What is Wrist Spin?
by Peter Philpott
Like so many cricketing terms, ’wrist spin’ is a confusing one, tor spinning the ball when bowling, whether ’wrist spin’ or finger spin’, demands the use ol wrist as well as lingers. In fact, to really spin the be“ hard (to ’rip it’ or ’give it flick’) requires even more levers: the lingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, both arms and the entire body.
Quality finger spinners use all those levers to impart maximum revolutions on the spinning ball, just as wrist spinners do. In so doing, both types are able to get the ball to drop and drift in the air, and to bounce, turn or skid off the pitch. The combination of these creates the attack of a quality spin bowler.
Over the years, however, the fact that the construction of the human shoulder allows a wrist spinner to bring more wrist into the spinning process led to a right hand leg-break bowler such as Clarrie Grimmett or Shane Warne, or a left-hand off-break bowler like George Tribe or Beau Casson being classiﬁed as a wrist spinner. Right-hand off-break bowlers such as Jim Laker or Nathan Hauritz, and left-hand leg-break bowlers such as Tony Lock, Ray Bright or Stephen O’Keefe, more restricted by nature in the use of the wrist when spinning, became known as ‘finger spinners’.
Intelligent objections to the action of the great Sri Lankan spinner, Muralitharan, were not that throwing gave greater pace, nor that it made the doosra possible, but that it allowed him to bring the wrist more fully into the spinning action. For that reason, Muralitharan is in effect a ‘wrist spinner’ unlike the orthodox ‘off spinner‘.
Spin bowling is primarily ‘spin’ bowling, not ‘slow’ bowling. The pace of the ball is not the important factor. If an individual spins the ball as hard as he or she can when bowling, the speed that it comes out of the hand is irrelevant. Faster spinners like O’Reilly and Kumble have certain advantages and certain disadvantages; slower spinners such as Arthur Mailey and Bob Holland have different advantages and disadvantages, whilst those in between like Benaud and Warne are different again. But whatever category they fall into, spin bowling is a fascinating art. Over the years, bowlers have come up with innovations that have revolutionised the variety available to quality spinners – the wrong ’un or bosie or googly; the flipper; the slider; the Iverson method; the doosra – but in the long run it is probably what the ball does in the air when spun hard, before it hits the ground, that is the most signiﬁcant confusion of spin bowling. Over—the-top spin creates drop (and extra bounce); side spin creates drift (and turn); back spin creates flattening (and skid) — and all three intermixed create what is known as ‘ﬂight’.
Learning these variations, mastering them and having them as controlled components of your repertoire to be used when required, is one of the greatest satisfactions of spin bowling.
For baseballers, non-cricketers or half-cricketers, it is far easier to understand pace bowling and the problems it can cause batsmen. At ﬁrst sight, this is also true of swing bowling, although in fact the baseball pitcher moves the ball in the air through spin, not seam. But, though the non-cricketer or half-cricketer may ﬁnd it difﬁcult to fully understand the problems that can be created by quality spin bowling, they are rapidly won over and fascinated when they watch an artist like Shane Warne at work. Indeed, after a diet of Warne, medium pace, ﬂat ﬁnger spin, and even pace unless the ball is swinging around in the air, are a very insipid meal, and cricket can become boring.
So quality wrist-spin bowling is a joy to watch, a joy to bowl, and a vital part of cricket at its best. But it is unnatural, it is difﬁcult and it does take a long time to reach maturity. Perhaps because of that, wrist spinners, with much in common, have always bonded closely and well. Whether from different clubs, provinces or nations, they tend to gravitate together when contests are over. They form a wrist-spin club.
The wrist-spin club has been around for a long time, particularly in Australia. It has contributed enormously to the attraction and success of Australian cricket. But today it certainly appears to be in danger of extinction. Why is this so? Does it matter? Can the trend be turned around? Australia virtually found it impossible to choose a wrist spinner for the 2009 Ashes tour of England. Therefore, these, questions need very serious attention.
The traditional role of wrist spin in Australian cricket
It is important for all wrist spinners, particularly the youngsters just beginning their education in this skill, to understand that wrist spin has been an integral part of balanced bowling attacks in Australian conditions for over a century. It would be equally important for all captains and selectors to share that knowledge.
