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Left-arm over and out

England's long and steady supply of slow left-arm men seems to have dried up. In fact, the only real quality bowler of the type in world cricket currently seems to be Rangana Herath

Bill Ricquier
26-May-2016
Derek Underwood traps John Inverarity lbw to secure a dramatic win at The Oval in 1968  •  Getty Images

Derek Underwood traps John Inverarity lbw to secure a dramatic win at The Oval in 1968  •  Getty Images

Where have all the slow left-armers gone?
It is a question especially pertinent to English cricket. England almost always seem to have a slow left-armer and there have usually been a few to choose from. Yorkshire have produced a historic line of orthodox left-arm spinners, from Bobby Peel and Wilfred Rhodes, through Hedley Verity and Johnny Wardle down to Don Wilson. All of them played for England.
Across the Pennines in Lancashire, Johnny Briggs took 118 Test wickets at 17.75 apiece in 33 Tests; he died in an asylum aged 39. Down in Kent Colin Blythe earned a reputation as the most gifted and stylish of slow bowlers. A talented violinist, he was killed at Passchendaele in 1917. A generation later Verity, who took 14 Australian wickets in a day at Lord's in 1934, in England's only Ashes win there in the twentieth century, died in an Italian prisoner of war camp from wounds sustained in the allied assault on Sicily in 1943.
After the war Wardle shared the left-arm duties for England with the Surrey man Tony Lock. Both were difficult and highly sensitive characters. Wardle's selection for the MCC tour of Australia in 1958-59 was withdrawn at the last moment because of newspaper articles under his name and he was never picked again*. Lock went to play in Australia but returned for one last hurrah in the Caribbean in 1967-68 when offspinner Fred Titmus lost four toes in a boating accident.
Then it was the turn of Derek Underwood, probably England's best "modern" left-arm spinner. Hardly slow, his unique style made him almost unplayable on the uncovered pitches of those days. His most memorable, if not his finest, hour came in the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 1968 when after a frustrating rain delay he bowled England to victory on the final afternoon. There is a remarkable picture of the final wicket - John Inverarity (himself a respectable slow left-armer) shouldering arms and being given out leg before, with all the England fielders in the frame.
Underwood had lots of competition, or potential competition: Wilson, Norman Gifford, Ray East. When Hampshire won the County Championship in 1973 they had two slow left armers, Peter Sainsbury and David O'Sullivan.
After Underwood the line contined - the Middlesex Phils, lordly Edmonds and scallywag Tufnell, earnest Ashley Giles, troubled Monty Panesar and... exactly. Maybe Panesar again, after his return to Northamptonshire for this county season. Otherwise, Lancashire's Simon Kerrigan apart, the cupboard looks distressingly bare.
It seems an oddly English phenomenon. Of course there have been great exponents from elsewhere - Alf Valentine of West Indies, Bishan Bedi from India - but nothing like the great procession from England. Australia has produced outstanding unorthodox left-arm spinners, such as "Chuck " Fleetwood-Smith, but their left-arm finger spinners - Ray Bright, Xavier Doherty - have tended to be slightly underwhelming. South Africa's Paul Adams was quirkily effective. The subcontinent has of course produced a steady if not spectacular crop. Of the current vintage, Shakib Al Hasan, Ravindra Jadeja and Zulfiqar Babar have all had their moments.
New Zealand, where conditions are most comparable to those in England, has produced some worthy performers, notably Tom Burtt, who took 128 wickets on the 1949 tour of England, Hedley Howarth, and, best of all, Daniel Vettori. No slow left-armer has taken more Test wickets than Vettori and only Sanath Jayasuriya has taken more wickets than him in ODIs. A batsman good enough to score six Test hundreds and a thoughtful leader, Vettori was perhaps the most underrated cricketer of his generation.
It is in first-class cricket that slow left-armers have been most dominant. Of the top 28 wicket-takers in first-class cricket, ten have been orthodox left-arm spinners. Heading the list is Rhodes with an astonishing 4204 wickets. Confining the list to those whose careers started after World War II , the leading wicket-taker is Hampshire's medium-pacer, Derek Shackleton, but second in line is Lock. He is unfairly remembered for taking one wicket against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, while his Surrey spin twin, offspinner Jim Laker, took 19 at the other end, but Lock took 2844 wickets in his career.
And who is the current leading first-class wicket-taker? If you have got this far, dear reader, you will have worked it out: it is the 38-year-old Sri Lankan, Rangana Herath, who at the start of the current 2016 Test series in England had taken 926 first-class wickets.
Herath has had to wait for success at the highest level. He seems to be a patient man - you can tell that from his classical bowling style - which is just as well, because he came of cricketing age when the great Muttiah Muralitharan was still in his pomp. Herath made his Test debut in the last millennium, against Australia in Galle - a happy hunting ground for both men, Herath taking four wickets to Murali's five in Australia' only innings in a rain-affected match. But between then and Murali's retirement in 2010, Herath played only 22 matches.
Now he has come into his own. Murali of course was a genius. Herath is not that but he is a craftsman of the highest quality. In helpful conditions he is a genuine match-winner: he is the only left-arm bowler of any type to have taken nine wickets in a Test innings, against Pakistan in Colombo. He will bowl all day but he is never dull, probing and teasing, with subtle variations of flight, pace and use of the crease.
He, like all the Sri Lankans, is unlucky that they always seem to play their Tests in England at the start of the summer rather than the end. The last time they played at the end was The Oval 1998 and we all know what happened there... But, whatever the conditions, Herath - modest, cheerful, and a delight to watch - will always give his best.
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* May 30, 2016 1.30pm GMT: An editing error left this article mentioning that Johnny Wardle was picked again by England in the 1960s. This is incorrect, and has been fixed