Features Icon 1 FEATURES

English Leg Spin – The rise, the fall and, perhaps, the recovery

English Leg Spin - The rise, the fall and, perhaps, the recovery

There can be no doubt that the art of the legspinner is the most difficult in the game to acquire. The ball is delivered from underneath the hand, propelled on its mission to deceive the batsman once the fingers and wrist have done their work. The myriad of variations available mean that to impart the necessary spin and maintain a good length consistently is notoriously difficult. The leg spinner needs a strong wrist, a robust personality to put up with the punishment that will inevitably come his way from time to time, and a patient captain who understands the difficulties he faces. The rewards that the leg spinner reaps arise out of his finding it much easier to turn the ball on unhelpful surfaces, that his normal delivery turns away from the right hander and that when he is bowling well he can make even the best batsman look a little foolish.

Leg spinners tend to fall into one of four broad categories. The most effective, generally are the slow flighty types who rely on sharp turn as well as deceiving the batsman through the air by tossing the ball up. These bowlers tend to be relatively small men and the likes of “Tich” Freeman and Walter Robins were of this type. In more recent times Shane Warne falls into this category. Next are the slightly quicker bowlers who rely less on prodigious spin and more on a much greater degree of accuracy and a consistent flight. Englishman Ian Peebles and Australian Clarrie Grimmett were such bowlers, and Grimmett possibly the best of that type there has been. There are also the “rollers”, men like Richard Tyldesley, who spun the ball very little but was accurate and did just enough with the ball to keep the batsmen guessing. Finally there are the quicker men, who often reached medium pace, and who by virtue of their speed can, if accurate, be consistently successful. The great Australian Bill “Tiger” O’Reilly was of this type as was Englishman Doug Wright, although he tended to be a little wayward at times hence his rather disappointing career figures at Test level. In later generations the Indians Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble have been this type of bowler.

At the beginning of the twentieth century leg spin suddenly became much more attractive. “The whole art of bowling is to make the batsman think that the ball is going to be of one kind when it is really of quite a different nature”. Those are the words of Bernard Bosanquet, the man who gave the leg spinner the option of the ball that turned the other way, and who as a result magnified the threat of wrist spin and, as a consequence, gave a much greater inducement to bowlers to learn the art. Bosanquet was an amateur, not dependent on cricket for his livelihood, and a good enough batsman to have been able to play First Class cricket as a specialist had he not also been able to bowl. He was certainly not the first man to bowl the googly but was the first, having experimented with it, to have the time and opportunity to perfect it. There were seven Test matches for Bosanquet, all against Australia, on tour in 1903/04 and at home in 1905. His batting proved not to be up to Test standard but his bowling was useful and there were two matchwinning performances, one in each series. It is somewhat surprising in the circumstances that, prior to the Great War, it was the South Africans Aubrey Faulkner, Bert Vogler and Reggie Schwarz, together with the Australian “Ranji” Hordern, rather than English bowlers, who perfected and fully embraced the googly.

By the time the First Class game resumed after the Great War the game in England had changed. The Golden Age of free scoring and stylish amateur batsmanship had given way to the new utilitarian approach of the leading professionals. In terms of amassing sheer weight of runs the records set by the major batsmen of the 1920’s will last forever. Improved pitches and tighter techniques meant that the delicate balance between bat and ball that makes the game so fascinating began to tilt in favour of the bat. Only now did the English game look towards wrist spin and the priceless ability of the leg spinner to turn the ball on otherwise unresponsive surfaces, and it was not many years before a good leg spinner became a vital part of a successful county side. Only Yorkshire shunned the risks presented by the leggie, perhaps in part because of the Yorkshireman’s very nature, although in the main by virtue of their having, during the period, in Wilfred Rhodes and Hedley Verity, two of the finest orthodox slow left arm bowlers ever to have graced the game.

