Ashley Mallett


Modern spinners who could take any batsman on in any conditions and win

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
Derek Underwood bowling

Underwood: sharp eye for a batsman's weakness  •  Getty Images

My last piece was about the best batsman I've watched. In this one, I look at my top five spin bowlers.
Shane Warne's star illuminated the cricket firmament, inspiring generations with the majesty of his art. When Warne reigned supreme on the Test stage, you'd see kids in the park and in the nets trying to emulate him. They got the saunter right, but what they didn't see was Warne's amazing strength, drive and energy through the crease. Watching him, it all looked so easy. They would emulate his approach, release the ball, and more times than not watch it disappear out of the park. There was a general lack of understanding about energy and drive through the crease.
Warne turned up just when we all thought legspin had gone the way of the dinosaurs, who were bounced out when Earth failed to duck a hail of meteors. Sir Donald Bradman said Warne's legspin was the best thing to happen to Australian cricket in more than 30 years. I, along with thousands of television viewers, watched transfixed as Warne weaved his magic. Poor Mike Gatting, poor, hapless Daryll Cullinan.
I was in the South African dressing room when Warne destroyed them with 6 for 34 in their second innings at the SCG in 1998. And we all remember the time he got seven wickets for 50-odd at the MCG against West Indies, getting Richie Richardson with a flipper. Before that grand performance, which sparked his career, the camera focused on Warne in the field, and Bill Lawry said on air: "Now there's a young man who won't get much bowling today." The Phantom was right: Warne bowled 23 overs; not a lot of work for a slow bowler, but that was all he had to get seven wickets.
Warne's genius got him 708 wickets in 145 Tests. His physical skills were matched by an incredibly strong mind. He was frequently in a lot of controversy off the cricket field, but he managed to focus totally on his cricket when it mattered on the field of play. As with Don Bradman and Garry Sobers, he was a cricketing phenomenon.
The Indian offspinner Erapalli Prasanna was a small, rotund chap, with little hands and stubby fingers. Not the size of hand you'd think would be able to give a cricket ball tremendous purchase.
Pras, as he was affectionately called, bounced up to the wicket and got very side-on. He was short, so he tended to toss the ball up, and he spun it so hard it hummed. Unlike the majority of spinners, he could entice you forward with tantalising flight or force you back, and often got a batsman trapped on the crease. His changes of pace weren't always as subtle as Warne's, but Pras broke the rhythm of batsmen better than any spinner I've seen - especially with that quicker ball, which perplexed the best players of spin bowling in his era.
He possessed a mesmerising quality in that he seemed to have the ball on a string. You'd play forward and find yourself way short of where you expected the ball to pitch. In Madras once, I thought I'd take him on and advanced down the wicket only, to my horror, find that Pras had pulled hard on the "string" and I was miles short of where the ball pitched. I turned, expecting to see Farokh Engineer remove the bails, only to see the ball, having hit a pothole, climb over the keeper's head for four byes.
Pras was one of the few spinners to worry the life out of Ian Chappell, for he could trap him on the crease or lure him forward at will. Doug Walters, on the other hand, played the offspinners better than most - perhaps because his bat came down at an angle and the more you spun it, the more likely it was to hit the middle of his bat.
In 49 Tests Prasanna took 189 wickets at an average of 30.38. For a spinner who played a lot on the turning tracks of India, his average is fairly tall, but Pras was a wicket-taker and he took risks, inviting the batsman to hit him into the outfield. He always believed that if the batsman was taking him on and trying to hit him while he was spinning hard, dipping and curving the ball, he would have the final word.
For his tremendous performances in Australia in 1967-68, I place Prasanna if not above, at least on par with another genius offspinner, the Sri Lankan wizard Muttiah Muralitharan.
Murali's Test figures beggar belief - 133 matches for 800 wickets at 22.72, with 67 bags of five wickets or more (though, for some reason, he didn't shine in Australia).
He operated from very wide on the crease - which would inhibit the ordinary offie - but got so much work on the ball and a tremendous breadth of turn that he got away with bowling from that huge angle. At times he operated from round the wicket to get an away drift. Murali had the doosra, which fooled most batsmen, although the smart ones knew that his offbreak was almost certainly going to be a fair way outside the line of off stump to a right-hander and that the doosra would come on a much straighter line.
His changes of pace weren't always as subtle as Warne's, but Prasanna broke the rhythm of batsmen better than any spinner I've seen
