Alf "Tich" Freeman took 3776 wickets for Kent but played only 12 Test matches for England. He took 66 wickets in those matches, so he was hardly dusty, but he didn't play any more. Some snub.
Eric Hollies bowled Don Bradman twice in a week - once with a leggie that no one knows about and once with a googly that everyone knows about. Gideon Haigh points out that the two most famous balls in history were bowled by legspinners: Hollies to Bradman in that final innings at The Oval and Warne to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993.
Doug Wright was another mistrusted English wristspinning talent. "Charming," said the pundits, though not so often as "exasperating". Why, oh why? Wright claimed 108 wickets Test wickets at 39 apiece but was thought of as "flighty" - not for the trajectory of his deliveries, for they were usually from a long run and fast, but rather for the temperament of his performances. Colin Cowdrey is supposed to have said that playing with Wright was too frequently like playing with 10 men. Cowdrey also liked to recall the story of Wright being asked about the greatest over he ever bowled. "To the Don at Lord's, every ball came out of my hand the way I wanted and pitched where I wanted. I beat him twice, the over went for 16."
If you haven't tried legspin, you should. Mainly you will land the ball in the side netting, sometimes you will land it in the next-door net. It is so damn difficult, it is not funny. And that is just the leggie. Try the googly (or wrong'un), the topspinner, the flipper and the slider. They are all close to impossible. Master one and start on the next. It takes years. O'Reilly told Benaud to go away and learn to bowl the perfect legspinner six out of six. He added that it would take him five years. Benaud passed this on to Warne. It did take that long.
Do you know when Rashid made his first-class debut? Don't look it up, have a guess. Okay, look it up now. Amazing huh? It was 2006. Rashid has been around at the top level of the English game for nine years. That is some apprenticeship. He has taken more than 400 first-class wickets and another 120-odd in the one-day game. It is the unheralded effort of the decade.
Chris Adams called Mushtaq Ahmed the greatest Sussex cricketer of them all. Huge call. Four hundred and seventy-eight wickets in five seasons is the evidence. Such a stat throws the notion of English conditions not suiting legspin out of the window (though many a county batsman played dumb at Mushie's pretty transparent wrong'un, the clown writing this included). Anil Kumble bowled wonderfully well for Northamptonshire, too.
During this period - say early 1990s to 2007 - England produced just Ian Salisbury (15 Tests, 20 wickets) and Chris Schofield (108 balls in two Tests without a wicket). Winding the clock back: in the 1980s nobody, in the late '60s and early '70s only the splendidly entertaining Robin Hobbs and a couple of other honest triers. Hobbs took 12 wickets in seven Tests, the last of them in 1971. It was another 20 years before the selectors took the plunge with Salisbury, an admirable fellow whose efforts were brave but lonely. Somehow, legspin is seen as suspicious and eccentric, when in point of fact it is optimistic and resilient. Not to mention that is a phenomenal gift. The trouble is treating it as such.
Perhaps Warne's stellar career was a double-edged sword, at once regenerating the art and doing it so brilliantly that everyone else has paled. One supposes the artists who painted at the time of JMW Turner felt much the same.
"Somehow, legspin is seen as suspicious and eccentric, when in point of fact it is optimistic and resilient"
There is no doubt that Australia has something of a culture for legspin. As does Pakistan. Mushtaq was preceded by Abdul Qadir, of whom Imran Khan spoke in words of gold. Yasir Shah will test England this week.
Australia have had, among others, Arthur Mailey and Clarrie Grimmett; O'Reilly, Colin McCool and Benaud; Terry Jenner, Jim Higgs, Trevor Hohns; then Warne and the superb Stuart MacGill. The pitches are hard and leggies enjoy the higher bounce. Best of all, the boundaries are massive. Australian cricket is more brash, English cricket more hesitant. English pros have looked to contain their game, Aussie players to expand. In general, Australians give it a go, while the English bide their time. Probably it is the sunshine. Or the cold beer.
Hampshire have an exciting young legspinner called Mason Crane. He is the real deal. The county has Brad Taylor too, a good young offspinner. The director of cricket, Giles White, wants to prepare surfaces that will turn but is fearful of the ECB's pitch inspectors, who fined the county in 2011 for a pitch that started too dry. Going into last session all three results were possible and it ended in a draw. It is no more of a crime to leave grass on a pitch than to start it dry. Hampshire should be encouraged to play to their strengths, without cheating, and should be further encouraged to give these young cricketers a platform for their special talents.
Thankfully England coach Trevor Bayliss has spoken positively about Rashid's future in the side. He does not see legspin as an option in specific conditions but as an option, full stop. Even Cook, previously a sceptic, has seen the upside if not the light.
Rashid is a remarkable man. His journey is a story in itself. But it is the torch he carries that matters right now. Could Rashid be the bearer of a new attitude in the English game? The answer must be yes. His performances will flicker, and from time to time the flame may look as if it is about to die, but his own determination to beat the odds will win through if those around him are prepared to understand the unique craft that he has spent a lifetime pursuing. Crucially, they will all need patience. But then, that's the game isn't it?