Beyond the Boundary - The dying art of leg-spin

Saj

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Beyond the Boundary - The Dying Art of Leg Spin

There were many highlights of my trip to the Masai Mara in Kenya, watching a group of lionesses playing with their newly born cubs, the sight of crocodiles feasting on wildebeest as they crossed the Mara river, but one specific memorable moment was when we had the pleasure of seeing a cheetah from a few yards away. Seeing one of the most amazing of creatures at such close quarters was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience and the words of my driver still ring in my ears “make the most of this opportunity as it’s a rare sighting, not many get this opportunity, you are lucky.”

Like the cheetahs in the Mara, leg spinners in international cricket have become quite literally an endangered species. Once an important and vital component of most international teams, the leg spinner seems to be dwindling like the population of some endangered animals and as welcome by most Test captains as the in laws turning up when you have a romantic evening planned.

I didn’t see much of Abdul Qadir’s bowling live but growing up we had enough videos of him in our residence for me to see just what an artist he was. The hop, skip and then the springy run up to the crease was supplemented by a sorcerer’s goatee, giving him the image of a mythical character who would mesmerise the opposition batsmen into submission. Qadir was the man who started my journey into the admiration of leg spin.

My own foray into bowling leg spin lasted 2 overs when in a club match for some unknown reason I decided to give it a go after I’d managed to somehow turn a few in the warm ups ahead of the match. The captain was impressed, as were my team mates and I thought this could be the start of a blossoming career of bowling leg spin. Thinking I was the new goatee-less Abdul Qadir I hopped, skipped and jumped to the crease..... 24 wicketless runs from 12 deliveries were enough for me to return to my usual dose of medium pace seamers and therein my leg spin career ended before you could say Ian Salisbury. However despite my own disastrous attempt at bowling leg spin, the art has always fascinated me. In my opinion there’s something unpredictable and mesmerising about watching a high class leg spinner in action and despite my lack of ability to bowl leg spin, the admiration for these artists has always remained.

Qadir disappeared from the scene but it was one delivery from Shane Warne that rekindled my passion with leg spin. Yes the one to Mike Gatting after which I followed Warne’s career closely, with all its ups and down, mainly ups I hasten to add. Warne was an artist, arrogant at times, almost telling the opposition batsmen how he would dismiss them. Warne brought a fast bowler’s mentality to the art of leg spin and as the commentators say about Lionel Messi, you could say the same about Warne “there won’t be another like him”. Warne had that self confidence about him, variation, guile and only very few batsmen throughout his career managed to get the better of him. One or two thought they had mastered his bowling only to be embarrassed, whilst others simply got stage fright as soon as they had to face Warne from 22 yards.

Whilst not in the class of Shane Warne, Mushtaq Ahmed was a leg spinner who impressed me. He had that same energy and enthusiasm that Abdul Qadir displayed and in the 1992 World Cup, Mushtaq’s bowling and subsequent celebrations made him a name that will always be remembered fondly by Pakistani cricket lovers the world over. However, before Mushtaq was famous I had the pleasure of facing him in a net session when he was playing club cricket in the UK. Mushtaq was a bundle of energy, jovial and fascinating to watch at close quarters. He bowled googlies at me, top spinners, conventional leg breaks and then to show his full repertoire he also bowled some accurate left arm spin. I asked him if he could teach me the art of leg spin to which he replied “show me your wrists”. I showed him my wrists and he said “sorry you cannot be a leg spinner”. Mushy’s response wasn’t flattering but he said it in such a way and with such a big smile on his face, that I knew he was being brutally honest in his own amicable way.

Qadir, Warne, Kaneria, Kumble, Chandrasekhar, Mushtaq, Benaud and MacGill are just some of the names that have done the art of leg spin proud. They’ve terrorised batsmen at times and have shown the value of having a leg spinner in your Test side. Matchwinners the world over, bowlers capable of turning a match on it’s head in the space of a few overs. Many of the aforementioned were bowlers who their respective captains could turn to when they needed some magic.

However moving to the present day, the art of leg spin seems to be a distant memory when it comes to Test cricket. Left arm spinners and off spinners are the “flavour of the month” for captains and selectors. Leg spinners have become as rare as a fully fit Australian pace bowler.

