Ask The Spider #123

Who are England’s most successful left-arm fingerspinners in Tests?

England had many such bowlers who attained greatness in the days before covered wickets – since then there have been precious few due to the changed dynamics and fingerspinners’ requirement for something in the pitch to assist them to success. In the 19th-century, the Lancastrian Johnny Briggs (who would probably have had an even lengthier career than he did – for his day, his career was of phenomenal size – but for his tragically early death from ailments) was accompanied by Yorkshiremen Ted Peate and Bobby Peale. Wilfred Rhodes, another Yorkshireman, followed, enjoying tremendous success in the 1900s before, later, devoting his attention to batting – between 1899 and 1909, in a career comprised exclusively of Ashes series’, Rhodes took 94 wickets in 26 Tests at 22.78. Rhodes’ success was matched by the Kent man Colin Blythe, who would almost certainly have played many more times – especially as Rhodes took to batting – but for his tragic death in the First World War; even so, he played 19 Tests (almost all in Rhodes’ absence, and plenty coming against the less strong South Africans) to take 100 wickets at 18.63. While Rhodes was playing as a batsman, Somerset’s Jack White took on the bowling duties with some modest success, 15 Tests bringing him 49 wickets at 32.26. Roy Kilner, another Yorkshireman and a phenomenal all-round cricketer, would undoubtedly have played many more than 9 Tests had the schedule, the War and his premature death from ailments allowed – he had to make do with a mere 9 appearances and 24 wickets at 30.58. Rhodes’ successor at Yorkshire and England was Hedley Verity, who between 1931 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 took 144 wickets in 40 Tests at 24.37. He too would almost undoubtedly have returned post-War had he survived. The next man, once again a Yorkshireman, was Johnny Wardle, who mixed his standard method with the occasional bit of wristspin. Wardle was miffed that he played just 28 Tests, in which he took 102 wickets at 20.39 (though admittedly this actually incurred just a couple of genuinely successful series’) – often preferred was Surrey’s Tony Lock, who certainly enjoyed success as well but had his eventual official record (174 wickets in 49 Tests at 25.58) substantially inflated by the presence of the substandard New Zealand in the Test fraternity – against the serious sides of his day, Lock played 40 Tests between 1952 and 1963, taking 123 wickets at 31.47, though again it must be said that he endured a mere triumvirate of genuinely bad series’ in this time. The next was Derek Underwood, who in the early part of his career was dubbed “Deadly Derek” on uncovered home wickets – his first 16 Tests in the latter 1960s, almost all at home, brought him 67 wickets at 16.83. Later, between 1970/71 and 1977, he was less effective, though he still played a considerable part in England’s famous triumph in India in 1976/77. Nonetheless, he was a considerable loss in the early 1970s when he barely appeared (Worcestershire’s Norman Gifford was the main beneficiary – he took 28 wickets in 13 Tests at 31.64), and again when he elected to join Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket in 1977/78 (he returned only briefly thereafter). Phillipe-Henri Edmunds had appeared a couple of times alongside Underwood in 1975, and enjoyed considerable success while Underwood was absent with Packer, taking 43 wickets in 16 Tests at 23.88 against often Packer-weakened sides during the schism. Edmunds later reappeared after Underwood departed for good, and between 1982 and 1987 took a further 76 at 39.76 in 33 Tests. Leicestershire’s Nick Cook appeared occasionally when Edmunds was unavailable, taking 52 wickets at 32.48 in 15 Tests between 1983 and 1989. The next man was another Middlesex favourite, Philip Tufnell, who appeared mostly overseas and was occasionally brilliant but often impotent, finishing with 120 wickets at 36.55 between 1990/91 and 1999/2000. Ashley Giles succeeded him, and between 2000/01 and 2005/06 took 139 wickets at 39.12 – he was picked often when he should not have been. Next came Monty Panesar, who has so far taken 126 at 34.37 but has not been a first-choice since the Caribbean tour in early 2009 and appears unlikely to become so any time soon. It is also only fair to mention Frank Woolley – though, relatively speaking, only a part-time bowler, Woolley (principally a left-handed batsman of phenomenal grace and longevity) still managed 83 wickets at 33.91 in his 64 Tests between 1909 and 1934.

And right-armers?

