The story of leg-spin is a history of Test cricket itself.
The great names conjure not only their deeds but their entire eras. In the jerky newsreel footage of the 1930s we find Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett bowling in tandem for Australia, a fearful prospect on uncovered pitches; and yet, even as they reach their prime, their partnership suddenly in danger of becoming an anachronism as fast bowlers begin their rise to power in the post-Bodyline era.
By the early 1960s, Tests have become staid: Subhash Gupte and Richie Benaud wheel away to polite applause. Attrition trumps dynamism, but still, Gupte works such magic that Garfield Sobers later declares the Indian to be the best leggie of all time, better even than Shane Warne.
Soon, though, the game is shocked awake out of its genteel slumber and pitched headlong into a back-street brawl as Australia and the West Indies cry havoc and let slip the pace quartets of the 1970s and 1980s. Spin, it seems, is dead: the only leg-breaks most captains want are fractured tibias. But one leggie survives, even thrives, in this bellicose atmosphere. Abdul Qadir not only keeps the subtle art alive as crude brutality rages all around him, but he reinvents the role of the modern leg-spinner, integrating it with the new aggression in the game. Gone is the gentleman fly-fisherman flicking a lure across a pool. In its place is a tiger, wading out to grab its prey by the throat. Graham Gooch later declares Qadir – you guessed it – better even than Warne.
But the pace monsters don’t rule forever: by the early 1990s they are a dying breed, and batsmen emerge to sniff at a brave new world in which they can score freely without getting killed. Enter Anil Kumble, a sniper disguised as a myopic accountant; cue run rates straight out of the early 1950s, and batsmen self-destructing from pure frustration. And then, of course, we come to Old Trafford in 1993, and Mike Gatting settling over his bat as a young Australian gets ready to bowl his first ball in Ashes cricket…
It’s a grand history that should have bequeathed us a grand present, but that “better than Warne” refrain is telling. No doubt Sobers and Gooch honestly believed that the top leg-spinners of their respective eras were better than Warne, but that fact that they felt compelled to put it in those terms is proof of how the Australian has become the standard against which all others are compared. He is the high-water mark of wrist-spin, and that, unfortunately for us, implies that the art has declined since his retirement. The story has reached its climax, the the subsequent chapters feel a little haphazard.
But perhaps a disrupted narrative is entirely appropriate. Leg-spin is by its very nature unorthodox. It barely obeys its own rules: look back at the great leggies and you see almost as much variety as in an over by Qadir. There are O’Reilly, Warne and Stuart MacGill, ripping it diagonally with a low arm, getting late, crazy drift and huge turn. There are Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed, chest-on, arms coming over high and whirling, making them look as if they were bowling off the wrong foot, immaculate lengths allowing their googlies to jag between bat and pad. There are Kumble and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, whipping down medium-fast deliveries that just deviate enough to qualify as leg-breaks. And then there is the spidery, probing method of the disgraced Danish Kaneria, showing glimpses of past greats; the Qadir googly, Warne’s aggressive leg-break, Kumble’s bounce.
The story of leg-spin is so full of intrigue and drama that it’s easy to get seduced by the past and to neglect the present, where another Pakistani is eagerly wrenching his wrist for South Africa. Last month this column admitted that some of us might have misunderstood Morné Morkel’s role in the Proteas’ attack; that we have been frustrated by his perceived failure to turn into a helmet-ratting spearhead when in fact we should have been enjoying him as a vital member of the supporting cast. But if we admit that we are measuring current fast bowlers against the legends of the past – Morkel has been compared to tall West Indian greats more than once – then we must also admit that we judge current leggies against masters of the recent past.
Indeed, Warne and MacGill have so addled our perception of what leg-spin is that many fans, myself included, have an unconscious irrational belief that leg-spinners are the ultimate strike weapon. I remember watching Tests in the late 1990s and desperately wishing that Glenn McGrath, perhaps the best seam bowler of all time, would stay on for a few overs more just to delay the spin apocalypse. Perhaps it is inevitable that people who grew up watching the ball drift outside leg-stump and spit viciously into the top of off-stump should look it at Tahir and see a gangling pretender, a clownish also-ran who either buys his wickets or has them handed to him by bad shots.
Comparisons might be inevitable, but they are also odious. But how do we un-remember Warne? I’m not sure. Gymnastics and figure-skating are scored using a “trimmed mean”, a simple but effective way of removing bias from the judging process whereby the highest and lowest scores are discarded and the gymnast or skater is awarded an average of the remaining scores. Perhaps, when we judge Tahir, we should try a similar method; discounting the once-in-lifetime phenomenon that was the Australian.
Once we manage that, and accept that the Ball from Hell isn’t likely to happen again, or that a new version of the flipper is not about to be invented, Tahir’s contribution becomes clearer and more impressive. Suddenly, as we begin to see what we actually have rather than what we hoped for, we see a hard-working, old-fashioned leg-spinner, and everything that that entails: beautifully controlled spells that go unrewarded; awful deliveries that capture wickets; sharp turn out of nowhere on the second day; listless, barely deviating fodder on the third.
