The agony of the off-spin bowler


Chris Harms - Photo2

Photo: Peter Argent

Chris Harms, South Australian off-spinner, post-AA Mallett, pre-TBA May. Played enough first-class games to make his cricket conversation more interesting than mine.


Observe the off-spinner. Look at the grimace. This is not the face of a man content with his lot. This is the face of a man who, for every moment of his cricket career, is doubting a significant life-decision.


“Why did I choose off-spin bowling?” he asks while adjusting the elastic of his trou to rest under his tummy.


As he ambles up to the crease he knows he has nothing. Absolutely nothing. He may have the strongest fingers and give it a real tweak but the Kookaburra will slide through like a billiard ball off the lino under an ironing board, unless there is something in the track. He may have a little drift, but only if the Kookaburra has been manicured on one side and massacred on the other, and the breeze is in a limited sector from fine leg, the angle of which is about 7.3 degrees. And that comes with its own problems as well, because the batsman has the advantage of launching freely knowing the vector of the breeze will carry even a mis-timed shot.


Worse, the off-spinner knows he is powerless. He has been bullied by the rule-makers who conspire against him. For how can the off-spinner generate any top-spin without bending the elbow and pegging the damn thing. Which is the natural desire of the tweaker; exactly what he wants to do. (Observe the off-spinner’s right arm. Look at how his elbow is cocked, and how part of the grimace is the grimace of the man who, deep down, knows he is guilty for just thinking about it.)


Which is why all off-spinners love Murali like a brother. While the rest of the cricketing world think of him as a terrorist, we off-spinners know he is a freedom fighter. He doesn’t care. He waltzes up and does what he needs to make the ball sing. Over the top. Fizz. Dip. Turn. Bounce. Thanks for coming. Murali is the great liberator.


But most of us don’t have the strength of character of Murali. We wallow in our early decision. As youngsters we could have gone back to the sight-screen and charged in and bowled quick, or rolled them over the wrist. But we chose to be off-spinners. Out of sheer laziness? Out of physical weakness? Out of mental incapacity? Out of spiritual bankruptcy? Why, as children, did we value figures like 27-12-32-0 when we could have bowled leggies and flippers and wrong’uns and zooters for divine figures like 9-0-46-5. And look back now to admit we have always had hearts like suburban accountants? Why so fearful? What happened to us in infancy? In the womb?


And so the off-spinner has to be sport’s ultimate conman. He must stand at the top of his mark and eschew all forms of sighing. He must prance in like a Viennese Lipizzan horse, all high-kneed and energetic; he must get his cocked wrist over the umpire’s hat, the ball of his foot into the debris that allows it to swivel; he may even grunt before releasing a ball which, despite the cosmetic effort, wears about as much as Karen Pini. He must then fold his arms and rub his chin (as the ball is coming back from the extra cover boundary).


No wonder the off-spinner grimaces.


No wonder Nathan Lyon looked as he did at 22, a grim youth for whom undertaking was too joyous a pursuit. (OK for John Bracewell though, who became shaped more and more ike a question mark as his career went on) But what a summer N. Lyon had! Ludicrously left out of the Nottingham Test, he won his spot back.


Will we remember the truth of the Gabba? Who put the fear of God into Carberry? Who softened the Poms up in that afternoon session for the glamour boy to mop up? Who kept doing that throughout the series? Who did not give up his own wicket in the five Tests? (I’m starting the campaign: Nathan Lyon to average 100 by the end of his career). And all this despite the stain with which all off-spinners live; the burden of that early life-decision; the eternal doubt whether a cricket coach who advised us to take up off-spin bowling could have ever really loved us?


Look at the agony on the face of Christopher Harms in Peter Argent’s photo, still trying to find the secret as he approaches his 60th birthday. Still thinking he can find a way. Reminiscing about his second wicket in Shield cricket: G.S. Chappell caught and bowled for a handful at the Gabba (I remember hearing it on the radio having been dismissed characteristically early in a club match just around the corner at Bottomley Park v Easts in 1982.)