Curiously, this has gone in the complete opposite direction. Until the 1950s no right-arm fingerspinner had enjoyed a Test career of any remote length. Billy Bates was undoubtedly the first of the Test era, and was most unfortunate to have his career cut short by injury as it was at 15 Tests in the 1880s (all in Australia), in which he took 50 wickets at 16.42. The late-flowering Cec Parkin (10), Vallance Jupp and Tom Goddard (8 each) all had brief careers at the top level in the 1920s and 1930s. Jim Laker, who appeared in a bit-part capacity in the late 1940s, initially showed no sign of breaking the mould. But Laker broke through in 1951, and from there to his retirement in 1958/59 broke ground which no English right-arm fingerspinner had ever attained before. Laker took 144 wickets at 18.97 in the 33 Tests he played against serious opposition in that time, and had he not missed so many games would almost certainly have set records which may never have been broken. Roy Tattersall, a direct contemporary of Laker, played briefly for England in the early 1950s, his 58 wickets in 16 Tests at 26.08 marking him out as unfortunate not to appear more. Laker and Tattersall typified a common trend in cricket – after seemingly eternal droughts, rivers suddenly beginning to flow. Fred Titmus, a fine all-round cricketer, was a contemporary of another, Raymond Illingworth, and an excellent specialist fingerspinner David Allen, yet all three enjoyed plentiful Test careers. Titmus played 47 times between 1962 and 1968 (before a sickening accident in the Caribbean appeared to have ended his career); Illingworth 29 between 1959 and 1968; and Allen 39 between 1960 and 1966. None enjoyed remarkable success: Titmus 145 wickets at 30.82; Illingworth 68 at 28.14; and Allen 122 at 30.97. Illingworth went on to captain the side between 1969 and 1973, and even though he enjoyed less success as a bowler in that time his captaincy was highly praised. After these three came another short drought: Pat Pocock’s was an unproductive, bit-part career between 1968 and 1976 (17 Tests, 47 wickets at 43.04). Geoff Miller, now the England National Selector, played the greater part of his Test career during the Packer schism (outside it he appeared 14 times for 22 wickets at 39.90). For a relatively brief time John Emburey was a successful bowler, even though he wasted some of his best years by electing for a Rebel tour to South Africa and taking a three-year ban. But (after playing a little during the Packer schism) he still played 25 Tests between 1981 and mid-1986, taking 68 wickets at 31.85, with almost all of his cricket coming against the best side around, West Indies, England’s biggest foes Australia and the powerful Indian batting. Emburey’s later Tests produced far less success – from midway through 1986 to 1989 (when he elected for another Rebel tour and appeared to have brought his career to an end) he played 29 more Tests and took a mere 52 wickets at 49.86. He received three further recalls, all rather unexpected, and enjoyed even less success. Eddie Hemmings, who like Miller had appeared briefly during Emburey’s first ban, played three times in 1987/88 as a first-choice then came to the fore once again when Emburey was banned again. All in all, Hemmings appeared 16 times at Test level for 43 wickets at 42.44. Peter Such, who was a late developer, played 8 Tests in 1993 and 1994, then reappeared briefly in 1998/99 and 1999, ending-up with 37 wickets at 33.56. Robert Croft was something of a paradox in that like Giles he played often when he should not have done but several times missed prime opportunities to run amok thanks to having been dropped – he ended with an unremarkable 49 Test wickets at 37.24 between 1996 and 2001. Graeme Swann, however, looks as though he has the ability to set himself out as one of if not the finest right-arm fingerspinners England have ever produced. He will never match Laker’s feats, as the uncovered wickets of Laker’s day are a thing of the distant past, but already in his 20 Tests (this excludes 4 against Bangladesh) he has taken 91 wickets at 26.23, showing himself capable of extracting vicious turn from favourable decks and even a little from unfavourable ones. Whether, like Emburey, he eventually fades away, or whether he goes from strength to strength remains to be seen.

How many times have England actually won Ashes series’ in Australia?

The inaugural Ashes series is generally accepted to be a three-Test series in 1882/83 – the legend was born after the 1882 Test which England lost and which the Sporting Times printed its famous “obituary of English cricket”. The tour of 1882/83, even though nominally a private venture like several previous ones, was said to be a mission to “recover the ashes”. Thus, the team was to some extent representing England for the first time. That 1882/83 series, scheduled for three matches, was won, though the Australians immediately, demanded, got and won a fourth game, which is inscribed in official records as a separate match. For the rest of the 19th-century England dominated, including victory in five of the seven Ashes contests (one of which was a one-off Test) in Australia. But after Australia’s victory in 1897/98, England victories in Ashes in Australia have become collector’s items. In fact there have been just 8, and a few come with *s and +s. Only 1903/04, 1911/12, 1928/29, 1954/55 and 1970/71 can be claimed to be genuinely fine England sides outplaying Australia with conventionally good cricket. 1932/33 of course needs no explanation – extraordinary, if very well-conceived and well-executed, tactics were used to gain England’s only Ashes victory of the Bradman era. The great shame is that with such a fine side England may have been able to win even without the leg-theory tactics. 1978/79 is an Ashes series only nominally – in reality, it was contested by most of England’s first-choice team and something somewhere between Australia’s second and third XI. And 1986/87 too has to be viewed in the context of an Australian side weakened by Rebel tour bans and an England team which, aside from that series, could win nothing in half a decade. Often, it has been the case that one outstanding bowler has dominated the charts in English victories – in 1903/04 it was the aforementioned left-arm spinner Wilfred Rhodes; in 1954/55, the man who may have been the quickest bowler ever, Frank Tyson; in 1970/71, another ferocious paceman, John Snow. In 1911/12, paceman (and all-rounder par excellence) Frank Foster and mystery man Sydney Barnes destroyed a strong Australian unit almost single-handedly.

And how many of these have been retentions and regains?

They will not have the chance to do so in 2010/11, being as England currently are Ashes holders. So 1970/71, which is the last time they regained The Ashes in Australia, will remain the most recent for a while longer yet. 1986/87, 1978/79, 1954/55 and 1928/29 were all occasions where England travelled and firmed-up a tumultuous regain of The Ashes in the previous home series of 1985, 1977, 1953 and 1926 respectively. The extraordinary 1932/33 series was the previous occasion to 1970/71 that they had gone and taken The Ashes off the hosts; and 1911/12 and 1903/04 were both joyous occasions when disappointing home defeats, in 1909 and 1902 respectively, were atoned for.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Richard Dickinson