Spin to Win

Spin bowling worldwide has enjoyed a revival, both in its effectiveness and popularity, during the last ten years, with the success of high-profile bowlers such as Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble – who have over 1,500 Test wickets between them – a key factor in its growth. Spin bowlers can be classified into two broad groups, finger spinners and wrist spinners. Finger spin, is known as either ‘off-spin’, turning into the right-handed batsman, in the hands of a right-handed bowler such as Harbhajan Singh or Saqlain Mushtaq, or ‘slow left-arm’, turning across and away from the right-hander, when delivered by one of a huge number of current International players – of which Daniel Vettori is probably the best known. Finger spin is the easier of the two arts to master, whilst wrist spin is arguably the more effective.

Shane Warne, currently the holder of the record for most Test wickets in a career, is a fine example of a right-handed wrist spin bowler (or ‘leg-spinner’) – a bowler who generally turns the ball across and away from the right-handed batsman, whilst the left-handed version (‘chinaman’, turning the ball into the right-hander) is rarely seen at International level – West Indian Dave Mohamed is one of the few chinaman bowlers to be seen in Test cricket in the last few years. If you’re wondering where the name came from, the most common explanation is that it came about from Ellis Achong, an early West Indian Test player of East Asian origin, who bowled left-arm wrist spin.

Spinners tend not to take wickets at a similar rate to quicker bowlers, often relying on patience and guile to out-think a batsman or force him into making a mistake. Any turn that they extract from the pitch is often dependent on the conditions – a wicket that’s cracked or breaking up will provide more opportunities for a spinner to turn the ball, because there are more places where the ball can get ‘purchase’ or grip the surface. The marks created by a fast bowler’s follow-through are also useful to a spinner as the unevenness they cause can act as a target as the match progresses – this is another reason why left-arm finger spinners are thriving at present, as their general target area tends to fit nicely into a the follow-through of the right-arm fast bowlers in the team!

If the conditions are such that a bowler is struggling to achieve turn from the wicket they still have a major weapon left within their hands, that of the change of pace of the ball – known as ‘flight’. A slower ball that’s bowled with a high ‘trajectory’ (or flight-path) is a completely different to a faster delivery that has a much flatter angle – these flat deliveries are often nicknamed ‘darts’. Both types of bowling have their own merits and whilst flighted bowling has a much greater risk of being expensive, it’s also much more likely to take wickets as it’s harder for a batsman to judge a flighted delivery. If the ball’s flight-path goes above the batsman’s eye level, then he has to move his head just to follow the ball, which can help to unsettle him – and it’s also naturally more difficult to work out exactly where the ball will pitch.

Particularly skilled spin bowlers can make batsmen think that the ball will be well pitched-up (land close to the batsman), but then cause the ball to dip late in flight and leave the batsman stranded – this often results in the batsman missing and being either bowled or stumped, or the shot being mis-hit and becoming a simple catch. Flat spin bowling can be just as useful to a team in the right situation; at its most accurate, batsmen can be tied down to exceptionally slow scoring rates and should they need to score quickly, they can become frustrated and give their wickets away. They can also play a crucial role in ‘tying down’ one end whilst a captain alternates bowlers who are more likely to take a wicket at the other. A general rule for a developing spinner whilst practising is to try to bowl at the speed where he gets the ball to turn the most, and to worry about variations later!

All that applies to quick bowlers regarding the action, run up and follow through can be translated to the world of the spinner, too. Whilst it’s less of an injury risk to have a ‘mixed’ action as a spinner, simply because of the reduced speed that means less twisting forces are applied to the back and spine, there’s still wasted forward momentum. A spinner’s run up (often called an ‘approach’ where slow bowlers are concerned) is still important in that a bowler needs to be well-balanced and travelling at a speed he is comfortable with when the ball is released, whilst the follow-through is one of the most often neglected parts of a slow bowler’s action.

Spinners also have a far greater range when it comes to ‘using the crease’ – jargon for changing the position that their run-up ends and as a result the angle that their deliveries come from, simply because of the less complex nature of their approaches. It’s much easier for a spinner to alter his approach to closer to the stumps (for example, if he felt the batsman was a prime candidate to be out LBW) than for a paceman to change his, longer and more subconscious, run-up. Whilst changing the angle of attack isn’t ever going to be a disguised variation, it still prevents a batsman from settling against one bowling style for a long period of time.

A spinner’s follow through shouldn’t begin until after the delivery stride is complete, as the action – and amount of spin that a bowler can achieve on a ball – depends to a significant extent on the amount of ‘pivot’ a bowler attains on his front leg (the opposite side to his bowling hand) and the ‘drive’ on his back leg following the delivery of the ball. Once these two stages have completed, the follow-through should be, as with a faster bowler, as long as is needed to naturally slow down without exerting any sudden forces on the body.

