Friday, 7 December 2012

Where Have All The Wizards Gone?

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...

Monday, 3 December 2012

Farewell To A Fighter

The 4th Ashes Test in England in 1997 saw a resounding victory for the tourists, who followed their victory in Manchester in the 3rd test with a crushing innings and 61 run win at Leeds.  Such was the way the series had turned, after England's incredible effort in the opening match of the series had been followed by a draw at Lords, but only with the weather saving the home side after they were bundled out for 77 in the first innings.  The Aussies were on a roll, yet after the win at Old Trafford they made a change.  The misfiring Michael Bevan had given the selectors little option but to drop him, after a run of low scores, and so it was that they entrusted the number six spot to a precocious young batsman from Tasmania, who, after three half centuries in his first six tests, seemed ready to be given a run.  After 261 balls yielded a maiden Test ton (127), it was apparent that the name Ricky Ponting would be one that the English fans would have to get used to hearing, over the next decade or more.

Now, back to modern day.  Ponting's international career has ended, after a remarkable 168 Test match appearances (equalling the Australian record held by Steve Waugh, no friend to English bowling himself), 13,378 test runs and another 40 hundreds to accompany that one at Headingley.  It is fair to say that as a batsman, he has been amongst the very best in the world over the last 15 years.  Pugnacious, aggressive and also at times pleasing on the eye, he spent much of the first decade of the 21st century punishing international attacks in a way that his compatriot Sir Donald Bradman would have enjoyed.  In 2005 and 2006, he plundered an astonishing 2877 runs with 13 centuries.  However, once 2007 came around, Ponting would never again average more than 47 in a calender year.

The longest standing argument concerning Ponting concerns not his appetite for and ability to carve out runs, but features on his record as Australia's captain.  Was he a great captain, or was a captain blessed with a phenomenal side? I would tend to side with the latter.  He was comprehensively out-thought by Michael Vaughan in 2005, while he was made to look inept as a leader in 2010/11 by the rampant Strauss-led England side.  His batting record as a captain / non captain is interesting, in that while his average NOT as captain was better than his efforts as a leader, it is only by the very smallest of margins (52.18 versus 51.51).

His record (as a batsman again, I am not adequately full of myself to speak of his captaincy credentials for anything longer than a single paragraph) against England is indicitve of a man who, far from grateful that the Mother Country were his first major victims, took great delight in making the English fielders watch him bat and bat.  In 35 Tests against England, he amassed 2476 runs with eight centuries.  He saved his best performances however for matches against India, with his 29 appearances producing 2555 runs at an average of 54.36 (with again 8 centuries, including his career high 257).  It is perhaps incredible to consider that he came oh so close to falling out of the Australia side in 2001! After an innings of 141* at Sydney in January 2000 (against India, of course!), he had gone 11 Test matches and 18 innings without a Test match century, with only a single half century when the Australian captain Steve Waugh tore a muscle at Trent Bridge during the 3rd 2001 Ashes Test.  Simon Katich was brought in for the next match (again at Headingley, he loves Leeds), with the thinking being that a solid show from Katich would see him replace Ponting when Waugh returned.  Katich mustered 15 and 0*.  Ponting managed 144 and 72.  He was safe.

As with most notable players, I like to look at people like Ponting and see how if at all I am similar to them.  I can announce that I have one tangible similarity.  Its not our choice of bat equipment (Ponting has been with Kookabura his whole career, whereas we ALL know I love GM), its not our favouring of the pull and straight drive.  Its our birthday.  Ponting came into the world December 19th 1974, while I followed six years later.

He leaves the game with the Australian team beaten at home by South Africa for the 2nd straight series, but with a captain hungry for runs.  A win in the last Test would have seen the Aussies top the World Rankings, painting something of a false image concerning the Aussies current abilities.  Maybe, under the stewardship of Michael Clarke, the Old Enemy will once again rise to the top of the charts.  They must do so without Old Man Ponting, and the hunt for a new lynch pin begins.  But don't worry England fans, while the Aussies do come to Leeds next summer, its only for an ODI.