Kuldeep Yadav: “A Genuine Leg-Spinner”

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

The Men’s Cricket World Cup has been great fun to watch. I say this despite having made some public predictions that were almost laughably wide of the mark, though I did foresee that India would qualify for the semi-finals – sheer genius on my part. My select eleven avoids being bottom of every imaginable league table because of my cunning plan of picking only five England players.

But the tournament has been excellent to watch even though there have been so few close games – two really close games, and no others, as at the time of writing – after India’s rout of South Africa at Eden Gardens – that were remotely close. But there have been some fantastic individual performances – one thinks of Rachin Ravindra, Quinton de Kock, the incomparable Virat Kohli, Fakar Zaman, Glenn Maxwell, the Indian pace trio – all wonderful to watch. And one can tell that the atmosphere at the grounds, particularly the traditional grounds in Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, etc., has been really good.

A particular pleasure for me has been the opportunity to watch the Indian slow left armer Kuldeep Yadav at work. He has had a great tournament and has been preferred by the Indian team management to the off-spinner R Ashwin, who many consider to be the one of the best bowlers in the world. And this is also despite the fact that India already have a slow left armer in their side, the utterly brilliant Ravindra Jadeja. But Jadeja and Yadav are very different types of bowler. Jadeja is an “orthodox” spinner, a finger spinner, while Yadav is “unorthodox”, a wrist spinner.

Pausing there, this is a subject on which I can write with, if not authority, then at least with some empirical knowledge – because, when I was a boy, I was an unorthodox left arm spinner. I hardly played because my eyesight was a serious problem, but I could bowl, and cause problems in the nets.

I can still remember one of those glorious English June afternoons, in Meads, an almost magical field in the heart of Winchester College, bowling to a friend in front of a magnificent plane tree; I must have been about eleven. An old chap – he would have been about 48 – walked over and watched. Then he came up and chatted and showed me a proper grip and gave me some other tips. I must have somehow worked out how to bowl the stock ball myself. This turned out to be Vince Broderick, a Lancastrian who had played for Northamptonshire and who was now the coach at Winchester (he was a fixture at The Wykeham Arms, one of the great pubs). So I had a good foundation.

As it turned out, Vince Broderick was not the only person watching that day. One of the more tiresome aspects of life as a chorister (Quirister at Winchester) was that you had to practice for many – far too many if you lacked both talent and enthusiasm like me – hours on your chosen musical instruments (piano and violin for me) and record the hours in a sort of register. I must have been running out of options, as it were, for this particular week, and thought it would be fine if I stuck down the couple of hours I had spent bowling in apparent solitude as music practice. Big mistake. I had the humiliation of being put on the “LL” – liar’s list. Worse was to follow when a similar infraction occurred a year or so later – what was it Peter Cook said about remembering your mistakes and then repeating them? This time it was “NPP” – no ping pong. You can’t imagine the deprivation.

Anyway, this is all a long way from Kuldeep Yadav. The thing about Yadav, what makes him so special, is that his type are very rare. Oddly enough, South Africa have used Tabraiz Shamsi in a few games in this tournament – both played in Kolkata. Shamsi looks useful but he is not as good as Yadav, not yet anyway. He kept bowling wides at Kolkata. That is always the worry with wrist spinners – they are more likely to bowl loose deliveries than finger spinners. It seems odd, in a way, that wrist spinners have become a big part of short format cricket, especially T20. The feeling is, presumably, that they can “keep it together” for four overs – or twenty balls in The Hundred – while causing some upset with their variations. Of course a top quality spinner, like any other cricketer, still regards Test cricket as the ultimate challenge. For a spinner it is the weaving of a spell, which might take quite a long time. Yadav is a proper bowler; he has had success at Test level.

As I mentioned left-arm wrist spinners have been, and remain, very rare. Of course as we left-handers know, it is a right-handers’ world. But left-arm finger spinners are relatively common. My own view is that an England side is not really complete without a left-arm spinner. Liam Dawson of Hampshire should be in this side.

England hardly ever employ right-arm wrist-spinners, let alone left-arm ones. When Don Bradman’s Australians were set 404 to win the fourth Test at Headingley in 1948, Denis Compton’s left-arm wrist spin was thought to be England’s secret weapon; Australia romped home by seven wickets. Australia themselves usually have a leg-spinner, and in Arthur Mailey, Bill O’Reilly, Richie Benaud, Shane Warne and Stuart McGill, they have had five of the best ever.  Even they haven’t had many left arm wrist spinners. The best, at Test level, was L O’B “Chuck” Fleetwood-Smith, a Clark Gable look-alike who helped Bradman’s side win The Ashes in 1936-37, after having lost the first two Tests. Johnny Martin and David Sincock played a few Tests in the 1960s. The batsman Simon Katish bowled a bit. The most prominent Aussie purveyor of left arm wrist-spin in recent years has been Brad Hogg, whose international career was predominantly white ball. Elsewhere of course there was Garry Sobers, but he did everything so it’s not really fair.

Whenever I go to a Chinese wedding banquet I make a point of checking, as far as common courtesy allows, how many left-handed chopstick users (like me) there are. It always seems to be fewer than the number of left-handed people in the population as a whole. I feel the same way about left-arm wrist spin, for obvious reasons.