The standard grip for a finger spinner is with the index and middle fingers across the seam, and about 3-5cm apart – occasionally, the ring finger might also rest on the ball – and the hand action that’s needed to create the spin is often likened to the action of opening a doorknob. For a right-hander, this is a clockwise movement that will turn the ball to the right as the bowler sees it, whilst a left-hander’s anti-clockwise motion will cause movement to the left. To try this out, find a tennis ball, hold it in the finger spinner’s grip and then hold your arm directly, vertically upwards, with your palm facing forwards. Next, throw the ball forwards, as you would do with a normal throw, but try to include the ‘opening the door’ action – and hopefully you’ll see some movement! Don’t worry if there isn’t a great amount of movement, finger-spinners have never achieved the amount of movement wrist spinners have without help from the conditions, but have relied on the better control that they can attain thanks to the simpler nature of the action.

Once the ball is turning, you can translate this simple hand and arm action into a full approach and delivery. The most important thing for a finger-spinner is to be well-balanced as you run into the crease, as a smooth approach is a great foundation for the rest of the bowling action to be smooth and rhythmical, resulting in a much more consistent outcome. Finger spin tends to be bowled with an action closer towards the side-on end of the spectrum – where the bowler looks behind or through his front arm, and the imaginary lines angle in the direction of the wicketkeeper and slips – as this allows the bowler to pivot his body strongly around the front foot and ensure that the bowling aim is in the right position at the moment of release.

Remembering the exercise with just the hand and arm action, the ball rotated over itself in a sideways direction, which resulted in the ball moving in the direction of its rotations once it pitched. If this all sounds like a little bit too much science, think about a ball rolling forwards over and over its seam – it’s rolling in the direction that it’s rotating. If you then roll the ball in the opposite direction, the direction of the rotations reverses – fish out the old tennis ball and have a good play with it if you’re still not following! Now that we’ve established that the ball travels in the direction it rotates, we can see why the finger-spin action that we deliver the ball with – causing it to rotate – makes it turn off the pitch.

Due to this, it’s important that when the ball is released, the rotations are in the direction of the intended turn – so it’s a good idea to try to get the bowling arm as close to the vertical position of the earlier exercise as is possible. If, for example, the palm of your hand isn’t facing forwards, but to your left (in the case of a right-handed bowler), the rotations will be in the direction of the batsman, and the ball won’t turn in the manner that you expected it to. This, however, can be used as one of the spinner’s variations – a ‘top spinner’ that both gains speed off the pitch and bounces more than a straight delivery without any rotations, can surprise the batsman.

Another variation in a finger-spinner’s armoury is the controversial ‘doosra’, which is Urdu for ‘other one’, first developed by Saqlain Mushtaq and now bowled by Muttiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and Shoaib Malik. However, the biomechanics behind it are complicated and I’ve yet to find a definitive account – so remember, if this proves wrong then that’s the reason why, and if it’s right, then you read it here first! Check back to the description of the ‘reverse release’ slower ball as bowled by Ian Harvey in the section on fast bowlers – it involves twisting the wrist at the point of release so that the back of the hand faces the batsman, slowing down the release and hence the speed of the delivery to great effect.

In the case of the doosra, it doesn’t impact upon the speed of the delivery, but because the wrist is twisted in the opposite direction, then the rotations on the ball will be in the opposite direction – with the final result that the ball turns the other way (see, there was a point to all that science earlier!) However, with the rotation of the upper body and arm that’s needed to bowl finger-spin, the extra wrist movement required to create the doosra has caused allegations, and firm evidence, of throwing – most notably in the recent case of Shoaib Malik – which has led to questions on whether it’s possible to legally bowl the delivery at all. Watch this space for future developments!

The final variation in the finger-spinner’s closet is the arm ball, which is gripped and delivered in the same way a swing bowler would bowl an away-swinger – see the swing bowling section for more detailed information. Thanks to the generally side-on nature of finger-spinner’s action, they can often obtain a small degree of swing in the opposite direction to the way that they would naturally spin the ball. Even in the case where the ball doesn’t actually swing, the fact that it isn’t released with rotations mean that it doesn’t turn either, and it’s still possible that this – coupled with the extra speed that the bowler can create due to the fact that he hasn’t put rotations on the ball – can be enough to deceive the batsman.

On the other side of the spinning spectrum, the wrist-spinner generates more turn and has more spectacular variations, but on the flip-side his action is far harder to master, resulting in less control and an increased risk of being expensive. Nonetheless, when at its best, wrist-spin is probably the hardest type of bowling in the game to confidently bat against. As its name suggests, this style of bowling uses the wrist – as well as the fingers – to impart the rotations that cause spin onto the ball, and because of the extra spinning forces generated thanks to the addition of the wrist into the action, a wrist spinner can make the ball rotate much more rapidly, and so can achieve much more turn.