Tahir works hard and has managed to survive in the modern game, bringing passion and aggression to his performances. He is blossoming into an important part of the one-day team, bowling not only with economy but also with exceptional penetration: after 12 ODIs, Muttiah Muralitharan and Waqar Younis had taken 12 wickets each, Wasim Akram had 14, Dale Steyn 15, Shaun Pollock and Glenn McGrath 19, and Warne had taken 24; Tahir has taken 26. Not bad for someone whose international future was bleak a few months ago. And yet, for all his competence in cricket’s more modern incarnations, he remains a throwback to an era before Warne, perhaps even before Qadir. There is something of the Benaud in Tahir. He loops and lopes; he is a bowler who smiles and hopes for the best rather than one who glares and imposes himself on a game. He reminds us that leg-spin is an eccentric art, made for the pleasure of the bowler, and that successes are joys rather than entitlements. If his plans fail more often than they succeed, well, such is the true nature of the sport: cricket is not an exhibition; it is a work in progress.
Besides, it’s not as if South Africans are strangers to erratic spinners. Paul Adams romped to 100 Test wickets faster than any South African slow bowler before him, despite telegraphing his flat, skidding wrong-un and bowling one helping of pie almost every over.
Tahir turns 35 in March, which makes it unlikely that he will threaten Adams’ record. If all goes well, the Proteas’ physiotherapists might be able to massage another three years of international cricket out of Tahir, but this will not be long enough to help spawn a new generation of leg-spinners in South Africa. Slow bowling is not a skill; it is a culture. It is not taught via coaching manuals or marking on a pitch; it is absorbed through the skin, into the heart and the gut. Like all art forms, it is a compulsion that makes no logical sense; an itch that has to be scratched. The true spinner is born, and while his classmates lie awake fretting over girls or school or parental injustices, he imagines the glorious sensation of letting go of the perfectly flighted, viciously spun leg-break. As he drifts off into dreams, he can almost taste it; the fizz of leather off dry grass, the magic of an immense deviation, the chaos in the batsman’s reactions.
Yes, the leg-spinner is born; but needs to be born into a healthy slow-bowling culture if he is to flourish. He has the compulsion and the gift, but he needs role-models: it is not surprisingly that Anil Kumble looked so much like Chandrasekhar, or that Mushtaq Ahmed was so reminiscent of Qadir. We learn by copying our heroes, and South Africa is desperately short of slow-bowling heroes. Indeed, it is an indictment of our one-dimensional approach to bowling in general that Hugh Tayfied is still our most successful spinner with 170 Test wickets. Every other major cricketing country has produced a spinner capable of reaching the 200-wickets mark – even tiny New Zealand managed to find and nurture Daniel Vettori – and our obsession with pace is no excuse either: the West Indies’ Lance Gibbs was for a time one of only two bowlers in the 300 Club.
No, the first South African slow bowler to take 200 Test wickets is going to have to have spent the first decade of his life watching a good spinner play for South Africa; and that means we’re not getting any closer to producing that bowler. Tahir will retire relatively soon, and there is no-one else on the horizon.
Of course, he might appear out of the blue, a kid inspired by the legacy of Warne or Kumble, or simply one who, like a cricketing Harry Potter, one day discovers that he has magic in his wrist. But even if there is a seven-year-old Warne about to enter the schooling system this year, whom luck and history have blessed with two supportive parents and enough money to let him play sport, his problems are just starting. The moment he rolls out his first leg-break, he will be an object of confusion. Coaches will tell him to bowl medium-pace a foot outside off-stump. If he persists on bowling spin, they won’t know what he is or where he belongs, and they certainly won’t allow him the space to fail and try again. It will seem terribly unfair: young batsmen with horrible techniques, backing away to leg or flailing across the line, will be picked again and again for junior school teams; but should our young spinner be slogged once or twice, he will soon be relegated to the reserves
If his talent is pure enough to survive the ravages of primary school coaches, he will face a new threat: teenaged captains, conservatively South African to their cores, raised watching ODIs and fixated on restricting runs and therefore totally unwilling to risk a few boundaries in return for wickets. His new captains will see that he bowls leg-spin – Hurrah! The ultimate weapon! – and will demand perfection. When he doesn’t bowl the Ball from Hell, their shoulders will droop and the slips will go quiet. When he gets slogged for runs, his teammates’ disappointment will become annoyance, and he will be banished to the outfield three overs before he is able to hatch anything like a plan.
But if he perseveres; if he is eccentric enough to stay true to his belief that bowling the ball with a flick of the wrist is life’s only true pleasure, then he might push the incompetents and the doubters aside and finally emerge among kindred spirits, people who recognize and nurture his rare gifts. And then…the sky is the limit; that lovely blue sky, made just for him, so he could flight a cricket ball into it, and listen to it hum away down the track, bewitching the batsmen, delighting the watchers; perhaps bringing him fame and wealth, but most important of all, joy.
Published in Business Day Sport magazine