I was bemused by Justin Langer’s mystifying explanation of how Australia batsmen struggle against spin bowling in the sub-continent. “It’s almost like Indians have chillies from a very early age, therefore if you eat chilly it doesn’t really bother you. But if we eat chilly, it burns our mouth, which is the same while playing spin.”
I acquired a taste for spicy food at 19 but learned to play spin bowling from about the age of eight. I retain my enjoyment of spicy food to this day and those lessons I was taught as a youngster stood me in good stead as my career progressed, culminating in a few months at finishing school — a tour of India.
To me, it’s at a young age where the problem lies with modern Australia batsmen and the disconnect with playing good spin bowling. The coaches overlook the correct footwork fundamentals.
The first things I was told about playing spin were among the most important. Don’t worry about the wicketkeeper when you leave your crease because if you do, it means you’re thinking about missing the ball and you might as well be stumped by three yards as three inches.
To make a real difference to a spinner’s length you have to advance a decent distance and coming out of your crease only millimetres generally improves the delivery.
I remember asking Shane Warne after Australia’s 2001 tour of India, where VVS Laxman tamed the leg-spinner, “How do you think you bowled?
“I don’t think I bowled that badly,” was his response.
“You didn’t,” I assured him, “it’s just that when Laxman advances three metres and hits you through mid-on and then the next delivery is a little higher and shorter and he’s quickly on the back foot and pulls, its excellent footwork not bad bowling.”
During that series Laxman used his feet better than anyone I’ve seen to hit the ball against the spin through wide mid-on; it was exhilarating stuff.
However, you don’t have to leave the crease to be successful in playing good spin. Two of the best batsmen I’ve seen, Sir Garfield Sobers and Graeme Pollock, both played mostly from the crease but importantly their footwork was decisive and they weren’t fooled in judging length.
Australia batsmen haven’t always struggled against good spin. Neil Harvey was acknowledged as a twinkled-toed batsman who was never out stumped in his Test career.
Doug Walters is the best player of off-spin bowling I’ve seen. There were many others in that period who were extremely efficient when it came to playing good spin.
Playing spin is a state of mind. To succeed, a batsman has to be decisive, look to dominate, have a plan and not fear the turning delivery.
Once I learned on the 1969 tour of India that because of the slower nature of the pitches, you had a fraction more time than you first thought and when the ball turned a long way, it provided opportunities for the batsman as well as the bowler. I never again worried about prodigious spin. I was often dismissed but I never again feared the turning ball; I looked upon it as a challenge to be enjoyed.
If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can eat spicy food and also play spin bowling. The trick is to acquire a taste for the former and be taught the latter correctly at a young age.