From Qadir to Warne: The Rise of Modern International Leg-Spin

It’s really strange to think about it now, but, although I had been really keen on cricket for years, until I was sixteen and Abdul Qadir came to England with Pakistan, I didn’t really know what leg-spin was.

This changed, of course.  And, at the time I wrote this, soon after Shane Warne’s first tour of England in 1993, I think I had a sense that there would be no going back.

As I write, in the early spring of 1994, Shane Warne, Australia’s masterly young leg-spinner, has just completed two successful series against South Africa to add to his triumphs against England in 1993.  A bowler both of immense natural ability and finely crafted technique, he is a tribute to the quality of his coaches, while the obvious maturity of his approach to bowling  marks him even more clearly as a player with the potential to assume a leading place in the game’s history books.  Not the least significant aspect of his success over the past year has been the way in which he has consolidated the resurgence of what was, comparatively recently, regarded as a dying art.  Warne, along with the more subdued but highly skilled Indian, Anil Kumble, and Pakistan’s aggressive and exuberant Mushtaq Ahmed, has brought leg-spin bowling back to a welcome position of prominence in the international game.  However, if one looks a little more closely at world cricket over the last two decades it is clear that the process by which these three superb bowlers have arrived at the top was set in motion longer ago than may initially be thought.

When I started to take a serious interest in domestic and international cricket in the middle of the 1970s it already seemed to many as though the leg-break bowler, a type of spinner that had played an important role in the game since the early stages of its evolution, was a dying breed.  Such bowlers were apparently about to be driven out of the sport by the covering of wickets and the inception of limited-over cricket with the consequent over-reliance of teams on seam-bowlers whose main virtues were their ability to restrict the runs scored by the opposition batsmen, rather than their aptitude for actually dismissing them.  To a large extent this impression was true, although the detrimental effect of instant cricket on the game’s techniques was not to become all-pervasive until much later.  Specialist leg-spin in English domestic cricket – where the over-limit game had been invented and was initially most enthusiastically embraced – became all but extinct after the retirement of Essex’s Robin Hobbs in 1975.  Although Hobbs reappeared for Glamorgan between 1979 and 1981 and Intikhab Alam played on for Surrey until 1982, it was to take until 1988 and Sussex’s appointment of Andy Clarke (who, despite some initial success, was rapidly superseded in the Sussex side by the younger and more gifted Ian Salisbury) for wrist-spin to become a regular feature of a team competing in the County Championship.

This development made top-class leg-spinners appear to be a strange and alien and slightly wonderful species of cricketer, an effect which was particularly noticeable when Abdul Qadir cut a swathe through English county batsmen in the early matches of the 1982 Pakistan tour. Outside the United Kingdom, though, things were different, and wrist-spin continued to be a customary sight on the first-class fields of many countries during the 1970s.  Exponents of the art included, in Australia, Malcolm Francke, Jim Higgs, Terry Jenner and Kerry O’Keeffe, in India B.S.Chandrasekhar and V.V.Kumar, in South Africa Denys Hobson and in the West Indies the Trinidadian Imtiaz Ali.  The fact that leg-spin continued to live and breathe abroad meant, of course, that some of the players concerned were selected for English tours.  Chandra, after the performances which made his name in England in 1971, came to the country again, though much less successfully, in 1974.  Intikhab came with Pakistan in the same year and Higgs was a fringe member of the 1975 Australian team.

The first specialist leggie that I can remember seeing – certainly with any degree of critical discernment – was O’Keeffe, who came to England with Greg Chappell’s team in 1977.  He scrolls into the mind as a tall, straight-backed, blonde-haired man, the type often described as ‘angular’.  He gave the impression of being quite an accurate bowler, while lacking the versatility of variation to trouble good batsmen on easy pitches.  He was unsuccessful in the Test series, impressing more as an obdurate and level-headed batsman than as a bowler, and he never again represented Australia.

In 1978 we saw Abdul Qadir for the first time, following some impressive performances against England in his maiden Test series the previous winter.  The touring side struggled in the face of typically awful weather and some early indications of the huge potential of David Gower and Ian Botham; Qadir had a similarly unhappy and anonymous tour, taking just six wickets at an average of more than sixty and failing to be selected for any of the three Tests.

