Is Spin Bowling in a Funk?

With The Ashes done and dusted, fans and pundits are already turning their attention to England’s showdown with Pakistan in October.

The series looks all but certain to act as Adil Rashid’s inauguration, with the spin friendly wickets of the UAE dictating the need for more than just Moeen Ali if England are to top Misbah-ul-Haq’s side, who haven’t lost on ‘home soil’ since their relocation in 2010.

Beyond Rashid, England’s spin alternatives are painfully thin though. This isn’t any kind of a secret; spin bowling in England isn’t dead, but it is at the very least on life support. That Moeen Ali, a talented batsman and passable spinner, is England’s first choice twirler says much.

But the decline of spin bowling may not be purely an English one. The game globally lacks the star names of old, much to its detriment.

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During the 1990’s and 2000’s, cricket fans watched Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan ply their trade. The three highest wicket takers in Test history went toe-to-toe with Saqlain Mushtaq and Daniel Vettori, while Harbhajan Singh was at his very best during the 2001 series against Australia, helping India secure a famous victory.

Harbhajan is still active, but hasn’t taken 10-wickets in a match since 2008, while Vettori has only recently stepped away from international cricket; but it still seems a far cry from the days when Warne or ‘Murali’ could sell tickets on their own, and Stuart MacGill couldn’t even get in to the Australian side while domestically County fans saw players like Peter Such perform year after year.

Almost every national side had someone to be wary of, someone that intrigued fans; whilst club sides each had their own ‘go to’ spinner.

Star spinners seem to be in short supply now. Perhaps best summed up by Cricinfo’s recent Twitter poll:

Cricinfo Poll

Twitter polls are far from scientific and often a wobbly indicator of the true state of things (just ask the Labour party); but Yasir Shah’s ‘victory’ with 31% of the vote was hardly surprising against middling competition.

The Pakistani leg spinner is currently ranked fourth in the world, ahead of Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath and India’s Ravichandran Ashwin, and has made an electric start to his international career, taking 61 wickets at an average of 24.81 in his first ten Tests.

But there’s the caveat, the 29-year old has played just ten Tests. It’s hard to get a true grasp of a players ability from such a limited sample. The leg spinner is at least intriguing due to his relative inexperience though.

Veteran Herath hit the headlines last month, taking 7-48 to bowl Sri Lanka to victory as India collapsed to 112 all out while chasing just 176 runs for victory. But the 37-year old is more shrewd than he is deadly, with his 2.77 economy perhaps more impressive than his 30.21 average. The Kurunegala native may have played more than 63 Tests, presenting further opportunities to add to his current tally of 278 Test wickets, had Muralitharan not been on the scene. But then, this isn’t another MacGill/Warne situation, where a very good spinner was kept out of the side by one of the best of all time. Herath is tidy, serviceable but largely uninspiring from a spectators point of view.

And there in lies much of the problem. Herath, Ashwin and Australia’s Nathan Lyon are tidy bowlers. They are not plundered for bag fulls of runs, they chip away at batsmen, make them think. But they lack the sparkle of those that came before.

In Ashwin and Lyon’s case this is exacerbated by their style. Off spin just isn’t ‘sexy’ in the way leg spin somehow is. Graeme Swann’s personality overcame this, he was articulate, interesting and, when necessary, willing to speak his mind. Elements that also made Warne the divisive but entertaining figure he is, while Kumble did almost all of his talking with the ball. Even on the flattest of wickets, you still wondered what Kumble could do.

The rise of Twenty20 cricket, the increased number of limited overs games and the changing role of the spinner as a result may have some hand in this ‘decline’. Modern spinners are more associated with ‘dart’ and ‘fizz’ than ‘flight’.

The art has not been helped by high profile investigations and suspensions stemming from illegal bowling actions either, of which Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal is perhaps the most infamous.

Sri Lanka’s Tharindu Kaushal also reported to the ICC this week. Another spin talent under the microscope; the eye of suspicion may never leave Kaushal, even if the ICC clears him. Such is the caution and unease with which sport looks upon any competitor accused of wrong doing now. Even if the allegations are shown to be untrue, this is the world we live in post Lance Armstrong et al.

Spin bowlers seem particularly susceptible to suspicion. Some with good reason, others caught up in the storm.

One might hope Kaushal, Yasir, Rashid – and perhaps even celebrated 18-year old Mason Crane – are the swell which leads to a new wave of spin bowlers. Young spinners need that inspiration, that ‘someone’ to make the art exciting again like Shane Warne once did.

They also need opportunity and guidance, time to learn their trade.

Sadly, at the moment, spin bowling feels like a declining craft. A means to hold up and end, change things up briefly or give a seam bowler a break without surrendering too many runs.

It should be, and can be, so much more than that. It has the power to excite and amaze. A weapon on the field, and off it.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on September 2, 2015, in Domestic Cricket, International Cricket and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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