Mystery and Magic: Iverson, Ramadhin, Gleeson and Mendis

From S.Giridhar and V.J

From S.Giridhar and V.J. Raghunath, India

Australian bowler John Gleeson demonstrates his grip © Cricinfo Ltd
A prison cell during World War II: An Australian prisoner of war is spinning a ping-pong ball to pass time. Iverson is trying out different grips to flick and turn the ping-pong ball against the wall. He finds he can turn the ball both ways by flicking the bent middle finger on either side of the ball and keeps practicing. When the war is over, Iverson unleashes this in Sheffield Shield. Called to play against Freddie Brown’s English team in 50-51, he takes 6 for 27 in the second innings of the third Test in Sydney…..
Iverson is the pioneer, the “first man ever” in this story about right-arm mystery spinners. If Bosanquet introduced the googly to add magic to leg spin and if Saqlain discovered the doosra to spice up offspin, then Iverson it was who first showed the world the magic of imparting spin either way with fingers in a manner difficult for batsmen to fathom.
How rare is the mystery finger spinner? The title of our article itself contains the names of all the well-known exponents of this art form. There are over 150 spinners in Test history but Iverson, Ramadhin, Gleeson and Mendis occupy the table of mystique – the Harry Potters of cricket.
Today’s torch bearer: Just a few matches into his international career, a lethal delivery of his that turns less than the width of a bat has already been christened the “carrom ball”. The buzz around the ground when Ajantha Mendis is called on to bowl is very different – the air of great expectancy is such that the excitement simply boils over. Uncannily, there is a military connection here too, for Mendis comes from the Sri Lankan Army.
There is a truly wonderful close-up photograph of Iverson’s grip in the Wisden Almanack. And we who have watched Mendis’ grip in great detail over TV would be completely forgiven if we thought the hand holding the ball in that photograph was that of Iverson. The grip is all about how using the thumb and middle finger the ball will be flicked or propelled. It will be the middle finger that will decide whether the ball will go one way or the other. Not much turn but that lethal amount enough for an edge, LBW or bowled. Bowlers who know what is involved in delivering the ball, will be the first to acknowledge that to propel a cricket ball over 20 yards with the middle finger imparting spin calls for extraordinarily strong fingers. It is probably many times harder than the flipper which is squeezed out between thumb and finger.
The Magician’s Demeanor: Sonny Ramadhin brought a mystique to his bowling. Sleeves buttoned up always, wearing a cap when bowling, fast whirring action, Ramadhin created a Houdini-like atmosphere when he bowled.
Iverson of Australia played just one Test series in 1950-51 in which he took 21 wickets. An injury and he was gone for ever. Yet twenty years later when an unknown bowler called Gleeson was spotted in New South Wales, they said, “look at Gleeson, he is bowling Iversons!” The lure of mystery is something irresistible. Perhaps that was the reason Gideon Haigh the cricket historian wrote his painstakingly researched biography of Iverson - a biography not of a cricketer who played just five Tests or who took his own life many years later but of a pioneer who gave cricket something new.
Ramadhin appeared on the world stage around this time but played for a full decade. In 43 Tests, Ramadhin took 158 wickets. Bowling in tandem with the left-arm spinner Alf Valentine, Ramadhin caused havoc in England. His match figures of 11 for 182 in the famous series win against England in 1950 and his partnership with Valentine immortalized him in calypso. Ramadhin bowled his off break with his middle finger down the seam (a conventional off spinner would have this across the seam) and surprised batsmen with the odd ball from the leg with no apparent change of action. The hype over his disguised leggie mesmerised the English batsmen who were even more tied to the crease than usual – doubt and demon freezing their minds. However Down Under, the Australians decided to play him with better footwork and go down the wicket to play him off the pitch, a ploy that made him much less of a problem. In his second tour of England in 1957, Ramadhin started sensationally by spinning England out in the first innings of the first Test in Edgbaston. But in the second innings, May and Cowdrey made a then record third-wicket partnership of 411. They played a lot with their pads stretched forward, playing outside the line and treating him as an off spinner, ending his ascendancy forever. An amazing facet of Ramadhin’s bowling is that he got a whopping 61.5 % of his dismissals entirely by himself —that is he got them bowled or LBW or C&B. In this aspect he is No. 1 among all bowlers – fast and slow - with 150 or more wickets.
Johnny Gleeson started late – and was in late twenties when he made his debut in Sheffield Shield cricket. Catching the eye of Benaud and Bradman, Gleeson was pitchforked into the Australian team. Off a long run, Gleeson spun the ball both ways but used as a stock bowler by Lawry he lost his nip soon. Gleeson played 29 Tests for 93 wickets and on only three occasions did he take a five-for in an innings. Uncharitable though it may seem, Gleeson among the four mystery spinners appears the most prosaic. Perhaps we are biased by the fact that we saw him bowl against India in 1969 along with Mallet and found Mallet to be the more dangerous. He seemed accurate enough but not dangerous and the Indians seemed to pick him. Borde the stalwart Indian batsman said that was because Indians read the bowler’s hand rather than off the pitch.
And after Gleeson, for a long time - 36 years to be precise – there was not a whiff of the mystery spinner till Mendis burst on the scene. In nine matches he has 42 wickets; he already has a ten-wicket haul in a Test match. The picture of Dravid completely bamboozled by the carrom ball that knocked his off stump is fresh in everyone’s mind. But the TV is an inexorable enemy. Every bit of his action is being minutely examined. His googly anyway was easier to pick as it came of a clearly loopier trajectory. Pakistan played him so well recently that he was dropped. The pressure is only going to increase. The problem with these mystery spinners is that the minute they are sorted by batsmen they seem to wither away.
We can do no better than conclude with these words of Gideon Haigh: “….when mystery wears off there must be a residue of skill and resilience. Indeed, many international cricket careers now unfold like whodunits solved in the first 30 pages; after that, the player is a quarry on the run, trying to stay a step ahead of his opponents…..The acid test of Ajantha Mendis, then, is not what he is doing now, but how his game is standing up in two years' time.”