Imran Tahir on Abdul Qadir: "He could easily mesmerise someone like the 17-year-old me. He was the guy I wanted to be"
Imran Tahir on Abdul Qadir: "He could easily mesmerise someone like the 17-year-old me. He was the guy I wanted to be"
Inside legspin with Mushtaq Ahmed, Stuart MacGill and Imran Tahir
It takes heart, it takes skill, it takes brains, and it makes for the most tantalising sight in cricket. Three legspinners with three decades of experience around the world tell us how it's done.
What skills are necessary to become a good legspinner?
Mushtaq Ahmed: You've got to spin the ball. That is the most important thing. Then you need to have the variations: legbreak, wrong'un, flipper, topspinner. Then your action needs to be very repeatable. You should know how to use the crease, know when to go round the wicket. Those are the basics.
You have to spin the ball with drift. I learned that in the last five years of my career. It was difficult for me because of my action, where my arm was very high. Drift is something that forces the batsman usually to get caught at the wicket, in slips and gully. I can never tire of watching a legspinner who can drift the ball in and spin the ball away from a right-hander.
Stuart MacGill: The number one attribute for a spin bowler is resilience. You have to take a pile of beatings before you can become an international bowler. You can't judge a legspinner based on the number of bad balls he bowls in an over. You have to judge him at the end of the day, based on the number of wickets he has taken. If a young spinner bowls ten or 20 bad balls, it is the ball he bowls that belongs in the Shane Warne video category that should keep him going the next day. If you are more interested in the batsman hitting sixes, then you should be a batsman. If you're the bloke interested in getting the batsman out when he's on top, then you stand a chance.
Imran Tahir: With time and experience you start learning the skills. For me what is important is, as a legspinner you need determination, especially in modern-day cricket. You need to feel that you can change a game. Legspinners are exciting characters. Look at guys like Warne, Qadir - they change results, they make things happen.
"You have to watch the batsman, read him. If somebody plays with hard hands you have to bowl slow. You have to deceive him with pace"
Did any bowlers from history have an impact on you?
Mushtaq: I was very lucky that I could imitate people easily. At school I used to act like Imran Khan by copying his bowling action. If Javed Miandad scored runs, I would walk like him, field like him. When I saw Abdul Qadir for the first time on TV, I liked his bouncing, dancing action. I copied him instantly. I did not have his height, but I felt that I could bowl legspin. For the first two years of my career I bowled exactly like Qadir bhai.
I met Qadir bhai for the first time in 1987. I played in a tour match against Mike Gatting's England. I was a schoolboy, but I took six wickets in the first innings. I was picked in the Test squad and met him in Karachi. I was shy so I did not approach him, but I watched him very closely. What I observed from his body language was that he was very confident. I have since believed, and I always tell this to young bowlers, the most important thing you need to have as a legspinner is confidence. Your body language should always be that of a fast bowler, but you need to think like a spinner. When somebody hits you for a six, you need to still look into the batsman's eye, but you need to be cool and keep in mind that you still have to spin the ball.
Tahir: Abdul Qadir was my main role model. I just wanted to be like him because for me he was only guy who no one could read. He was that good. His passion, his love for legspin, was unique. He would create new things all the time: flippers, sliders, three to four kinds of googlies, legspinners, topspinners. He could easily mesmerise someone like the 17-year-old me. He was the guy I wanted to be.
MacGill: "The pressure applied by Shane is far more significant than the pressure applied by me, and consequently it was easier for me to take wickets"
© Getty Images
MacGill: "The pressure applied by Shane is far more significant than the pressure applied by me, and consequently it was easier for me to take wickets" © Getty Images
MacGill: My father and grandfather were first-class cricketers. Being born into a cricketing family, I was always gunning to play cricket. Most kids in the '70s and '80s wanted to be fast bowlers and emulate Dennis Lillee but my father was a legspinner. He was a very different bowler to me as he relied on accuracy and change of pace along with variation off the pitch.
Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly were really big names in Australian cricket folklore. I have read Grimmett's books and it's amazing how their generation learnt through feel in the absence of technology. I really like them because they played together but were different bowlers and different personalities. O'Reilly sometimes bowled with the new ball. They succeeded to the point that rules were changed to protect the batsmen.
I met Warnie when we were at the cricket academy in 1990, shortly before he played for Australia. I never compared myself with Shane Warne. I wasn't even playing state cricket back then. In his success was my opportunity as we started to rely more and more on a spin bowler as an attacking component.
"You should never have fear in T20. Even if you are hit for 20 runs in an over, in the next over by taking two wickets you can finish the game"
How do you explain having a superior record to Warne in the games you played together?
MacGill: When I was bowling I was lucky I had Shane Warne up the other end. When he was bowling, he had me up the other end. The pressure applied by Shane is far more significant than the pressure applied by me and consequently it was easier for me to take wickets because they had to score off me as they were not scoring off him.