West Indies’ Devendra Bishoo arrived, played 11 Tests and hasn’t played a Test match for nearly a year. Pakistan’s Danish Kaneria has been banned for reasons we are all familiar with, Australia’s hopes seem to be on Pakistan born Fawad Ahmed who is currently playing for Victoria, although Adam Zampa has been earmarked as one for the future by none other than Shane Warne. Steve Smith has 4 Test wickets and seems to be viewed more as a batsman and an occasional bowler rather than vice versa.

South Africa’s Imran Tahir has failed to live up to expectations in Test cricket. His inability to stem the flow of runs and bowl a consistent line and length has meant that the South Africans opted for Robin Peterson against Pakistan. England’s spin resources are made up of the ever reliable Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, who barring any miracles have cemented the first and second choice positions in England’s spin department.

India’s Amit Mishra’s 43 Test wickets in 13 matches cost him over 43 runs apiece and he has subsequently been cast into the cricketing wilderness after the emergence of Ravichandran Ashwin. On the other hand New Zealand have for many years relied upon Daniel Vettori, however given his fitness issues one wonders how long he will continue in international cricket. In addition the Black Caps have hardly produced many leggies over the years.

Pakistan’s leg spin hopes given Danish Kaneria’s “situation” seem to be reliant upon 26 year old Yasir Shah who has only played three times thus far for Pakistan, all in limited overs internationals. With Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Raza Hasan all performing well and in the plans of selectors and respective captains, the chances for Yasir Shah seem to be bleak. Looking further ahead, Usman Qadir, the son of Abdul Qadir, could be a leggie that may make a name for himself in international cricket, but predicting the futures of young Pakistani cricketers is a risky business.

Looking over recent Test scorecards, the only nation currently featuring a front line leg spinner is Zimbabwe with Graeme Creamer who leaked 103 runs without a wicket in the recently concluded Test match in Bridgetown against the West Indies.

Why is leg spin becoming the unwanted step sister of international cricket? I spoke with a former Pakistan Test captain who believes there are two underlying issues as to why leg spin is becoming less fashionable in Test cricket. He stated “there is simply a dearth of talent around the world when it comes to leg spinners. I believe that if there were leg spinners around that were good enough then we would be seeing them playing in Test cricket. At the moment we have a number of high quality off spinners and left arm spinners but I’ve spoken with a number of coaches around the world who tell me that there are no exceptional leg spinners coming to the fore. The other reason I believe is that there are a number of Test captains who want to play risk free cricket and that means they believe they cannot afford the luxury of having a leg spinner in their side and prefer the reliability of a left arm spinner or off spinner.”

Leg spin needs a shot in the arm, it needs a hero, a Warne, a Benaud, a Kumble, an Abdul Qadir or Mushtaq Ahmed. It needs a big name, a hero and role model that youngsters can look up to and want to epitomise. For fans of leg spin, it’s unfortunate to see Test match after Test match without the great art of leg spin at the fore.

Sadly leg spinners have become the equivalent of the Cheetahs in the Masai Mara. We can only hope that both become more visible in their respective environments.
 
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Nicely written. It really is quite disappointing that there aren't many leggies coming through. The guile and mystery of a quality leg spinner in Test cricket is mesmerising to watch.
 
Nice one Saj.

The day leg spin became an attacking option in a ODI is the day when people really started to look at this with some interest

The same will need to happen now

Unfortunately "freak" deliveries like the Doosra catch more attention than classical leg spin and thats a fact.

The other day my son, 10 year old, told me that he was working very hard on his Doosra! Why? because he saw Saeed Ajmal on TV! wonder how many other kids are doing the same?

Also the likes of Kaneria who hasnt distinguished himself in terms of good news dont help the cause

We need a "heroic"leg spinner - maybe Mansoor Amjad is the answer?
 
why did he say so? what do you need to have in your wrists to qualify as a leg spinner? :)

Not sure if he means you need thick, strong wrists (Shane Warne has forearms like Popeye) or very flexible ones?
 
