Moments that changed cricket forever: Mystery spinners – bamboozling to greatness

There is a certain mystique in the art of spin bowling; at first glance, it bamboozles the mind and the eyes so much so that the batsman is often caught in a quandary resembling the age-old chicken-and-egg dilemma. Before he has time to register where the rapidly rotating ball is going to land, he has already played a “nothing” shot or offered no stroke, thus losing his wicket. He walks back shaking his head in bewilderment, utterly at a loss to even fathom his downfall.

Indian spin bowlers Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (L), Bishen Singh Bedi (2nd from L), Erapalli Prasanna (third from left) and Srinivas Venkatraghavan (R) pose in Calcutta 30 May 2003. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) organised a meeting of the spin bowlers of past and present. (ADESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)

Such has been the success of slow bowling – I do not consider the gentle medium pacers as being in the same category – that teams around the world have made exponents of this art a mandatory presence in the playing eleven. The use of such bowlers has pioneered many innovations; New Zealand’s Martin Crowe utilized the services of Dipak Patel to open the bowling in the 1992 World Cup, for example – a trend that was replicated a few times in the following years, and very recently in the Indian Premier League.

The technique of bowling spin has developed into different categories – the conventional off-spin (where the ball turns into a right-handed batsman and goes away from the left-hander), which was a precursor to the others. Laker, Mallett, Venkatraghavan, Prasanna, Muralitharan, Ajmal and Swann – all have been pioneers in adding new dimensions to what is considered as the oldest form of spin.

Leg-spin and left-arm spin followed, blessing the game of cricket with its own luminaries in Bill O’Reilly, Jenner, Tony Lock, Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Dipak Patel, Warne, Kumble, Vettori and many others. Cricket is all the more richer for them.

The genesis of  suspense lies in the declining years of the nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth. The first signs of ‘mystery’ bowling were evident in the way Englishman Bernard Bosanquet developed the googly – which appeared to be a conventional leg-break, but after pitching, the ball turned in the opposite direction to which it was expected, behaving like an off-break. He fashioned this delivery while playing a table-top game at Oxford, honing it to perfection and using it to trouble opposing batsmen during his Test debut against Australia in 1903. Incidentally, he started his cricketing career as a pace bowler before switching to spin.

It became a stock ball for the leg-break bowlers; an important weapon in their arsenal. Australians Bill O’Reilly, Clarrie Grimmett, Terry Jenner and Shane Warne would often use it to fox batsmen around the world. Grimmett developed the flipper – the ball would be deceptively low after pitching – and thus added to the mystery. Both Warne and Kumble used this delivery to great success.

However, the earliest  ‘mystery spinner’ is widely believed to be Victoria’s Jack Iverson, who would grip the ball with his thumb and middle finger, producing a peculiar type of spin. This unorthodox grip allowed him to bowl a mixture of off-breaks, googlies and leg-breaks while exhibiting no discernible change of action. The New Zealand batsmen in 1950-51 were all at sea when playing Iverson – he ended up dismissing 75 batsmen at seven runs each, and grabbed 6/27 against the visiting English in 1951. Jack’s method was eventually figured out by batsmen, and after an ankle injury, he never played cricket again.

Over the years, more mystery bowlers flourished in the art of spin – Jack Potter brought in a delivery similar to the doosra into the game during the 1964 Ashes tour, prompting Richie Benaud to say: “If I had a ball like that, I’d be practicing at Lord’s before breakfast.”

West Indies spin legend Sonny Ramadhin also used an earlier form of the doosra  in the fifties, although it wasn’t given the name then. The Indian spin quartet of Venkat, Prasanna, Bedi and Chandra ruled the roost in the sixties and early seventies, with Chandra haunting batting maestro Viv Richards with his guile.

In recent times, bowlers from the Indian subcontinent have been instrumental in reviving the mystique behind spin. Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq was the first modern-day bowler widely credited with inventing the doosra – a delivery that moves in the opposite direction to the off-break. This mystery ball confused the best batsmen in the world at the time; even Sachin Tendulkar had fallen prey to it during the famous Chepauk Test in 1999. Soon, other spinners incorporated it into their arsenal – most notably, Muttiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and South Africa’s Johan Botha.

Saqlain also revolutionized the slow-bowling technique in modern times by developing another variation, called the teesra. Unlike his previous weapon, this one was a back-spinner, a common delivery used by many finger-spinners around the world. In this case, the bowler would not roll his fingers down the back of the ball at the point of delivery. Although the veteran Pakistani player came up with the name during his tenure in the now-defunct Indian Cricket League, his compatriot Saeed Ajmal claimed to have learned the art and used it successfully against England in 2012.

2008 witnessed the arrival of yet another man of mystery – Ajantha Mendis. The Sri Lankan tormented, teased, befuddled and bamboozled the much-vaunted Indian batting line up in the Asia Cup as well as in the three Tests that followed. He has been classified as a slow-medium bowler, but sends down a menagerie of googlies, off-breaks, leg-breaks, flippers and top-spinners. A delivery that castled Rahul Dravid was released with a flick of his middle finger; it turned from middle and hit the off-stump. It was christened as the carrom ball, and was later used by Mendis’ contemporaries Ravichandran Ashwin and West Indian Sunil Narine.

Mystery spinners thrive on variety, yet it is to be exercised with caution. Saqlain is guilty of overusing the doosra; in fact, he used it so much that it eventually became his stock ball, and once the mechanics of the delivery were de-constructed by batsmen, it became useless. Daniel Vettori’s arm ball, a classic weapon of left-arm orthodox spinners, is still difficult to pick, but he knows it could also be worked out by batsmen in time, so he uses it sparingly.

That’s why Mendis, after the initial successes, hasn’t been very effective. His deliveries have been played late, sometimes even off the pitch, as batsmen looked to counter his bag of tricks. The rate at which he has been taken for runs has risen quite considerably since his sensational debut, and despite a brief return to his old form, Mendis really doesn’t pose too much of a threat any more.

Whether the shroud of mystery encompassing these bowlers  would remain impenetrable or not, only time can tell. But it’s their subtle skills that have only enhanced the beauty of the grand old game. Till then, they continue to enthral fans, bamboozling them on the way to greatness.

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