Bryce McGain, Steve Smith, Cameron White, Scott Borthwick, Amit Mishra, Todd Astle, Ish Sodhi, Imran Tahir, Devendra Bishoo.
Can you see where I’m going with this? That’s the complete list of front-line leg-spinners to have debuted in Test cricket since Shane Warne retired at the beginning of 2007. Add all their figures together and they have 149 wickets at 44.82. It’s fair to say we’re going through a leg-spin drought at the moment.
You can write off Warne as a complete one off. But how would that explain Stuart MacGill, or Anil Kumble. They both held their own, hell, in any other era they each would have been the best leg-spinner in the world.
What Warne and MacGill (and to an extent Kumble, though he had other gifts) did which pushed them above other leg-spinners of the era was rip the ball finger-chafing hard, in Warne’s case with astounding control. Do any of the leg-spinners mentioned above rip the ball that hard? Perhaps only Steve Smith, himself just a part timer these days can match that level of spin, but without the control, he can never be a front-liner.
Big spin is more important than ever before. With bats as big as they are, and boundaries pulled in to postage stamp dimensions, spinners have a harder job than they ever have before. In the last five years or so, three spinners – none of whom are leg-spinners – have dominated the scene.
Graeme Swann did it by ripping the ball harder than the vast majority of finger-spinners, using an unorthodox tight grip, ball pushed back into the second joints in his fingers. He also preyed on a historical preponderance of left-handers, ripping the ball past their outside edge, before drifting it into their pads.
Saeed Ajmal did it with his doosra. Just enough turn to beat the outside and inside edges was allied to a keen mind, using his doosra sparingly or extravagantly, teasing the batsman with the possibility of it, or dumbfounding them with the reality.
Rangana Herath did it with guile, enough spin on helpful pitches and the willingness and accuracy to wait over after over, stalking the victim, probing away for a weakness, striking when he found it. Given a superlative straighter ball, and the occasional carrom ball; small variations added up to a lot.
So what does that tell the young leg-spinner? Well for one, right arm leg-spinners can combine taking the ball away from right handers with big turn that should make them indispensable in this modern age. Why isn’t it?
The ever present one bad ball an over may be two or three with young leg-spinners, and if you’re going to nurture them you have to accept that. But in days gone by, those balls may have gone for four, even one if a sweeper is posted. Now with railway sleepers in their hands, batsmen can pummel the smallest error in length all the way over the mid-wicket fence. Bowlers need to spin it harder to survive, but make less errors than ever before. That’s a tough mix.
If you look at the list at the beginning of this article, the future looks fairly grim. None of the three Australians have a chance in hell of being picked as a front-line spinner again, and in the case of Cameron White, should never have been in the first place.
Amit Mishra and Imran Tahir are two leggies whose main weapons are their googlies. They’ve also both been tried and discarded at Test level, with little chance of a sustained run in the team in the future.
Todd Astle has been replaced by another leggie in Ish Sodhi, and it’s Sodhi, Scott Borthwick and Devendra Bishoo who have the best chance of these players to cement a place in their respective countries teams.
New Zealand have shown patience with Sodhi after a less than stellar start, and as long as Vettori is unavailable, his place in the team looks secure for the moment. Borthwick is the man in possession in the England team, but when they come up against Sri Lanka in June, that may matter for little.
It can’t help him that he plays as a number three bat for his county side Durham, but England’s lack of many other options may help him retain his place. Bishoo has a few men to fight past, and isn’t putting up the outstanding numbers in the domestic competition which would demand his recall.
Only Sodhi gives the hope of being one of the great spinners of his era. If not him, the next great leg-spinner, the next Warne, might be the next Qadir instead, keeping a dying art alive. Maybe he might be a Qadir, Abdul’s son Usman having shown some promise at the art.
We’ll just have to wait. We don’t know what he looks like yet. He may be tall and bespectacled like Anil Kumble. He might be small and gnomish like Clarrie Grimmett. Whoever he is, to paraphrase a line from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother: “He’s getting here as fast as he can.”
Originally published 21-March-2014