There’s a video on YouTube of Shane Warne’s bowling action in slow motion. Watch it and you see the incredible physicality Warne put into his bowling. In normal motion he strides up to the crease and seems to just roll the ball down, but in slow-mo you see the huge effort that goes through the whole thing. The front foot goes down, Warne pivots up and over it, and his right arm comes through quickly, ripping the ball as Warne lets out his trademark grunt.
Ashley Mallett wrote that, “When Warne reigned supreme on the Test stage, you'd see kids in the park and in the nets trying to emulate him. They got the saunter right, but what they didn't see was Warne's amazing strength, drive and energy through the crease. Watching him, it all looked so easy. They would emulate his approach, release the ball, and more times than not watch it disappear out of the park. There was a general lack of understanding about energy and drive through the crease.”
That lack of understanding seems to extend to international level. Compare and contrast Warne with two young off-spinners fighting to become their countries’ number one spinners. One of them is Ravichandran Ashwin, the other is Sachithra Senanayake, and they have a lot in common. Both have a slow, sometimes halting action, and a sense of gentleness in their bowling. It smacks of two bowlers who grew up bowling in limited overs games, never fully committing through the crease to leave time to adjust for the slightest change in the batsman.
Ashwin has a huge disparity between his performances at home and away. In India, he’s taken 95 wickets at 24.12, and in four Tests in Australia and South Africa he has 9 wickets at 74.77. His economy rate goes up a bit abroad, but his strike rate balloons from 51.1 balls to 140 away from home. In the first Test against the South Africans he didn’t manage a wicket, but kept it tight. MS Dhoni obviously thought that wasn’t enough and Ravi Jadeja managed wickets and economy in the next Test, whilst putting more of a rip on the ball.
Senanayake made his Test debut in the UAE, where conditions were supposed to favour the spinners, but instead, it was a green tinged seamers pitch and he struggled, taking 0-96 from 23 overs in the match.
The trouble may be that growing up on turning pitches, neither had to put their full body into the ball to rip it hard enough to spin it big. Both seemingly have nimble and strong fingers, enough to put a decent rip on the ball, but how much more could they extract if they drove through the crease?
They should look to the recently retired Graeme Swann for inspiration. Until his elbow problem caught up to him, Swann spun the ball hard with a tighter grip, an almighty rip from his fingers, and a drive through the crease made easier by his rhythmical run-up.
In these days of huge bats and boundaries, and pitches either made for seamers or batsmen, the truly great spinners of the future are going to have to rip the ball harder than ever, and to do that they may have to be tremendously physically gifted. Warne and Muralitharan were great in part because of their hugely strong and flexible bodies. Warne may not have looked like an athlete, but he had a very strong shoulder and wrist along with great core strength, whilst Murali’s deformities in the wrist and elbow helped him spin the ball miles and bowl the doosra.
Whilst average spin can get taken apart these days, batsmen outside the subcontinent are as poor against genuine turn as they’ve ever been, and if they keep feasting on mediocrity, the truly great to come will have some easy wickets to harvest. If they spin it enough that is.