Good one:). I am a fan of leg spin bowling, too.
 
Thats a great piece saj, ive wondered about the same myself. a few months ago i actually wrote my hypothesis on why this is but never posted it here... would be interesting to see what you and others think... amusingly it actually reads like an answer to the question you pose. :)

It takes little skill to put pen to paper and write, yet to simplify the art of writing to this most basic action is a grave injustice. Neither is it difficult to learn to pitch a ball on middle stump and spin it towards off, but reducing wrist spin to the mechanics of spinning a cricket ball would similarly be unjust.

To be a writer one must understand how to convey a story in a verbally engaging and unpredictable manner. The leg spinner too must master the art of engaging and deceiving his audience, each delivery forming a passage in an elaborate narrative devised to lure the batsmen into a false understanding of reality. The flight, drift, variation and spin all tools of misdirection. In the words of Sun Tzu “All war is deception”.

It is not uncommon to hear an expert comment on how T20 cricket was thought to be the death of the spinner, yet the game has come to be dominated by spinners.

But who is really succeeding at twenty over cricket internationally? Take away Saeed Ajmal and Graeme Swann and you are left not with spinners, but slow bowlers. Without the deception of flight, and the ability to impart significant rotation on the ball, a spin bowler is incomplete. No amount of variations makes up for this, as borne out by Ajantha Mendis’s test career.

The free market of professional T20 leagues works towards its own ends, the only players who will emerge from its development process will be those most suited to twenty over cricket. The skills developed through this process however are proving insufficient for test cricket.

Despite the success of Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed in domestic T20 competitions, the format itself will never produce a wrist spinner of their calibre. They were products of four and five day cricket who adapted to limited overs cricket. In contrast to spinners who have primarily developed in the shortest form of the game; the skills they developed were transferable across all formats.

So what has wrist spin got to do with this?

Historically the best performers in first class cricket were promoted to test cricket. With the advent of ever shorter formats however it was assumed that to maximise the ease with which a player adapts to international cricket it would be preferable for them to gain experience in shorter formats first, away from the scrutiny and pressure of a test match. Whilst there may be merit to this argument for other cricketers it has harmed the development of leg spinners.

More than any other discipline patience and understanding are required to nurture a wrist spinner. Abdul Qadir, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble, each had the benefit of the backing and understanding of excellent captains during their formative years. The shortest format of the game does not allow the formation of such understanding between bowler and captain nor ample opportunity for creative self-expression.

Rarely has a wrist spinner debuted ready for international cricket, yet Pakistani selectors have picked and dropped young leg spinners on a whim. Mansoor Amjad was talented enough to get a county contract before his twentieth birthday, yet after 9 overs of international cricket judgement was cast. He has all but given up on bowling and will most likely drift into obscurity.

Shahid Afridi always had the potential to be a good leg spinner. Potential he realised for a few years culminating in an excellent bowling display in last year’s world cup. A combination of the disappointment of being relieved of the national team’s captaincy and evidently worsening stiffness in his lower back have however drawn the venom out of his bowling.

With only one wrist spinner represented in the top thirty wicket takers in the current president’s trophy, Danish Kaneria side lined for reasons well known and Afridi’s impending departure the future of wrist spin in Pakistani does not look bright, but there are reasons for optimism.

A leggie from whom there is expectation is young Yasir Shah, stocky, strong and endowed with the endurance to stand up to the rigours of bowling long spells. Yasir has an excellent first class record and the endorsement of Abdul Qadir, yet has only played limited overs games at international level. In their infinite wisdom Pakistani selectors recently pulled Shah out of First Class cricket, where he was bowling admirably, to play in an amateur slog fest in Hong Kong. He has not featured in the President’s trophy since.

Talent beyond Yasir Shah although not ready for national selection; is exciting nonetheless. Usman Qadir has all the tricks in the box. He bowls leggies, googlies, top spinners and even a flipper. He is tall, has a strong action, gets close to the stumps and if not afraid to give the ball a rip. Usman needs plenty of first class experience to gain control of his lengths and to learn to use his variations more judiciously. Usman is currently plying his trade in grade cricket in South Australia; the curiosity of the Australian selectors no doubt peaked.

