Monday, July 06, 2009

Turning in the wind

Turning in the wind

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I bowl off-spin (though my actual cricket appearances this season have been strictly curtailed both by the arrival of my beautiful daughter and by the fact that, in my only appearance so far, I dived in the outfield and broke a rib).  I love spin bowling.  It turns what can be a purely physical contest between bat and ball into a series of psychological challenges.  Anyone who saw Shane Warne bowling to Kevin Pieterson in the 2005 Ashes would recognise that quality spin bowling adds a whole other dimension to cricket.  No team should ever play a match without a front line spinner in the side.

That Australia look poised to do so would have seemed impossible even a couple of years ago.  But in the aftermath of the Warne era, Aussie spinners have been either too old (McGill and Hogg), not good enough (Kreyza, Casson, White) or too old and not good enough (poor old Bryce McGain).  The sole specialist in the Ashes squad, Nathan Hauritz, looks about as threatening as a damp flannel.  His first class average, which is as good a way of measuring quality as any other, is a distinctly underwhelming 47.  Just by way of comparison, Richard Illingworth (not Ray, Richard) managed 31; Ashley Giles got it below 30.  Graeme Swann, England’s leading spinner, laughably rated by Warne as equivalent to Hauritz, has a first class average of 32, and, as importantly, has taken five wickets in an innings 17 times, twice at Test level.  Hauritz has never taken five wickets in an innings.

Australia are clearly suffering a spin drought.  Worryingly, for them, this drought is far more of a natural state than the embarrassment of riches when Warne was understudied by McGill.  Spin bowlers take longer to develop than quicks, require far more careful handling, and more intelligent captaincy.  Put a pace bowler on in the early stages of a game and the field sets itself.  Slips and a gully, point, cover and mid off, mid on, mid wicket, square leg and deep fine leg.  If the ball’s swinging take out midwicket and put him in the slips.  If it’s bouncing take out mid on and put him there too.  Easy.

Spinners, however, are generally put onto to bowl once it becomes clear that the quicks aren’t going to get the breakthrough.  The batsmen are well set, and the fielders’ heads are starting to drop.  Short boundaries, chunky bats and rippling muscles mean that good balls can get deposited for boundaries.  For too many captains, two or three boundaries mean that the spinner is quietly sent into the outfield and replaced by an economical medium pacer (not that I’m bitter or anything).

Attacking spinners find it very difficult to keep a place in the side – skippers preferring figures of 10-3-23-1 to 10-1-55-4.  Accordingly defensive spinners predominate – bowling darts at leg stump with a packed legside field.  Flight, bounce and turn are discarded in favour of accuracy and economy.  Spinners end up bowling to give the quicks a break, and to keep one end tied down.  That in a nutshell is how we move from Shane Warne to Nathan Hauritz.  From attack to defence.  And it’s a problem at every level of cricket, from village all the way to Test level.  But tight lines and defensive fields don’t win Test matches – what you need is aggression, skill and the courage to toss the next ball up after being hit for six.  As Ian Chappell said, if you want containers go to a shipping yard.

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