In February 1925, one of the greatest leg spin bowlers in the history of the sport made his debut for his adopted country Australia at the age of 33. His name was Clarrie Grimmett.
It had been an incredibly long journey for Grimmett from his beginnings at the age of 15 when he took 6 for 5 and 8 for 1 playing for Wellington Schools in his native New Zealand.
His figures of 5 for 45 and 6 for 37 in his first Test against England 18 years later as a 33-year-old would be an unlikely first milestone he could have scarcely imagined at the time.
The genius of Clarrie Grimmett
What can you say about a man who waits 18-years for his Test debut, forces himself into the team at the age of 33, then grabs the opportunity by the scruff of its neck picking up 11 wickets on debut, does not let go for over a decade, until, at the age of 44, he is forced out of the team by his captain, Don Bradman, whose only formal grouse is that Grimmett bowls too many flippers?
As he walks into the sunset, just for good measure, he leaves behind a final series haul of 44 wickets achieved against South Africa in 1935-36.
It is an Australian record that still stands today, and also remains the third highest haul in the history of cricket by any bowler in a Test series.
His spin partner Bill O’Reilly writes in Grimmett’s Wisden obituary:
“On that 1935-36 South African tour, Grum set an Australian record for a Test series with 44 wickets, yet he came home to be dropped forever from the Australian side.
“He was shoved aside like a worn-out boot for each of the five Tests against Gubby Allen’s English team in Australia in 1936-37 and he failed to gain a place in the 1938 team to England, led by Bradman.”
You can only call him a genius.
And that genius came to the fore early in his Test career (or late in his life depending on how you look at it). Grimmett approached cricket as a terminally ill patient would approach the rest of his life, giving it his all, eager to maximise the impact of the short time that he had been granted at the highest level of the game.
No one, least of all Grimmett himself, could have known that his time in the sun would last more than a decade, and his career would be such as to keep his name in the record books for the next 82 years.
If it had not been for a run in with Bradman (who was by then both captain and selector) after the South Africa tour, Grimmett would perhaps have played on for a couple of years more.
The fact that at the age of 47 Grimmett took 73 wickets in his last Sheffield Shield season – an Australian domestic record that remains unbroken today – is testimony to the fact that he was far from being a spent force.
In that context, the story of the run in between Australia’s best batsman and most penetrative bowler merits re-telling.
Bill O’Reilly maintained that when Bradman took over the Australian captaincy after the South Africa tour, he ensured that Grimmett was not selected.
Apparently, the normally affable and self-effacing Grimmett had made some frivolous comments about Bradman ensuring his own dismissal in a match against Victoria to avoid facing the express pace of Ernie McCormick.
Bradman was also heard repeatedly mentioning that Grimmett had forgotten how to bowl leg breaks because so many of his deliveries were flippers.
It all came to head in Vic Richardson and Grimmett’s joint Testimonial match played at Adelaide starting on Boxing Day 1937.
The match also served as a trial (as was often the case with these Benefit matches) for the next series. Word on the street was that Grimmett was to be dropped from the team by Bradman.
When Bradman came in to bat, Grimmett had the ball. A few flippers and a couple of overs later, came the ball which The Argus reported thus:
“He went forward to pull a ball with that not-so-straight-bat shot he uses so often, but the ball, cleverly flighted, dropped shorter than expected, and Bradman missed, the ball just disturbing the bails. Had the wickets been missed, Oldfield must surely have stumped him.”
Grimmett, normally a taciturn man who watched his words, could not resist a clearly audible comment to Richardson, “That’ll teach him I can still bowl a leg break.”
Bradman was not a man who either easily forgot or forgave.
Whatever be the real reason, clearly Grimmett was unlucky not to have played longer. Hiding his bald patch permanently with his cricket cap did not unfortunately have the desired result, nor, one assumes did the assertion that the comment about Bradman had been made in jest.
Notwithstanding this injustice, there is no doubt that Clarrie Grimmett was truly the father of modern leg spin bowling.
He had his fair share of nicknames. ‘The Fox’ (owing to his wiliness) and ‘Miser’ (owing to the strict length he bowled and the fact that he only bowled one ‘no ball’ in his life).
Grimmett continued playing first-class cricket up to the start of the Second World War, and thereafter wrote one of the finest coaching manuals about bowling, ‘Getting Wickets’ and was always ready with a word of advice for spin bowlers.
In an international career spanning 37 Test matches, Clarrie Grimmett picked up 216 wickets at a sparse average of 24.21. His 200th wicket would come in his 33rd Test, and no bowler in the history of Test Cricket would reach that landmark in fewer Tests for the next eight decades.
In December 2018, Yasir Shah, a leg-spinner in Grimmett’s own mould, would change that.
A phenomenon called Yasir Shah
Six decades after Grimmett made his debut, a young man, Yasir Shah, was born into a Pashtun farming family in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
The Pashtuns are an Iranian ethnic group who mainly live in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In India they have long been known as Pathans.