These were logical and unarguable omissions at the time, but ones for which he was repeatedly to compensate in the years ahead.  When the Pakistanis left this country in July 1978, few English cricket followers were any the wiser about Qadir, while the art of leg-spin seemed to be fading inexorably from the scene.  And yet, by the time the next English tour by a team from Pakistan ended four years later, he was at the same time a mysterious yet celebrated figure, having apparently inspired a solo revival of the skills of the wrist spinner, a transformation which, with hindsight, confirmed that leg-spin was still in often rude health outside the restrictively parochial cricketing culture of the United Kingdom.  However, over the next three years we were forced to endure summers of virtually unrelieved seam bowling, as England faced the West Indies in 1980 and Australia in 1981, and, while the once-great Chandrasekhar made his third tour of England in 1979, he was, like Qadir a year before, a peripheral and largely impotent figure.

Although he was unsuccessful in the Tests (with the exception of his important, economical wickets in the Lord’s victory), the 1982 Qadir, with his sorcerer’s beard and flashing eyes, displayed the full panorama of the leg-spinner’s wiles – biting leg-breaks, deceptive googlies, sharply-spun top-spinners – all from a vigorous and elastic action which spawned a thousand imitations on the playing fields of England.  The unusual interest created by Qadir remains clear in the memory, and, while his effect on the impressionable youth of Britain was welcome, the wider consequences of his success were more significant, indicating that this was a method of attack with which English batsmen were going to have to come to terms to an increasing degree in the international arena.  The events of the next few years proved this to be true.

When England arrived in Pakistan on the back of a pallid performance in defeat by New Zealand in early 1984, Qadir was there to torment them again.  He took nineteen wickets in the three Tests, giving notice that he was reaching his peak and confirming that England’s batsmen were no nearer to solving the puzzles posed by his bowling than they had been two years earlier.  This impression was reinforced later that year when David Gower’s team went to India to attempt to salvage some pride from the wreckage of their humiliation by the West Indies.  They then found themselves confronted by Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, a slight eighteen year-old from the south of the country who bowled with maturity, aggression and cunning in condemning England to a heavy defeat in the first Test of the winter.  Although England went on to win the series and he was not so successful in the later games (something which, ultimately, was true of his entire Test career, which almost certainly ended in Australia the following year, although he has continued to play for Tamil Nadu in Indian domestic cricket), Sivaramakrishnan had once again exposed the limitations of the majority of English batsmen when confronted by good quality wrist-spin.  It was easy to believe, though, that a respite would come when England faced Australia in the English summer of 1985.  This was not to be the case.

The villain of the piece this time was Bob Holland, a thirty-eight year-old New South Walian and an apparently gentle spinner of the ball whose accuracy and intelligent application of variation were vital in taking his side to victory in a magnificent match at Lord’s.  Once again, Holland’s contributions tailed off later in the series, but, in an astonishing reversal of the situation which had existed before 1982, wrist-spin was again becoming familiar to crowds in this country.

Qadir came to England again in 1987, and, while his form was far less consistent than on his previous visit, he provided ample evidence of his enduring class with ten wickets at The Oval. This performance was a prelude to his almost single-handed destruction of England in Pakistan later in the year, when he took thirty wickets in the turbulent three Test series, and paved the way for a period during which wrist-spinners of differing styles and personalities have become a regular feature of the English scene.  From 1988 onwards Clarke, Trevor Hohns, Salisbury, Narendra Hirwani, Kumble, Mushtaq and Warne (not to mention one Michael Atherton, who took 45 wickets with leg-spin in the 1990 English season) have charmed crowds and harrowed batsmen at home and abroad.  What, then, of those styles and personalities?

