Thursday, 3 August 2006

Leg-spinners can be watch winners

Colin Croft analyses the handful of leg spinners hoping to give Duncan Fletcher a nudge

England fans could have been forgiven for blinking back their disbelief last Saturday as the burgeoning talent that is Monty Panesar spun England to a dramatic victory against Pakistan in the Second Test. His five victims were not tailenders either, mopped up cheaply on the boundary as they slogged away their wickets in a match long since lost. No, he bagged the entire top order, minus stand-in opener Kamran Akmal, including such renowned players of spin as Mohammed Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq. All this from a finger spinner for heaven’s sake, a supposed dying breed in Test cricket since the emergence of a certain bleached blonde Australian sent coaches worldwide scuttling off looking for a wrist spinner who could rip the ball a few feet rather than a few inches.

Of all cricket’s wide variety of skills, the dexterous art of leg spin bowling perhaps remains the most difficult to purvey, let alone to master. The emergence of a young wrist-spinning prospect commands immediate attention, but also generates tremendous pressure on the individual.

Ask Ian Salisbury or Chris Schofield. Salisbury burst onto the first class scene with 87 wickets in 1992 and was soon elevated to the Test team. But five wickets on debut against a strong Pakistan side sadly proved to be the highlight of an unfulfilling international career, as each big spinning leg break was followed by a long hop that disappeared to the boundary, eventually followed by Salisbury’s confidence. Schofield was centrally contracted for 2000, but after two wicketless Test outings and rumblings from the Red Rose County about a dislike for practice, he has tumbled rapidly into obscurity.

With the rapid emergence of a genuine slow left arm specialist in Panesar, it might now seem that the hunt for the fabled match winning leg spinner has suddenly become less of a cricketing holy grail. How ironic therefore that a handful of aspiring leg spinners are currently striving to make an impact on English First Class cricket.

Yorkshire’s Mark Lawson made his first class debut in 2004, following some promising performances for England Under 19’s and amid the usual hype that surrounds young leggies. But despite taking 5-62 on a turner at Scarborough, he has managed just 8 First Class matches as more senior colleagues, notably Richard Dawson, have done the twirling for the Tykes in recent seasons.

At just 20 years old, Lawson still has time on his side but ironically he could now be in danger of getting upstaged by a county colleague. On 21st July this year, Bradford born Adil Rashid returned an amazing 6-67 to bowl Yorkshire to an innings victory over Warwickshire. Clearly not satisfied with taking a wicket with his 8th delivery during the first innings, Rashid stunned the watching crowds by ripping out six of the top nine batsmen in the second. Not a bad effort for an 18-year-old on debut then.

Astonishing? Almost as much as the fact that Rashid had in fact been picked to bat at number six, following consecutive hundreds whilst opening the batting for the Second XI. He bats in the top six for England Under 19’s too. Having reportedly started bowling spin at the age of ten, Rashid could have a big future in front of him and his sessions with Australian bowling guru Terry Jenner, mentor to the incomparable Shane Warne, will doubtless help him on his way.

Another contender who can also boast batting potential is Simon Marshall of Lancashire. With height on his side at 6’ 3” and an action likened by some to Anil Kumble, Marshall also already has a first class ton to his name from his Cambridge University days. Scores of 39 versus Derbyshire and 47 off 25 balls against Durham in the Twenty20 cup this season offer further evidence of his batting ability. 12 wickets at an average of 15.5 and an economy rate barely above a run a ball, in a competition which renders most bowlers mere cannon fodder, completes the all round package.

Despite managing only two County Championship appearances thus far, another young leg spinning hopeful turned this years Varsity Match into something of a one man show. Nottingham born Mike Munday carried Oxford University to victory with match figures of 11-143, bowling almost 60 overs. His 49 first class wickets at an average under 30 speak volumes of a 21-year-old still learning so difficult an art. Whilst the short boundaries at Somerset’s Taunton ground may not be to an aspiring spinners liking, with Ian Blackwell injured and Dan Cullen’s stay proving a short one, Munday’s chance may come late in the season.

So whilst we marvel at Monty, a handful of members of cricket’s rarest club are waiting in the background. Let us hope they can be nurtured and that perhaps one or more of them can live with the burden of expectation successfully enough to become the next English spinning sensation.

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