Richie Benaud, the celebrated leg spinner also known for his legendary one-liners in the commentary box, once said, “a bleeding ring finger at the end of every training session was not only normal but essential for my development as a wrist spinner.”
Being one of the most influential and highly-regarded leg-break bowlers at a time when leg-spin was both rare and misunderstood, Benaud knew what he was talking about. He recalls spending most of his late teenage years at the New South Wales Colts’ nets. He would practice landing his stock delivery on the same spot for hours on end.
“Four times a week I would turn up at exactly quarter to three with Billy Watson (who coincidentally would go on to play for Australia himself) and practice in the same net.”
Numerous others would show up at their own leisure to replace Billy, but Benaud would keep practicing until the last ray of light had faded into yet another Sydney summer evening.
“It (leg-spin bowling) is perhaps the hardest and most complex facet of cricket”, Benaud said and the “easiest thing starting out would be to keep it simple and true to your ability.”
The end of that statement is perhaps more significant than it has ever been, for the modern day leg-spinner has to learn not only the complex art, but also to grow out of the shadow of the greatest spin wizard of them all — Shane Warne.
The apparent simplicity of the genius, with his easy flowing action, unprecedented success and captivating personality seems to offer the perfect road map for an aspiring leg spinner.
In the years since Warne’s retirement, talented young bowlers have devoted their energies to modelling themselves on the brilliant Victorian, misguidedly expecting such an ordeal to be rewarding. The truth, however, truth is far closer to the contrary. Such pursuits often give birth to “spinners” who rarely turn the ball or for that matter, possess any of the other bamboozling variations (flipper, top-spinner, googly) so essential to the authentic leggie’s bag of tricks.
The explanation to this fascinating conundrum lies in both the sheer inimitable genius of Warne and the finer aspects of the leg-spinning trait itself.
Leg-spin, unlike any of the other bowling traits, does not require a high-arm delivery release. The bowler, instead, is required to have the shoulder stretch a bit to the side at the point of delivery. This is due to the peculiar and extremely strenuous way the ball is released from the wrist (the flick).
The round arm action makes it much easier for the bowler’s wrist to make the necessary flicking movement, transitioning from facing the sky to facing the bowler at the time of release. It also allows for the maximum number of revolutions to be imparted on the ball, resulting in the drift and fast turn, which are crucial to the lethal leg break.
What determines the amount of turn more than any thing else, however, is the pivot of the legs of the spinner. This pivot has to be strong because it needs to drag the entire body with it, the rule being that the greater the momentum the greater the turn. The pivot is greatly aided by a side-on action. If the bowler is completely side-on in the delivery stride, half his work is already done for his body can then easily be dragged with the momentum generated by the motion of delivery.
The authentic leg-spinner’s action then requires an equal amount of work to be done by the front arm and the bowling arm, resulting in quick shifts in momentum that appear a bit haphazard in real time. This leads to “funny” actions being associated with leg-break bowlers.
My whole analysis goes out of the window when you look at Shane Warne. Having the most insignificant of jumps, Warne’s action is much more front-on compared to the traditional leg-spinner. His action doesn’t involve the extravagant movements associated with the likes of Qadir or Mushtaq and is in fact so fluent and easy on the eye that it often appears deceptively lethargic.
“How, then, did the magician conjure the wicked turn that mesmerised so many?” Mike Gatting would surely ask. And the answer really can only be attributed to the oddity of Warne’s natural ability. His shoulder and wrist, both freakishly strong and flexible, were able to impart a vicious spin on the ball that others will find impossible to replicate.
This freakish nature is demonstrated even more clearly when you notice his variations. The top spinner and googly, the most common leg-spinning variations, both require the ball to be released with a very different wrist position compared to the stock ball, needing the back of the hand to end up facing the batsman (top spinner) or the ground (googly) after release. This is an extreme change that normal bowlers cannot achieve by a simple adjustment of the wrist. A change in the point of delivery is essential to bowling these variations. Where initially the shoulder stuck out to the side, the arm is now closer to the head for the variations. Compare, for instance, Qadir’s top spinner to his normal action shown above.
Qadir was not alone in needing to make this switch. Almost all leg-spinners who have versatility, so crucial to being a complete wrist spinner, have to rely on this slight give-away to land their change-up deliveries effectively.
Now compare this to Warne, and the difference is evident.
In fact, comparing Shane Warne’s repertoire just confirms why it was so hard to pick the great spinner, who was able to churn out his entire array of deliveries without the slightest hint of change in his action or release point. His strong shoulder and unusually flexible wrists bore the brunt of the change up every time.
Therefore, while Warne’s ability to turn the ball and perfectly camouflage his variations is nothing short of breathtaking, one must at the same time keep in mind the anatomy and natural gift of the great spinner that frankly can’t be imitated. With his destructive attitude and knack of getting under the batsman’s skin, Warne is definitely the embodiment of an attacking spinner.
Aspiring newcomers have a lot to learn from his attitude but would be better suited to look towards the traditional greats in Qadir and Benaud when it comes to modelling and reconstructing bowling actions.