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Return of Finger Spin

27 January 2010.

It’s back from the dead courtesy of Swann, Hauritz, Benn and others, relying on good old accuracy and slight disguise.

Long ago consigned to a cricketing graveyard, finger spin has rallied in the most unexpected and impressive manner. Any student of the rankings will rapidly discover that numerous members of the orthodox brigade are occupying high places and showing little signs of vertigo. A perky rooster called Graeme Swann has been taking wickets for his country. A plausible gentleman going by the name of Paul Harris had struck a rich vein till his luck ran out a few weeks ago. A mild-natured fellow named Nathan Hauritz has taken 18 wickets in his last three Tests. West Indies have found a couple of likely lads of contrasting construction in Sulieman Benn and Nikita Miller. Bangladesh‘s best bowler belongs to the fraternity. So much for the coffin. The corpse has not merely burped. It has come back to life.

Nathan Hauritz bowling

Nathan Hauritz Bowling, Edgbaston E v A 2009
Photo ©: Gareth Williams /

Finger spin – let us focus on the right-hand fraternity because lefties are a special case, most of them being as mad as March hares, besides which they enjoy an obvious advantage by turning the ball away from the ever-shrinking majority of orthodox batsmen – has an honourable, even inspiring, history. Certainly it never deserved the poor reviews that latterly came its way or the rough treatment dished out by dismissive batsmen inclined to regard finger spinners as step-and-fetch-it bowlers. And the tradition deserved better than sceptical observers saying the game has changed, and commonplace offbreaks no longer have a part to play. The game is always changing and always staying the same, and every generation thinks it invented drink, sex and spin.

Actually it does change but it goes around, not in a straight line. And now the wheel has come full circle. Offspin is back precisely because it fell from favour. It’s the same with legspinners. At various junctures they became expensive and captains and coaches could no longer afford them. Then after 20 years or so, batsmen forgot how to play them, whereupon they made the sort of comeback relished by rock bands and actresses holding tight to 38.

Offspin is reviving precisely because for years batsmen did not take it seriously, wanted to put it out of its misery and assumed they were dealing with the last gasps of a doomed creature. After all the more eminent of batsmen had been raised to regard these tame tweakers as impostors. Take that, and that and that.

Unbeknown to them, though, offspin has a secret. It’s bad, and knows it, but it’s a little bit better than it makes itself out to be. Offspinners wear their craft and cunning lightly. It’s part of the disguise. Of course they are lightweights, but they are not to be taken lightly. Their trick is to invite batsmen to over-reach and then to rejoice as another victim lofts a catch to mid-on or edges a straight ball to slip. Not that they are remotely as mischievous or devious as other practitioners. Offspinners only pretend to be lambs for slaughter. As soon as they start to look fierce they will stop taking wickets.

Until the last 12 months or so the pessimists seemed to have a point about the death of offspin. Numerous obituaries were written, all of them prosaic, for it is not the sort of trade that sends poets into a flutter. Indeed it is altogether more pen than quill, more patience than panache. Although it is best to keep them in the dark when the topic is raised, finger spinners follow a dull profession. For all their toil, they basically run to the crease, roll over an arm, give the leather a little twist, land it on a length and cross fingers that nothing untoward ensues. They are not fast, do not turn the ball much, and are about as likely to pull a rabbit from a hat as Clem Atlee. Their genius lies not in any particular delivery or feat, but in their very survival. Obviously these strictures exclude those exploring the borders between finger and wrist, the small number of practitioners, ancient and modern, able to combine the orthodox with the baffling. Magicians like Murali, Mendis, Gleeson, Ramadhin, Ironmonger and others belong in a category of their own.

The books, it is true, tell of mighty tallies taken by Jim Laker, with his hitched trousers and unobserved pint in a pub on the evening of his 19-wicket haul on a pitch some Australians considered a touch dusty. Made-to-measure pitches have been around for quite some time. EAS Prasanna took a stack of wickets for his country with deliveries that seemed to buzz out of his hand before taking flight and ending with a sting. Lance Gibbs was another respected practitioner: a tall, skinny man with long fingers, a gentle smile and an ability to make the ball drop and bounce. Hugh Tayfield emerged from the African continent to torment batsmen with his ripped deliveries. They were artisans who became artists.