In 1930 the beginning of the Great Depression coincided with the high watermark of leg spin in England. In that Ashes year Australia had come to England and comfortably regained the urn that, not even two years previously, had looked like it would remain with England for many years following Percy Chapman’s MCC tourists 4-1 victory in the 1928-29 series. In that 1930 series Grimmett, with 29 at 31 runs each, took more than twice as many wickets as any other Australian bowler. For England too leg spin was the main source of wickets. The only English bowler to play in all five Tests, the great Sussex medium pacer Maurice Tate, was England’s leading wicket taker with 15 (at a disappointing 38 runs each) but three leg spinners, Ian Peebles, Walter Robins and Dick Tyldesley, played two Tests each and between them took 26 wickets at 35 – and that in a series in which Bradman scored 974 runs at almost 140 and three other Australian batsmen averaged more than 50.

Not even their greatest admirers would describe any of the English leg spinners who plied their trade between the wars as giants of the international game. The most successful of them at Test level was Doug Wright of Kent, whose war interrupted career brought him 34 Test caps and 108 wickets at the rather ordinary cost of only fractionally under 40 runs each. Over the 20 years of the inter war period England played 120 Test matches and as many as fourteen leg spinners won a total of 106 caps. Altogether the fourteen took more than 20,000 First Class wickets at 21 runs apiece. The phenomenon that was Kent’s “Tich” Freeman took 3,340 at 18 on his own, but in that 1930 season he could not force his way into the England side despite taking as many as 275 wickets over the course of the summer – Freeman’s Test career consisted of just a dozen games a mere two of which, unsuccessful ones, were against Australia, in 1924/25.

At Test level the fourteen were rather less successful than in the County Championship their combined total of 466 wickets costing more than 33 runs each. To illustrate this in another way at First Class level they took, on average, four wickets per match each whereas at international level that reduced to three. Against Australia, the only consistently strong opponent England had, the leg spinners’ overall average rose to almost 44. As a measure of the gulf in class the three outstanding Australian leg spinners of the period, Arthur Mailey, Grimmett and O’Reilly, against England alone averaged 34, 32 and 25 respectively. The records of each of them, significantly so in Grimmett’s case, were better against all comers.

It is ironic that the beginning of the end of the leg spinner in England came about as a result of a change in the laws of the game designed to redress the balance between bat and ball back in favour of the bowler. In 1935 an experimental law removed the batsman’s immunity from being out leg before wicket to a delivery that pitched outside the off stump. The twin evils that the law change was intended to address were the reduction, brought about by more cautious batting, in the number of off and cover drives attempted by batsmen, and to discourage the pad play that allowed batsmen to use their legs to defend anything pitched outside the stumps. In fact the change probably encouraged more strokes on the on side and those who wanted to play with their pads could still do so as long as they placed them just outside their off stump, but the number of drawn games fell and the change was generally well received and the new lbw law, as it continued to be known for many years, became permanent.

The change in the law, given the preponderance of right handed batsmen, by its nature encouraged off spin and in swing bowlers. Prior to 1935 the very conditions that had encouraged the development of the leg spinner had discouraged the right arm finger spinner so there were few off break bowlers to take advantage, but the quicker bowlers were given reason to move the ball into the right hander off the seam and in the air. In its winter annual for 1935, published in November, The Cricketer carried a lengthy feature on the impact of the new law, which included contributions from the County Captains as well as numerous other leading players and umpires. It is a little surprising that of the many who contributed their thoughts not a single one foresaw the decline of the leg spinner.

Only two leg spinners of note emerged in England between 1935 and the outbreak of war at the end of the 1939 season. The first was Lancastrian Len Wilkinson who made a good impression in a few games in 1937 before coming right to the fore the following year with 151 wickets earning him a place on the winter tour to South Africa. In a career reminiscent of that of another young Lancastrian more than 60 years later, Chris Schofield, Wilkinson’s career was all but over as the country prepared for war just six months after he played his third and final Test. The other new man was Worcestershire’s Roly Jenkins who debuted in 1938. Jenkins played for England nine times after the war and enjoyed a successful county career that ended in 1958.

