Mark Nicholas on the art of finger spinning –THEN and NOW

Mark Nicholas, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title reads “Lyon’s simple ploy that foxed England”

Once upon a time, off-spin was an uncomplicated thing. The blokes tried to drift the ball away from the bat in the air and spin it back to the stumps. Most of them had an arm ball, an outswinger effectively, that was bowled with the seam upright as a variation to the off-break. Off-spinners constantly searched for a way to beat the outside edge so that batsmen could not set themselves against the natural movement of the ball which was designed to beat the inside edge.

nathan lyonat durham Lyon appeals — Getty Images

Finger-spinners were dynamite in the days of uncovered pitches, when, after rain, the ball gripped in the damp surface, often ripping out pieces of the turf and causing general chaos with the extravagant turn and extra bounce. The accepted methods of response were to play back and late, with the spin; to play forward but to lead with the bat, rather than with bat and pad together as this brought short leg and silly point into play, or to come down the pitch and meet the ball on the full toss or half-volley. For this, batsmen needed quick feet and a certain courage. Some said you were better stumped by a mile than a whisker because at least you had committed.

When Jim Laker took 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, the watered pitch was drying to dust in the first innings and wet again after more rain in the second. Only when the sun got to work did it spring to life and force the Australians to panic. Apparently Tony Lock bowled his orthodox left-arm spinners pretty well too but God was Jim’s biggest fan.

Ian Johnson’s team played mainly back and were collared by the leg trap, though their minds were in disarray after the ball Laker bowled to Neil Harvey, which some say is the equal of the one Shane Warne bowled to Mike Gatting on the same ground 37 years later. It is amazing footage, given the pedigree of the batsmen and the speed of the demise, and available on Youtube.

The very best off-spinners – and Laker was surely one – drifted the ball away from the bat nice and late. To do this, the seam had to be released in a perfect 45-degree position. Then it would spin back the other way. On a wet pitch, they would bowl a little flatter and faster. Derek Underwood, a left-arm finger-spinner, was called “Deadly” because he bowled accurately at almost medium pace. On a dry pitch, Underwood was difficult. On a wet one, he was impossible.

Modern covered pitches; unimaginative captains; one-day cricket that led to powerful front-foot hitting; and bigger, more responsive bats changed the life of the finger-spinner. Only the really good ones have hung on and the story has moved from drift, swing and side spin to the angle of the elbow at delivery, invention of the doosra and the skill in achieving extreme over-spin in the search for enough bounce to unsettle naturally aggressive present-day players.

Once the fingerspinner learned to beat the outside edge with the doosra, the rules of the game changed quite dramatically. At times, when Muttiah Muralitharan has been at his most potent, for example, it has been hard not to find sympathy for the batsmen. Picking the delivery has become doubly difficult because a number of the new breed scramble the seam from what appears hugely flexible wrists. Saeed Ajmal is another example of one who profits from this skilful deception.

The great success story of the age belongs to Graeme Swann. Simply by spinning the ball hard with an orthodox method, relishing the challenge and never surrendering, he has morphed from unfulfilled promise into one of the best to have worn an England shirt. Swann torments left-handers with his clever mix of some that spin and some that don’t. He exploits rough areas with a missionary zeal and makes life hard for right-handers with the lovely dip he achieves by the amount of revolutions imparted on the ball. He is a superb cricketer, a proper spinner of the cricket ball with an ability to take wickets in all conditions against the very best opponents.

All of which leads us to Nathan Lyon: 20 overs, seven maidens, four wickets for 40 runs. Incredible, especially given he could not get a game at Trent Bridge or Lord’s. There isn’t much to Lyon. He is what we rather unkindly call an honest cricketer. He came out of nowhere in the famous story of being assistant groundsman at Adelaide Oval one minute, Test player the next. Lyon bowls a nice offbreak and not much else. He is pretty accurate but no Deadly.

He did, however, come up with a wheeze today, one that flummoxed the might of the EngIish batting. He bowled around the wicket – shock, horror. And from there he created an angle that England turned to their disadvantage. The longer he wheeled away, the more each ball was treated as if it could explode. Honestly, even Jim wasn’t this good.

Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow – three, four, five, six, the cream – all perished. Defensive prods were aimed at extra cover rather than towards mid-on (“Hit it back whence it came lad” used to be the mantra). Attempted blows over the top of the infield were executed with sloppy footwork and little conviction. Bairstow’s sweep was a thing of the past, the days when English umpires gave you out for the shot. And they were right. Offspinners only ever bowled around the wicket because the ball was turning so much that they needed a more acute angle to bring lbw into play. Now the batsmen were ripe for plucking simply because of the different angle not the spin.

The madness of Friday, the day when Lyon reminded the Australia selectors that the start of his career – 23 matches, 77 wickets at an average of 34 – was worth hanging on to, was also the day that reminded the rest of us that cricket is neither sinecure nor certain. It was a day that utterly confounded us and in dong so brought back the great joy of the unknown. Whatever next? Swann maybe.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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