Saeed Ajmal will not play forever; perhaps another two years before his fitness will begin to regress and there is no heir apparent in sight. Pakistani selectors must seek to understand better the finer nuances of leg spin that makes its exponents different from other cricketers. They must also acknowledge that test match exposure is required to nurture a domestic talent like Shah.

That Imran Tahir was the last consistently selected leg spinner by a major test nation is a damning indictment of the state of wrist spin internationally. Truly creative expression is borne from the complete mastery of all the minutiae of a discipline. The confidence to execute that creativity on the grandest scale is the mark of genius. Reduced patience from selectors and captains, an increased importance attached to T20 cricket and illogical selection policies have lit a flame, and the parched pages of this most sacred art lay burning before our eyes. Action must be swift, lest even the ashes are blown away.
 
What about no one mentioned Usman Qadir as up and coming legspin bowler for Pakistan

This is in the article "Looking further ahead, Usman Qadir, the son of Abdul Qadir, could be a leggie that may make a name for himself in international cricket, but predicting the futures of young Pakistani cricketers is a risky business."

Usman has a lot of work ahead of him. He needs to find his feet in domestic cricket first, perform there on a consistent basis and then look further ahead.
 
Thats a great piece saj, ive wondered about the same myself. a few months ago i actually wrote my hypothesis on why this is but never posted it here... would be interesting to see what you and others think... amusingly it actually reads like an answer to the question you pose.

Thanks.

Good writeup from yourself too.

I think there's more to it than cricket just going through a phase where leg spin is not flavour of the month. I honestly cannot see or have not heard of any leg spinners out there who is looked upon as a future talent.
 
why did he say so? what do you need to have in your wrists to qualify as a leg spinner? :)

Flexibility. When he looked at and felt my wrists, Mushy felt that they weren't ideal for bowling leg spin.
 
i would have thought it would be purdent to make Yasir Shah the third spinner for the test squad. Maybe rest one of ajmal and rehman and give yasir a go against Zimbabwae.

He took 8 wickets against England in a warm up game , got his first 10 wicket haul in first class recently as well

and to top it off is a decent bat and probably the best feilder i have seen come from Pakistan, and truly outstanding by international standards as well. Some of his catches in the domestic scene mirror JP dumminy and martin guptill, so at the very least you have the best sub fielder in pakistan
 
i would have thought it would be purdent to make Yasir Shah the third spinner for the test squad. Maybe rest one of ajmal and rehman and give yasir a go against Zimbabwae.

He took 8 wickets against England in a warm up game , got his first 10 wicket haul in first class recently as well

and to top it off is a decent bat and probably the best feilder i have seen come from Pakistan, and truly outstanding by international standards as well. Some of his catches in the domestic scene mirror JP dumminy and martin guptill, so at the very least you have the best sub fielder in pakistan

couldnt agree with you more, and to top it off hes in his mid 20s, so not too young and not too old.
 
What's the Future of Leg Spin?

Once Shane Warne mentioned that defensive mindset is the main reason behind the lack of world-class leg spinners in cricket these days. He also mentioned Five slow bowlers feature in the top 10 Test bowlers list but none are leg-spinners, who seem to be being overshadowed by their left-arm and off-spinning cousins.

So what you think what's the future of Leg Spin in Cricket? Is it really the dying art

At least in Pakistan it's looks dark...Kaneria is banned, Afridi bowling is not up to the mark, Yasir Shah is not international material, so our only hope is Usman Qadir? But the guy is still young and didn't played many matches...Who else you think in the domestic circuit can get into the 11 just because of his leg spin?

At the moment India seems to be the only team with 2 leg spinners who can replace each other Chawla & Mishra...
 
Usman Qadir is encouraged by Australia to play for them with plenty if Aussie Dollers being waved at him and his father...
 
Rahul sharma looked promising and kumble mode although had a long way to go,but that rave party thing created problem.
kaneria was almost a legend IMO.Pakistan's best legspinner that I have seen since 1992
 
Damn. How things change...

Couple of years ago offspiners were much more popular than genuine leggies. Quite the opposite now in 2018.
 
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