The family had some cricketing lineage. Shah’s cousin Junaid Khan currently plays for Pakistan and another cousin Fawaz Ahmed bowls spin for Australia, but nothing had prepared the family for what Yasir would achieve.
From the town of his birth, located on the banks of the ancient Indus River, Yasir Shah was fated to undertake a journey that would be remarkably similar to Grimmett’s.
Making his first-class debut at the age of 16, like Grimmett before him, Shah would have to wait for well over a decade before his break into Test Cricket.
Indeed his Test debut in 2014 would be no less sensational than Grimmett’s. Brought in as a replacement for Saeed Ajmal – who had been banned for an illegal Bowling action that had made him the world’s most successful bowler over the past twenty four months – Shah picked up the wickets of David Warner and Steve Smith to kick off his haul of seven wickets on debut. Pakistan stormed to a 221-runs victory over Australia.
In his second Test, Shah picked up 5 for 91 Bowling Pakistan to a 356-run victory and a whitewash over Australia. His series haul was 12 for 207, emerging as the second highest wicket-taker of that series.
In June 2015, playing his ninth Test match, Yasir Shah picked up his 50th Test wicket, becoming the fastest to 50 wickets among Pakistani bowlers.
He also became the first bowler in Test cricket to do so within ten months of making his debut at the top level of the sport.
He then picked up three consecutive five-wicket hauls in three Tests against Sri Lanka.
A year later, in a July 2016, bowling against England, Shah became the first leg-spinner to take a five-wicket haul in a Test match at Lord’s since Mushtaq Ahmed in 1996.
In this innings, he also became the highest wicket-taking bowler in a single match from any Asian side at Lord’s.
Two weeks later he became the first leg spinner since Shane Warne in 2005 to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
A hugely impressed Warne immediately labelled him one of the best spinners in modern cricket and “probably the best leg-spinner in the world. The way the ball comes out of his hand, it is just absolutely fantastic. I think he can be as effective in the foreign conditions as he is here [in Sharjah]. He has got all the toys. He has got a good wrong’un, a good straighter one and a ripping leg-break. I haven’t seen too many leg breaks like that in all my years at the top level.”
Yasir has tried to live up to this praise since, and succeeded in no uncertain manner.
In his 17th Test match he went past 100 wickets. Only the phenomenal George Lohmann of England had done it faster.
In September 2017, playing his 27th Test match, Shah marched past the 150 wickets mark. Only England’s Sydney Barnes, one of the greatest bowlers of all time had got there in less time, having crossed this milestone in his 24th Test.
By this time the parallels with Grimmett were apparent to all who cared to follow the fortunes of this man from Pakistan.
Then came the series against New Zealand at Abu Dhabi earlier this month.
In the second Test match, Yasir Shah spun a web around the Kiwi batsmen picking up 8 for 41 in the first innings (the best innings figures by any bowler against New Zealand in Test cricket) and followed up with a six-wicket haul in the second.
To further stamp his class on the match and the record books, he also took two of the second innings wickets on the same day as he had taken the previous eight, becoming only the second bowler after Anil Kumble (against Pakistan at Delhi in 1999) to take ten wickets on a single day of Test cricket.
Less than two weeks later, in the same series, came Yasir Shah’s 200th wicket in his 33rd Test match.
82-years after New Zealand’s Clarrie Grimmett stormed into the record books, a man from Pakistan, a country that did not exist when Grimmett set the record, would displace him permanently, his 200th victim perhaps appropriately being a New Zealand batsman.
The magic of 32
Having shattered the longest standing record in the history of Test cricket, the cricketing world is keen to see what more we can expect from Yasir Shah.
Notwithstanding the 12 years that he waited before making his Test debut, Shah is only 32 today, just a year younger than the age at which Grimmett made his debut and then bagged 216 wickets before he bowed out of the Test arena.
32 when many spinners begin to come of age.
India’s Dilip Doshi took 114-wickets after making his debut at 32, Muthiah Muralitharan picked up 253 victims after he passed that magic age, and Anil Kumble and Shane Warne had just warmed up by the time they got past that age barrier, sending back 300 and 332 hapless batsmen over the next six years.
Yasir Shah has been a Test cricketer for four years. He has 202 victims, or 50 per year chalked up against his name, matching Warne’s career average. Murali and Kumble’s averages were more modest at 33 and 44 per annum respectively.
Interestingly, since they went past the age of 32 until the end of their careers (all three retired when they were about 38), both Warne and Murali continued to pick up wickets per year in line with their career average on this count, while Kumble’s average dramatically increased to 50 per year.
Warne, Murali, Kumble. These are big shoes to fill. But the commonality in their careers is striking – They all played until they were 38 and in the last six years of their careers they picked up between 45 and 50 wickets each.
Two of them were wrist spinners. The third, an off-spinner, spun the ball more than most wrist spinners.
If history is to be the guide, when Yasir Shah retires from the game in 2024, he should walk into the record books with over 500 wickets against his name.
If he does that, it will be more than any Pakistani bowler has ever bagged, and the name of Yasir Shah will be taken in the same breath as those of Kumble, Murali and Warne, arguably three of the greatest spinners to have played the game.