The good old days: Test leg-spinners Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill talk tactics during a Test against Pakistan in 2005.
Photo: Getty Images
In the 1990s, as Shane Warne conquered the cricketing world as Australia's most exciting wicket-taker, kids all around the country tried their hand at leg spin bowling. In a land of legendary pacemen, Warne had made fast bowling seem dull. So a generation of young cricket fans practised their sharp-turning leg-breaks and wrong'uns in backyards, beaches and schools.
Then that generation grew up, and produced not a single successful Test leg-spinner.
What went wrong?
Warne's latest foray into the headlines – with the Sheikh of Tweak boasting he could still play at the top level if he wanted to – only reinforced how mediocre Australia's spin-bowling stocks appear to be these days.
Ask the average cricket fan who Australia's best leg-spinner is, and for most the answer would be the 43-year-old Warne.
Test selectors may have rightly settled on Nathan Lyon as Australia's long-term spinner, but if injury was to strike the 25-year-old, who is next in line? And is there not a better wicket-taking spinner out there somewhere? Even though Lyon and his off-breaks have surpassed expectations so far in his Test career, cricket fans continue to dream of a leg-spinner able to grab hold of a game like Warne could.
That's because for Test cricket entertainment, leg spin is in a class of its own. When it goes right, a dipping, sharp-turning leg-break can dismiss the world's best batsman. When it goes wrong – as it did for Warne in the opening match of this summer's Big Bash League, and for South Africa's Imran Tahir during the Adelaide Test – the boundaries come thick and fast. Fans know that when a leggie is bowling, something is going to happen.
But why have no young Warne fanatics become top quality spinners? The likes of Allan Border have suggested that most players can't succeed by copying Shane Warne's action, in the same way that few batsmen have succeeded by mirroring Don Bradman's technique.
"Warnie was a freak. He had these big fingers, a strong wrist and shoulder and he could do it all off a few paces with a shuffle to the wicket," Border told News Ltd last week.
"But I am wondering whether that is the right way for a lot of the bowlers who have tried to copy him.
"To me, a lot of them need more momentum when they get to the crease and it's very difficult to do when you only really run off a few paces."
Another obstacle in the search for the next great Australian leg spinner is the nature of the Sheffield Shield. It may be the strongest domestic competition in the world, but in recent years the Shield has produced few dominant batsmen and even fewer quality spin bowlers.
That's partially because of the structure of the competition itself. The league's scoring system awards teams six points for a win, two for a first-innings lead and zero for a draw. It's a system that promotes attacking cricket, but it also encourages state curators to prepare pitches that are likely to produce a result – and in Australia that means pace-friendly "green tops". Tasmania's ground in particular has come under some criticism for the poor batting surfaces in the past couple of seasons, and their pace bowlers have capitalised.
The current Tasmania side has four seamers with impressive bowling averages in the low 20s. Their fifth bowler, Xavier Doherty, averages an ordinary 43 with the ball in Sheffield Shield cricket, despite being Australia's first-choice one-day spinner. All three matches in Hobart this summer have been completed within three days.
By contrast, the pitch prepared for the Hobart Test allowed for the match to last the full five days.
With very few cricket followers actually watching Sheffield Shield games in the flesh, it's easy to simply look at the batting and bowling averages and decide that Australia now has dozens of strong fast bowlers, a handful of decent domestic batsmen, and barely any wicket-taking spinners. But this perception could have more to do with pace-friendly playing conditions than the relative strengths of the batsmen and bowlers.
The leading leg-spin bowler in the Sheffield Shield this season is 20-year-old New South Welsman Adam Zampa, who took match figures of 5/47 in his one and only first-class appearance at the end of November. Queensland 23-year-old Cameron Boyce also has five wickets this summer, albeit from four matches and at a cost of 57 runs apiece. (By comparison, Tasmania's new-ball pair Jackson Bird and Luke Butterworth have 52 wickets between them.)
Steven Smith and Cameron White, once touted as possible successors to Warne, now barely bowl at all. Smith has one Sheffield Shield wicket to his name this season, White has none.
This lack of success for Aussie domestic spinners is nothing new. Warne, for all his feats on the international stage, never really excelled in Sheffield Shield cricket. In the 46 Shield matches he played between 1991 and 2006, Warne took 161 wickets at the underwhelming average of 34.76. (By comparison, one-Test wonder Bryce McGain averaged 34.58 in his 26 matches as Victoria's leg-spinner.)
Nathan Lyon's record at Sheffield Shield level is very ordinary – with just 23 wickets from 10 matches at an average of 51 – but he has become a strong performer at international level.
Conditions in Test cricket generally suit spinners more than state cricket. Even with a step up in quality, there's every reason a spinner with an underwhelming record at first-class level in Australia can succeed in Test matches, as Warne and Lyon have shown.
So should we pay less attention to the statistics when we assess Australia's group of Shield bowlers? While the fast men benefit from pacey greentops, spinners in the Sheffield Shield never get the chance to bowl on spin-friendly fifth-day pitches or in the dusty conditions of the sub-continent, as Test spinners do. Even the SCG isn't the spinners' paradise it once was.
Unfortunately, state teams do care about bowling averages – after all, it's their job to pick bowlers who will help them win matches, not ones who might succeed in Test cricket down the track. That means a spinner whose record doesn't stack up against the fast men is unlikely to last long. And with one specialist spin bowling spot available in most bowling lineups, that position is invariably being filled by a finger-spinner who can keep things tight rather than a wrist-spinner who risks leaking runs. After all, the pacemen are there to take most of the wickets.
So how can this lack of leg-spinners be fixed?
Cricket administrators could look to adjust the playing conditions of Sheffield Shield matches, something that's already in the works with Cricket Australia introducing a new pitch inspection process starting in January.
Should more be done? Should Sheffield Shield matches last five days? Should the value of outright wins decrease so that matches are encouraged to run for longer, giving spinners the chance to prosper on crumbling pitches? It's hardly as if a move away from attacking cricket would turn fans away – hardly anybody attends Shield matches these days anyway.
If nothing much changes at state level, there's an alternative for Test selectors: don't base Test selection decisions on Sheffield Shield performances.
That seems a strange thing to say; after all, the Sheffield Shield is the closest thing we have to Test cricket in this country. Cricket supporters generally prefer selectors to reward players who have earned their dues in domestic cricket; when a player is rushed into the Test side, selectors are criticised for playing favourites or basing decisions on state loyalties.
But the fast-tracking of spin bowlers has worked in the past. Warne was given his Test debut after four first-class matches. Lyon caught the attention in Twenty20, played his first Sheffield Shield game in February 2011 and was in the Test side by August.
The key for both was that selectors spotted their talent early and gave them more than a handful of Test matches to prove themselves.
That hasn't always been the case of late. A dozen spinners have worn the baggy green in the past six years, and half of those were dumped after one or two Tests.
But even Warne himself was a slow starter at the top level, taking 1/150 on debut and then 0/78, 3/118 and 0/40 in his next three Tests. It was not until a year into his career that Warne began taking wickets regularly.
An eye for talent and a bit of patience will be the keys for selectors when the next promising leg-spinner arrives on the scene.
Here's hoping he's not too far away.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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