2005 has been the year when, by becoming the first man to reach 600 Test wickets, Shane Warne further consolidated his claims to being regarded as the greatest bowler in the history of the game. And October has been the month in which two other leg-spinners briefly shifted him from the headlines. First, an unknown sixteen-year-old from Uttar Pradesh bowled an inspired spell in the final of India’s premier one-day tournament, the Challenger Trophy, taking three wickets, one of them Sachin Tendulkar’s. Then an unsung veteran from Sydney took eight wickets to help Australia comprehensively thrash the Rest of the World in the first-ever Super Test.
It is too early to say any more about young Piyush Chawla. But not too late, perhaps, for an essay in praise of that marvellous leg-break bowler Stuart MacGill. Earlier in the year he sat out in the cold, a substitute in all the five Tests of a gripping Ashes series. As it happened, I was in London for the last Test, which was played at the Oval. I did not try to get a ticket or press pass—and would have probably have got nowhere if I had. But the night before the Test, I had dinner with Australia’s leading cricket writer, Gideon Haigh. I asked him why MacGill had been so comprehensively sidelined. Surely now, with his side one-two down in the series, and the Ashes at stake, he would be picked for tomorrow’s Test? Haigh shook his head. The Australians, he said, would stick to their old policy of picking three seamers and one spinner. But the third seamer had been found seriously wanting, I answered. In any case, with Warne and Brett Lee batting so well down the order, they could drop a batsman. Playing three seamers and two spinners made sense, especially as this Test simply had to be won. Haigh shook his head once more. The Aussie brains trust, he said, believed in choosing MacGill only on his home ground, Sydney, or when Warne was unfit or banned.
The profound unwisdom of that policy was made manifest when it was MacGill who dismissed, in both innings of this Super Test, England’s most destructive batsman in the Ashes series, Andrew Flintoff. In both innings he holed out in the deep, beaten in the flight each time. English batsmen in general are notoriously fallible against high quality leg-break bowling. How many wickets might MacGill have got if he had played in England, instead of the palpably off-colour Gillespie or the manifestly ageing Kasprowicz?
Where Shane Warne is a genius, Stuart MacGill is an artist. No spinner in the history of the game has had a bigger heart than Warne, and none better control either. His variations are many, and always subtle. MacGill is more typical of the orthodox leg-break bowler—he bowls many wicket-taking balls, but also his fair share of full-tosses and long-hops. And he is fallible; while he can run through a side, if a batsman with quick feet and sure hands gets after him he can rather quickly go to pieces as well.
The first of the great Aussie wrist-spinners, a wonderfully whimsical character named Arthur Mailey, liked to say that ‘spin bowling is an Art. And Art is International’. Alas, things have changed much since Mailey’s day. Among those who cannot appreciate this art are some famous retired cricketers. At one stage in the Super Test, MacGill and Warne were bowling in tandem. It was a sight that demanded that all else be put on hold. I stayed stuck to my sofa, until I heard Michael Holding say to me (and to a million others): ‘Notice that where Warne’s line is leg-stump, MacGill bowls on off stump and outside. This is because he turns the ball much less than Warne’.
This was a statement of such comprehensive illiteracy that nothing can excuse it. Nothing, not the fact that Holding was a fast bowler himself, or that he played for a side that only had other fast bowlers. In his long (and admittedly illustrious career) the only spinners who played for the West Indies were a forgettable fellow named Albert Padmore, and a still more forgettable fellow named Rafique Jumadeen. Each played only the odd Test or two, in which each bowled the odd over or two.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Actually, when Holding began his career the peerless Lance Gibbs was still playing. But Gibbs, like the others I mentioned, was a finger-spinner. Perhaps Holding’s only playing experience of leg-spinners was a few Tests against Pakistan, which at the time had both Mushtaq Mohammed and Abdul Qadir. But since he retired, and took to television commentary, he has seen much of this art at close quarters—as purveyed by Warne, Anil Kumble, Paul Strang, Mushtaq Ahmed, and others.
There are three reasons why MacGill’s line is more off-stump’s than Warne. First, because of his higher action Warne gets more in-drift, directing his delivery towards leg-stump, there to land and abruptly spin away in the other direction. Second, MacGill flights the ball more, seeking to draw the batsman out of the crease to drive, thus to catch an edge to slip, or mistime a ball to cover, or miss it altogether and be stumped. Third, unlike Warne, MacGill has a fabulous googly, which makes an off-stump line so much more appealing. After being served up a succession of leg-breaks, the batsman deceived by a wrong-un is then more likely to be bowled or leg-before-wicket than if the regular ‘line’ was, as in Warne’s case, towards leg-stump.
When I heard Holding say what he did, I was tempted to get up and chuck the sofa at the screen. Then I checked myself; fools will be fools, I told myself, let me simply shut my ears and watch. If this is how I felt, imagine the feelings of the man sitting next to Holding in the commentator’s box. This was none other than Richie Benaud, Mr Cricket himself, and in his own playing days a not inconsiderable exponent of the once international art of leg-break bowling.
Hearing Holding, I cursed and fumed to myself, and, after my son returned from school, cursed and fumed to him. (He understood—although he is only fifteen, he deeply admires MacGill, and knows more about his art than do some great West Indian fast bowlers.) It took Richie Benaud forty-eight hours to respond. In the second innings Warne and MacGill were bowling together again. This time, the dominant voice over the box was that of Sanjay Manjrekar, who prattles on as if the viewer cannot see what is unfolding before him. When he allowed Benaud to get in a word edgeways, Richie simply said: ‘MacGill is a HUGE spinner of the ball’.
But perhaps one should not be too harsh on Michael Holding. Although TV is not the best medium to convey such things—one needs to be on the ground—I did think I noticed that, in the celebrations after each wicket MacGill took, there was a certain lack of chemistry between bowler and captain. Perhaps Ricky Ponting also believes that he doesn’t really spin the cricket ball. Then he needn’t read this article, but merely get on the line to my distinguished fellow townsman, Anil Kumble. In a long interview the day the Super Test ended, Kumble expressed his surprise at MacGill sitting out the summer in England. ‘He is a very fine bowler’, said Anil. ‘And very different from Warne. If he had played the Tests in England, the Ashes would still have been with Australia’. This was not mere trade union chummery, but the honest appreciation of a fellow artist.