Putting a new spin on things

According to former Aussie skipper Johnson, spinners such as Lock and Laker bowled the ball into the softer England turfs 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 footwork to get to the bounce of the ball to attack it. By Frank Tyson.

It is now just over 50 years to the day since I was packing my cricket bag and preparing to quit Northampton and head north to Manchester and Old Trafford. 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 since 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 fast bowling was surplus to needs and the Old Trafford pitch would be a ‘turner.’

That ‘rumour’ turned out to be the greatest understatement in cricketing history! Four days later the match was ‘done and dusted’ with England winning by an innings and 170 runs and taking an unbeatable 2-1 lead in the Ashes series. Home off-spinner Jim Laker took 19 of the 20 Australian wickets to fall: a still existent record which boosted his eventual aggregate of victims in the series 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, doctored in favour of England’s spinners with the home team being aware of the situation full well before a ball was sent down. There was nothing surprising in the situation — for 1956 was the ‘annus mirabilis’ for 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. In the subsequent home win in July by an innings and 42 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 were also aided and abetted by some inspired and bizarre selection and divine guidance.

Cyril Washbrook, Lancashire’s former opening batsman and national selector, 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. At Manchester as the English skipper, May, won the toss yet again and was stooping to retrieve the coin, Sheppard, in clerical garb wandered on to the players 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? In his international career, Johnson captured 109 Test wickets at 29.18 runs each; and Benaud headed the Aussie bowling averages for many years, until deposed by Dennis Lillee, with figures of 248 wickets at 27. Neither were slouches with the ball. Yet at Old Trafford in ’56, 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. He maintained that the softer English pitches produce spinners who seek to beat the bat by turning the ball laterally after it bounces and turns across the face of and past the edge of the bat. The wickets afford more grip for the ball, spun with the maximum use of the fingers and wrist, and delivered with the bowler ‘pushing the ball through.’ Spinners such as Lock and Laker, Johnson maintained, bowled the ball 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 footwork to get to the bounce of the ball to attack it. Thus the batsman is compelled to play more defensively.

By contrast, Australian pitches, Johnson, hypothesised, are prepared from hard, black clay dug in the old days from the banks of the Merri, and Bulli Creeks. When this clay is watered and rolled it compresses into a surface as hard as concrete. Pitches prepared from it are rolled to a level inches below that of the centre plot. Such surfaces are glossy, bouncy and fast. Lateral spin on such wickets is minimal; the ball will not deviate sideways, no matter how hard it is spun. To maximise their assistance from such pitches, spin bowlers from countries such as South Africa, Australia, the West Indies and the sub-continent seek to defeat the batsman by flight and top-spin.

Johnson explained this bowling methodology by saying that such slow bowlers bowl the ball INTO THE AIR and not the pitch. They impart top or over spin and use flight to draw the batsmen down the pitch.