All of them upheld, and many of them advanced, a genre that seemed to be part and parcel of the game. None of them had a special delivery, the baffling “other one”, the delivery released with more or less the same action as its comrades only to head in the opposite direction after bouncing. Instead they relied on curve, dip, accuracy, and an arm ball that drifted towards slip.

And then cricket weakened these operators. Of course it was not deliberate. Just that a combination of factors combined to reduce their impact. Finger spinners had relished the opportunity to wheel away on pitches affected by rain. Wilfred Rhodes once famously, and quite possibly apocryphally, put a thumb into a wet pitch and upon hearing a team-mate say it would start popping at 3pm, replied “Nah, lad. 3.30.” An afternoon of precise bowling on a drying surface could make up for a week’s thankless toil on batting paradises. Offspinners came into their own on rain-affected tracks because the ball gripped and turned, and control was of paramount importance.

Once officials decided to protect the pitches from the elements, the offspinners knew the days of wine and cheap wickets were over. To make matters worse, boundaries were gradually shortened and bats were thickened. Meanwhile, the growth of one-day cricket tightened the screws. Orthodox spinners began to take heavy and unsustainable punishment.

Hereabouts the game seemed to be up. However bowlers are an inventive lot. Frustrated by flat pitches, deaf umpires and unhelpful rule changes, fast bowlers came up with reverse-swing in all its dark glory. Even more under threat, orthodox spinners discovered the doosra, their version of a googly, the delivery that made wrist spin mainstream.

Saqlain Mushtaq introduced the delivery and initially it provoked confusion as opposed to consternation. Later observers argued it was impossible to deliver without a significant straightening of the elbow, a point Murali, a late convert, disproved by bowling one with his arm in plaster (a strategy used 80 years before by Jack Marsh, an aboriginal speedster desperate to counter rumours that he chucked. Marsh bowled with his arm encased in a match, but his fate had already been sealed). Contrarians pointed out that at worst the doosra was a back-chuck, and that the legislation had been designed to stop turning the batting crease into a coconut shy. Vic Marks, a long-suffering offspinner sympathetic to the plight of the brethren, pointed out that batsmen ought to have no difficulty picking it if it was so different.

Thanks to their mystery ball, Saqlain and company flourished for a while. After a while it came to be regarded as an essential part of the offspinner’s armoury. Every Tom, Dick and Johan took it up, not all of them blessed with suitably rubbery arms. Before long the lords of the game, namely batsmen, were murmuring and muttering. All too soon the new-fangled delivery was under severe scrutiny. As it happens batsmen might have been better advised holding their tongues. None of the spinners using the doosra fared better with it than beforehand. They came to rely on it and forgot how to take wickets with their stock delivery.

The focus on the legitimacy of the “other one” seemed to sound the death knell on offspin. As far as cricket was concerned, the doosra had been the last refuge of a desperate craft. But, then as Mr Dylan once sang “the darkest hour is right before the dawn”.

Far from vanishing from the game, offspinners have started taking wickets. Accomplished batsmen keep leaving the field ruefully shaking their heads. Ricky Ponting kept stabbing at Swann in the manner of Macbeth at ghosts. Kevin Pietersen announced that Hauritz was harder to hit than he seemed. Mohammad Yousuf was taken at short leg. Jacques Kallis was held at slip. Australians found Harris, a leftie but in the same mould, not so much unplayable as irresistible. Of course Harbhajan has been taking wickets for years but with his doosra and location, he too belongs in a category of his own.

And so the story goes on. None of these revivalists is a Laker, a Gibbs or a Prasanna, and none pretends otherwise. But they are honest, accurate and committed. And they all have another thing in common, an air of slight surprise. Harris, Swann and Hauritz believe in themselves, but not quite their calling. Somewhere deep inside they think the party ended long ago and they are drinking the last dregs. They are enjoying themselves and taking more wickets in better company than they ever dared to dream.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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