After the war Wright continued his Test career for another five years and in Australia in 1946/47 England went so far as to play another leg spinner, Essex’s Peter Smith, alongside him in two Tests but Smith’s was a short and unsuccessful career. Another pre war player, Warwickshire’s Eric Hollies, also played a few post war Tests, most famously bowling Donald Bradman for nought with a googly in his final Test innings in 1948. In 1952, after Jenkins was left out of the England side for the third Test against India, that was just about it for English leg spin.

The game, having changed after the Great War in the leg spinner’s favour, moved on again after World War Two in a way that did not help him. This became a period when First Class cricket was played more defensively. Tactics evolved to strangle runscoring with accurate bowling to defensive fields. The emergence of high class finger spinners such as Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Johnny Wardle, as well as a number of others only slightly inferior to them, meant that the time involved in developing a leg spinner and the risks inherent in his art ceased to be attractive. A handful of “finished products” from overseas, such as Australians Bruce Dooland and Colin McCool, did bring some relief from the monotony but the English born leg spinner was a rare creature.

A further factor was that pitch preparation was not the same as before the war and the inferior wickets offered help to the finger spinners and medium paced seamers who found it much easier to bowl accurately than the leg spinner. Outfields were another feature of the game that changed. In hot weather before the war the grass quickly became brown and the rough ground helped to accelerate the loss of shine on a new ball. The increased use of fertilisers and watering after the war meant that outfields would remain green and the ball would not deteriorate in the same way and the shine on the ball would be maintained for the benefit of the quicker bowlers, for much longer.

The next leg spinner to play for England, and indeed it could be argued the next two, perhaps surprisingly came from Lancashire. It was normally the southern counties and their harder wickets that produced leg spinners but local boy Tom Greenhough earned a Lancashire contract at the age of just 16 in 1948. His cricket career was a classic case of triumph in the face of adversity and also one that vividly illustrates the problems faced by leg spinners at the time. In 1949 Greenhough showed his promise by taking more than 50 wickets for a very strong Lancashire Second XI at a cost of just 13 runs each. Then disaster struck as that winter he contrived to fall 30 feet down a lift shaft breaking a wrist and bones in each foot. Both Greenhough and Lancashire were told that his cricket career was over and his contract was cancelled. Refusing to accept the doctors’ verdict Greenough battled his way back and although one foot would remain misshapen for the rest of his life he persuaded Lancashire to take him back on on a week by week contract for 1951.

In 1951 Greenhough again took more than 50 wickets for the seconds, this time at less than 13, and he earned another contract. He made his First Class bow in that 1951 season but, showing the patience needed by a leg spinner and his employer, it was to be 1956 before he played anything like regularly. There was therefore plenty of time for him for him to have another severe injury setback when, while attempting to stop a drive from future West Indies Captain Frank Worrell in a league match, he broke a finger so badly that doctors advised amputation. Greenhough once again declined the advice he received and rebuilt his career for a second time.

In 1959 Greenhough made his breakthrough and took 122 wickets at 22. He was selected for three Tests against the Indian tourists of that summer. England have only ever beaten one touring side 5-0 and this was it, so the Indians were not a strong combination but, as with all Indian teams, they generally batted well against spin and Greenhough’s 14 wickets at 18 with a strike rate of less than 60, and an economy rate of 1.80, suggest he was unfortunate to have gained just one more Test cap, against the South Africans the following summer, when he was recalled for the final drawn Test and took two of the 14 South African wickets that fell at a personal cost of 102. In fairness to the selectors it has to be conceded that 1959 and 1960 were far and way the best seasons of Greenhough’s career, and after falling away in 1961 he never fully recovered his form and, by then 34, he left Lancashire at the end of the 1966 season.

