Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spinning it on the Highveld

Almost un-noticed, Paul Harris has sneaked his way into the world’s top ten in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. Helped by his match figures of nine for 161 against Australia at Cape Town this March, he now sits pretty on 669 points – the highest-rated left-arm spinner in the world. He was even higher in May of this year – peaking at seventh place before the resurgence of Mohammad Asif and Shane Bond in the recent series in New Zealand. A veteran of only 24 Tests since his debut in January 2007, he has so far taken 71 wickets, so is still qualifying for a “full” rating.

South Africa has hardly been a hot-bed of spinning talent since their return to the international cricketing fold in 1991. In fact, over that period of time, just 15% of all the Test wickets taken by their bowlers have gone to spinners. In contrast, over the same period of time, spinners for the other Test playing nations have taken 34% of their total wickets – more than twice as many. This is partly due to the lack of high-quality spinners in South Africa, but also due to the exceptionally high standard of the pace-bowling in that country. Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Dale Steyn have all spent time at the top of the bowling tree in recent years, Makhaya Ntini reached number 2 and Jacques Kallis and Andre Nel both featured in the world’s top ten at various stages of their careers.

The pickings have been slimmer slow-bowling-wise. In fact, Harris is the first South African spinner to reach the top twenty – let alone the top ten – since their re-admission. Paul Adams and Nicky Boje both played more than forty Tests and took more than a hundred wickets each, but never made a big impact on the rankings. Adams peaked at 588 points and 23rd position while Boje managed 545 points and 22nd position. So – if Harris is unchallenged as the top achieving South African tweaker in recent years, if we push the boundaries back, how does he stack up historically with his fellow countrymen?

Six bowlers from the Rainbow Nation have topped the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers – the three mentioned above plus Peter Pollock, Aubrey Faulkner (who uniquely topped the batting Rankings too!) and Hugh Tayfield . Tayfield first achieved top spot after the 1955 Oval Test in which he took 8 wickets, and really made his name by bowling a record 137 dot balls in a row to the England batsmen in the Durban Test of January 1957. He ended his career with 170 wickets in 37 Tests – still the leading wicket-taker among South African spinners – having spent a total of 24 Tests at number one.

So if Tayfield is the pre-eminent spinner – although Faulkner topped the bowling ratings for 7 matches – how does Harris compare? His current points tally of 669 places him 17th among all South African bowlers. However, only three spinners are above him: Tayfield – who peaked at 895 in 1957, Bert Vogler (750) and Cyril Vincent (713). Of them, only Vincent was a slow-left-armer like Harris. So – already early in his career, he can be considered one of the leading South African exponents of spin bowling.

All things considered, the recent South African attack is a far cry from arguably the most famous one in their history. For the first Test of the 1905/06 series with England at Johannesburg, the Proteas picked four leg-spinners - Faulkner, Vogler, Reggie Schwarz and Gordon White. They would go on to record their first-ever series victory 4-1 with the four leggies taking 43 wickets between them. However Schwarz and White died young in the First World War so it was very much a case of what might have been with them.