Island Cricket

Monday, April 28, 2008

International men of mystery

Cricinfo: Watching Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis bowl is like trying to hold a conversation with a naturally quiet person in a noisy pub. What was that again, Ajantha? Didn't quite catch that - can you repeat it? Sorry pal, I thought you said something else. Hey, can we go outside? Can't hear myself think in here.

Mendis's run-up is plain to the point of innocence, but his fingers are all subtlety, inscrutably resistant to sharing their secrets. The batsman is left groping, searching for cues and clues. Eh? Come again? What was that? Can you give me that once more? And finally: what happened?

His mixture of legbreaks, offbreaks, doosras, googlies and topspinners is a perplexity for statisticians too. Cricinfo is calling him "right-arm slow-medium" at the moment, but cricketers translate "right-arm slow-medium" as "bowls in the nets if he's lucky". If he plays county cricket, Playfair will have to consider a designation like ROBLB or RSM@#&%?!

Others have already settled on the designation "mystery spinner", the epithet conferred almost 60 years ago on the Australian Jack Iverson. Mendis and he certainly seem to share prodigiously strong middle fingers. The ball settled into Iverson's grip like a marble for the squirting. Mendis, likewise, looks simply to caress the ball as he propels it, barely involving the palm of his hand at all, and holding one particular variation as delicately as an entomological specimen. Both bowlers possess the cardinal virtue of accuracy, and a liking for long spells.

Where they differ seems to be in variety and spin. Iverson spun his stock ball, a googly, massively, but his variations considerably less: batsmen finally figured on playing him as an offbreak bowler, albeit one who looked like he was bowling legbreaks. Mendis doesn't spin any of his options enormously; it is the combination of them, and the difficulty distinguishing one from the other, that makes him a handful.

There is always excitement when a bowler like Mendis appears. Batsmen scratch their heads. Captains and coaches confabulate. Cricket's telephone exchange buzzes.

The original "mystery ball", and still perhaps the most delicious, is the googly itself, the offbreak delivered by the legbreak action conceived on his family billiards table before being hazarded on the sward at Lord's by BJT Bosanquet - and thus sometimes known as the "bosie", and also the "wrong 'un". It's somehow fitting that such a double agent of a delivery should have multiple aliases.

At first the googly posed more preposterous difficulties than its progenitor: the first to take a first-class wicket bounced four times. But it soon swept the world: the South African XI of a century ago included no fewer than four specialist purveyors, and the Australian team of 1910-11 featured perhaps the best exponent of all. Certainly it was the view of Johnnie Moyes, who saw all its antipodean advocates, Arthur Mailey, Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly included, that no Australian mastered the googly more thoroughly than "Ranji" Hordern.

[Hordern] was without doubt an amazing bowler. He took a long run, brought his arm right over, was a length as well as a spin bowler, and of medium pace. He didn't seem to be flighting the ball, yet did so, as the batsman discovered when he tried to move down the pitch to him. That wasn't easy as Hordern was slightly faster through the air, but the temptation was there, as I found to my cost in Victor Trumper's benefit game, only to hear Sammy Carter say, "Got you, son"... Sometimes you could see the tip of the little finger sticking up skyward like a periscope of a submarine, but only if you were concentrating on it. If you did see it, you recognised the approaching "bosie".

The first googly in Australia bowled Victor Trumper; a googly was also the last ball to defeat Donald Bradman in a Test match. Simply by existing, it had an effect on cricket's ecosystem. "If this sort of bowling becomes general I'm packing my bags," threatened Archie MacLaren, before deciding he could live with it. It even enjoyed an oriental translation into the "chinaman".

No other delivery, in fact, has had quite the same impact on cricket, and by never really being improved on, it also caused cricket to revert to being a batsman's game. In an incisive 1950 critique of Bradman's impact on cricket, the Birmingham Post's cricket correspondent WE Hall observed.

In due course we shall come to see Bradman as an inevitable part of the evolution of the game. From Grace's integration of forward and back-play the art of batting advanced until, in [Jack] Hobbs, a technique was perfected to master the "new" bowling, as it has been called. It was the last of the qualitative changes in cricket, a fact realised by one writer who said that the game needed a new type of ball to do what the "googly" once did. But there has been no new type of ball, and the only development left to batsmen between the wars was the quantitative one which followed, as surely as mass production followed the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, mystery bowling is classically an individual pursuit, the result of lone experiment and lateral thought. Iverson is the archetype, his bowling having originated in a lifetime of nervous finger flicking with a table tennis ball; likewise were Iverson's protégé Johnny Gleeson, double-dealing Sonny Ramadhin, and whizz-banging Bhagwat Chandrasekhar self-taught cricketers.

Ramadhin and Chandra made the most of their bowling's hidden depths. Delivering a stock ball that spun from the off, both buttoned their sleeves at the wrist, as though to deflect the curious glare. Ramadhin bowled his offbreak with the middle finger down rather than across the seam, to sometimes startling effect. Ken Archer described playing with Ramadhin for a Commonwealth XI in September 1954 at seaside Hastings, when the bowler discovered that his quicker one seamed away with an ounce of extra effort; he could hardly bowl for his delighted laughter. Chandra's right arm was so withered from childhood polio that he could hardly hold a cup of tea to his lips. But with it he bowled googlies and legbreaks that seemed to set his whole body whirring like a child's spinning top. And like no other bowler, he haunted Viv Richards.

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