Monday, September 27, 2010

The Return of Orthodox Off-Spin

(Also posted at:

Classical finger spin bowling – particularly the right arm off-spin variety – has returned to the fore in recent times. Australia’s Nathan Haurtiz and, more prominently, England’s Graeme Swann have been enjoying a fine run of form, and appreciably are in their respective teams as genuine wicket taking threats as opposed to playing the roles of unadorned containing acts. In a game that is increasingly being stripped of its traditionalism, this renaissance of attacking, orthodox off-spin bowlers has made for delightful viewing.

Admittedly, there have been a few off-spinners who have had a significant impact on cricket in the recent past. Muttiah Muralitharan has only just drawn the curtains on a glittering Test Match career that had seen him amass 800 wickets at an average of under 23 runs per dismissal. Yet, for all of his feats, it was Saqlain Mushtaq who laid out the modern-day requirements in an off-spinners range of varieties through an extraordinary mastery of the doosra. Saqlain’s early triumphs were so phenomenal that the doosra came to be thought of as a necessity in the armoury of every such spinner. The successes of some of the off-spinners – especially Saqlain, Murali and Harbhajan Singh – in the new millennium has no doubt been outstanding, but some of the sheen, at least from a classicist point of view, is eroded when considering that their achievements had much to do with them possessing an effective doosra – a delivery, which can perhaps never be bowled without an unnatural bend of the arm, and one which required the rules to be suitably amended, for it to fall within the ambit of the law.

It is greatly pleasing therefore, to see Hauritz and Swann spin webs around modern-day batsmen, not through the help of a doosra, but by relying on ageless qualities of drift, dip and turn. The dearth of finger spinning off-spinners in contemporary times has been a product, chiefly, of an attitude that such spinners devoid of a potent doosra have no place in the game, let alone be regarded as an attacking option – thereby condemning them to the depths of a Stygian gloom. Yet, this lack of trust arose during a phase when Daniel Vettori had been in his pomp. The Kiwi, no doubt a left-arm orthodox spinner, has served abundant evidence through his accomplishments that finger-spinners could have an attacking part to play regardless of their ability to bowl an ‘other one.’

Haurtiz and Swann, though belonging to a larger class of orthodox off-spinners are still different in their styles. While Hauritz – like most Australian offies – concentrates on pitching the ball well outside off-stump, Swann is a more direct operator, seeking to attack the off and the middle stump with every delivery. The absence of a doosra in their artillery must however, not be mistaken for a lack of variation in their bowling, for both these bowlers possess the ability to beat the outside edge of the right handed batsman by using either an under-cutter, or an eternally effective drifter – thereby offering their respective teams a compelling attacking option.

Swann’s rise to prominence has in particular been marvellous. Having picked up a remarkable 105 wickets in just 22 Test Matches, since the turn of 2009, he has transformed from a player renowned more for his off-the-pitch misdemeanours to a match-winner of immense stature. A superb home Ashes series last year was followed by consecutive man-of-the-match performances in the first two Tests away at South Africa – a showing which catapulted him to third place in the ICCs world bowling rankings. In a career spanning only 24 Tests, he has amassed 9 five-fors, while simultaneously playing a prominent role for England in the shorter formats of the game. But for all the distinction of the statistics it is his style of bowling that has charmed the most.

"I don't go along with the idea that finger spin is a dying art," Swann once said. "If it was, I'd have stopped doing it. It became unfashionable for a while because everyone was searching for wrist-spinners, but there's no two ways about it, if you bowl it properly and it's doing something, you can get good players out. Things are changing for finger-spinners again." I wouldn’t disagree and surely not on the back of Swann’s success over the last two years.


Siladitya said...

Swann is so great to watch because of his attacking mindset - he will flight the ball on any top in any corner of the world. Also he has some lovely changes in pace.
But I think if bowling the doosra is actually resulting in a breach of the "chucking" law, the same should be amended to permit doosras. Honestly, when u consider how finger spinners bowl the doosra, it is pretty clear that they do not gain an undue advantage merely because they are bending their arm a degree more than permitted. It is in fact a very difficult ball to bowl which is why so few offies bowl it.

Suhrith said...

@ Siladitya: In that case do you only legalise the doosra or all manners of chucking? This will only open up a Pandora's box.

aandthirtyeights said...

I think I'll reserve judgment on Nathan Hauritz until these two test matches starting next week. He hasn't troubled good batting orders (Sri Lanka, India) yet. Going by what happened in the BP XI game, I don't think he can do much this series either. Also, I don't find anything joyous, subtle or smart in his bowling - he's just a steady bowler. I think Harbhajan has more variation bowling left-handed than Hauritz can ever have.

And, on Vettori - I think he's overrated. What people hold against Warne - that he never troubled Indian batsmen - holds even truer for Vettori. And I don't think he's ever been an attacking option for New Zealand. I can understand that situation at home, where the pitches don't allow it. But abroad, especially in the subcontinent, his record his pretty poor.

Which leaves us with Swann. He's been superb. And he's been great to watch. But 22 tests is too small a sample. Kambli was great for 22 Tests, so was Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. Closer to our times, there was Monty Panesar, whom people thought of as the world's best finger spinner for a while. Lets not sing Swannsongs already!

Suhrith said...

@ Swaroop: I've never much enjoyed watching Harbhajan bowl and 268 of his 357 wickets have come in some extremely helpful conditions in the sub-continent. I agree with you that it's important to perform well on the sub-continent before being classed as a world-class spinner. And in that sense, any judgment on Hauritz's class perhaps needs to be reserved. But I quite like watching him bowl.

As for Sivaramakrishnan, as talented as he was, he played only 9 test matches and picked up just 27 wickets. Most of his precocity was only seen in the shorter format. And unlike Panesar and Kambli, Swann has already played a few match-winning roles for England. Of course he's no Prasanna, but he does provide a lot of joyous entertainment.