Leg-spin, googly, top-spin, flipper, and variations on all of them with subtle shifts in pace and flight: the magic of wrist-spin is in its range and deception. An imperceptible shift in grip and wrist position can hoodwink you. The drift and dip in a flighted ball can be the undoing of a batsman suckered into what seems like a juicy hit.
Just like a magician, it’s with a sleight of hand that a leg-spinner causes beguilement, and mesmerises spectators. Hence its enduring appeal as a wicket-taking weapon for captains and an attention-grabber for fans.
One of its greatest wizards was Australia’s Shane Warne, who died young at the age of 52 last Friday. He is the second-highest wicket-taker in Test cricket with a tally of 708, after Sri Lankan mystery off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800. Fourth on that all-time list is another leg-spinner: India’s Anil Kumble, with 619 wickets. Considering that Muralitharan had a wrist action that was sort of the reverse of a leg-spinner, rather than a conventional off-spinner’s finger-spin, you could say that three out of the top four wicket-takers in Test history are wrist-spinners.
As in every sport, there’s invariably a debate over who’s the GOAT (greatest of all time). But judging that is particularly hard for leg-spin because the pitches, opposition, and eras have a huge bearing on it.
On the face of it, for example, Warne and Kumble stand head and shoulders above all other leg-spinners because of the sheer number of wickets they took. But their counterparts from earlier times had far fewer matches or overs to work with. Richie Benaud played only 63 Tests for his 248 wickets, compared to Warne’s 145 Tests. And although BS Chandrasekhar played 97 Tests, the number of overs he bowled was about one-third of what Kumble delivered, because Chandra played in an era when India regularly fielded a trio of great spinners who shared the workload.
Spin bowlers adapt their art to the conditions they play in. Warne had a strong wrist action and angular arm to produce substantial turn even on surfaces that did not have much grip for the ball, such as the hard, bouncy tracks of Australia and South Africa or the grassy wickets of England and New Zealand. Kumble, on the other hand, used his height and a much quicker delivery speed than most spinners to take full advantage of abrasive, responsive pitches in India. That’s one reason why Kumble was much more successful in India than in Australia, and it was vice versa for Warne.
The nature of the opposition also shapes the spinner’s gameplan. Warne played most of his Tests against neighbours New Zealand, arch rivals England, and South Africa. Batsmen in those countries rarely encountered leg-spinners of quality in their domestic games, because conditions were more suited to pace bowling. As a result, they were not so adept at reading a delivery from the leg-spinner’s hand to make out if it was a leg-spin, googly, or top-spin. And they tended to play across the line to flippers that darted in straight to get them LBW or bowled. So the amount of turn and variations in Warne’s repertoire got him bucketfuls of wickets against these opponents.
But it was a different story against Indian batsmen who were used to the wiles of leg-spinners in their formative years. For all the beguiling aura around Warne following his exploits against Australia’s main rivals of that period, the likes of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, and Sachin Tendulkar read him easily. This is reflected in his bowling average of 47 against India being almost twice as high as his career average of 25. The best that Warne managed against India was six wickets in a match, and even that happened only twice in his career, at Adelaide in 1999 and Chennai in 2004.
He had far greater success against the other two major Test-playing nations of the sub-continent, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But even there, good players of spin got the better of him, as in the 1996 World Cup final between Australia and Sri Lanka at Lahore in Pakistan. Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who had a running battle with Australia for all the aspersions cast on Muralitharan’s bowling action, even taunted Warne as being overrated. Then he proceeded to walk the talk with an unbeaten 47 alongside unbeaten century-maker Aravinda de Silva to defeat Australia; Warne was wicketless in 10 overs, conceding 58 runs.
Great leg-spinners of the past in the sub-continent depended more on disguise than the degree of turn. The bowling style of Pakistan’s Mushtaq Ahmed, with the front of the hand facing the batsman just before delivery point, made it very hard to distinguish between his leg-spin and googly. It was an action modelled on that of his idol, Abdul Qadir, whom the former England captain, Graham Gooch, rated higher than Warne, having played against them both. "It is impossible to believe that wrist-spin has ever been bowled better than Qadir did in his home city of Lahore in 1987-88, when he took 9 for 56 against England," Wisden Almanack editor Scyld Berry wrote.
Many of Warne’s finest performances also came against arch rivals England, starting with his first Ashes series in which he bagged 34 wickets. The first of those wickets was that of England captain Mike Gatting, bowled by ‘the ball of the century’ that drifted out wide to pitch in the rough outside the leg-stump and turned at a 45-degree angle past Gatting’s defensive pad and bat to hit the top of off-stump. Then, in his final series in 2006 at home, Warne made it a full circle by inflicting a shocking defeat on England at Adelaide when the match appeared to be meandering to a draw. His four wickets caused a collapse for 129 on the final day after both teams had posted scores above 500 in the first innings.
Kumble too produced his most stunning act against India’s arch rivals Pakistan, taking all 10 Pakistani wickets in the second innings in Delhi in 1999. Qadir, Warne, and Kumble—three leg-spinners with starkly contrasting styles vie for the mantle of GOAT, not discounting the claims of Benaud and Chandrasekhar, who had unique styles of their own.
As for the current generation—notably Adil Rashid of England, Adam Zampa of Australia, Yuzvendra Chahal of India, Shadab Khan of Pakistan, and Wanindu Hasaranga of Sri Lanka—leg-spinners appear to be honing their craft for the shortest format of the game, T20, where batsmen are forced to take more risks. The magic show has a new stage.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.