The other Lancastrian leg spinner was Bob Barber. A fine all round sportsman Barber was a child prodigy who played for the county while still a schoolboy. He is primarily remembered as an attacking left handed top order batsman whose 28 Tests brought him a batting average of 35, although unusually his performances abroad, in Pakistan, South Africa and Australia, were much better than in England. Barber was a good enough leg spinner to take 42 Test wickets and therefore, as one of the last of his kind, he merits a mention here. Had he, while Lancashire captain, bowled himself more and Greenhough less, then perhaps he might have become a genuine all rounder.

The man who, for many years, appeared to be the last of the line was Robin Hobbs. Hobbs played for Essex between 1961 and 1975 and later came out of retirement to captain Glamorgan from 1979 to 1981. Hobbs was not a big spinner of the ball but he was accurate and varied his flight and pace well and over the years more than 1,000 First Class wickets came his way at the reasonable cost of 27 runs each. In the manner of the times Hobbs often did not get to bowl in one day cricket, but when he did his overall economy rate of 4.30 demonstrated what has subsequently become accepted, that all forms of slow bowling have their place in the one day game. There were seven Test caps for Hobbs, the last of them in 1971, but his haul of just 12 wickets demonstrated that, like so many of his predecessors, he was a little way short of Test standard.

Following Hobbs retirement the next sighting of an English leg spinner was in Sussex. The county had not signed a leg spinner since 1949 – the man concerned then, Jim Parks, turned out to be a shrewd acquisition but his 46 England caps came as a wicket keeper batsman and his bowling was soon forgotten. In 1988 Andy Clarke was 26 years old and working for an Insurance company in Brighton. He had been a prolific wicket taker for his club side for some years and both he and the County Club decided to take a chance. Clarke was an accurate “roller” with a well disguised googly (he claimed himself not to know when his top spinner would turn out to be a googly) and took 44 First Class wickets in that first season. More surprisingly still he bowled economically and with some penetration in the one day game as well. Sadly the success did not last and two years later Clarke left Sussex however doubtless encouraged by his initial success Sussex had made it two in successive years by signing Ian Salisbury for 1989. In 1992 Salisbury became the first man to be capped for England as a specialist leg spinner since Robin Hobbs 21 years earlier. Sadly although between then and the end of 2000 he was selected 15 times Salisbury’s Test record is, to say the least, undistinguished. That said Salisbury at least enjoyed a successful career at County level, unlike the only other England leg spinner to gain a Test cap in the 21st century, Chris Schofield of Lancashire, who failed to take a single wicket in the two Tests he played against Zimbabwe in 2000.

It is therefore now almost a decade since England last picked a leg spinner for a Test match. Schofield, who left Lancashire acrimoniously in 2004, has since returned to the First Class game with Surrey, and having done so quickly found himself selected for England’s T20 squad for the 2007 World Championship. Schofield played reasonably well in the four games he played but has not made an England XI since and it seems unlikely now that he will be selected again. Unlike the situation during the long drought between Hobbs and Clarke there have however been a few English leg spinners who have been spotted in the County game in the first decade of the 21st Century. At Lancashire Simon Marshall played between 2005 and 2008, but despite some success in the shorter forms of the game he played only five County Championship matches in those four seasons, taking just seven wickets at very nearly 70 runs apiece. In the last of those five matches, against Somerset in April 2008, he played opposite another leg spinner, Michael Munday. Munday has now spent six summers at Taunton but failed to make the most of the opportunity provided by three Championship matches early in the 2010 season.

In 2006 Mark Lawson recorded two six wicket hauls for Yorkshire and, at Scarborough in August, he and fellow leg spinner Adil Rashid dismissed Middlesex together. By the end of the following season Yorkshire had decided they did not need two leg spinners and Lawson, now at Kent, played only one First Class match in 2010. He did take six Pakistani wickets in Kent’s game against the tourists in May but did not shine in his subsequent appearances for the county’s second eleven.

