Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Leg-spin bowling - rarest and best. But if best, why rare?

It was leg-spin bowling that got me into (armchair) cricket.

Summer of 1992 I was listening to Test Match Special on a car journal and became intrigued by the references to England playing a leg-spinner (the notorious Ian Salisbury) - and the fascination this seemed to have for the commentators. A year later, Shane Warne burst onto the international scene, and everybody was talking about leg-spin.

Leg-spin is the style of a right handed, slow-bowling wrist spinner whose usual delivery bounces to the left - therefore it bounces away-from a right handed batter. The delivery involves holding the ball with a large gap between ring and middle fingers, then spinning the ball by flipping the wrist forward with the back of the hand facing forward, and making it spin using the ring finger to rotate it.

This method of bowling has two great advantages. Firstly, it makes the ball spin more rapidly than any other method - which makes the ball swerve in the air, so the batter cannot easily predict where the ball will land - then jump-off the pitch at sharp angle to the line of delivery.

Secondly it makes possible other angles of bounce and swerve by angling the wrist differently, but in a way that is difficult for the batter to see. So a leg-spin bowler can usually bowl a top-spinner that bounces sharply but without an angle to the line of delivery, and a googly that bounces in the opposite direction to that expected - towards a right handed batter instead of away.

Indeed, there are even more 'variations' than these three - especially the flipper, which Shane Warne used to such devastating effect: this one is done by a snap of the middle finger and thumb to make the ball spin backwards but travel faster and flatter, bounce closer to the batter, and skid instead of bounce.

I hope I have given some idea of the fascination of this style of bowling, and its effectiveness. Indeed, many of the very greatest bowlers in cricketing history have been leg spinners.

What puzzled me - as a new cricket fan - was: if leg spinners are perhaps the best kind of bowlers - why are they so rare?

Because they are indeed very rare - especially in England, who have never had a solidly Test Match quality leg-spinner; and the same applies to South Africa over the past several decades (although at one time they played four wrist-spinners in the same team!), New Zealand, and the West Indies.

Indeed, high quality wrist spinners - including both right handed leg-spinners and the left-handed Chinaman bowlers who do the same 'in reverse'- are pretty much confined to India, Pakistan and Australia. As if to emphasize this, England's current leg-spin hopeful - Adil Rashid - is of Pakistani descent.

But the point is - if leg-spin is so effective, why aren't there more of them? Why doesn't every team have a leg-spinner, or two of them, or three?

The fact is that bowling leg-spin is very difficult indeed. The method of getting spin by flipping the wrist is very hard to control precisely, very difficult to repeat exactly one ball after another.

In a nutshell, it is very difficult for the leg-spinner to make the ball land where he wants it to land; and there is a tendency either to make it land so far away from the batter that the ball just bounces slowly into a perfect position for hitting (a 'long hop'). Alternatively the ball doesn't bounce at all before reaching the batter (a 'full toss') and this is also easy for the batter to hit.

Either a long-hop or a full toss will usually get hit for four or six runs, and all but the best leg-spinners will bowl one of these every six to a dozen deliveries (or more often, if your name is Ian Salisbury) - making them leak so many runs, that they become essentially useless for long spells of bowling (one of the main roles of slow bowling spinners is to be able to bowl a lot of overs, typically about fifty percent more per day than a fast bowler).

So, this is the situation. Leg-spin bowling at its peak is probably the most effective style of bowling in cricket. It is a thing which, if you can do it well enough, it is the best. But if you can't do it well enough, it is worse than useless: a liability.

There is a threshold of ability which very few can cross - but if you can cross that threshold, then you will be one of the best in the world, probably one of the best of all time.

And then I thought: Life's like that...


Terry Colon said...

Funny thing, I know nothing about cricket, but found that interesting. Sounds something like a knuckleball pitcher in baseball. A slow pitch, unpredictable, hard to control, hard to hit, hard for the catcher to catch. Also rare. Though the knuckleball is thrown so it has no (or little) spin, making it unstable like unrifled ball shot. Might have something to do with the seams, don't know.

The term 'leg-spin' mystifies me. Don't see what leg has to do with it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Terry That is a good comparison. The main difference is that a knuckleball pitcher doesn't really know any better than the batter does what his pitch is going to do! He throws it the same way every time, if he can - but what happens then is very unpredictable.

Luqman said...

I tried to find some rigorous research about the following before commenting but I was unable so here goes: I used to hear quite often when I was a child the claim that south asians had more `flexible` wrists than europeans. The context this was in was hockey, not cricket and I dismissed it almost instantly even then as tribal chauvinism. Your article makes me wonder now if there is indeed some biomechanical root to that claim, with Warne being a special case. Are you aware of any actual work in this regard? Do you think such a biomechanical assumption has merit or is it more likely to be secondary to cultural (cricket culture or wider culture) reasons?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luqman - I'm sure there is something different about the wrist between Asian subcontinentals and Europeans.

This comes through in spin bowling, where there is a greater flexion and rotation of the wrist; and also in batting - where there is a specifically 'wristy' Asian style (its first great exponent was I think Prince Ranjitsinhji - who played for England.

The key seems to be that South Asian wrists are (on average, and at peak) both more flexible, yet also strong.

I wouldn't regard Warne as an exception, since he imparted spin from his shoulder more than his wrist - and indeed permanently injured his shoulder from over-practicing the googly such that he became unable to bowl it in his later career (not that this made any difference to his effectiveness!).