Warne came into the side when spin bowling was not used as front-line attack. We had some seriously attacking spinners like Ashley Mallett but then there was a gap. Bruce Yardley was another one, Greg Matthews became an attacking spinner in the second half of his career, but none of them got an extended run and became a core member of the team. Warne showed nations around the world the importance of having a diverse attack.
Was there a spell from your early days which gave you the confidence that you belong?
MacGill: I always cared about taking wickets and not the runs I gave away. In one of my first games of fourth-grade cricket I got hit for nine sixes by a first-grade batsman. But I got six wickets in the game the next week.
A calculated dismissal: Mushtaq Ahmed goes round the wicket and traps Michael Atherton at The Oval in 1996
© Getty Images
A calculated dismissal: Mushtaq Ahmed goes round the wicket and traps Michael Atherton at The Oval in 1996 © Getty Images
Mushtaq: It would be the 1992 World Cup final, when I got three wickets. I had 16 wickets in nine matches, just behind Wasim [Akram] who had 18 wickets in ten matches. After that I realised I can play international cricket.
After the World Cup, Pakistan toured England where we won the series. And even if Wasim and Waqar dominated, I still had 15 wickets. That gave me the confidence that if I get more opportunities I could dominate too. That belief was confirmed on the 1995 tour of Australia, where I got 18 wickets including nine wickets in Sydney. I remember Australian captain Mark Taylor saying Mushy was the most difficult legspinner he had faced. That was because he could not read my googly.
I had also become more accurate and versatile playing county cricket. I enjoyed the responsibility. In county cricket you play in different weather conditions - cold, hot, rainy - you play on slow, turning, green pitches, so once you experience all these varied conditions you become a very matured bowler.
"Your body language should always be that of a fast bowler, but you need to think like a spinner"
Tahir: That spell against Pakistan in Dubai when I got 5 for 32 was the most important. That is the only five-for I have got in my Test career. It had come against some of the best batsmen of spin on one of the flattest decks. I had played against most of the Pakistan batsmen, including Misbah-ul-Haq, as a youngster and that made it more special.
Is spinning the ball mandatory?
MacGill: Nowadays there's a temptation to turn everybody into Shane Warne. Being a wristspinner doesn't mean you need to have the same approach as Shane Warne. I loved watching Anil Kumble bowl. I thought he was great. People who said that he didn't turn the ball didn't know the huge amount of work he got into the ball. He generated a lot of revolutions and the ball did drop a lot through the air. His height was an advantage but he moulded his bowling around what he had physically. He was a superstar. People focus on what happens to the ball off the pitch but a great batsman is beaten before the ball pitches.
MacGill: "You can't judge a legspinner based on the number of bad balls he bowls in an over"
© Getty Images
MacGill: "You can't judge a legspinner based on the number of bad balls he bowls in an over" © Getty Images
Mushtaq: My legbreaks, I did not spin them much. But there was enough spin to create doubts in the batsman's mind. When you are at your peak, when you are bowling your legbreaks, wrong'uns, and flippers and even the best batsmen are not reading you, for doing that you have got to be a good spinner of the ball.
I will cite the example of Kumble. His stats are brilliant. He was unplayable where the pitches were helpful. If the pitch was dry, turning, breaking, he was a very difficult bowler to play because he was tall, he would get bounce and had good pace behind the ball. But in Australia, South Africa and England, places where the pitches are not turning enough, it became difficult. Where pitches are unhelpful if you are not a big spinner of the ball, people can play you off the pitch or like a medium-pacer.
Tahir: No, it is not. I had spoken about the same thing with Shane Warne when I met him. I wanted to turn the ball like him, I told him. He said I should not bother about spinning more than the size of the bat otherwise I would not gain the edge. Perhaps he said that after having observed my bowling action. He did teach me a few grips, how he used to hold the ball, but he asked me to stick to my own action and focus on my strengths. In modern-day cricket there is no legspinner who turns the ball big.
"The googly and the slider are my favourite type of deliveries and I love it when batsmen try to cut or sweep me"
What's the process for developing the various deliveries that legspinners bowl?
MacGill: The process is that everybody has their stock ball, which I like to call their best ball. The ball you can fall back on and which you can bowl with your eyes shut. You then understand the angle of the wrist and the angle of the release. That is the only thing that matters. Pace through the air can be generated through your body. You can go a little bit wider or go round the wicket, but the angle of your wrist and point of release determines the type of delivery. There are gentle differences in the degree. If my palm faces the batsman, it's a legbreak. There are no magical deliveries. It's all about the angle of release.
I tried to get one at a time. The first and most difficult one was the googly, so I tried to spend a lot of time developing that. Unfortunately for me, I tried to develop it to the detriment of my legspinner. It took me six months to get my legspinner back. It took me longer to learn the backspinner as I found it difficult to incorporate it into my action. In the end it was one of my better variations.
