Posted by: nestaquin | September 1, 2008

The Age of Spin

The complete domination of world cricket by the West Indies in the latter quarter of last century had many a retired spinner and sentimental scribe lamenting the loss of one of cricket’s most subtle and sublime arts, spin bowling.

The Caribbean success, created by a battery of hostile and lively fast bowlers, produced a period where most spin bowlers were considered unfashionable, undesirable and an expensive exuberance best left to carrying the drinks and tidying the dressing room.

When they were selected, spinners were, more often than not, used as a defensive late-afternoon respite for their stronger and quicker team-mates. They were undervalued, under bowled and under suspicion.

The West Indians played an honest, brutally effective, macho style of the cricket where deceit was built on fear of limb and not of wicket. Few teams withstood the continuous onslaught from four quality speedsters and by the beginning of the 1990’s the phrase ‘match winning spinner’ was an oxymoronic historical cliché used exclusively to describe feats of endurance and cunning by remembered legends of less professional times.

The irascible and fiercely intelligent Tiger O’Reilly prophetically wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald column countless times during the West Indian era of dominance that a quality leg-spinner would emerge, if given a chance, and he would decimate batting line-ups throughout the world, for many batsman of the modern era had not the technique nor the footwork to counter the difficult art.

Obviously, there were some fine spinners in the 1980’s, Abdul Qadir springs to mind, yet none of them bamboozled batsman the world over like Grimmett, O’Reilly, Laker, Bedi, Chandrasekar, Tayfield, Gibbs and Verity did in their respective eras.

So when all appeared lost and cricket began to resemble so many other modern variations of professional sport, all power and little mystery, along came a peroxided chubby kid from Melbourne’s suburbs to revive and rekindle the magic and allure of spin bowling.

We owe him and Australian cricket our gratitude yet the the ICC rules committee played their part also. Due to the West Indian’s terrifying tactics and overwhelming success the laws were changed in an attempt to lessen their dominance even though players now had access to helmets and all sorts of body padding to protect them from serious injury.

Warne’s success, combined in no small part by his natural proclivity for controversy and showmanship, suddenly made spinners a coveted weapon and with his retirement in 2006, a similar lachrymosity for spin bowling descended upon the fickle minds of the cricketing punditry.

The crocodile tears were unnecessary and somewhat premature for as Warne’s body and mind were fading another star was rising on the streets of Moratuwa by the name of Balapuwaduge Ajantha Winslo Mendis.

Mendis bowling style is, in this day and age, unique and defies simple description. He bowls without a hint of change in action, off-spin and leg-spin at a clip, a doosra, a googly and a top spinner, and even seams and swings the ball when conditions are favourable. He appears to have no regular stock ball and his greatest weapon to date in his record-breaking short international career is a delivery that the Sri Lankans call a carrom, an unpredictable delivery invented by big Jack Iverson while playing cricket between battles in New Guinea during WWII.

The grip of Iverson and Mendis is remarkably similar (see picture) yet I doubt that Mendis had heard of Jack or his protege Johnny Gleeson while growing up on the west coast of Sri Lanka.

Many Buddhists believe that reincarnates retain aspects and idiosyncrasies from their former selves and while I am fond of Buddhist philosophy but not the superstitions, the idea of another creating this unusual and difficult to master delivery untutored is extraordinary.

Obviously, only time will tell if Mendis’ success will be longlasting but with leaders as humble and mindful as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara combining with the experience and guile of Muralitharan to guide him, Ajantha has every chance of a fruitful and fulfilling international career.

With Mendis finding his feet in the Sri Lankan side, Murali can now extend his tenure for he has another to share his tiresome and protracted workload. It is feasible that in the years to come Muralitharan will add another chapter to his already outstanding contribution to cricket by evolving into a defensive foil for Mendis, and in combination, they could become the most feared bowlers in world cricket.

With more and more cricket being played on the sub-continent it won’t be long before the cricketing scribes will no doubt be wondering, ironically, where, when and if the next quality pace bowler will be unearthed. Of course, another Lillee, Marshall or Trueman is just around the corner but I think we can safely say for now, even with the knowledge of Warne’s retirement, that we have entered an exciting age where spin is king.


  1. As you get older, it gets harder to be excited or surprised by something new. I am as surprised and excited by this bowler as it is possible to be without sounding like a starstruck fan. There is no limit to what he might achieve.

  2. Lachrymosity?? Go easy on us, Nesta. I’m glad dictionaries exist.

    Maybe this is payback for my exponential random variables and such.

    I’m going to remain stubbornly of the opinion that Mendis will be found out and become just another spinner in a year or two. Gleeson and Iverson didn’t have long and great careers.

  3. I am with David’s observation on Mendis.

    However, I would like to ask you all a question.

    Does he turn the ball?

    For when I watch the dismissals, it appears that the batsmen are fooled by his grip and play the ball accordingly only to find it going straight.

  4. Yes, the true test – as Dhoni mentioned – will be how Mendis reacts once batsmen have had a chance to play him and get used to his style. He could go the way of Gleeson and Iverson who faded once batsmen figured them out or he could go the way of Muralitharan and Warne.

    The characteristic, I think, of great spinners – indeed all great bowlers – is the willingness to keep working at their game and developing new deliveries which keep batsmen from “figuring” them out. Warne, well after he had been anointed one of the greatest spinners of all time, kept working on new deliveries like the zooter. Murali, after more than ten years at the top, was still working on his “doosra.”

    One can see the same trait in other spinners who have spent significant time at the top like Kumble and Vettori. In contrast, one can point to Saqlain Mushtaq who was a very exciting prospect at one time – indeed, I think he was the innovator of the “doosra” – but could not sustain that initial momentum and went on to lose his position in the Pakistani team once batsmen figured him out.

    It’s too soon to tell with Mendis – we’ll have to wait and see. But he is an exciting prospect, alright.

  5. Mendis does turn it, more from off to leg than the reverse and it is not surprising that he takes many of his wickets with the straighter delivery.

    When a batsman cannot pick a spinner they often begin to play for the turn especially if the bowler is canny enough to set them up for it.

    That’s why Monty Panesar is such a disappointment. He hasn’t worked on a well disguised arm-ball, which is the traditional finger-spinner’s greatest weapon when used sparingly. Vettori and Harbhajan possess the delivery and they have the rewards for their efforts.

    Warne had more variations of his straight delivery than his leg-break with the zooter, flipper and toppy the most effective and it served him well.

    It is feasible that Mendis’ mystery will be lessened the more he plays but as Suresh suggests if he works as hard as the two greatest of the modern era, Warne and Murali, he has every chance of success.

    Mendis only began to take cricket seriously a few years ago to support his family upon the death of his father and that should be motivation enough to improve and change as batsman begin to understand his tactics and methods.

    Either way he has terrorised the Windies and India and it will be some time before he is discarded. Sri Lankan cricket is well managed considering the economics of their cricket and I think he will develop into an attacking option for Sri Lanka in all forms of the game for the forseeable future.

  6. Fine piece about Mahela here, backing up the points above.

  7. I love this post, very interesting, looking forward to more pdsts from your side.

  8. […] public links >> gratitude Gratitude II Saved by RareFootage on Sun 12-10-2008 The Age of Spin Saved by evrabel on Sat 11-10-2008 Gratitude : Beastie Boys Saved by politivi on Tue 07-10-2008 […]

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