He still has nightmares about the square boundaries at the Adelaide Oval and resisting the urge to call for the helmet when bowling to K.J. Hughes.


I am told this photo was taken at Chateau Tanunda (which I can believe) and that C.L. Harms got a first-baller when he took the crease, nicking a half-tracker to the keeper.


That is the way the Cosmos treats the off-spinner.





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Peter Flynn says

    N Lyon is eyeing off Trumble’s 141.

    Bring back uncovered wickets.

    Very enjoyable read J Harms.

  2. C.L. Harms seems to have lost the spring in his step, but not the curl in the bottom lip.

    “As he ambles up to the crease he knows he has nothing.” That about says it all.

  3. cowshedend says

    Love it John. If the truth be told, most paddock offies couldn’t turn a ball on a corrugated iron roof, and the prospect of bowling with the required control of wrist spin,is far beyond the 12 minutes devoted to plying their finger spinning trade in the nets once a week.(there’s pots to be drunk and snags to be devoured!)

  4. Johnny was it Chris who introduced you to Joel Garner?

  5. Yes, TG, and what a memory you have. Although you probably heard the story once a month for 26 years – from me. Introduced to Big Joel at Gold Park Toowoomba who said, “Hello Darky” and when he shook Jo Dobney’s beautiful hand his fingers went to her elbows. The Croweaters were playing a practice match. A week later we ended up joining in their victory celebrations – defeated Qld in three days – at the Mitre Grill under the Gateway, by coincidence an old haunt of the Union College crew (in search of a steak and an all-you-can-eat salad bar). Gillian B was there as well and, under the influence of champagne, did the splits at the feet of John Inverarity. He was bemused in a headmasterly way. Clearly didn’t help prepare him for David Warner and Watto.

  6. Beautiful, JTH. Some few of us are offies no matter what sport we’re playing. And for we clubfooted few this rings a note of lost youth.

  7. Hungry( cheap imitation). says

    Darky, go easy on the suburban accountants mate, we may have hearts the size of a pea but some of us appreciate the dark art of offspin. Lyon made the poms look silly with the extra bounce.. Good to hear anecdotes from your Union College days, talk about misspent youth …..
    Also would appreciate your thoughts on KB statue. How the hell will they get the hairdo right?

  8. Nice read JTH. I applaud you for your Karen Pini reference.

  9. I knew you’d get it MQ. 1979?

  10. Who is the non-striker? Any clues P. Argent?

  11. Chris coached North Ringwood CC for a couple of seasons back around 2004. He took on coaching after the 1s had lost 3 grand finals in a row. He got them to the GF again and on the Sunday chasing a large total to win, he turned up in a suit and bow tie so he “would look good for the premiership photos”. They of course won.

    I was lucky in those two years he turned me from a crap medium pace bowling all-rounder in the 3s, to a spinner in the 1s. Mind you as a finger spinner I have the luck of being left handed….

  12. Phil Dimitriadis says

    But we chose to be off-spinners. Out of sheer laziness? Out of physical weakness? Out of mental incapacity? Out of spiritual bankruptcy?
    Check, check, check and check.

    Beautifully written JTH. I inadvertently became an offie halfway through my first over in the Almanac v Overland match in 2011. The Winfield fitness kicked in and I haven’t looked forward since. I now bowl something resembling offies for the Clifton Hill VETS. It’s no picnic, but there is a thing called guile and experimentation with angles, grips and variation which has been interesting to experience. Sometimes it actually works, but I also think much depends on the ability of the batsman facing you. I didn’t mind Karen Pini, but Karen West was my girl.

  13. Issue 2 1979 JT, but she spent most of her time folded to the size of a postage stamp beneath my undie draw. Cheers

  14. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great read Harmsy and in general agree with the off spinners lot and loved the
    Karen Pini line but totally disagree with the love for Murali bit nothing against him as a person but I hate the fact he has been allowed to chuck it for years . The doosra should not be allowed . Love the art of off spin and yes can well and truly agree with the lazy part of it for some but no thanks to Murali

  15. I remember getting half-a-mong seeing Karen Pini on the cover of one of the issues of ‘Australasian Post’ that my grandfather used to have lying around… trouble was I was only 8 at the time and didn’t know what to do with it.

