Watch and experiment, 1938

Spin bowling

A.P. Freeman

In an Interview

The best piece of advice which I offer to the young bowler is: watch and experiment. To my mind, too many bowlers in modern cricket neglect to use their intelligence; their efforts are little more than mechanical.

It is absolutely essential that a bowler should study the batsman, not in a casual sort of way, but with proper concentration. I am convinced that I learned most because I spent so much time all through my career in watching both batsmen and other bowlers.

I do not claim to have any wonderful secrets that may account for my harvest of wickets for Kent in season after season. When you are at the top of the tree it is easier to take wickets than in the days of less experience in the art. I know I bowled better as long ago as 1914 than when I was in my supposed prime.

Never having received a day's coaching in my life, I am very sure that bowlers are born and not made. If the ability is there, it can, of course, be brought out and developed, but without natural gifts no one can hope to attain real eminence as a bowler.

A length bowler will get wickets in any class of cricket. Action, length, flight, control of pace and finger spin may all be persevered with, but to rise above the common level that natural ability must be there. The experienced player should be able to tell a boy with cricket in him by the way the boy picks up a bat or bowls one or two balls.

So many cricket text-books are available that I do not think it necessary to go at all deeply into the main principles of bowling. The question has often been raised whether bowlers are given sufficient coaching nowadays. My view has been that you can only tell the pupil the secrets -- by which I mean the fundamental points of bowling -- and he must, by thorough practice, do the rest for himself.

Given natural ability and having developed an easy run up to the wicket, a boy has a good start. No one can hope to succeed without a loose arm, for if the action is at all bad the bowler has much harder work to do. Fast bowlers like McDonald and Larwood have provided admirable examples in post-War cricket of an easy, loose run up and smooth action and the slow bowler, too, must acquire a perfectly natural run up.

It is beyond all contradiction that length is the chief part of bowling, and length must be commanded before any attempt at spinning the ball is begun. When I was coaching, I used to draw a line nine feet in front of the wicket and instruct my pupils to bowl to that; I have also laid a sheet of newspaper on the wicket and told the boys to pitch the ball on it.

Of course a good length to a tall batsman like Frank Woolley would be a long-hop to a player of the height of, say, Hendren. The aim must be to drop the ball just out of a batsman's reach and to give him as little time as possible to deal with it.


The good coach will stress the importance of learning to change pace without change of action. In my view that is one of the hardest parts of bowling.

I know it is the general opinion that the leg-break is the most difficult ball to bowl but, as it is also the most deadly ball, it is worth mastering. The grip of the ball for this is a matter for the individual. I hold it with the first and second fingers round the seam, with the ball resting on the third finger and the thumb steadying the ball and I think one has more command of the ball with this grip. The seam is pointing towards slip.

Some people run away with the idea that the grips for the leg-break and googly are different. That is not so. In fact my grip is the same for the top-spinner as well. The difference between the three balls is this: For the top-spinner I hold the ball with the seam pointing straight down the wicket and release it from a position half-way between that for the leg-break and googly. When bowling the googly the wrist is turned over and the ball comes over the top of the little finger from the back of the hand. In this case the ball is held with the seam pointing to fine leg.

Some off-break bowlers who are supposed to spin the ball merely do little except turn the wrist. That is rolling the ball--no more. To spin the ball, you must use your fingers. Hold the ball tight with the first finger over the seam and, at the time the ball is leaving the hand, flick it with the fingers.


If the art of studying the batsman and watching for his weak spots was cultivated more both in county and club cricket, we should not hear so many lamentations about the scarcity of good spin bowlers.

It is important to study the batsman right up to the moment of releasing the ball. A movement by him before the ball has left my hand has prompted me to pitch the ball a little wide and often to get him stumped.

It may take you half an hour to find out his weakness but it is worth while. Never mind giving a batsman 20 runs or so. Four wickets for 100 at the Oval always pleased me more than, say, eight for 20 on a bad wicket against a poor side.

Humour the batsman if he has a particular hit but be sure you have safe fieldsmen in the position where a catch may be put up. A good captain will always consult the bowler before altering the placing of the field; otherwise he is likely to ruin the bowler's best laid plans.

I always enjoyed pitting my brains against the top-class batsmen. I preferred to bowl to Jack Hobbs more than anybody. He played every ball on its merits, took no liberties and if you got his wicket you earned it. I always knew he would play every ball as it deserved.

During the later years of my career in Kent cricket I believe I knew every batsman's weakness. That knowledge, carefully memorised, I was always ready and willing to pass on to younger bowlers in the team.

When Warwickshire were playing Kent at Gravesend in the first year Douglas Wright turned out for us, I got a wicket with the last ball of an over and Bates came in to take the next ball from Wright. I suggested to Wright he should bowl a googly first ball; he did and Bates' leg peg went down. Bates said to me afterwards: "You told him, Tich, didn't you, to bowl a googly?" and I admitted the little strategy.