The two brightest hopes for the future of leg spin in England at the moment are Durham’s Scott Borthwick and Yorkshire’s Adil Rashid. Borthwick, then aged just 18, first played for Durham in a televised T20 match against Lancashire in 2008. His 3 for 23 in four overs helped his county to victory and probably raised unrealistic expectations. Borthwick’s progress since that remarkable evening has been unspectacular but at 20 that matters little. What is important is that Durham are being patient with him and, being a batsman good enough to score two First Class fifties last season and therefore having a second string to his bow, there is every reason to be optimistic that he will succeed.

Turning to Rashid he cannot be far away from a Test cap and, despite his omission from England’s Ashes party for this winter, he will surely break into the Test team at some point. Still only 22 his 732 First Class runs at 45 and 57 wickets at 31 last season are the figures of an established player. Those numbers were no flash in the pan either as ever since his Yorkshire debut in 2006 at just 18 Rashid has performed with a degree of success and maturity that belies his age. There are many who would have liked to have seen him bowling with Graeme Swann in Australia this winter although one suspects that, given the nature of his calling, a Test baptism against the likes of Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke on home soil might prove to be counterproductive. His omission from the main squad is not therefore surprising but his absence from the performance squad is – surely an opportunity to bowl on Australian pitches is a vital part of any young leg spinner’s development.

The reality of the situation is that there is currently no natural choice for a second spinner for England. Swann has done a full spin bowler’s apprenticeship and although at 31 he has a good few years left in him yet, he is not going to be around for ever – perhaps by the time 2014/15 Ashes come along we might see Borthwick and Rashid both pushing for Swann’s place, and maybe there is a chance we will see two leg spinners playing for England for the first time in almost 70 years.


Terrific piece, fred. Loved the reference to Andy Clarke – now there’s a name from the past.

Comment by zaremba | 12:00am BST 27 September 2010

Lovely read. 100% on point historical review of the regression of English leg-spin.

Comment by aussie | 12:00am BST 27 September 2010

Good read dude, really enjoyable.

Comment by Phlegm | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

Interesting. Very enjoyable read.

Comment by Howsie | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

Good read.

Comment by weldone | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

Typically excellent article. I genuinely had no idea the googly was bowled before Bosenquet; the legend I’d heard was he devised it whilst playing a ball game called twisty-twosty or somesuch.

Only noteable post-war leggie not to get a mention was dear old Kenny Barrington. Hardly a specialist and I must confess to never having seen him bowl a ball but his FC figures of 250+ wickets at a tick over 32.5 suggest a useful part-timer.

Comment by BoyBrumby | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

A name which I often recall when thinking of English leg-spinners is Warwick Tidy, the splendidly named Warwickshire bowler who took a few good wickets in 1970, aged just 17, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. But whether he got the yips, was messed about by coaches, or just lost confidence, it all fell apart after that. It didn’t help that he wasn’t much of a batsman, or that the county signed Lance Gibbs for 1971. In 1974 his three wickets for the second eleven cost over 100 apiece, and that was his lot. I wonder what became of him.

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

He’s been in the business for ‘over 30 years’ which would tie in with his release from Warwickshire I suppose.

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

Candidates for the first bloke to have actually bowled a googly are a bunch of 1880’s Australians Tom Horan, Joey Palmer and Jim Phillips – there’s no doubt that Bosanquet perfected it playing “twisti twosti”, which is what made him think about it – the Aussies probably didn’t twig that the ball going the other way was because they turned their wrists round further – I expect they thought the ball had hit a stone instead 🙂

Anyway as virtually all the early cricket historians were English its hardly surprising that we’ve taken the credit for inventing it

Comment by fredfertang | 12:00am BST 28 September 2010

Nice article, I like the fact that yo\’ve brought it right up todate with the inclusion of Rashid and Borthwick. I also like the fact that out of all the images on the net yo\’ve used my image of my own hand!! Means you must have passed by my blogs at some time!

Comment by Someblokecalleddave | 12:00am GMT 12 November 2010

Leave a comment

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

More articles by Martin Chandler