Spinners get lbws against batsmen defending on the front foot far more regularly now
Swann is the second highest wicket-taker in Tests this calendar year
The 21st century was supposed to be the death-knell for the orthodox finger-spinner. In a decade when big bats could mishit sixes and yet boundaries shrunk, the accepted wisdom has been that a slow bowler has to be ‘mysterious’ to succeed at Test level.
Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, both geniuses, led the way, with the likes of Danish Kaneria and Ajantha Mendis in their wake.
The feeling was that it was barely worth playing a finger-spinner in the team, unless he could bat and even then his chief function on the field was to give the faster men some breathing space.
And yet Graeme Swann is the second highest wicket-taker (after Mitchell Johnson) in Test cricket throughout this calendar year. After taking three more in Durban he has 49 to his name.
This is mainly because Swann is much better than we thought.
“Another competent yet unremarkable dodo of an English off-spinner” was the general view when he was recalled to international cricket after a 10-year exile.
Swann’s bowling rarely reflects the bubbly personality that can no more resist a one-liner than a cat can the cream.
He is the canniest of bowlers, who recognises all the angles and understands the nuances of a seemingly minor field change.
Swann also recognises the tedious yet vital quality of accuracy. He has bowled very few bad balls in this series.
Andrew Strauss has become heavily reliant on Swann now that he has opted for a four-man attack. But today Strauss’s gratitude to Swann was excessive.
This must be the reason why he kept the off-spinner on for so long during the last-wicket partnership that seemed to tip the match in South Africa’s favour.
In his last four overs Swann yielded 32 runs, 18 of them came from mighty drives for six from the middle of Dale Steyn’s bat.
Swann had done his job. Strauss should have taken him off earlier.
Steyn demonstrated, with some style, how far the modern bat can hit the ball, but today also showed how TV technology can be an aid to the spinner. In the 21st century umpires are far more likely to give lbws to batsmen who have been struck on the front pad. The ever-more refined replays have shown when the ball is fulfilling all the criteria.
In the past maverick umpires in county cricket would raise the finger almost as a matter of principle.
Certain umpires detested the sweep shot and this was especially the case if they were spinners in their playing days.
Thus dear old Sam Cook, the Gloucestershire left-armer tormented by batsmen who plonked their front foot down the wicket before swinging across the line when he was bowling, would, as an umpire, dispatch sweeping batsmen to the pavilion without a scintilla of hesitation.
They deserved to go for playing such a hideous shot. Whether the ball was hitting the stumps seemed a secondary consideration for Sam.
If the same delivery had hit the batsman playing a decorous forward defensive, the decision was, of course, “not out.”
This anomaly is now disappearing. Spinners get lbws against batsmen defending on the front foot far more regularly now thanks not only to the review system but also the examination of the tapes by the umpires.
For England Monty Panesar and Swann have been beneficiaries. I’ve yet to encounter an old bowler who doesn’t think he would have harvested more lbws in this era.
The Guardian’s cricket correspondent, whom some batsmen had the temerity to play off the front foot, is confident he would have been even more prolific in this era. So, too, does the Observer’s. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009