Between wickets | Cricket

The rare and difficult art of wrist spin

Of all the arts of bowling, the most difficult — and therefore the rarest and by extension, the most exciting — has to be left-arm wrist spin, also known as the ‘chinaman’. That India, a country renowned for spin bowlers had to wait over eight decades and more than 500 Tests before their first ‘chinaman’ bowler made his debut tells its own story. Watching Kuldeep Yadav bamboozle the batsmen in Dharamshala has been one of the highlights of the season.

In domestic cricket, India have had chinaman bowlers. Karnataka had C.M. Varadaraj and B. Vijayakrishna, there was Mumtaz Hussain from Hyderabad and Vithal Joshi from Maharashtra. But either coaches or captains convinced them to place safety above adventure and except for Joshi on occasion, the others rarely bowled in the unorthodox style.

Sudden spurt

Recent experience in international cricket, has shown, however, that like buses, sometimes you wait for long without one turning up, and then suddenly left-arm wrist spinners come in threes (Why Do Buses Come in Threes? is a book on the hidden mathematics of everyday life). South Africa blooded Tabraiz Shamsi for the day-night Test in Adelaide recently while Sri Lanka’s Lakshan Sandakan, a year younger at 25, made his mark against Australia.

Wrist spinners are like the girl in the nursery rhyme, who, “when she is good, is very, very good, but when she is bad she is horrid.” They are unplayable one day and profligate the next. It is the nature of the craft.

Character called ‘Chuck’

They are capable of turning a match in a single session either by running through a side or conceding a bagful of runs. ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith, who won a Test for Australia with a ten-wicket haul, holds the record for the most runs conceded in an innings, 298.

“Given the ability to land the ball always on a length,” wrote David Frith of Fleetwood-Smith, “he would have been the greatest bowler who ever lived. Instead he looked to be so only once in a while.” Fleetwood-Smith was a maverick who refused to bow to authority. Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett were his country’s leading spinners — a combination of facts that meant he played just ten Tests.

Most left-arm spinners who begin by experimenting with wrist spin — at a very young age, Bishan Bedi did so too — soon settle down to orthodox spin. Coaches advise youngsters to give up the more difficult version, the one that is tough to control and might even lead to some shoulder injury.

The left-arm wrist spinner, who brings the ball into the right hander also tends to run on to the wicket in his follow through. The stakes — physical, psychological, emotional — are high. It needs a captain with rare understanding of the craft to nurture such a bowler.

Two exceptions to general practice were Vijayakrishna and Mumtaz Hussain, who both began as wrist spinners. “When I first saw Vijayakrishna bowl in a local league match, I thought he was already as good as anybody I had ever seen bowling left arm wrist spin,” said Erapally Prasanna. And Prasanna had seen Sobers!

Versatile Sobers

But Vijayakrishna turned to orthodox spin, only rarely using wrist spin. Sobers had moved in the opposite direction. He made his first class and Test debut as an orthodox spinner and it wasn’t until he began playing league cricket in England following the 1957 tour that he experimented with the chinaman.

Soon he was a three-in-one bowler (he was a genuine quick too). Sobers has a lovely story about playing for South Australia in the Sheffield Shield. He would open the bowling and then his captain Les Favell would say, “New bowler, Sobey, from the other end, bowling left arm spin.” After a while he would say, “New bowler, Sobey, from the other end, bowling chinaman and googlies.”

“My chinaman wasn’t always accurate, but I took most wickets in that style,” wrote Sobers, “I enjoyed bowling that more than the orthodox stuff.” According to Bedi, Sobers began with a deep midwicket and a deep square leg when he was bowling wrist spin.

Sobers tended to overdo the googly and as a result threw his shoulder. “When I reached a certain position in my bowling action, my shoulder would come out and throw me to one side. It was very disconcerting,” he wrote.

It will be fascinating watching Kuldeep Yadav grow. He is only 22 and will evolve in front of television cameras as he develops his craft. Expectations will grow too. It will become harder to take wickets for a while as international teams study his approach, delivery stride and the small hints that tell them which way the ball is going to spin. It will be difficult to keep him from playing all three formats.

But he has chosen adventure. Such bowlers come with a warning: “Handle with care.”

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 6:05:10 AM |

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