Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Two great leg-spinners, two anniversaries

Something momentous happened twenty years ago, but it didn't seem so at the time. On this day in 1992 a scruffy fat kid was first given the ball and asked to bowl in International cricket. First up he got spanked for four runs. Two days later he took his first Test wicket, completing figures of 1 for 150.

Based on those details alone you'd guess he never played another Test (after all, Bryce McGain never did), but there's a lesson here for all aspiring leg-spinners: After that mauling he had a sharp rebuke from his mentor, knuckled down with his fitness and practise, his captain kept faith with him and he subsequently went on to take a further 707 Test wickets. His name was SK Warne, and in just his first eight years he earned a place as one of Wisden's five "Cricketers of the 20th Century" alongside Bradman, Hobbs, Sobers and Viv Richards - the only specialist bowler on the list.

Of course, it can never be overstated how much Shane Warne did for the art of wrist-spin bowling. His first ball in Ashes cricket, the legendary "Ball of the Century", could justifiably be cited as the moment leg-spin retook its place as a force to be reckoned with in cricket. True, Qadir and others had kept the flame going, but it was Warne who heralded the close of the era of the ubiquitous four-man pace attack, and cricket is all the better for it.

The great thing about Warne is that while he's a larger-than-life figure in virtually all things, his mode of delivery is ultra-orthodox, only his rather short run-up deviating from the textbook. He had every major variation in the leg-spinner's playbook - Top-spinner, Zooter, Flipper, Slider and Googly - but it was his stock ball that was at the heart of his brilliance. The "Ball of the Century" is the most potent demonstration of his art, with dip, massive drift, huge turn and deadly accuracy. And yet he made it look so simple.

This brings us on to the big problem with Shane Warne - he was just do damn perfect. To those who grew up with mindsets founded in the era of the quicks the mention of leg-spin will make them think of Warne, and Warne only, and thus these poor uneducated souls will expect every wrist spinner to turn the ball miles, command every variation and land the ball on the dot six times an over. It is therefore understandable if the unfortunate trainee leggie has his appreciation of Warne tainted with a certain amount of irritation, because while he rejuvenated a great art, he also set an impossibly high standard.

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How much easier our job would be if Arthur Mailey, born 126 years ago today, had been the model everyone looked to. He turned the ball BIG, claiming only Chuck Fleetwood-Smith to be his equal in terms of sheer rip, but he was also clearly susceptible to human error. He was arguably the first of the truly great Australian leg-spinners, with Grimmett, O'Reilly, Benaud, Warne and MacGill as his successors.

From everything I've read, the bowler who most closely resembles Mailey would be MacGill, with his huge turn, a magnificent googly and the tendency to bowl a few too many long-hops for comfort. Temperamentally, however, they could not be more different. Descended from Irish imigrants and born into poverty in the ramshackle Alma Cottage in Zetland, a suburb of Sydney, Mailey is the very embodiment of the carefree, happy-go-lucky guy who treated triumph and disaster just the same, never for a minute quite believing that his career as a professional cricketer was anything other than a lucky fluke. The fact that even some 86 years after he retired he still holds the best innings bowling figures of any Australian in Tests - 9 for 121 against England in Melbourne, 1921 - and that for many years his 36 wickets in the 1920/21 Ashes stood as the Australian record for wickets in a Test series, shows this to be far from the case.

Mailey also has the honour of having taken all 10 for Australia in a tour match against Gloustershire, prompting him to title his Autobiography "10 For 66 And All That", and what a book it is. The chapter describing the day he bowled at his childhood hero VT Trumper is the only passage of prose ever to have me leaping up to punch the air in sheer joy (you can read the full chapter for yourself here), but there is plenty else besides that famous passage to delight in. There is a chapter on leg-spinners (entitled "Bosanquet's Disciples" a phrase I was quite tempted to use on my census form recently), an account of an imagined dinner party involving Trumper and Bradman, a chapter on who he would pick in a World XI (imaginatively titled The World vs Mars) and all manner of other things besides. It's a rather fidgety book seeming to hop around from subject to subject, but it is wonderfully written in a style not too inferior to that of his friend Neville Cardus and amusingly illustrated with Mailey's own brilliant cartoons, originals of which now sell for serious money. If - touch wood - my house caught fire it is that one possession I would risk my life to rescue.

There are so many great stories about Mailey. He registered the most expensive bowling analysis in First Class history with 4 for 362 as Victorial piled on 1,107, to which Mailey remarked that he would have fared better if three easy catches hadn't been dropped, "two by a man in the pavilion wearing a bowler hat" and one by an unfortunate team-mate whom he consoled with the words "I'm expecting to take a wicket any day now". Arlott recalls Mailey dismissing Jack Hobbs with a rank full toss "and the important detail" remembered Arlott, "was that they both laughed". Mailey always had a well-developed sense of fun, something that came across in his writing but especially in his cartoons. When his writing days came to an end the legend goes that he planned to open up a butcher's, above which the sign read:

"Once bowled tripe, then wrote tripe, now sells tripe"

I suppose what I love most about Mailey is that he more than anyone else managed to convey to me the sense of what it is to love playing cricket, and what it is to be a spinner. You bowl the best ball you've ever bowled and have it smacked to the boundary, only to get a wicket with a horrendous full toss the very next ball. And then you and the batsman look at each other - and you both laugh.

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