  16. Hungry: great to hear from you. I thought you were a coastal engineer. Shows how compus I was during the `80s.

    The most appropriate Richmond player to be honoured in bronze outside the MCG is: BRAD OTTENS.

    Ridgey, that sounds so much like Chris. Have seen some magnificent outfits on him. He can also coach. Although he didn’t do much fro me. Playing for the Eccentrics,one day at Hume and Hovell (now owned by John Rogers, father of Chris) I joined him at the crease. After facing my first delivery, a solid backfoot defensive shot to the left arm quick,, he started pissing himself laughing. Afetr each ball: same thing. I raised my eyes quizzically but he offered nothing. At the end of the over we meet in the middle and I say “What?” “Geez,” he says. “you look so much like Craig Serjeant when you bat.”

    Still not sure if it was a sledge or a compliment.

  17. Strange, almost childish of me really, to confess that in an article dedicated exclusively to cricket it was a fleeting reference to Karen Pini that had me raising my bat in celebration.
    Almanac 2014 front cover perhaps?

  18. Have just added K. Pini to the tags for this yarn. Runner-up in Miss Universe I’m told. (Can you trade off that?)

  19. Hungry( cheap imitation). says

    Mate ,I did interview for a job with the Beach Protection Authority with my shiny new degree under my arm but they seemed to think that I just wanted to surf the coast I would be charged with protecting.

    Karen Pini I am sure featured on the front page of the august publication , The Gold Coast Sun, the front pages of which have a special place in my heart and in the late ’70’s a special place in my wardrobe.

  20. Beauty JTH.
    At Banyule CC it always looked far tougher for the offie to bowl in the nets than on game day.
    No shortage of mates (attempting to) whack em into the Yarra. Every single ball.
    Head up.
    Go again.
    Head up.
    Go again.
    Miscue. Brushed aside.
    Head up.
    Go again.
    Whack. (repeat to fade)

  21. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    If you seek out the cover of the first Australian Playboy circa 1979, you will see a cricketing reference the likes of which would not be CA endorsed these days (this issue was K Pini’s high point)

  22. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I bought it for the Ian Chappell interview

  23. matt watson says

    Love this story and the comments.
    Two memories of junior cricket relate…
    Being asked to bowl off-spin during a match when our regular straight-on spinner was sick. I remember the words of my teammates when the captain told them what was happening. It wasn’t encouragement. ‘You can’t bowl off-spin Wato,’ was one of the more printable jibes.
    Naturally I took a wicket with my first ball. It was well flighted, about two feet outside off stump. The batsman danced down the pitch to slog it and missed and got bowled. It actually turned. I took 2-15 from eight overs.
    When we batted I did the same to their off-spinner, for the same result, bowled for three.
    I was never asked to bowl off-spin again. I never charged an off-spinner again, either…

  24. Gold Harmsy. If you were a leftie, however, and could bowl at around what? 135ks? on wet, slippery tracks in England in 1972 then you had at least something (italics). Indeed you well and truly earned the nickname “Deadly”. Just about my favourite book of all time – read cover to cover at least – oh I dunno – 80 times – was “Tigers among the Lions” by Ian Chappell. Sadly destroyed in the great flood at Pulford Grove in 1981…

  25. Earl O'Neill says

    Great read, John. Tho all I can think of now is “Here’s Karen Pini with tonight’s Lotto draw.”

  26. Mickey Randall says

    Top yarn John. An old friend played in one of the Chateau Tanunda games. He’d wined and dined well, and then with a generous wallet during the charity auction, won a chance to bat. Emboldened by beer, he faced Colin Croft, who was bowling gentle offies. After a few balls he belted Colin back over his head for six. He immediately realised his folly. It must be one of the only times a six has been struck and instantly regretted. Colin Croft walked back a bit further in his run up, and steamed in. Stef didn’t see it. His stumps were a mess. But he had hit a West Indian paceman for six.