Mushtaq Ahmed: "I learned drift in the last five years of my career. It was difficult for me because of my action, where my arm was very high"
© PA Photos
Mushtaq Ahmed: "I learned drift in the last five years of my career. It was difficult for me because of my action, where my arm was very high" © PA Photos
How important is the stock ball?
Tahir: My belief is whatever be my stock ball, the key is to keep the batsman guessing every ball. I want him to think all the time. I should not be predictable to the batsman. If you spin the ball big like Shane Warne, then you are bound to trouble the batsman. But if you cannot, then you need to play mind games.
Mushtaq: People used to think my googly was my stock ball. As a legspinner, the stock ball for me is the legbreak. I would bowl it with a scrambled seam. Because I had a quick arm action, batsmen could not pick it from the seam or my hand. With experience I brought in the variations to the legbreak. You have to watch the batsman, read him. If somebody plays with hard hands then you have to bowl slow. You have to deceive him with the pace of the ball. If somebody is playing with soft hands you've got to push the ball quicker.
At times you have to bowl legbreaks wide of the crease, sometimes you pitch it from closer to the stumps. In between you bowl a wrong'un and topspinner from the same area, which makes it more difficult for the batsman. If he is good at reading the hand or reading your wrong'un then you should go round the wicket to put a doubt in his mind and then swap to over the wicket.
"The angle of your wrist and point of release determines the type of delivery"
Possibly a good example of that strategy could be you getting Michael Atherton out twice, both times on the final day, of the Lord's and The Oval Tests in 1996. You went round the wicket both times. What was the plan?
Mushtaq:I remembered Atherton used to be a legspinner, so he would play with very soft hands. He would easily push me to cover. He would put his front leg outside off stump and that way he would kill or put away my googly. Then I realised that I have to bowl from round the wicket because he is going across. By going round the wicket he would be forced to open up, which he was not used to. He had to play me from the leg stump and consequently he was caught at bat-pad and once at slip.
Can there be a temptation to overuse the googly? During the initial phase of your county career Martin Crowe, the opposition captain, asked his batsmen to play you as an offspinner.
Mushtaq: It really hurt when I was told about Crowe's plan. But what he said proved beneficial for me because I decided that I would improve my legspinner so much that even if they played me like an offspinner I could get them in my sleep. But I must admit that when I realised that a batsman could not read me I used to overcompensate with my googlies. After Crowe made that statement I started to spin my legbreaks more, spin my flippers more, spin my topspinners more. A lot of people would at times misread my topspinner, where the ball would stop and get extra bounce, as a googly.
Tahir: "Legspinners are exciting characters. They change results, they make things happen"
© Getty Images
Tahir: "Legspinners are exciting characters. They change results, they make things happen" © Getty Images
Who were the batsmen you enjoyed bowling most against?
MacGill: The batsman who destroyed spin bowling consistently was Brian Lara. I certainly enjoyed getting him out, though it didn't happen all that often. I liked bowling to him because that was the ultimate challenge. Lara smashed the daylights out of me at Adelaide in the early 2000s and I really lost the plot. I didn't bowl well for the rest of the innings to any batsman and I got dropped from the Australian team. I worked on a few things and then picked him up in Sydney in the first innings and had a dropped catch in the second innings. I could have had him in both innings, which was a good turnaround. I did enjoy that.
I enjoyed bowling to VVS Laxman because he was different and watching him bat was enjoyable. He is a nice guy. Bowling to him, I knew that if I bowled poorly, I'll get destroyed and if I bowled well, it didn't mean I'll necessarily get him out. I loved bowling to him at Melbourne [in 2003-04], where I bowled well. My reaction shows how highly Laxman's wicket was valued by me. I also enjoyed bowling to Rahul Dravid, as in 2003 his batting suddenly changed. I had bowled to him in the past where I could think of certain ways of getting him out. But in 2003 I could not think of ways to get him out.
"People focus on what happens to the ball off the pitch but a great batsman is beaten before the ball pitches"
Can you talk a little about how Lara played you differently from other batsmen?
MacGill: He hit me to areas that I hadn't been hit to before. When you're bowling spin, you should aim to hit the top of off stump. So I tried to pitch the ball outside his off stump, because if the ball is turning, the over-the-wicket angle provides you an advantage. The ball was turning a lot in that [Adelaide] match, but Lara was not perturbed about that. He was able to hit me off the front foot anywhere in the arc between mid-off and backward point. It was a sign of his mastery with the bat.
