Putting a new spin on things

The more one studies spin bowling, the greater the number of its permutations seems to be.

It is now just over 50 years to the day since I packed my cricket bag and prepared to quit Northampton to head north to Manchester and the Old Trafford Test. At long last, after a frustrating summer of heel injuries, the England selectors had seen fit to include me in the squad to play against Australia in the Fourth Test — subject to a final fitness test. I was on the brink of heading for Northampton's Castle station, when the news was relayed to me that my services would not be required. England would only be fielding one fast bowler: Brian Statham, who would share the new ball with the medium-pace all-rounder Trevor Bailey. Apparently the rumour was that two fast bowlers were surplus to needs and the Old Trafford pitch would be a `turner.'

That rumour turned out to be one of the greatest understatements in cricketing history! Four days later the match was `done and dusted' with England winning by an innings and 170 runs to take an unbeatable 2-1 lead in the Ashes series. Home off-spinner Jim Laker took 19 of the 20 Australian wickets to fall to England's bowlers: a still existent record which boosted his eventual aggregate of victims to 46 at a cost of 9.60 each — two more records.

The Australian media accompanying Ian Johnson's side were incensed, as well they might have been. For, here was a clear case of a pitch doctoring in favour of England's spinners with the home team knowing the situation fully well before a ball was sent down. There was nothing surprising in the situation for 1956 was the `annus mirabilis' of spinners. The only pace-friendly pitch in the Ashes series was uncovered in the second Test at Lord's where Keith Miller's 10 wickets steered Australia to a 185-run victory — its only win of the rubber.

In the subsequent home win in July by an innings and 42 runs at Leeds, Laker snared 11 wickets for 113: a bowling triumph which he added to his 10-wickets-in-an-innings captured in Surrey's 10-wicket win over Australia in May. England at Old Trafford was also aided and abetted by some inspired and bizarre selection and divine guidance.

Lancashire's former opening batsman and national selector, Cyril Washbrook, chose to include himself in the side for Old Trafford and was rewarded for his astuteness with an innings of 97 in England's only innings. David Sheppard, who had recently abandoned first-class cricket to take up Holy Orders, was also included in the home side on the flimsy evidence of one innings of 97 for Sussex against the tourists at Hove. May won the toss yet again and was stooping to retrieve the coin, when Sheppard, in clerical garb wandered on to the player's balcony — occasioning Johnson to complain that even God seemed to be on England's side!

But the $64,000 question about the spinner-dominated 1956 season, revolved around why, since Test sides should theoretically be equally equipped to bowl on all types of pitches, Australia's slow bowlers Ian Johnson and Richie Benaud were unable to emulate the successes of Laker? And why Laker's Surrey and England colleague, Tony Lock, could only manage 15 Test victims in a summer which yielded the Yorkshire-born off-spinner three times as many? Off-spinner Johnson captured 109 Test wickets in his career at 29.18 runs each, mostly with his arm-ball or drifter. And Benaud headed the Aussie bowling averages for many years until deposed by Dennis Lillee with 248 wickets to his credit at 27 each. Neither were slouches with the ball. Yet, at Old Trafford in 1956, their meagre rewards were 4/151 and 2/123 respectively!

It was not until some years later that, in a conversation with me, Aussie skipper, Ian Johnson, shed some hypothetical light on the issue of his non-performance in the 1956 series and fellow off-spinner Jim Laker's phenomenal success.

Johnson maintained that England's softer pitches produced spinners who seek to beat the bat by turning the ball laterally after it pitches past the outside or inside edge. Soft pitches afford greater purchase for the ball, which Laker spun with the maximum use of his calloused right index finger and wrist and delivered at a greater speed than most spinners. Slow bowlers like Lock and Laker, bowled the ball with a flat trajectory into the softer turf, so that it remained in contact with the pitch longer, gaining a greater degree of turn. Its faster speed through the air prevented the batsmen from using their feet to dance down the wicket, get to the bounce of the ball and punish it. Thus the batsmen were compelled to play more defensively.

Australian pitches, Johnson, hypothesised, are prepared from hard, black clay formerly dug, from the banks of the Merri and Bulli Creeks and now eagerly sought in areas such as South Australia's Athelstone region. When they are watered and rolled such surfaces are compressed into wickets which are as hard as concrete. They are rolled until their levels are inches below the level of the centre plot. Such surfaces are glossy, bouncy and fast. As a consequence, lateral turn on such wickets is minimal, no matter how hard the slow bowler spins the ball. To get as much help as possible from such pitches, bowlers from hard-wicket countries such as South Africa, Australia, and the West Indies compensate for the lack of off and leg-spin with flight and top-spin.

According to Ian Johnson the main difference between his type of off-spin and that of Jim Laker was that he, like most hard-pitch spinners, bowled the ball into the air and not the pitch. They imparted top or over-spin and used flight to draw batsmen down the wicket so that, if they drove at the ball without reaching its pitch, they would loft it as a catch — or miss it completely and be stumped. Such tactics have occasioned a complete re-think about the English way of combating spin bowling on overseas pitches. Formerly Pommie batsmen who were unsure of the direction of a slow bowler's turn adopted the war-cry of `When in doubt, push out!' They played the forward defensive stroke at almost every good ball and relied on the slowness of the English pitch and their ability to adjust the swing of their bat to the deviation of the ball off the pitch after it bounced. They were also assured of the fact that because of the low bounce of English pitches, if the ball clipped the bat, the resultant edge would not carry as a catch to slip. The extra bounce and pace of Aussie pitches negated all of these previously held concepts. Edged strokes hit higher on the blade and carried as catches to the cover and slip fieldsmen, especially when the stroke was hit too firmly with the bottom hand.

To counter such bouncy unforced errors, hard wicket batsmen make sure that their footwork takes their heads and weight diametrically over the bat's point of contact with the ball, so that the resultant stroke is hit immediately to ground. If the batsmen's weight is thrown on to the back foot and he leans back as he plays his straight bat strokes, the result will almost certainly be an airborne stroke. His leading leg will come to ground a long way from the bounce of the ball and his control over the shot will be minimal.

To cause indecision in the mind of the batsman as to where their deliveries will bounce, spin bowlers usually operate into the breeze which they use to accentuate the downward track of their deliveries from above eye level to the ground. They seek to impart top-spin to their deliveries so that, like an over-spun tennis stroke, they will drop suddenly to the ground well short of where they were anticipated to land. The reverse occurs when the slow bowler imparts back-spin to his deliveries. Such balls maintain a flat trajectory in their flight and consequently bounce much closer to the batsman than expected, skidding on to him and, because of its low trajectory, keeping down. This is the dreaded flipper of Shane Warne fame: the claimer of so many lbw and bowled victims.

The more one studies spin bowling, the greater the number of its permutations seems to be. It makes one think that Shakespeare's Hamlet must have been a spin bowler; for did he not say: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."