  27. “…manicured on one side and massacred on the other…”
    Never a more apt line to describe the vagaries of a used cricket ball in play.

    Along with all the other blokes of a certain age, I too very much enjoyed the K Pini reference.

  28. Andrew Starkie says

    Offies have no one to blame but themselves. No sympathy. They’re like the ugly member of a girls’ pop group who never gets a close up in the video. Or Tito Jackson.

  29. I’m too young to have been aware of Karen Pini I guess – so I Googled her – found the cricket themed Playboy cover so can appreciate all the comments.

  30. Luke Reynolds says

    Great read John. Having been an off-spinner for the majority of my career this story really resonated with me. After bowling a few big turning leggies at training in around 1993 my junior coach told me to “bowl my offies”. Could have all been very different….

    Had to Google Karen Pini too.

  31. John,
    Murali is a traitor to the noble toilers – a chucker who has triggered the understanding that leggies can’t bend an arm but offies can completely bend the “rules”.
    No need to Google K.Pini but a good idea nonetheless!

  32. craig dodson says

    Great read john, as an offie it hit the memory glands in my body. For me the key characteristic of an offie is a methodical aprroach. It takes a rare person to have the patience to bowl the same ball 94 times out of 100 and wait for a batsmans mistake. There is a certain delight in seeing a batsman ‘crack’ against the sheer boredom of what you are doing to them!

  33. David Goodwin says

    Loved this piece John. Highly amused by the thought of Joel Garner greeting you as Darky. I was an offie up til age 20. Career highlight was in the under 14s at Dalby when I snagged a hat-trick against the Christian Brothers College. My captain Mal Frizzell (who later represented Queensland Churches as an adult) came over and in the celebrations uttered ‘you bastard’ and ‘deadlegged’ me (for the uninitiated in this gentle age we now live in, this is a deliberate corky to the side of the thigh executed with a knee). I learnt that offspinners attract such conduct. His manoeuvre was executed with such skill, I couldn’t complete the over. I was pretty much the only purveyor of offies in my age group on the Darling Downs in the late 70s (you were a year older I guess John, out of Oakey, and everyone was slinging them like Thommo off the long run in those days). This explains how I came to represent the Downs at the State Carnival in Bundaberg, January 1979. Friz was also captain of that rep team and I was underbowled (ie. not bowled) in the first 2 games. On the Wednesday we played Central Queensland and Mal finally threw me the ball in desperation – to bowl to Ian Healy well set on about 65! By the end of my over Heals was into the 80s – I kept bowling flatter and flatter and he kept cutting me to the point boundary. This sounds like an inverse of a Spike Milligan book: “Healy. My Part in his Ascendancy”. I was 12th man for Darling Downs on the Thursday. At 20 I resolved to become a leg spinner like my dad and my hero Malcolm Francke – a more manly art which requires the mentality of being prepared to risk all in quest of the thrill of tantalising and befuddling. To take joy in being hit for 6 (knowing this is just a precursor to a wicket) and then to toss it higher (not flatter). I’ve had 2 more hat-tricks bowling leggies but never again been deadlegged, which I think says it all.

  34. John Butler says

    Karen Pini. Tito Jackson. Malcolm Francke.

    Men of a certain age wold seem to be very much the key phrase here Smokie.

    Great stuff JTH.

  35. Litza, Douglas Addams in The Meaning of Liff (great little book) called that the ‘huby’ from memory.

    Daddsy, after S K Warne’s last-ever MCG Test match Sam Pang and I were drinking pots in the Cricketers’ Bar at the Windsor when we spotted Deadly. Of course we went straight to him and said g’day and he was delighted for some cricket company as he had been shopping with his wife at Chadstone throughout the day. He was fine company and warmed to our knowledge of him as we asked our way through classic Deadly moments.

    Craig D, I was rarely given opportunity to bowl my 94th delivery. Although on a crumbly-grassy deck in Toowoomba one very hot day in Reserve Grade I was in my 20th+ over when the skipper (the keeper, Alan Rankin I think?) walked down to me and said, “Can you actually turn one?” (Ray Bright would have been dangerous on that track) I took 2/50 off 23 8-ball overs.