Mushtaq: Brian Lara was the batsman who came close to destroying my confidence. His feet and hands were quick. He could hit even your good balls for four. He has said that he never picked my hand, nor my googly. But his hand-eye coordination was amazing. Lara could hit the ball pitched in the rough in two different places. If the ball was pitched in the rough and spun in, Lara would cut the ball. And if I moved the fielder to defend the cut, Lara would hit the same ball to extra cover. He used to have that much time. If you can cut, sweep, punch on the back foot and use your feet, then you will be successful against a legspinner. Lara was one of them. The other guy was Darren Lehmann. He used to give me a proper hard time both in county cricket and in the few Test matches I played against him.
What do you do when you can't land a ball?
MacGill: It's only happened once to me and it's incredibly embarrassing because you know that you're better than that and you've got to do better not only for yourself but also for the guy at the other end. If I'm bowling absolute rubbish, I'm letting him down, it makes it much more difficult for them to do their job. The best you can do is fall back on your best delivery and hopefully it works.
Anil Kumble didn't turn the ball much but he put in a huge amount of work on the ball to deceive batsmen
© Global Cricket Ventures-BCCI
Anil Kumble didn't turn the ball much but he put in a huge amount of work on the ball to deceive batsmen © Global Cricket Ventures-BCCI
Mushtaq: I have suffered such a fate lots of times, especially when I was under pressure. In such a situation the key is to try and come back to your basics. Do not try to spin the ball too much. At times it could be very cold weather, or when the conditions are wet you cannot grip and control the ball properly. I would shut out the batsman in such a situation. I would not bother about whether he was using his feet, whether he was going to hurt me. I would tell myself: "This is my action. This is where I am going to land."
Tahir: It mostly happens when the conditions are cold. You cannot grip the ball properly and it takes a few overs to warm up and settle down. The other reason can be duress. In my second Test, against Australia, I could not land the ball consistently because of the pressure. I was bowling full tosses, short balls, but it was the early part of my international career. I bounced back strongly by taking three wickets in that innings.
What role do you see for a legspinner in T20 cricket?
MacGill: Spin bowlers have taken wickets in T20 cricket right since its inception. It's a game that is dominated by the bat but won by the ball. Spinners have dominated T20 cricket because the batsman is obliged to play shots. If you spin the ball, then you open up one side of the field. The batsman has to hit against the spin to hit to the other side. The turn as opposed to the spin is what gives you the advantage in T20 cricket, as you cut down on the scoring options. I don't think it matters whether you're a fingerspinner or a legspinner.
Mushtaq: Not just T20, even in ODIs the more successful spinner is the legspinner, especially with the two new balls. When the legspinner has a new ball he can bounce it, skid it, spin it. Delhi Daredevils played Amit Mishra and Imran Tahir in the IPL this season and both took wickets. In the early part of my career, Imran Khan saab played Qadir bhai and myself a lot in ODIs and a few Test matches. The reason a legspinner is more successful in T20 cricket is because of his variations and the bounce he can derive off the wicket. If a batsman tries to hit a legspinner over mid-on or midwicket you stand a good chance to get a top edge as he's playing against the spin.
Also remember this, if a legspinner can land the ball in a good spot the batsman cannot take an easy single. Against a left-arm spinner or an offspinner you can sweep or step out or push for a safe single to mid-off or mid-on. But against a legspinner the batsman is edgy to sweep for the fear of the ball skidding in or bouncing, or getting stumped if he charges down. If you get two or three dot balls in T20, the batsman starts looking for a boundary, and in that situation a legspinner stands a good chance of taking a wicket.
"Brian Lara was the batsman who came close to destroying my confidence. His feet and hands were quick. He could hit even your good balls for four"
Tahir: You should never have fear in T20. You need to go in with a big heart. You need to back your skills. You need clear plans. Even if you are hit for 20 runs in an over, and this is my advice to a youngster, in the next over by taking two middle-order wickets you can easily finish the game.
What was your favourite mode of dismissal?
MacGill: I loved bowling people, right-handers and left-handers. Obviously right-handers was a little more difficult unless I was bowling the googly. I really enjoyed bowling left-handers, and bowling to left-handers.
Tahir: The googly and the slider are my favourite type of deliveries and I love it when batsmen try to cut or sweep me and while attempting those strokes get lbw or clean bowled. I remember Misbah in the Dubai Test, who I feel had read my googly but was still beaten. It gave me immense joy because Misbah was my state captain in Pakistan when I was a young leggie and despite knowing my bowling and despite having picked the wrong'un, he still went for the shot and was deceived.
Mushtaq: Nothing gave me more joy than watching a batsman who would be lured into attempting a drive against a googly which he could not read and the ball pierced through the gap between his bat and pad and hit the stumps. That was my best moment. My favourite dismissal remains the googly that beat Graeme Hick [lbw] in the 1992 World Cup final. I still enjoy watching that ball. Steve Waugh, if I'm not wrong, was bowled in the Sydney Test [1995-96] trying to drive. David Boon was clean bowled in the Rawalpindi Test [1994-95], again attempting a drive.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.