There are few better sights in cricket than a leg-spinner rolling the ball in his hand, bounding to the crease, unleashing the shoulder muscles before pivoting as the ball fizzes from his hand. The ball pitches, dust flies and the batsman’s lunge is left devoid, empty, like a fencer whose opponent is too quick-witted.
And then for one moment, put all this in reverse. Imagine that Shane Warne was left-handed, Mike Gatting too, that his off-stump was his leg-stump. In a sense, imagination is all that one can muster here. For, there have been – in recent years at least – so few precedents on which to call, so few highlights to memorise.
However, as Kuldeep Yadav etches his name upon the muddled minds of England batsmen like so many purveyors of so-called ‘mystery spin’ before him, it might be that this curious yet enthralling art might finally enter the game’s mainstream. Yadav is not alone. As he tore through England at Trent Bridge – conceding not a single boundary at a ground where England’s most recent efforts had been 481 and 444 – South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi and Sri Lanka’s Lakshan Sandakan were playing in a Test match at Galle.
Until now, there has always been a level of suspicion around the art; perhaps this is caused simply by its rarity – one off the bucket list for the sport’s badgering obsessives; perhaps though, it is the theory that the skill is unnecessary. The question has often been asked – why? Why not focus on turning the ball away from the right-handed batsman? Why not take up a more traditional skill? Why not focus on finger-spin, copying the models of consistency from the game’s past?
At least in terms of tangible instances of contradiction, there have been few to highlight as reasons to persist. Brad Hogg has found a rare niche, mixing a flat leg-break with a canny googly. Simon Katich proved a useful option for Ricky Ponting’s Australia, while Paul Adams – the frog in a blender – carved his own cult status. Yet, historically, the left-arm wrist spinner has failed as a long-term option. Dave Mohammed played just five Tests for the West Indies, while Beau Casson – one of many pretenders in the post-Warne era – lasted just the single outing.
It’s hard to truly understand why. As Yadav has shown, turning the ball into the right-hander means that every delivery is an event. Chuck in an effective googly and the batsman is rendered vulnerable, having to play at everything lobbed towards them from this most unusual angle.
Much like Brian Lara, David Gower and so many before and after them, cricket has an almost unhealthy lust for the languid flow of the left-hander. The same is true with the ball – think Wasim Akram’s hooping toe-crushers back at startled right-handers.
What Kuldeep does is what Akram did – not in reverse, but slowed right down. It’s an art form that looked needlessly extinct. Suddenly, it has never been healthier.