The statistics and expert comments which follow help to emphasise the historical signiﬁcance of wrist spin.
Most Test wickets
Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) 800
Though on paper an off spinner, Murali’s dart-throwing action enabled him to use the full wrist in spinning, unlike orthodox off spinners whose spin leverage is limited by the construction of the shoulder. Thus I class him as a wrist spinner.
Warne (Australia) 708 – wrist spinner
Kumble (India) 619 – wrist spinner
Most wickets for Australia in Tests
Warne 708 – wrist spinner
Benaud 248 – wrist spinner
Grimmett 216 – wrist spinner
MacGill 208 – wrist spinner
The remainder of the top 10 wicket-takers for Australia in Tests are fast bowlers – no medium pacer or ﬁnger spinners.
Most wickets for New South Wales in Sheffield Shield
Matthews 417 – flinger spinner
MacGill 357 – wrist spinner
Mailey 334 – wrist spinner
O’Reilly 325 -wrist spinner
Benaud 293 – wrist spinner
Martin 230 – wrist spinner
Holland 228 – wrist spinner
The remainder of the top 10 wicket-takers for New South Wales in the Shefﬁeld Shield are fast bowlers – one ﬁnger spinner, no medium pacer.
Most wickets in Sydney Grade cricket Chilvers 1153 – wrist spinner
Gulliver l029 – wrist spinner
O’Reilly 962 – wrist spinner
Asher 861 – wrist spinner
Mailey 828 – wrist spinner
Hall 791 – medium pacer and finger spinner
Aitken 789 – finger spinner
Pearce 771 – wrist spinner
Chardon 762 – medium pacer
Guy 742 – wrist spinner
Seven out of 10 are wrist spinners – one ﬁnger Spinner and two medium pacers.
Statistics are never the be-all-and-end-all of this game of cricket, but they do often tell a story that is difficult to refute. Relating to spin bowling, and wrist- Spin bowling in particular, the following points from the above statistics cannot be ignored:
- The three leading wicket—takers in the history of Test cricket are all wrist spinners.
- In the history of Shefﬁeld Shield cricket for New South Wales, six of the tap 10 wicket—takers are spinners, and ﬁve of those are wrist spinners.
- In the history of Sydney Grade cricket, the top 10 wicket—takers are dominated by wrist spinners. The following comments should also be digested:
In a letter to Brian Booth in 1993, Sir Donald Bradman wrote:
Yes, the boys are going well in England, and it’s good to see that we have a leg spinner who is both effective and economical. How good it is to see Warne monopolise the bowling rather than the never-ending succession of boring medium and fast-paced bowlers who have hogged’ the limelight for years. (Emphasis added)
In 1989 Sir Donald wrote:
Of all the bowlers I played with or against, I rate Bill O’Reilly number one. In my opinion the hardest ball to play is the one which turns from leg to oft, and this was Bill’s stock delivery. He persistently bowled at a right-hander’s leg stump, and, when perfectly pitched, the ball would take the off bail. (Emphasis added)
The Right Honourable The Viscount Cobham, ﬁrst-class cricketer, lover of the game, and Governor-General of New Zealand 1957-62, wrote in 1977:
Of all bowlers, the leg-break bowler is undoubtedly the most fascinating, and the most fun, to watch. He relies For his success upon arts which need years of practice to bring to fruition, complicated movements at wrist and fingers in conjunction with the need for length and direction, and, it he is to reach the very top, the acquisition at that rare and precious quality known to cricketers as ‘flight’, the ability to deceive a batsman about where the ball is going to land.
The slow bowler is to the fast bowler what the fly-Fisherman is to the harpoonist. The gentle wiles with which he lures batsmen to their doom are poles apart tram the envenomed darts hurled at them by his more violent and usually less devious colleagues.
Above all the leg spinner has to be a philosopher For he has more than most with which to contend, not only muddle-headed selection committees and nail-biting captains (“Push it through a bit, George, tor the love at Pete”), but an odd demonology which has somehow infected the cricket world with the conviction that leg-spin bowlers (l) are very expensive, and (2) never get anyone out but the tail.
