x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

In praise of spinners ... and some star turns

Shane Warne was the first to make Chris Cairns take slow bowlers seriously and Graeme Swann, he says, also has the potential for greatness. And, like Warne, he is a character.

Shane Warne: he made batsmen look foolish.
Shane Warne: he made batsmen look foolish.

Spin bowling. Run in a few paces, kind of skip, jump into your action, bowl and pirouette. The ball travels just above snail's pace and then you watch some bloke launch it in to orbit. That was a view I had of spin bowlers as a youngster - until I encountered one called Shane Warne. Subsequently, and with a large degree of macho resistance, I allowed myself to think that spinners did have a place in the game. Time has mellowed my views, courtesy of Messrs Warne, Anil Kumble, Saqlain Mushtaq, Muttiah Muralitharan, Mushtaq Ahmed and Daniel Vettori.

A gifted spinner is worth his weight in gold. Gifted spinners play a var-iety of roles as they can perform many duties within a bowling unit. They can attack and defend. They can hold up an end and chip away and they can bear the fruits of a great batting display by turning tricks on a worn fourth-day Test match pitch to spin their team to victory. The men mentioned above have earned their accolades, but England have unearthed a rare gem for themselves in Graeme Swann. Now Swann would be the first to admit that even placing his name in the same paragraph as the tweakers above is somewhat premature, but he is paving an international career for himself that no English spinner has done for nigh on a half century. He is not a young man in terms of cricketing years but he is a true character. I love what he brings to the game.

Swann is a player who plied his trade through the long route. A bit like travelling from Dubai to Beirut, via New Zealand. In fact he would come out and play the English winters in New Zealand for a variety of different clubs and was a handy young professional. Not startling but reliable. It was his off-field demeanour that really endeared him to many people I know in New Zealand. Swann has a quick wit. When I filled in for Stephen Fleming at Nottinghamshire at the beginning of the 2006 season, Swanny was fielding at mid-off and would regularly comment on many things that had nothing to do with cricket. Once, as I turned at my run-up, he was mid stream with some babble that made me burst out laughing in the middle of my approach and have to pull up. We were playing a hapless Scottish outfit at the time and there was some consternation that I was taking the proverbial, but it was Swann's fault, honestly, I told the batter. Not his cover drive.

The happy-go-lucky off spinner can provide journalists with many sound bites and in this area he has become a rarity: someone prepared to give an opinion. It seems the England team wheel him out when times are not going so well but recently it has all been going in Swann's favour and he finds himself the orator of good tidings as well. Swann is currently ranked second in the Test bowling ratings and I have to say I am somewhat surprised by this. I am sure the Duckworth-Lewis system was the brainchild of the same people, and I am convinced this was created by two blokes who had spent too long locked in a small room with nothing to do.

Swann is a big turner of the ball but has good control of his flight. You see, each spinner tries to flummox you with various forms of guile. Vettori has the ball on a string. He is not a big turner but his action is not distinguishable between an 85km delivery or 100km delivery. What tends to annoy you even more about Vettori is that he looks smarter than you. And he probably is. He was going to be a chemist if he hadn't gone down the sporting route.

Murali had massive spin, but early on that wasn't too bad. You just stood on off stump and swung really hard and that seemed to work. But then he developed the doosra. The doosra. I say it twice because it is a terrible ball for a hitter to try to counter. It changed the game plan and made him the bowler he is today. The only philosophy I had against him later in my career was to try to whack him early because he would get nervous and bowl flatter thinking I could read him. I never did.

It was the same with Mushtaq Ahmed from Pakistan. It used to be really funny when I played him because he knew, that I knew, that I couldn't read him. The only saving grace was that if I swung hard enough and connected then it would go for six. It didn't happen very often and I still think he was one of the best in the game. Kumble was hard to get away and in India, impossible. A real gentleman of the game and a brilliant competitor.

Saqlain was a craftsman and very accurate. If his knees had not given way then he would have taken hundreds more international wickets. And that's about all. Oh that's right, there's still Warney. Where do you start? Where do you finish? Early in my career he made me look foolish. Most of my career he made me look foolish. The drift he imparted on the ball changed the rules of batting and the flipper was genius. Latterly in my career I managed to get a game plan to him and had some success and it was an offhand remark from him that I consider my biggest compliment in cricket.

A Test match in Hamilton in New Zealand in 2000 saw me get a few runs. The series had gone well for me and in this innings Warney had his field well spread and floated one up that I hit to long off for a single. When I got to his end he looked at me and said: "Thank God for that, you're off strike now stay here". Generous to a fault, Shane Warne is the greatest player and character of my generation and in Swann England have a real character. I hope he keeps it going. @Email:sports@thenational.ae