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Why it is rare for pacemen to get into a spin

by Peter Roebuck

Chris Matthews is a decent bowler. He’s taken a stack of wickets in the last two State seasons and has led the bowling in the grade-winning side. He can’t be a mug.

In Brisbane this same Chris Matthews bowled some of the least distinguished overs ever delivered by a proper bowler in Test cricket.

What on earth went wrong?

Peter RoebuckFirst of all, if a bowler loses his radar he cops it hard. Graeme Wood didn’t have a red-hot game either but his sorrow was hidden away in the private world of the locker room. A bowler’s agony is a public affair. A batsman just gets out. This is why batsmen can survive their bad patches while failure to a bowler can be devastating.

We’ve all seen bowlers ‘lose it’. Derbyshire once had a roly-poly, left-arm spinner called Fred Swarbrook. He was a good, solid pro, not a man who’d ever be picked by England just an honest trundler. But he lost it. First game one year – against Somerset as it happens – he began bowling lobs and and double-bouncers. Everything had been dandy in practice, but from then on he couldn’t bowl a hoop down a hill. He never got it back.

Phil Edmonds, most patrician of spinners, was another victim of these cricketing yips. One year, out of the blue, he began to shuffle, stop, skip and hop as he ran in to bowl. It was altogether a novel dance.

Bald, pipe-smoking Norman Gifford once forgot his run on an England tour. Did he begin with his left or his right leg?

Both men survived this crisis of confidence.

These cricketers have one thing in common. They’re all spinners. Actually it’s narrower than that. They’re all spinners who leave the bat.

Now, I have a theory. It is this. Off spinners are, by and large, cheerful fellows of laconic temperament, blokes who’d stand their round in the pub. They bring the ball into the bat and take what comes.

Left-arm orthodox spinners on the other hand, are mean and often slightly cracked, a state to which they are reduced by missing the edge so regularly without reward. Because of the fragility of their compos mentis it is usually left-armers who go barmy.

It is rare for a quick to do so. David Gurr was one who did. An outstanding young fast bowler, he suddenly lost it when he found himself playing professional cricket. It was too much for him. He’d go white as a sheet before a game. Shrinks and bullies, laughter and tears, everything was tried – all to no avail.

Peter Roebuck battingColleagues knew he was finished when he bowled eight wides in his first over of one game. To complete the over he bowled off one pace but the ball went straight to gully. An opponent asked how he intended to get home. He said he’d go down the motorway. The opponent said he should be OK as it had three lanes.

Two years later he gave Greg Chappell a net and Chappell asked if he was in England’s touring party. He was playing third XI cricket at the time as a batsman.

Gurr couldn’t take the pressure of pro cricket. He didn’t feel he belonged. I wonder if Chris Matthews’s doubts did not begin in the days before the game, as he sensed the atmosphere building, as he saw what was in store.

Was he frozen by the appearance of the West Indians? Did he feel like a bush cricketer come to the city? His lumbering frame starkly contrasted with the athleticism of the Caribbean cricketers.

If so, he wouldn’t be the first to question his own ability. On his international debut Glenn Trimble bowled overs far more embarrassing than anything Matthews managed in Brisbane.

Matthews didn’t lack courage. Paralysed batsmen, of course, don’t have to risk bowling. Matthews had to bat. He did so with considerable courage, scoring more runs than Wood, David Boon and Geoff Marsh, if in less trying circumstances.

This was brave because as he walked from the field, a mortifying sight on that final morning, he must have realised that his Test career was probably over. He might be right. Few cricketers recover from the scars left by the sort of misfortune life thrust upon Chris Matthews up in Queensland.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1988