    Dave G, I took a few wickets in Colts and Reserve Grade for Wests, and could hold down No 5 in the order with a few dour half centuries, so when I went to the Darling Downs trials (of which you speak) in my final year of high school a few of the selectors knew me from Toowoomba cricket and so I was given plenty of opportunities to bat against the better bowlers in the nets. But I happened to be bowling when one Brett Henschell (then doing Year 12 for the third time so he could tour the country playing for Qld schoolboys sides in various sports – you’d know better than me Dave as he is from Dalby) strode to the crease. He didn’t even take a sighter. He belted my first one as far back over my head as I had ever been belted before and then proceeded to hit me into all canals – far and near. I learnt my place in the pecking order. Brett Henschell played for Qld in Chris Harms’s debut game.

  36. A cracker of a yarn, Harmsy. Reminded me of my favourite childhood cricket memory: when a few hundred copies of Australian Playboy issue #1 literally fell off the back of a truck across the road from our ground just as we left under-14s training. Safe to say a lot of teenagers completely ignored the articles as the lovely K.Pini’s work was studied in great detail for many weeks to come.

  37. I used to play in a very special parklands side called the Mötley Blues. We had an angular, high-stepping offie who opened the bowling. They didn’t turn much but they were straight and bounced high. It was a worthwhile gambit as we had genuine pace at the other end from ‘Moose’ Maraun, rampant marauder of the SACA District comp in the 90s. When Mooser took a rest, we brought another offie on. Second change was a left arm orthodox beguiler. Forty overs in the field floated by on the breeze. Every boundary was a cause for great amusement, every wicket when it fell seemed inevitable.

  38. The artist formerly known as Bronty says

    Great article. Showing my vintage I also noted the Karen Pini reference, but the stand out was the line referring to the ageing effect of Off spin on Nathan Lyon. Pure gold.
    Having said that how many of us has seen or been part of a soft dismissal to an ordinary off spin.
    One delivery you missed that has been delivered by many a suburban offie, is the “quicker” ball delivered after they have been dispatched to the boundary. The offie claims it is an arm ball, when in reality is it a medium paced dart delivered off two steps.

  39. Warwick Nolan says

    After a fruitless junior career where the bouncer would barely get to chest height and the bloody thing just refused to curve, I too graduated to the honourable realm of deception and guile – the off spinner.

    Too young at 28 to be considered “wily”, my off spinning apprenticeship included the mastery of:

    1. the “straight” one. The one that went “on with the arm”. Always an effective weapon – but short lived if you were forced to use it as your stock delivery too.

    2. the “stand sideways – hands on head – oh that was so close” pose; You could always hold the position for 20-30 seconds too as the fielder jogged to the mid wicket fence to retrieve the ball.

    3. the unfailing pursuit of post delivery eye contact with the batsman; the accomplishment of which was a virtual acknowledgement that that was probably one of the best deliveries ever bowled in the history of cricket and I am really lucky to still be here;

    4. the development of the “wry smile”; the postscript to the slog sweep boundary or deft late cut for three to the vacant third man province – a testament to yet another batsman playing with high risk against the probabilities;

    I’m not sure whether it was M.J.K.Smith or George Bernard Shaw who coined the cricket idiom:
    “Those who can do; Those who can’t – bowl your offies”

  40. John.

    O Me Miserum.

    A long winter hasn’t my opinion much. You could update the photo…I have dropped 5 kg from last summers playing weight.


  41. Bruce Francis says

    Enjoyed the Karen Pini comments. At the risk of big noting, I had dinner at Belinda Green’s home with Karen and her boy friend a few weeks after the launch of Playboy. Belinda produced the centrefold for us to discuss the artistic merits of the photo

  42. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Should the expression ‘a Karen’ now be used for a straight break, ie had nothing on it?

  43. Outstanding.

    Welcome to the Almanac Bruce. Would love to hear some first hand memories of your cricket days.

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