Days after hopping between hinting at a comeback for his country then dismissing such reports in a way that wasn't really a dismissal, Shane Warne served up a timely reminder as to why he has been retired from test cricket for nearly six years, as he returned figures of 0/41 for the Melbourne Stars against the Melbourne Renegades in the opening clash of the Big Bash League in Australia. In case the stupid names of the teams AND the competition were not enough of a hint, this is a T20 jamboree. And Warne bowled only two overs. Speaking as an England fan, I would heartily love to say Warney back in the floppy sun hat on that form.
However, the events of the week did get me thinking, not so much of Warne himself but rather of the trade he still, with a generosity of spirit his legendary status affords him, performs, namely that of bowling leg spin. I considered the prospect that, at aged 43 and a long time out of the international scene, Warne may STILL be the most prominent leg spinner in Test cricket.
Since the last Test of the 2006/7 Ashes series, when Warne departed the scene, 124 spin bowlers have bowled at least ONE ball in Test match cricket. 64 have taken at least one wicket, and of this number only 12 (TWELVE) bowled leg spin.
Leg spin is, as most cricket purists (snobs, like me) will tell you, is an art form. It requires a certain type of mindset to bowl it, knowing that while you are a wonderful wicket taking option for your captain, a bad day may see you become profligate, and swiftly dispatched to ponder your deeds in a secluded area of the field of play. It can be feast or famine. Leg spin was eschewed by most on the international scene by the beginning of the 1990s, with many teams preferring the economy and occasional threat of off spinners and orthodox left armers. Shane Warnes arrival on the Ashes scene, with his Ball of the Century to one of England's better players of spin at the time Mike Gatting, is alleged to saved Test cricket, with youngsters everywhere wanting to perfect this mysterious art. This may be so, but even with the great mans impact very few actually prospered at the highest level. Anil Kumble (who took 72 wickets after Warne retired before he too hung up his boots) is the second most successful leggie of all time with 619 scalps, but it must be pointed out that he was not a huge spinner of the ball, and got a lot of his wickets utilising his bounce and his googly, which did for many a tailender. Current England spin bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed took 185 wickets for Pakistan, which his successor in the Pakistan side Danish Kaneria took 78 of his 261 Test wickets in the period after Warne retired and before his fall from grace for his alleged involvement in match fixing at Essex. The great understudy, and subject of many a "If (subject A) hadn't been around, then (subject B) would have been a world beater" discussion, Stuart MacGill took 208 Test wickets, usually when Warne wasn't around, but took only ten in 4 matches as the number one leggie in Oz before he joined Warney in retirement.
In the last two years, it seemed that maybe leg spin was creeping back into the game, with South Africa utilising Pakistan born Imran Tahir and the West Indies unearthing the exciting Devendra Bishoo. India too, for so long the place where leg spin goes to die, looked like they had a new Kumble in Amit Mishra, after seemingly giving up on the Piyush Chawla experiment (2 Tests, 3 wickets in 2008) and maybe crickets most deadly art was on the way back. Erm...sadly no. Bishoos 11 Test matches have yielded 40 wickets, but at a cost of 39.55 each. He lost his place to "mystery" spinner Sunil Narine. Mishra has played 13 Tests since the end of the Warne Era, and he has taken 43 wickets at the high price of 43.30. He seems to have a problem with bowling front foot no balls, an unpardonable sin for a slow bowler, and a problem shared with Tahir, who has struggled both in England and recently in Australia, where he was dropped in favour of slow left armer Robin Petersen. Tahir has appeared in 11 matches, taking a disappointing 26 wickets at 50.19!
Since Warne made his debut, the one country most notable for its mission to remove leg spinners from Test cricket is, you guessed it, England, the team most tormented by Warne. Since Warne's debut in January 1992, English leg spinners have taken 20 wickets...all of these taken by Ian Salisbury, who last played Test cricket in 2000. Since Warne's retirement, English leggies have failed to bowl a single ball in Test cricket, let alone take a wicket. But it would be unfair to blame the English struggles of the 1970s/80s/90s for their reluctance to find, blood and persist with a leg spinner. In the history of their period playing Test cricket, 19 English spin bowlers have taken more than 100 Test wickets. Only one of these 19 was a leg spinner, Doug Wright, and even the annals of Cricinfo list him as right arm medium/legbreak googly rather than an out and out leggie.
The "mystery" once attached to purveyors of leg spin has now been given to bowlers with that sinister weapon (and far from heaven sent bowling actions) the "doosra", or "other one", or bowlers like Ajantha Mendis of Sri Lanka and Ravi Ashwin of India who have perfected the ball out of the front of the hand, or "carrom" ball. While Ashwin has enjoyed success since making his Test bow, Mendis is now seen primarily as a one day / T20 bowler. Maybe the age of the leg spinner is truly over, or maybe we just need Warne to give it one more shot...