A wrist spinner’s basic grip is to hold the ball, with its seam horizontal, cupped in the first three fingers of their bowling hand, with the index and ring fingers roughly on opposite sides, and the middle finger fractionally closer to the index finger – resulting in all three fingers lying across the seam. It’s perfectly normal for the thumb or the little finger to rest on the ball, but rare for either to do any actual work when it comes to spinning the ball. The hand action that imparts the spin itself is similar to that of the finger-spinner – the ‘turning a doorknob motion’ but since it’s in the opposite direction (anti-clockwise for the right-handed leg-spinner, and clockwise for the left-handed chinaman bowler) and as such involves the wrist to a much greater extent, it’s much more forceful. With practice, when the ball is spun the seam will remain in approximately the same position – resulting in achieving more grip and hence more turn as it lands.

Returning to the ever-trusty tennis ball, if you take it in the wrist-spinner’s grip and simply lob it gently, underarm, into the air – remembering to include the hand action as it’s released, you’ll see it spin a significant amount either to your left (if you’re right handed) or to your right (if you’re a left-hander). A wrist-spinner’s full action is generally closer to ‘front-on’ than ‘side-on’ – the bowler looks in front of his front arm (or between his two arms as they’re raised) and the ‘imaginary lines’ angle across the pitch in the direction of the covers and midwicket. As with finger-spin, it’s important to ‘pivot’ strongly on your front foot as you prepare to release the ball, and equally after your release to ‘drive’ or follow through strongly with your back leg (the same side as your bowling arm). The bowling arm is generally vertical, or near-vertical, which allows the bowler to gain as much bounce as possible and get the ball above the batsman’s eye-line more easily. It’s not uncommon, however, for wrist-spinners to bowl with much flatter arms as either a natural action or simply as a variation.

The next section deals with variations, and for clarity’s sake only considers the direction and names given to deliveries as bowled by right-handed wrist-spin bowlers (leg-spinners) – for a chinaman bowler, simply reverse the directions. The standard delivery described above is known as the leg-break, and turns across a right-handed batsman (on landing, the ball spins in the direction that it was rotating, see the off-spin section for a more detailed explanation). When released, the palm of the bowler’s hand faces the batsman, and the back of the hand points down the ground towards long-on or long-off. A wrist-spinner can vary the position of his wrist, causing the ball to rotate in a different direction, with the end result that, after pitching, it spins in a different direction.

The simplest of a wrist-spinner’s variations to bowl is the ‘slider’, which is bowled exactly as a standard leg-break, with the only exception being that the ball is gripped around the seam (as a fast bowler would), rather than across it. Whilst the ball still rotates in the same manner, it’s far less likely to hit the seam and grip the surface to the same extent, and so usually spins less than the batsman would expect. The next three – the top-spinner, flipper and googly (or wrong-un) – require a change of wrist position causing the rotation direction to change, and because of this are harder to learn, control and master.

The most well known of these, the googly, spins in completely the opposite direction to that which the batsman expects (i.e. into the right-hander) – and its alternative names include ‘wrong-un’, due to the fact that it spins the ‘wrong’ way, and ‘Bosie’ after BJT Bosanquet, the first cricketer to successfully use it in the world game. The bowler achieves this effect with a near-identical action by rotating his wrist 180 degrees (the back of the hand faces the batsman), so that the spinning motion imparted causes the revolutions to become clockwise, and the spin off the pitch to go to the right as the bowler sees it. To practice the correct wrist position to bowl the googly, the underarm lobs explained earlier are a good device to measure how effectively you’re managing to rotate the wrist. Some bowlers, however, don’t have the flexibility in their wrists to achieve complete rotation and have other variations up their sleeves.

In between the extremes of the googly and standard leg-break lies the top-spinner, a delivery whose wrist action lies in between the two and whose result is a ball that continues straight on, with extra pace and bounce thanks to the revolutions of the ball. The back of the hand ends up facing out towards extra cover, and as a result the ball rotates through the air in the direction of the batsman, which on pitching gives the ball an ‘kick’, speeding it up and increasing its bounce. An interesting extra dimension to this can often be found where the pitches slope from one side to the other. I’ve bowled on a ground with such a large downhill slope from right to left that one leg-break pitched on leg stump, and was taken by slip. My googly consistently went straight on, neutralised by the slope but still effective due to the extreme turn achieved in the other direction.

The flipper is, in effect, the inverse of the top-spinner – the wrist rotates away from the batsman, and after pitching the ball loses some of its pace and also keeps low. It’s possible to attain the wrist position through extending the rotation used in the googly further (not something most bowlers have flexible enough wrists to achieve), or by flicking or the wrist in the opposite direction to the other two variations. Of course, this isn’t the limit of the variations available to a wrist spinner – given practice and imagination there’s little restriction on what can be achieved, with the occasional extra bonus that if you don’t know where the ball’s going to turn, the batsman definitely won’t!