Cricket literature has always romanticized leg spin because the allure of wrist spin and its infinite potential for subtlety and trickery perhaps has no equal. The left arm spinner has somehow got typecast as the honest, dependable craftsman, essential but not the star. Seen in that context, the left arm spinner is much like the 9 to 5 office goer, punctual and correct; round the wicket, a bit of drift, on a good length, break away and have the heart for a long battle.
Add to this the fact that when one scans the best bowling figures in an innings, one finds no left arm spinner in the top fifteen performances. No left arm spinner has taken more than eight in an innings. In contrast, both off spin and leg spin have pride of place in this hall of fame because of the immortal ten wickets hauls by Laker and Kumble. While there are five off and leg spin bowlers with over 300 wickets, there is just one left arm spinner with over 300 wickets.
While left arm spinners are represented in the list of top bowling performances in a match, three of these four great performances belong to the 19th century and early twentieth century (Briggs, Blythe and Rhodes). The fourth is ancient too, Verity in the 1930s. There have been numerous occasions in the last 30 years that off and leg spin bowlers have “run through the opposition” and “bowled their sides to victory”. It will be hard for us to find an example for left arm spin and we will be forced to dig further back into the days of Underwood and Bedi.
The great purveyors of left arm spin have been every bit as artistic as their leg spinning friends. Watching Bedi bowl was to see a classical ballet. A few steps and that absolutely divine pivot at the point of delivery. Every ball was a searching examination for the batsman acutely aware that he was being lured into quicksand by deception in drift, flight and turn. Add the variety of arm balls and the picture of a spider’s web is complete.
Left arm spin has its quota of characters too. Bobby Peel, one of the early heroes of left arm spin was apparently so colourful a character that he was once banished from a test match for turning up inebriated on the morning of the match. Edmonds of England was as much an intellectual as his famous captain Brearley but was temperamental to the point of being freaky. Tufnell was a heady combination of talent and unmanageable maverick.
But pause a while; left arm spin is not just the orthodox tweaking of ball between thumb and fingers. There is the small matter of left arm Chinaman bowlers, the unorthodox left arm wrist spinners. The funny thing (and by that one is not alluding to the sight of Brad Hogg bowling Chinaman with his tongue hanging out) is that for a country as impoverished as Australia has been in left arm finger spin, it contributes half the names of Chinaman bowlers.
Starting with Fleetwood Smith, Australia has regularly thrown up Chinaman bowlers, from Fleetwood Smith to Lindsay Kline to Johnny Martin right down to Brad Hogg in very recent times. Even their change bowlers Bevan and Katich, were Chinaman bowlers. In fact Arthur Mailey, the legendary leg spinner of the 1920s repeatedly described Fleetwood Smith as a wondrously gifted bowler in his book, “10 for 66 and all that”.
Left arm spin has cast its charm on the novelist too. The delightful book, “Sherlock Holmes At the 1902 Fifth Test” is all about the mystery of a missing Wilfred Rhodes. Wilfred Rhodes incidentally began as a No. 11 batsman but had moved to opening the batting in tests. This fact will strike Indian readers for their own Ravi Shastri began as a No. 10 in his first test and later opened the batting. It is another matter that Shastri’s left arm spin progressively deteriorated.
Rhodes completely blind in his later years was always present at test matches at Headingly with his friend the great Sid Barnes, who was fully deaf. Between the two of them, they ‘watched and saw’ test matches, an eternal cherished piece of English cricket history. One of Rhodes’ famous quotes went thus. When Verity in the 1930s was at his peak, Rhodes was asked, “Is there any kind of ball Hedley bowls that you didn’t bowl?” To which he impishly replied, “Ay, the one the batsman cuts for four.”
There is pathos too in this tale of left arm spinners. Headley Verity whom Bradman considered the best left arm spinner he had ever faced was killed in World War II. Briggs, whose 8 for 11 in 1898 are still the best figures ever in an innings, suffered and died of epilepsy in an asylum at a young age. Blythe took 100 test wickets at breakneck speed but was killed in World War I.
In the left arm spin stakes, after England, it is India that has a strong and distinguished presence. Mankad in the period after World War II was the best among his contemporaries. And like Rhodes before him, Mankad was a genuinely great all – rounder who also opened the batting. Bedi came a decade after Mankad retired but the years between were not barren either. Nadkarni and Durani, fine spinners both, played a number of tests.
While Durani was an absolutely exciting devil may care all-rounder, Nadkarni played even a club match as if his life depended on it. How can the authors forget the memorable meeting with Durani one evening at an airport lounge as the aged old man went down memory lane to describe his bowling exploits in the few wins that came India’s way in those parched days? Doshi, Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel were contemporaries of Bedi who would have walked into any other test team. Doshi played his test cricket only after Bedi retired and in the few cricketing years left, he quickly racked up over 100 wickets. Much later, in the 80’s India had two left arm spinners playing in the same eleven, Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh. Maninder a pure bowler worthy of batting at Number 11 in any side was a genuine talent who never realized his potential.
Why do left arm spinners have a more round arm action than their right arm off spinning counterparts? For the left arm spinner, usually bowling round the wicket most times to right hand batsman, perhaps the round arm action is a necessity.
Often watching Bedi we wondered how he released the ball at a variety of trajectories, some above his head, some in front of his eyes, but whatever the release, the flight was such that it was always coming to the batsman from a height that was above the batsman’s eye level. The right arm spinner has the googly and top spinner up his sleeve. The left arm spinner relies mostly on the ball that hurries straight through to surprise the batsman. Without a wickedly concealed arm ball, the left arm spin bowler is only half the bowler one ought to be.