CS Marriott, an English ﬁrst-class leg spinner between 1919 and 1938, wrote:
The truth is that a leg-break bowler who has learned his art in the right way, and, by hard practice, has achieved real control at length, there is no reason whatever why he should be less accurate, or any more at a gamble than a Titmus, Cartwright or Shackleton. What is more, he should be able to maintain that accuracy For 50 overs in a day’s play, or right through an innings in any conditions or situations.
Look at Clarrie Grimmett’s ﬁgures for Australia v Yorkshire on 10 May 1930 to vindicate the words of Cobham and Marriott:
|Sutcliffe||c Walker b Grimmett||69|
|Leyland||st Walker b Grimmett||9|
|Barber||st Walker b Grimmett||1|
|Robinson||c Bradman b Grimmett||2|
|Wood||c Richardson b Grimmett||17|
|Macaulay||st Walker b Grimmett||1|
Keith Andrew, the England and Northampton wicket-keeper and former chief executive of England’s National Cricket Association, wrote in 1996:
As a young wicket-keeper playing in the Central Lancashire League, a second home to many fine overseas cricketers, l was lucky to keep wickets to George Tribe, a magnificent left-arm wrist spinner from Victoria.
Later we became team-mates for Northants County in the mid-fifties. It was an experience that gave me a lifelong enthusiasm for the art and craft of wrist-spin bowling. Apart from the variety that spin bowling introduces into the game, it makes such a contribution to the spectators as a whole -more overs bowled, more runs scored, less negative play and a lot more fun for player and spectator. (Emphasis added)
Ian Peebles, an English Test leg spinner, wrote in 1977:
The loss involved in the decline of spin, especially wrist spin, is not confined just to the joy of watching a versatile craftsman but to the effect of his absence on the character of the game as a whole. The intelligent spinner of any type has many resources at his command than the less flexible seamer. His permutations in variation of spin, flight and pace are infinite. The wrist spinner is also a gambler, and open to counter-attack. He is likely to get wickets or be hit freely, and so injects incident and action into the proceedings. I believe that if a good slow leg-breaker was to appear today, it would be surprising how many good players of seam bowling would be uneasy when faced with the high-flighted and well-spun ball of the Mailey or Freeman type.
David Lloyd, who played with distinction for Lancashire and England, later coached England, and became a notable commentator, wrote to the author in 1999:
I thought your sessions out in Australia were brilliant in that they gave to the players much more knowledge of leg spin. Our people at board level must grasp quickly that it is leg spin and unorthodox finger spin that are match-winners.
In 1973, the author offered the following:
I don’t think I am biased in saying that wrist spinning is associated with bright and interesting cricket, and that wickets that suit wrist spinners are good cricket wickets. So, for the sake of cricket —- and leg spinners —- let’s hope to see more hard, evenly grassed wickets with pace, bounce and carry.
When bowlers can vary turn, trajectory, bounce, drop and skid by the intelligent use of over spin, side spin and back spin, batsmen begin to hurry their footwork as
judgement of length is confused, and their control of the situation is undermined. ‘Turn’ now finishes off what began in the air.
That is what spin bowling is all about. That is why it is the most fascinating but most misunderstood of all bowling types. There are few around who fully comprehend how the spinner spins his web.
This was added to in 2003:
It is a mistake to view spin bowling as uneconomic – to believe that all spin bowling is inaccurate – that [spinners] are always ’buying wickets’. These things are simply untrue.
Bad spinners are inaccurate and expensive, but so are bad quicks and bad medium pacers. It is true that at times, spinners are prepared to concede runs to obtain a wicket, but getting wickets is always the most certain way to slow scoring. At other times, with the spinner bowling well in conditions that suit him, he can be the most difficult of bowlers to get away and scare off.
No bowler of any type was more accurate and economical than Richie Benaud in his prime, and l have heard of few stories of rapid run rates when Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett were at work in tandem. Jim Higgs was consistently Victoria’s most economical bowler even in limited-overs cricket, and I did not notice much batting dominance when Bob Holland and Trevor Hohns bowled against the West indies on
turning wickets. As for Shane Warne, the problem for many batsmen is to get bat an ball than dream of rapid run rates.
So the unfortunate suspicion of spin in modern cricket is based an inaccurate myth, as is the apparently mystical reliance on medium pace for economy. Spin has suffered because of much hazy and ill-conceived thinking.