Always be ready to experiment is a good motto for bowlers. If you cannot get a man out try anything. Never be afraid of being hit. If a batsman starts hitting, keep him at it; a little more flight and the batsman may make a mistake.

It is when the wicket is dead that you need to experiment most. At such times bowl a bit faster but not forgetting to slip in an occasional slow one with the same action. Whenever I am asked to give advice on bowling, I always urge the prime importance of these points of studying the batsman and experimenting.


I have probably kidded more batsmen out than anyone. It may seem a strange thing to say but I got a good many wickets through not bowling the googly. The batsman knew I could bowl it and was always expecting it. Often he became so fidgety trying to watch my hand and to anticipate the googly that he got out in some other way.

A bowler cannot expect to master the googly without a lot of hard practice. When the late R.O. Schwarz came to England in 1907, round about my eighteenth birthday, I summoned up courage to ask him how to bowl the googly. His advice was, "Just watch me, you will soon see how it is done," and after close observation of his bowling I was optimistic enough to believe I could master it and set to work to practice bowling the googly for two years, winter and summer, before attempting it in the middle.

When at last I felt confident that I could keep a length I tried the googly out in a match against Charlton Park and took eight wickets for about 20 runs.

W.H. Levett, the Kent wicket-keeper, always said I bowled the googly in two ways. Actually this was not so, but I sometimes released it earlier in my delivery. Also, like Grimmett, I bowled a ball which was not an ordinary googly. Everything else was the same except that, instead of the ball coming from over the back of the hand, it came out between the third and fourth fingers. By using the second method I brought the ball through quicker because I could grip it harder.

A slow bowler, without the support of a good wicket-keeper, would probably find that half of his work was wasted. I have been lucky in playing with such a fine wicket-keeper as Leslie Ames. We made a perfect combination. He knew everything I could do with the ball. Ocassionally I beat him but not often. The number of wickets which Ames took off my bowling must be something like a record.

I never signalled the googly to Ames but, before he came into the team regularly I used to do so, although I know that most wicket-keepers prefer to find it out for themselves, rather than be given a signal when it is coming. Signs I used to indicate to the wicket-keeper when I meant to bowl a googly were to hitch up the back of my trousers as I walked back after delivering the previous ball or to swing my left hand, holding the ball.


Always try to force the batsman to make shots. That was my plan. Cricket looks so bad when a bowler's policy is aimed at pegging down the batsman. I think leg-theory is a sign of weakness on the bowler's part.

I only once bowled deliberately outside the leg stump and then with the idea of exposing this negative bowling. We were playing at Tonbridge and Warwickshire's slow left-arm bowler kept on dropping the ball just outside the leg stump. Kent had a bang at him, not with much success, and some of our batsman said, "If he bowls this stuff in the return match, we will ignore it." They did so and although the Warwickshire bowler had a lot of maiden overs he did not get many wickets.

When I went on I put all my fieldsmen on the leg side and bowled a few overs outside the leg stump. One man was run out, trying to push the ball to the off, another left a ball alone and it broke and hit the off stump. I don't think a run was scored while I was indulging in this little retaliation. But it did not please me a bit, because it was so entirely a case of the batsman getting himself out rather than the bowler taking wickets.

A bowler who doesn't like the job will never get on. He should never allow himself to be worried by dropped catches. As soon as you start slacking you are finished. I might have been out of the ordinary but I never got tired all the time I was bowling, no matter how long my spell with the ball. The hotter the weather, the less tired I seemed to become.

It was after the day's play that I used to feel the strain. Cold weather, of course, affects the muscles and it takes a long time to get the fingers supple. I believe a good many bowlers are troubled with pains in the wrist and elbow after long hours of spinning the ball, but I can honestly say that I was never affected in this way, nor did I ever have a corn on my hand.


In my view bowlers do not use the bowling crease as much as they should do. Obviously when this is done the batsman has to contend against the ball coming to him from different angles. I often used to bowl a yard behind the wicket and rely on the art of flighting -- making the batsman think the ball is coming up farther than it really is. A slow bowler must be a master of flight. It is not easy to explain how it is done although, of course, it is combined with action and is more or less natural.

One of the most dangerous balls is a good length outside the leg stump. A batsman is always liable to over-balance when trying to play this ball and there is a good chance of him being stumped if he misses it.

On a sticky wicket you have to bowl almost half-volleys. On a fast wicket you must bowl a bit shorter, for a good length on a fast wicket is a long hop on a slow one. Much the same thing applies when you are bowling to a quick-footed or a slow-footed batsman.

The only time I bowl round the wicket is when I think I can take advantage of broken patches outside the leg stump made by the bowler in his run-up. A left-hander, of course, has to bowl round the wicket to get the right angle. On a wicket where the ball won't turn you must rely on length and flight.

Keep pegging away.

© John Wisden & Co