Hohns, a player that many in this country may have forgotten, came to England in 1989 as a member of Allan Border’s initially unregarded but later highly successful team.  A wrist-spinning all-rounder of some experience – he had played for Queensland since the seventies and was then well into cricketing middle-age – he was to enjoy moderate yet important success as Border’s men crushed England.  Those that struggle to recall him may nevertheless remember the way he took important wickets in the final three matches of the Test series, with perhaps the clearest memory being the way he induced a wild heave from a scoreless Botham at Old Trafford at a point in the rubber where England, already two down in the series, needed rapid retrenchment if they were to hang on to the Ashes.  In truth he was not a particularly original or clever bowler, but he fulfilled an important role as one of the less demonstrative members of the 1989 team, and, when the wider context of recent Ashes tours is considered, it is apparent that he successfully bridged the gap between the crafty but limited Holland of 1985 and the stunning brilliance exhibited by Warne in 1993.

The following summer India were a different prospect entirely.  A talented, stylish and entertaining batting side, but one without the bowling strength to trouble England’s batsmen, who gorged themselves at their expense.  They did, however, bring two wrist-spin specialists: Narendra Hirwani, a small, bouncy character from central India who had surged to fame with sixteen wickets in his debut Test two years before, and Anil Kumble, a taller, apparently studious young bowler from the south who was untried at the top level.  Their bowling contrasted as much as their appearances; Hirwani living up to his reputation with an inventive, turbulent, but often expensive mixture of conventional leg-breaks, googlies and top-spinners, Kumble appearing a more accurate and conservative operator, without the ability to spin the ball as much as his compatriot.  Both added colour to what, in any case, was a lustrous series, although there were few signs that the paths which their careers were to follow over the succeeding years would be so divergent.  Hirwani faded from the scene and is yet to return, while the less distinctive Kumble has gone on to become an integral and highly successful member of his country’s attack, a position which he consolidated by repeatedly torturing England’s hapless batsmen in India in early 1993, although his primary virtue has continued to be accuracy, rather than variation or turn.

Leg-spin was nowhere to be seen during the West Indians’ 1991 visit to England, although Sussex’s Ian Salisbury attracted plaudits for his competitive and skilful bowling.  This attention took him into the England side in 1992, and he has since flitted in and out of the team, showing an admirably relaxed but tough temperament with bat and ball and requiring only greater control to make a significant impression at international level.  1992 was also a season during which Pakistan brought to England another wrist-spinner of quality in Mushtaq Ahmed, who appeared as though he could be a worthy successor to the great Qadir.

In a way which would have been familiar to his predecessor, Mushtaq enjoyed greater success in matches outside the Tests, but enough was seen of his attacking assortment of deliveries in the internationals to mark him as the best wrist-spinner to operate in English cricket since Qadir’s final visit in 1987, an impression which he enhanced in Somerset’s colours in 1993.  At Taunton in late July, against Yorkshire, he offered a compelling and bamboozling mixture of orthodoxy and contrivance, distinguished by control of length which, on this occasion, was the equal of Warne’s, and flight which seemed superior.  He was also clearly popular with crowd and players alike, a player of obvious expertise and no little charm who had swiftly found his way into Westcountry hearts and minds.

At the same time, Warne was coming to the notice of a wider public with his comparable armoury of skills.  From the time he deceived Gatting and astonished the nation at Old Trafford to his final wicket of the series at The Oval, Warne stood at the heart of the game’s media coverage.  This had much to do with the personal image he presented – that of a fresh-faced, blonde, gifted young Australian – but was more closely connected to his ability to make the ball land, turn and bounce at will from a simple and correct action, which led to exceptional control of length and line.

Whatever the merits of Hirwani, Kumble, Mushtaq and the rest, Warne took the art of leg-spin to new heights in 1993, and has, from all accounts, continued to do so in Australia and South Africa this past winter.  Worrying batsmen, taking wickets, encouraging the young to try bowling wrist-spin, his influence has been truly remarkable, and will surely only increase as his skills – perhaps a more deceptive googly or two is required – develop.

The successes of all these bowlers have illustrated that leg-spin is once more a viable concept in modern international cricket, and it is to be hoped that their skills and those of their successors will continue to exert an important influence on the game as it approaches the next century. We all now know that leg-spin is back.

If, indeed, it ever went away.

The Journal of the Cricket Society, Volume 17, Number 1, Autumn 1994