In the modern era of Test cricket it is mystifying to me to see fast bowlers being overworked while other bowling options, beyond the ‘selected spinner’, are ignored. This path heightens the risk of fast men breaking down while the game misses a small but colourful element of variety and interest. And one that can be very productive. With Test series compressed into tight time frames and the proliferation of One-Day and T20 games, further stress is being heaped on Australia’s frontline bowling attack. The upcoming tour of India provides an opportunity for Australia to develop greater variety in its bowling attack.
It isn’t a case of there being no batsmen capable of rolling an arm over to provide some relief, variation and the chance to break a partnership. Two batsmen in the current team, both leg spinners, have taken test wickets – Steve Smith with 17 and Dave Warner with four. Michael Clarke had confidence to bowl Smith and Warner, and also himself. Ricky Ponting would often turn to Michael Clarke. A case in point was Ponting’s decision to throw the ball to Clarke in the dying stages of the Sydney Test in January 2008. In less than two overs of left arm orthodox spinners Clarke turned an almost certain draw into a fairytale victory for Australia over India.
In the fifties, sixties and seventies Australian captains Richie Benaud, Bob Simpson, Bill Lawry and Ian Chappell all appreciated the benefits of using part-time bowlers and employed them to good effect. To break a frustrating partnership, Bob Simpson, Bill Lawry and Ian Chappell would regularly throw the ball to Doug Walters. Bingo, a wicket would often soon fall. Walters was no fool with the ball, as his 49 test wickets attest. His medium pacers were far from cannon fodder, often enticing a loose shot or genuinely beating a batsmen with one that did a bit. He worked well with keeper Wally Grout, conspiring to come up with a much needed wicket (or three!). In the fifth Test at Melbourne in the 1965-66 Ashes series Doug took the first innings bowling honours with 4/53. He hatched a plan with Grout to send three down leg side then one outside off to entice an edge from the English batsmen. It worked on Barrington, out for 115; it worked on Cowdrey dismissed for 0; but it almost failed on Mike Smith. Grout changed the instructions to two down leg then the next well outside off stump for the English skipper. Doug forgot the variation of tactics and bowled the third well down leg, but the bespectacled Englishman reached to glance and got a thin edge as the conspiratorial keeper was caught on the wrong foot but amazingly managed to change direction and take a great leg side catch.
Australian batsmen have often complemented their main craft with an ability to bowl handy leg spinners. Bob Simpson took 71 test wickets, Ian Chappell captured 20, Keith Stackpole garnered 16 while Norm O’Neill took 17. Importantly, both Simpson and Chappell were game enough to bowl themselves. They had good reason to. With wide experience in Sheffield Shield and tour matches, Simpson (with 349 first class wickets) and Chappell (176) were well seasoned bowlers. Alas, many of the batsmen of today lack the first class match opportunities and experience to build their craft as part-time bowlers.
Steve Smith (with 65 first class wickets) does have a foundation in Sheffield Shield match bowling which he must trust and exploit in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in India. With conditions that always suit spinners, the fast bowlers together with Nathan Lyon and Steven O’Keefe will appreciate having others to share the load and provide some variation. Smith, and even Warner, can provide a leg spin alternative to the Australian attack on the sub-continent this year. If selected, batsmen Travis Head offers another part-time spin option. Maybe the selectors will go for Glenn Maxwell, who certainly fits the bill as a more than useful off spin bowling alternative with seven wickets in his last three Tests. A medium pacer such as Mitch Marsh or Hilton Cartwright could also be handy, performing a Doug Walters-type role.
Australia have been victorious in only one series in India since 1969 and that was in 2004. In earlier times, Australian prevailed more often than not, with the leg spin bowling of Richie Benaud often a vital factor. Statistics from Australia’s last two successful tours of the subcontinent show the importance of quality fast bowlers backed up by off and leg spinners to share the wicket-taking responsibility. In 1969 it was fast bowlers McKenzie and Connolly taking a combined 38 wickets; in 2004 it was McGrath and Gillespie with 34 wickets. Off spinner Ashley Mallet was the stand out bowler of the 1969 series, with a tally of 28 wickets, supported by leg spinner Gleeson’s 10 wickets. Another leggie, Keith Stackpole contributed to the wicket-taking with three. In 2004 Warne took 14 with his leg spin, Clarke six with his left arm orthodox bowling and off spinner Hauritz took five wickets.
The upcoming tour of India will be a big challenge for the resurgent Australians, with most of the bowling responsibility falling to Starc, Hazelwood and the two spinners. The skipper must look for variation from other bowling options, with his own leg spin at the top of the list.