The Human Bowling Machine from Lewisham

Adil Rashid (currently showing his wares in the BBL) recently took a five-wicket haul on test debut for England in the UAE. Nothing too sensational there you say … except that he was the first English leg break bowler to bag a test ‘Michelle’ (thank you ‘Skull’ O’Keefe!) for 56 years! Its not that they haven’t had any decent leggies in that time, and that they haven’t given a few a go – Robin Hobbs, Ian Salisbury, Chris Schofield, Scott Borthwick – but they have done so oh so briefly, such is the English closed mindset on leg-spinners!

England and Australia have diametrically opposed thought processes when it comes to evaluating leg-spinners. Everyone remembers Shane Warne’s test debut, 150-1 v India, grist for Ravi Shastri’s mill in 1992. And it didn’t get better in a hurry for Warne, after his first four tests he had taken precisely four wickets! But the Australian selectors, seeing the promise, persisted with Warne – and the rest was (leg spinning) history. The English authorities by contrast are neither brave or bold when it comes to encouraging and nurturing their young leggies, and it remains to be seen if England will persist with Rashid for longer than they have with other promising wrist spinners in the near past.

England invented the leg break and the ‘Bosie’ (googly) and it is certainly not true that the country and its conditions are incompatible with good leg-spin bowling. Pakistan leggie Mustaq Ahmed in his legendary stint with Sussex took 478 wickets in five seasons of English country cricket (he remains the last bowler to take 100 wickets in an English season). Spearheaded by ‘Mushy’, Sussex won its first ever County Championship in 2003 and went on to win three in five years! Anil Kumble was similarly successful in his one (1995) season with Northamptonshire, topping the championship bowling list with 105 wickets.

As to home-grown leggies, going deep into the history, England produced, amongst others,  the most phenomenal, overachieving leg-spinner ever to grace an English ground! Alfred Percy Freeman, as his nickname (‘Tich’) implies, was tiny, 5’2″ (158 centimetres in the new language). The phenomenal success in England achieved by Tich in the inter-war years with Kent and the English selectors’ reaction to it, emphasised the traditional “head in the sand” reticence of the selectors to embrace leg break bowling and give it a decent try.

In the record books of First class and English county cricket history the nonpareil AP Freeman’s record includes:

 

  • :> 3,776 wickets at 18.42 in FC career in 592 matches (6.38 wkts per match, strike rate: 40.9, economy rate 2.69) – second highest all-time wicket-taker to Wilfred Rhodes who took 4,204 wickets in 1,110 matches (ie, in 518 more matches)
  • :> 304 wickets @ 18.05 in the 1928 English FC season – the highest of all-time & the only bowler to snare 300 in a single season (he also holds number 2 spot with 298 wkts @ 15.26 in 1933)
  • :> 386 “five fors” in an innings & 140 “ten fors” in a match in FC matches. The next closest “five fors” ever achieved is 287 instances (Rhodes), 99 in arrears of Tich. The next closest number of “ten fors” is 91 (Charlie Parker).
  • :> The only bowler to take 10 wkts in an innings thrice, the only bowler to take 17 wickets or more twice in a match.
  • :> Almost half of his 3,776 wkts were unassisted – the batsmen were either bowled, LBW, c & b or HW.

With such startling figures, leg-spinner or not, the selectors couldn’t ignore Tich for ever. He was selected in an MCC ‘A’ tour to New Zealand in which he excelled on NZ pitches, followed by a full test tour to Australia in 1924-25 in which he made his debut at age 36. A combination of good, hard Australian wickets and the fact that Australian batsmen were brought up on a diet of leg spin meant that Freeman made very heavy weather of the series. Thereafter the national selectors choose the leg-spinner very irregularly. He did very well against South Africa and the West Indies, but was not considered for the tests against the Australians on either the 1926 or 1930 tours, despite getting a six for and a five for in the county games for Kent against the tourists. The selectors demonstrated a remarkable lack of perception in not showing a sustained faith in Freeman’s obvious talent and not backing him in tests, especially in English conditions. As things turned out, his record in tests suggest the magnitude of their error in judgement:

12 tests, 66 wkts. ave: 25.86, strike rate: 56.5 BB: 71-7. Five wkts in inns: 5 times, Ten wkts in match: 3 times.

In the very limited opportunities afforded Freeman to represent his country, 66 wickets in tests at an average of 5.5 per match – more than respectable as returns go. In any form and at any level of the game, he was an out-and-out wicket-taker!

What accounts for the diminutive Kent leggie’s exceptionality? Firstly, he was unswervingly consistent as a bowler, and he improved with age. In the eight seasons after he turned 40 in 1928, he took 2,090 wickets at 17.86, making him the leading wicket-taker in county cricket eight years in a row! Glenn McGrath has been described as ‘metronomic’ as a bowler, but it was Tich Freeman who first whirled them down with unerring accuracy like an automaton for 20 plus years. He commanded fantastic control of line and length. Although Tich was small, he was strong of hand and he had seemingly endless reserves of stamina, going on and on and on at the bowling crease. Freeman loved nothing more than to bowl and bowl and bowl. And he just hated being taken off. Regularly he would open the bowling in county games and bowl right through the innings!

Tich Freeman’s standard bowling strategy was one of relentlessly attacking the stumps. The line of his leg break was directed towards making the right-handed batsman play at the ball, rather than being able to let it spin away harmlessly. He tended to not overuse the googly, but had an extremely hard-to-pick top-spinner.

In contrasting Freeman to later generations of bowlers, and trying to explain away his extraordinary success, some observers refer predictably to the poor state of uncovered wickets in his day, or to the fact that he sent down such a sheer weight of numbers of balls in his career. It is undeniable that bad wickets were an advantage for bowlers in that era, but in response I would ask what was it, given the even playing field prevailing, that made Freeman so much more successful than his contemporary counterparts? This comparison accentuates the point: in the English season he took 304 wickets, the entire Derbyshire team in the Championship took just 324 wickets! The next closest individual county bowler to his 304 victims in 1928 managed only 190. And while it was true that Freeman bowled a hell of a lot of balls in FC cricket, 154 thousand plus, the point remains that at the same time he maintained an outstanding career strike rate, less than 41, which is right up there with the very best of bowlers.

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Keen enthusiast of eclectic games & contests involving physical endeavour and striving for victory; self-described cognoscente and Renaissance Boy. My main areas of interest are ports and sports.

Comments

  1. As an avid reader and collector of old cricket books, I really enjoyed this piece.
    Thanks, T Rex.

    I assume that there is very little – if any – footage of Freeman bowling?

  2. Thesaurus Rex says

    Thanks. There is a little bit of film of Tich bowling in 1928 on the internet Smokie – the quality is quite good for its age of it. It shows him bowling front-on & side-on in the nets & a brief bit bowling in a match. I wouldn’t say though that it sheds a lot of light of why he was so potent, but it is there to see.
    .
    Google Camera Interviews Tich Freeman British Pathe to find it.

  3. And now we go full circle. We take a leggie who took 50 wickets in the Shield and can’t find a rationale to play him in ant of the dead rubbers. we must have been taking the 33 yr old for experience.

    Had heard of Tich but didn’t understand the breadth of his achievements, Have been getting constant reminders of the Doolands and Peppers who ended up plying their trade in England when leggies were loved over there.

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