Ever since the emergence of Saqlain Mushaq, the purveyor of the doosra, and Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, those wrist-spinning greats, in the early 1990s, it has been said that orthodox finger spinners have been slipping down the cricketing food chain. The expanding pecs of bench-pressing batsmen and expanding width of lightly pressed bats have effectively shrunk the old grounds, while the sticky dog upon which conventional twirlers had thrived is now a thing of anecdote and photograph.
Of course, this narrative of decline varies according to continent (and DRS, where used, has provided new thrust), but could it be the case that, even on the more spin-friendly surfaces such as Galle, Mumbai and the Oval, the common-or-garden twirlers are being effectively legislated against, and all because of an archaic law devised some 80 years ago?
Once the initial furore of the Bodyline series had abated, the upshot was a change in the Laws in 1935 expressly designed to proscribe the ‘leg theory’ line of attack, giving umpires explicit powers – and the responsibility – to intervene if they felt the bowler was deliberately trying to injure the batsman. Then, in 1960, a new clause was added to Law 44 (now Law 41.5), since which time, as every daydreaming young square-leg fielder knows, it has been possible to station just two fielders behind square on the on-side, stipulations that on spicy, turning pitches can feel like an outright provocation to the plucky finger spinner.
Think for a moment about the conundrum faced by the offspinner in his classic battle, bowling over the wicket to a right-hander (or leftie-to-leftie mirror image) who is encircled by close catchers and trying to negotiate a crumbling, capricious pitch, with the ball spitting and gripping, constantly threatening that GBH of a dismissal: glove on to thigh-pad and caught at leg slip. Of course, the bounce makes that fielder obligatory, yet still the area feels undermanned from a close-catching perspective.
There’s always a run-off, an escape route, as exemplified latterly by Kallis, Amla, and de Villiers, the South African trio, and their technique of going right back and outside off stump before jabbing their hands down to turn the ball away behind square – a ‘Protea prod’ that has brought them much success in Asia. If the fielder is up at backward square-leg, this stroke is a simple survival mechanism (albeit with the possibility of a firm sweep bringing four); if he is back, it’s an easy single.
What is the fielding side to do, then, given these constraints? At one stage in the recently completed Anthony de Mello series, Dhoni installed a second forward short-leg – essentially, silly mid-on – straighter than the ordinary short-leg positioned, as is customary, as square as possible without breaking the popping crease. Yet, with the bounce and unlikelihood of the ball squeezing out straight, this fielder felt superfluous, gratuitous in the manner of the pursuit of the final wickets in an Under-13s match.
Clearly, the extra man needed to be behind square, at leg gully. In Ahmedabad, Dhoni did briefly situate two leg slips for Ojha to Cook, but this then allowed him to sweep with impunity (barring an absolute freak dismissal): four if he timed it; if he top-edged, it would land safe. And therein lies the quandary for our trusty finger spinner: always, in some sense, at a disadvantage.
Supposing our orthodox finger spinner did only want a solitary leg slip, despite it being a ‘Bunsen’; the current parameters could still be considered unfair. He may, for instance, also wish to station a man at short fine-leg for the top-edged lap-sweep. If those are the two permissible fielders in that quadrant, then a properly executed sweep brings an automatic four. If he wishes to protect that boundary, then he has to do away with either the ‘45 man’ (meaning a lap-sweep will go for four) or the leg-slip, which is to say nothing of our single-saving backward square-leg. He cannot win. There is no way for the bowler both to stop the batsman scoring regularly in this area and to attack him as he would like (with more than that of necessity lone catcher).
We could approach the problem from another direction: why should a fast out-swing bowler presented with optimum conditions for his craft be able to fill his preferred quadrant with five or six catchers when the same possibility is denied the finger spinner? Once we have unpacked the historical baggage, is there really much difference? Is it time, therefore, to consider repealing the ‘Bodyline Law’, or at least modifying it slightly to reflect protected pitches and protected batsmen?
No doubt there are a few throats being cleared for a grouse or grumble. Perhaps the objection is that this paves the way for tediously negative bowling at the back end of a Test match (“we flippin’ murdered ’em” territory), or maybe for tediously intimidatory bowling, although the West Indies teams of the 1980s certainly didn’t see the inability to have four leg gullies as any sort of disincentive. Suffice to remind that there is already ample provision in the current Laws for umpires to nip this in the bud.
In any case, it might be that one doesn’t abolish the Law, but simply permits one extra fielder behind square. A tweak for the tweakers. If a side wishes to assign three fielders there for a paceman despite only being permitted one bouncer per batsman per over, then so be it. And if the concern is that allowing even three fielders there creates the opening for the seamer to pound away at the ribs with both leg gully and two men back for the hook, then the amendment could insist that the wicketkeeper has to be stood up to the wicket to permit the third fielder.
For the spinner, three fielders would allow – on the rare occasions it is expedient and desirable to have them – two close catchers ‘round the corner’ in addition to either a backward square-leg (deep or saving one) or a short fine-leg. This wouldn’t close off all scoring options and stack everything in favour of the bowler; it would be additive, bringing a new dimension to the bat-versus-ball ‘problematic,’ enhancing the intrigue of the game. After all, the arsenal of the contemporary batsman invariably includes the reverse-sweep.
The cat-and-mouse struggle of batsman attempting to manoeuvre the spinner’s field is among the most compelling in cricket, in the subcontinent or elsewhere. For that reason alone, then, why not slightly recalibrate the battle in favour of – or, back toward – the finger spinners and introduce more variety and new vistas for first-class cricket?