I mentioned variations. All spinners have variations. The best finger spinners will have immensely subtle variations of pace, flight, and direction – delivering from different angles.

With a wrist-spinner, more variations are available. England’s performance generally has been lamentable but in Adil Rashid they have one of the best leg-spinners in the business. He is a right- arm wrist spinner. His stock ball – his standard, you might say – is the leg break, which, to a right- handed batsman, spins, turns, from leg to off. If you want a classic example, go to YouTube and search “Shane Warne – Ball of the Century”. The leg break is bowled with the wrist at more or less a 90 degree angle so that the ball comes out of the side of the hand. This involves work with the shoulder as well as the hand; it is physically more demanding than you might think, and you can see why wrist spinners are more of a risk for the fielding captain than finger spinners.

The best wrist spinners will not stop there. They will also have a ball that spins, turns, the other way, from off to leg for the right-handed batsman. Rashid often demonstrates this. The effect is produced by turning the wrist further round so that the ball effectively comes out of the back of the hand. It is all about two things – deception and control – not necessarily in that order. (The greatest, like Warne, will have other variations too but we can ignore that here.)

The right-arm wrist-spinner’s stock ball, as mentioned, is called the leg break.  (Note that, when it comes to tight-arm slow bowlers, nobody talks about orthodox and unorthodox: there are off-spinners and leg-spinners.) The one that goes the other way has to have a name too. It is generally agreed that it was invented by the Middlesex and England spinner B J T Bosanquet (father of the laconic newsreader Reginald) apparently on a billiard table in a London club. So it was called the “bosie”. Subsequently this morphed to the now generally used “googly” or sometimes the “wrong’un” or, more formally on the subcontinent, the “wrong one”.

And what about the left-armer’s equivalent? Well, what indeed. One aspect of the pleasure of watching Yadav has been observing the commentators’ evident discomfiture at describing what he is doing.

In the match against England at Mumbai, Yadav bowled Jos Buttler with a beautiful delivery, pitching outside off and turning in a long way to defeat Buttler’s uncertain push and crash into the stumps. It was the sort of ball you dream about – it really was. If it had been Rashid bowling a legbreak someone in the box would have said, what a terrific legbreak; I really think that would have happened. All we got here was, what a magnificent delivery, in various forms. One felt like calling out, excuse me, what is it called…?

A few minutes later, we got an answer – the wrong answer, but an answer. Yadav bowled a similar ball to Liam Livingstone, which flummoxed him but did not dismiss him. More oohs and and aahs in the commentary box. A pause, then Eoin Morgan spoke. “There” he said, “a genuine leg spinner”.

Er, sorry, what was that again? Something similar happened at Kolkata two days later when Shamsi was bowling. Ricky Ponting kept referring to his stock ball as the leg break. Ponting’s colleagues were more informative. Mark Nicholas, now MCC President and no doubt with an enhanced sense of propriety about these things, described what Shamsi was doing in an almost geometric way. If I had been a novice watching I would have been most grateful to Dinesh Karthik; he gave a very clear description of Shamsi’s attempted variations. Still no name though.

What must be clear to anyone is that the left-arm wrist-spinner’s stock ball is not a leg break, still less a leg spinner. You don’t need a degree in anatomy or mathematics to work out that if a left wrist and a right wrist each deliver a ball with the same degree of turn of the wrist  the two balls will spin in opposite directions. That is just common sense. So, even though the actions are exactly the same, to call the resulting delivery of the left-armer a leg break is just nonsense. I have heard commentators refer to the left armer’s stock ball as a googly, equally nonsensical, albeit for different reasons.

Morgan’s characterisation of Yadav’s stock delivery as a leg-spinner was even more absurd. The legbreak is the ball – not that ball, I know; the leg spinner is the bowler. But anxiety levels in the Mumbai commentary box may have been rising by this time. Some of you will know there is controversy lurking under the surface of this discourse. One of the commentators in the Mumbai box grasped the nettle. Harshe Bogle, after one of Yadav’s stock deliveries, simply said – and I sincerely apologise in advance to anyone who is upset or offended by this; “There is the chinaman”.

Sharp intakes of breath all round I am sure. The stock ball was always the chinaman, the one that goes the other way, the googly.  This was almost official. Playfair Cricket Annual  used “SLC “ – slow left arm chinaman, as opposed to “SLA” as a classification for many years. It does seem bad though it would be interesting to know how many people are actually offended by it. The socialite and entrepreneur David Tang said that he did not think that the word was pejorative. Maybe not, but it is probably true that the word was first popularised in a cricketing context by people – men – who were not especially sensitive to the implications of its use.

I have no issue with the “cancellation” of chinaman. But surely it has to be replaced by something else. Morgan and Ponting, among others I am sure, need help.

Personally, I  am much less happy with the cancellation of batsman. It is impossible to write an elegant sentence including the word “batter”; that is a simple fact. How about “striker” as an alternative? Of course you couldn’t then say “what an elegant striker of the ball she is”, but there are other ways of making that point.

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