Almanac Cricket: Who wants to be an off-spinner?
As a card carrying member of the off-spinners society I felt Nathan Lyon’s pain as he turned despondently and grabbed his cap from the umpire to complete his 34th over. How do you make peace with figures of 0-146? Welcome to the world of off-spin bowling.
Let’s be honest, no kid starts out dreaming of the day he is tossed the ball (when all other options have failed) and waddles six steps into a stiff breeze, hoping to hit a rock, in a desperate attempt to make the ball deviate off its path. You become an Offie when all else fails!
Firstly I wanted to become a gun batsman. Like most kids of the 80s I wanted to be the next Allan Border. I worked hard at the task. Hours of flogging a ball at the bottom of a used pair of Mum’s pantyhose to practice my forward defence paid off. I made the Riverina Primary School cricket team to attend the NSW state championships as an opening bat. The fact I can still fit into that tracksuit top, 26 years later, says a little about my approach to nutrition at the time. By 14 I had peaked.
My fall-back option was to become a fast bowler. Three balls into this attempt I figured I had to scale this ambition back to becoming a medium-fast bowler. I set the benchmark at Simon Davis! Again I showed some early promise in my mid-teens and gained selection in Country rep teams. Bowling to Dominic Thornley (ex NSW shield player) one day in a trial match I spilled a regulation caught and bowled when he was on 6. As he raised his bat for 150, I knew my dreams of bowling seamers for Australia were finished.
In a moment of blind teenage optimism I contemplated becoming a leggie. I bowled four balls, all of which hit the back net, and quickly abandoned this plan.
I spent the remainder of my teenage years and early 20s settling for life as a plodding medium pacer who could bat a bit. The type of all-rounder that makes Shane Watson look like Sir Garfield Sobers. I tried and failed again at becoming an Opening Batsman. I was unsatisfied.
I arrived in Melbourne as a 23 year-old having exhausted my cricket options. There was one card left in the pack. I accepted my fate and decided to become an Offie!
There is a certain type of person who can complete a simple monotonous task for hours on end, for little reward or recognition. You need to be a grinder. No creative people need apply. Stay in the square my friend and don’t give up. Previous work experience picking fruit or working the McDonalds drive-through window will stand you in good stead.
I am a self-taught Offie. Essentially I combined my ability to impersonate Peter Taylor’s ‘ballet like’ gather and skip to the wicket with years of practical experience turning door-knobs. I lobbed at Royal Park Brunswick Cricket Club in the Victorian Turf Cricket Association determined to practice my new craft.
I found myself in the firsts (primarily due to my batting), however, was tossed the ball in the 35th over (after warming up to gain the Captain’s attention from the 6th over onwards). I settled into the task with robot-like tenacity. I delivered ball after ball after ball on a 5 cent coin radius. The ball turning millimetres at best (this would need to be audited for confirmation). Time stood still in a frozen period of mediocrity. The Batsman politely knocked the ball back in my direction, occasionally milking a single, to keep their circulation moving. Things are different in the big smoke. Back in Wagga some Farmer, who had to get back to hay bailing, would have had a crack at depositing the pill into Junee by now. Over after over ticks by. This is a game of bluff. Who will blink first?
By the 18th over I am relishing the mind-numbing monotony of it all. I can do this for hours it seems. I have found my calling. Occasionally mid-off wonders over and politely suggests adding some flight or a field change? I just stare blankly and return to the task. Why take the risk of being creative? I’ve eaten Vegemite on toast for Breakfast everyday for 38 years. Suddenly I get one to bounce off a good length, hit a glove and take my first wicket. The end total of my toil of 27 overs straight is 2 for 52. I have found a new career. You don’t get adulation or groupies with 2 for 52. You get satisfaction of a job well done and a blood blister on your index finger!
A handy skill I also developed early in my off-spinning career was the ability to lie to teammates when quizzed on my variety of deliveries. ‘Yeah mate that was the arm ball’, became a stock phrase.
As an offie you must also guard against self-satisfaction. In a career high water mark I thought I deceived former Victorian Shield Player and local gun Paul Broster, with a superbly flighted ball that beat him all ends up, before taking middle. Over sausage-rolls at the tea break he nonchalantly commented:
“I can’t believe I played over the top of a shithouse half volley from you.”
When I am at the MCG I still delight in walking past the Victorian First Class Cricketers honour board, finding his name and telling anyone who is within a 50 metre radius that I’ve ‘cleaned up’ someone on that list.
There are days when you just have to take one for the team. Usually this occurs on 38 degree days, when the wicket is flat, the batsman are good, and the quickies are starting to wilt. The instructions are simple – ‘hold an end up and stop the bleeding’. I stand at the top of my mark, bald spot slowly burning, blood blistered spinning figure waiting to burst, devoid of ideas and hope. This is not Chariots of Fire Material. Suck it up and stick to the task.
As the Royal Park Brunswick Boys charged to glory in the 2004/5 Victorian Cricket Association Senior A Grand Final, my ‘contribution’ was 1/81 off 31 overs. On a deck that made Adelaide Oval look like a minefield I simply had no answers, other than to grit my teeth and churn through the overs at a respectable run-rate. It wasn’t a glorious job, but it had to be done. After requests from my skipper to try and ‘buy a wicket’ by giving it some flight to entice a well set batsman, my last 2 balls of the match found their way into the carpark. At the ten year premiership reunion there were no back-slappers wanting to be regaled with stories of my 7 maidens.
Training presents another hurdle that must be overcome. You will become fit chasing balls as a parade of batsman try and deposit you onto the clubroom roof. A good tactic is to tie your shoelaces when you know the net batsman only has a few balls left – at which point they are only thinking one thing. Former AFL Bulldog and gun local cricketer Adam Contessa took great delight in regularly depositing me onto the 4th green at the adjacent Royal Park Golf Course.
Write off Nathan Lyon at your peril. Every good cricket team needs one because there will be a time in every season where some poor talentless bastard is asked to turn his shoulder to the wheel and tie down an end for the greater good.
So on behalf of all door-knob turners across Australia I dip my lid to Nathan Lyon and his 0-146. Few can, or want to do your job. Hang in there young man and fight the good fight. A 2-72 may be just around the corner.
Read Chris Harms’s opus on offies: http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/o-me-miserum-the-genesis-and-revelations-of-an-offie/