Spinning a yarn

When Mushtaq Ahmed, of the whirling arms, whiskers and ready smile, retired this year after a career that brought him 1407 first-class wickets and a glorious Indian summer with Sussex, he said a curious thing. He said that he envisaged his future in the game, helping out youngsters and passing on his considerable knowledge, and that would be in England, rather than Pakistan, because this is where the future of spin bowling is brightest.

Derek Underwood, the most successful English spinner in history, who this week accepted the MCC President’s baton from Mike Brearley, was less optimistic about English spin bowling in these pages yesterday. His focus was a narrow one- that of his home county Kent- who, he said, have just one off-spinner and no left-armer. But had he spread his net wider, he would have seen a similar picture throughout the county game. You have to look damn hard to find the potential that so excited Mushtaq.

A week spent watching the denouement of the county championship at Trent Bridge last week, highlighted the issue. There were actually four spinners on view, bowling on a pitch that whilst slow was bare and dry. There were two left-armers- Samit Patel and Liam Dawson- an off-spinner- Graeme Swann- and a leg-spinner, Imran Tahir: three home-produced players and one from overseas; three orthodox spinners and one with more ‘mystery.’ Between them the home-grown spinners took four wickets and Tahir took eight.

Such was the expectation of Tahir’s success, and so important was he considered to Hampshire’s chances, that the county perpetrated an elaborate wheeze in the build up to the game as to his whereabouts before unleashing him on an unsuspecting Nottinghamshire side. With his combination of leggies, googlies and flippers it was easy to see why. No such deception was required by Notts, and not much deception from their spinners, either, as they plugged away in typically English fashion.

Patel is a high-class batsman, but it is remarkable to think that he was touted for the second spinner’s berth to India after a season in which he took just a dozen championship wickets. And once the selectors decided that Adil Rashid was not ready, Swann was a shoe-in. So bare is the spinning cupboard that the selectors were forced to scratch around like backyard chooks even to come up with contenders to challenge Swann. There aren’t many.

Just nine English spinners took more than thirty wickets this year. Mostly, the names are well-known, practitioners of the art who have been around the block more than once. Ian Salisbury, Robert Croft, Gareth Batty and Shaun Udal, for example, are all good performers but hardly potential putty in Mushtaq’s hands. There are just a couple of younger bowlers, Monty Panesar apart, who achieved that milestone: Rashid and Ollie Rayner of Sussex both of whom were rewarded with a place on the development squad.

Thirty years ago, nineteen English spinners achieved that milestone of thirty wickets; Underwood, with 110 wickets, taking the most. And while just three English spinners this year averaged less than thirty, in 1978 there were fourteen who did so. The trend of decline is undeniable: in 1988, there were fourteen English spinners who took thirty wickets or more, and nine who averaged less than thirty; in 1998 there were nine who took more than thirty wickets, four of whom averaged under thirty. Between 1978 and 1998 something went seriously wrong with English spin, and it has not yet recovered.

The principal reason must be the pitches, which were uncovered in 1978, allowing the likes of Underwood to wreak havoc whenever the rain fell. Three years later they were covered (uncovered pitches made a brief return in 1987 but the run-ups remained covered, encouraging captains to bowl not seam but spin on wet pitches.) Natural English soil pitches were then gradually replaced by those made from Surrey and Ongar loams, so that they no longer crumbled but cracked, making quicker bowlers just as potent on the last day as spinners.

The move to four-day cricket was supposed to herald more spinners bowling in tandem on wearing pitches, but the twirlies have become less not more influential in the modern county game. In 1978, eighteen English spinners bowled more than 500 overs in the season (they played more games then); in 1988, fourteen bowled that amount, whilst in 1998 two did, and 2008, just three spinners bowled that number of overs.

English spin, then, has a marginal influence on our county game. Robert Croft might be described as a senior spokesman, a tub-thumping union leader for home-grown spinners in this country and he points to factors, other than the covering of pitches, which have encouraged this marginalisation. Whilst the two divisional county championship has increased competitiveness, he says that it mitigates against young spinners who need time to mature. In a more cut-throat environment, where taking a long-term view can mean Siberia-status in the second division, counties want returns immediately.

Croft reckons that batsmen play spin far better now than when he started, that they see the introduction of spin as an opportunity not a threat and that sweeping and reverse-sweeping is commonplace now in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago. England did not tour the sub-continent between 1993 and 2000, but did so frequently after that, and Croft believes the influence of England’s batsmen who toured there around the turn of the millennium, trickled down into county cricket.

The size of bats must be a factor, too. John Woodcock of this parish tells a story of the 1956 Australians who arrived in England and were given two bats a piece by Gunn and Moore as was the custom. Every bat was below 2lb 4 oz., except for the big-hitting ‘Slasher’ Mackay who wanted one of 2lb 6oz. It is not only for the thought of touring teams being given a couple of freebies without cheques attached, that such a story seems so outlandish. Few now use anything as light as Mackay’s bat, and if they did they would be of an utterly different shape. As in golf and tennis, technology has changed the game, but unlike golf and tennis, it has been an unequal shift, since bowlers have not benefited to the same extent.

Croft also points to the absence of spin-bowling coaches. Only one England bowling coach, John Emburey, has been a spinner, and of the eighteen county coaches at the moment only Ashley Giles and Mike Watkinson (Paul Grayson of Essex bowled some left-arm spin, too, but was mainly a batsman) are in a position to pass on some knowledge. ‘It’s a bit like wicket-keeping,’ says Croft, ‘you really need specialist knowledge and personal experience to coach spin.’ Tellingly, England have been looking for a national spin bowling coach for a while now but have not yet filled the position.

In this desolate landscape for English spin, there are two causes for optimism: one is Panesar and Rashid; the other is that Australia’s cupboard is equally bare. Their 36 year-old leg-spinner, Bryce McGain (57 first-class wickets) was yesterday ruled out of next week’s first Test against India with a shoulder injury, leaving spin bowling duties in the care of Jason Krejza (43 first-class wickets @45.46.) India’s batsmen will sleep soundly this week.