For all but the last decade, virtually all Australian teams at whatever level saw wrist spin as an essential component of their attack. From my personal playing experience, all Grade teams in Sydney during the ﬁfties and sixties chose at least one wrist spinner, often more, while from 1961 to 1968, during my association with NSW teams, no specialist ﬁnger spinner or medium pacer was ever selected.
Always the emphasis was on pace plus wrist spin — New South Wales often included four wrist spinners (Benaud, Martin, Simpson and the author) —for it was believed that on good wickets against good players, ﬁnger spin and medium pace took too long to get batsmen out. Getting batsmen out as quickly as possible to create the possibility of outright victory was the usual tactic of positive teams.
The plan certainly proved successful – New South Wales won the Shefﬁeld Shield 12 times during that period. On occasions when conditions suited the quicks, they dominated the attack with spin offering some variation, but on others when wickets did not assist the quicks, it was spin that dominated. Frequently, spin was introduced up—wind as ﬁrst change within the ﬁrst hour, the quicks bowled down— wind in short spells, or two spinners bowled in tandem.
It was generally accepted that when sideways movement of any kind disappeared, pace bowling only played good batsmen in, unless they were those extra-fast types. As containment was despised as a basic tactic, the emphasis was always on dismissing batsmen quickly.
Today we hear complaints when bowlers struggle on ‘ﬂat wickets’. It is not the wickets at fault, it is the thinking. So many modern attacks are unbalanced. Three quicks, a medium pacer and a ﬁnger spinner are never going to be successful on these so-called ﬂat wickets, which have been typical Australian wickets since time immemorial.
The answer must not be to change the character of wickets to suit the seamers, but to choose balanced attacks that can cope with all conditions. Experience over a century or so tends to support the need for a quality wrist-spin bowler in any balanced attack.
Some would say the game has changed, but as a close observer of the game over the last 60 years, I don’t subscribe to that (of course, I refer to cricket, not one- day or Twenty20). Cricket has changed very little; the problems of quality batting and bowling remain much the same. What has changed is the attitude towards the game; the thinking towards it, the dominance of money and television at professional levels which, after all, cater for less than one per cent of players.
Fortunately the number of young cricketers seeking guidance has not decreased; enthralled by the fascination of wrist spin, they continue to emerge despite the concerted efforts of administration to discourage the craft. Smaller boundaries, bigger bats, a proliferation of Twenty 20 and 50-over cricket which limit the number 0f overs a boy or girl can bowl and tend to reverse cricket’s age-old emphasis on getting batsmen out rather than containing them, and the creation of endless and meaningless underage competitions and premierships are some of the destructive innovations. Add to these a new cricket language — ‘dot balls’, ‘economy rates’, ‘lines of uncertainty’ and the concomitant rise of negative thinking, which favours containment over wicket-taking, and the problems of the young spinner grow.
Some do ﬁnd their way through school and junior ranks into Grade cricket, but here, far too often in lower grades, they simply do not get a bowl. With an obsession on winning petty competitions rather than discovering, encouraging and nurturing potential talent, older, experienced medium pacers on under-prepared wickets against mediocre opposition can do the winning job more safely than the young aspiring spinners. Neglected and unwanted, they often simply fade away.
Those with the guts and determination to continue however, are unlikely to find consolation, for in higher grades they run into captains who do not understand wrist spin, are suspicious of it, and have no idea how to best use it. Very few wrist spinners get through to first grade these days, and, quite logically, even fewer go on to ﬁrst-class cricket. The absence ofAustralia’s traditional strength in wrist spin at ﬁrst~class and Test level cannot be solved at the apex of the game. Wrist spinners do not just simply appear out of nowhere, they come from the base of the game, carefully nursed and encouraged through the middle areas.
The vital years are those at the base and middle of a career when the bowler has to do the enormous amount of repetitive work in practice and out in the middle to hasten this most difﬁcult, but most interesting, of all bowling arts.
There is one consolation for wrist spinners trying to develop in an age when all the cards are stacked against them. Because there is so little understanding of the craft amongst modern players, and because batsmen play so seldom against quality wrist spin in the modern game, for the bowler who can overcome the difficulties confronting him or her, there are massive rewards available.
So I urge those devotees who love what they are doing to keep at it, and it is for them that I offer the advice that will follow in future articles.