Saqlain Mushtaq lost his way over the doosra, the delivery he created, because he ended up bowling everything on too straight a line, and thus his offbreak became far less effective at the end of the career than it was when he began.
As with Saqlain and Warne, Murali made good use of his front foot. When any spinner gets his full body weight over his braced front leg at the point of release, he achieves maximum revolutions.
As a youngster Murali attended the famous St Anthony's College in Kandy, and every Sunday morning he trained under the tutelage of Sunil Fernando. Ruwan Kalpage, who also trained under Fernando at the time, and is the current Sri Lankan fielding coach, maintains that Murali always had the same action that he took into big cricket.
As with Warne, when bowling, Murali had an extraordinary area of danger, as big an area as your average dinner table. The likes of Ashley Giles, say, on the other hand, who didn't spin the ball very hard, needed to be super accurate, for their area of danger was about as a big as a dinner plate in contrast.
The key to spin bowling is not where the ball lands but how the ball arrives to the batsman. As with Warne and Prasanna, when Murali bowled, the ball came with a whirring noise and after striking the pitch rose with venom. Throughout his career and beyond there has been that nagging doubt about the legitimacy of Murali's action, but the ICC has cleared him and that is why I place him among the best five spinners I've seen.
My No. 4 is Derek Underwood, the England left-arm bowler, who has to be categorised as a spinner, although he operated at about slow-medium and cut the ball rather than spun it in the conventional left-arm orthodox manner. On good wickets Lock was a superior bowler to Underwood, but on underprepared or rain-affected wickets, the man from Kent was lethal.
He had a lengthy approach, a brisk ten or so paces, with a rather old-fashioned duck-like gait, and a hunter's attitude, along with a keen eye for a batsman's weakness. In August 1968, Underwood demolished Bill Lawry's Australian team on the last day of the fifth Test. Heavy rain gave the Australians hope of escaping with a draw and so winning the series 1-0. But Underwood swooped after tea and cut them down, taking 7 for 50.
A week later he joined John Inverarity, Greg Chappell (who had just completed a season with Somerset) and me on Frank Russell's Cricketers Club of London tour of West Germany. We stayed in a British Army camp just outside the old city of Mönchengladbach. We played a cricket match against the army, using an artificial pitch and welded steel uprights doubled for stumps.
A huge West Indian came to the crease and we pleaded with Deadly to "throw one up". Having faced him over five Tests in England, where his slower ball was about the speed of Basil D'Oliveira's medium-pacers, we were keen to see how the batsman - any batsman - would react, when Underwood gave the ball some air. He eventually did. As the ball left his hand we could see a hint of a smile on the batsman's face. The ball disappeared and was never retrieved. Underwood's face was a flush of red as he let the next ball go, and what a clang it made as it hit those steel uprights, while the West Indian's bat was still on the downswing!
Apart from his destructive ability on bad or rain-affected tracks, Underwood was also a brilliant foil for the fast bowlers on hard wickets. He kept things tight as a drum when bowing in tandem with John Snow during Ray Illingworth's successful 1970-71 Ashes campaign Down Under.
My fifth choice might surprise some for I've gone for Graeme Swann, the best of the modern torchbearers for spin bowling.
I first saw him with Gareth Batty and Monty Panesar, fellow spin hopefuls, in Adelaide in the early 2000s. Swann had energy through the crease, he spun hard, and he tried to get people out. At that time some of the coaches leaned towards Panesar and I couldn't understand it, for Swann wasn't just a fine offspinner, he could bat when he put his mind to it, and he was an exceptional slip fieldsman. In comparison Panesar did not seem to have the same resolve or the cricketing nous.
When he was finally recognised as a top-flight spinner, Swann proved himself straightaway. He was 29 years old when he played his first Test, against India in 2008-09, and in the four-odd years since, he has played 41 Tests, taking 182 wickets at 27.97. Swann doesn't have the doosra, but he does have the square-spinner, which looks like an offie but skids on straight, and he can beat either side of the right-hander's bat.
There's a cheerful chirpiness about him that may annoy his opponents, but that is part of his make-up, just as the aggression of a Bill O'Reilly, or the cold stare of Warne, helped them dominate batsmen. Statistically Swann's record so far compares well with Jim Laker's (193 wickets at 21.24 from 46 Tests) and Tony Lock (49 Tests - 174 wickets at 25.58 with 9 five-wicket hauls).
There are lots of good spinners who I have had to omit, including Lock, Laker, Abdul Qadir, Lance Gibbs, Richie Benaud, Daniel Vettori, Anil Kumble, Sonny Ramadhin, Intikhab Alam, John Emburey, Pat Pocock, Ray Illingworth, Fred Titmus and Stuart MacGill. But the five I did pick - Warne, Prasanna, Murali, Underwood and Swann - would do well against any batsmen in any era.

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