No way to spin it, the Australian Test team needs a decent leggie

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By , Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert

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    Almost 24 years ago, Shane Warne announced himself on cricket’s international stage. It was June 1993 when he drifted a leg-spinner well wide of Mike Gatting’s leg-stump and ripped it back to hit the top of off.

    That feat at Manchester was dubbed ‘the Ball of the Century’.

    Warne became the toast of the cricketing world and over the next 13 years he continued to bamboozle batsmen and dominate the game, single-handedly popularising what was previously an unsexy craft.

    Prior to Warne, young kids wanted to emulate fast bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and batsmen like Viv Richards. But we were told the King of Spin changed all that and budding young leggies were popping up all over the place.

    No one expected anyone to come along and be the equal of Warne, but ten years have passed since his retirement from international cricket, and to date we are yet to unearth a quality Test leg-spinner.

    Stuart MacGill played in Warne’s shadow for the bulk of his career and, given he debuted in first-class cricket just three years after Warne and is the son of former West Australian leg-spinner Terry MacGill, his career path was hardly influenced by Warne.

    Leaving aside MacGill, there have been several leggies selected to play for Australia since Warne debuted in January 1992.

    Peter McIntyre played two Tests in the mid-90s, the first in tandem with Warne against England at Adelaide. In his first-class career, he captured 322 wickets at 39.7.

    Cameron White and Steve Smith both debuted at number eight, having been selected for their spin bowling. They have taken a combined total of 22 wickets since, from an aggregate 54 Tests, with both developing into batsmen at the expense of their bowling.

    Bryce McGain made his one and only Test appearance, against South Africa, the week before he turned 37.

    Then there were left-arm wrist spinners Brad Hogg, who played seven Tests across a 12-year period, and Beau Casson, who played just the once, against the West Indies in 2008.

    While chosen primarily as batsmen throughout their careers, Michael Bevan (29 wickets) and Simon Katich (21) were called upon to bowl their Chinamen in their combined total of 74 Tests.

    None, however, have commanded even medium-term stints as specialist wrist spinners. And that is a continued issue for Australian cricket.

    Currently, there are two leg-spinners being touted as future Test players: Adam Zampa and Mitchell Swepson.

    Zampa has proven to be highly effective in the limited forms of the game, with 30 wickets at 27.8 from 19 ODI appearances and nine at 17.9 in eight T20 internationals.

    But his long-form form has been ordinary – in 25 first-class matches he has captured 62 wickets at 50.3. As such, while he has been regularly selected of late for international ODIs and T20s, he has struggled to be a regular member of the South Australian Sheffield Shield side over the past 18 months.

    This season he has nine wickets at 47.9 from three Shield matches.

    He is effective in short-form cricket, as he is reasonably accurate and batsmen have to take a risk in going after him. But given he is not a prodigious turner, when he has a red ball in hand he poses less of a wicket-taking threat, with batsmen merely waiting for the loose ball to put away.

    Zampa is still only 24, but he has a long way to go to prove he is a viable option at Test level.

    Australia's Adam Zampa bowls

    Swepson, 23, has played 14 first-class matches for 41 wickets at 32.8, which is a tidy start. This season his four Shield outings have realised ten wickets at 43.0.

    Both Zampa and Swepson have been touted as candidates for next month’s tour of India.

    Zampa would be a risk given his parlous red-ball history, while it would be a baptism of fire for Swepson against the best players of spin in the world.

    India aside however, the lack of a quality leg-spinner is more of an issue each summer in Australia.

    The harder nature of the pitches in Australia and the fact the majority do not deteriorate greatly over five days has meant the bounce that can be extracted by wrist spinners is more of a threat.

    This is best illustrated by the records of two of the sport’s most prolific finger spinners. In Australia, Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan averaged 75.4 in five Tests and Indian Harbhajan Singh 73.2 from four matches.

    Staid drop-in pitches are likely to make finger-spinners toil even harder for their wickets in the future.

    Nathan Lyon earned the sobriquet GOAT (Greatest of All Time) when he surpassed Hugh Trumble’s career record of 141 Test wickets, the most by an Australian finger-spinner.

    When he reached Trumble’s mark he sat behind five other spinners in the all-time wicket-taker’s list for Australia, each of whom are leg-spinners – Warne (708 at 25.4), Richie Benaud (248 at 27.0), Clarrie Grimmett (216 at 24.2), MacGill (208 at 29.0) and Bill O’Reilly (144 at 22.6).

    Currently, Lyon has 228 wickets at 34.1, an average vastly inferior to the aforementioned leggies. While serviceable, Lyon has struggled to bowl his side to victory late in matches in Australia – a job, historically, that has been the domain of the wrist-spinner.

    One of the significant issues hampering the development of leg-spinners in this country has been the changing face of club cricket. Far more of it nowadays is centred around one-day fixtures and T20 competitions, rather than the more traditional two-day games spanning two weekends.

    This has meant wrist-spinners have less opportunities to hone their craft. It has also meant their captains have had less of an opportunity to learn the requisite field placings and best way to utile their skills.

    Whatever the reasons, despite all the hype about youngsters emulating Warne, almost a quarter of a century after that historic delivery at Old Trafford we are still awaiting the arrival of a wrist-spinner who can hold down a place in the Test side for any more than a fleeting moment.

    It is perhaps the single most pressing selection issue facing Australian cricket.

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.

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