Thursday, March 18, 2010

Swann on Song

Thanks to his ten wickets in the first Test with Bangladesh at Chittagong, England’s off-spinner has risen to the giddy heights of second in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. It has been mentioned widely in the press that he became the first English offie with a ten-wicket match haul since Jim Laker took his nineteen against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, but how does he compare with his off-spinning predecessors in the England team? Astonishingly, in their entire history of Test cricket, only two of them have managed to achieve top spot.

The first English off-spinner to top the Test charts was Billy Bates who reached 658 points in early 1887. He took 14 wickets at Melbourne in January 1883 which included England’s first-ever Test hat-trick, and he also scored 55 with the bat in England’s innings. However his tenure at the top was cut short by a freak injury in Australia in 1887-88. He was bowling in the nets when a straight-drive hit him in the face, damaging his eyesight so badly that he never played first-class cricket again.

England produced a number of off-spinners over the course of the first half of the 20th Century, but few were able to hold down a regular place in the Test team. Albert Relf was chosen to tour South Africa twice with mixed results and Ciss Parkin topped the bowling averages against the all-conquering 1921 touring Australians, but his career came to an end after he criticised the captain Arthur Gilligan in a newspaper article. Vallance Jupp also had his moments taking 28 wickets in his 8 Tests and briefly made it into the world’s top ten. Tom Goddard took nearly three thousand first-class wickets in a career which extended for thirty years, but he was unfortunate in that his career coincided with that of Hedley Verity, who was the preferred English spin-bowler at the time.

In fact, for the vast majority of the first eighty years of English Test cricket, it was the slow-left-armers who held favour in the team. Bobby Peel, Johnny Briggs, Charlie Blythe and Wilfred Rhodes all took over 100 Test wickets with this style of bowling, and all spent time at the top of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. Verity himself also spent four matches at the top thanks to his 15 wickets against Australia at Lord’s in 1934. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that England produced its second off-spinner to reach the number one spot.

Jim Laker’s nineteen wickets against the Australians at Old Trafford in 1956 are the stuff of cricketing legend. They had the effect of lifting him from sixth to top spot and there he occupied that place for a total of 21 matches. The late 1950s were truly a golden era of spinning talent as South African High Tayfield, Australian Richie Benaud as well as Laker’s England team-mate Tony Lock all enjoyed time at the top of the bowling tree.

Three off-spinners took more than 100 Test wickets for England in the 1960s and 1970s. David Allen is probably best remembered as the man who faced the final deliveries in the famous 1963 Lord’s Test with the West Indies with Colin Cowdrey nursing a broken arm at the non-striker’s end. But he was a good enough bowler to reach as high as the number 5 spot earlier the same year. Ray Illingworth will be forever linked with the trumphant 1970/71 Ashes tour when he was chaired off the field after the series-clinching victory at Sydney. His 3-39 in Australia’s second innings of that Test lifted him to his career-high of 647 points and seventh place.

However, the man who has achieved the highest Rating since Laker while bowling off-spin for England is Fred Titmus. One of the few men to have played first-class cricket in five different decades (the 1940s through the 1980s) he took 153 wickets in a Test career which spanned from 1955 to 1975. The mid-point of that career – the summer of 1965 – brought his highest career Rating. His figures of 5-19 in New Zealand’s second innings at Headingley hastened them to an innings defeat and propelled him up to 797 points and third place, only trailing fellow off-spinner Lance Gibbs and Wes Hall.

John Emburey has been the most durable offie used by England over the past quarter of a century, but he only briefly made it into the world’s top ten – early in 1987 after the triumphant Ashes tour under Mike Gatting. Current England Chief Selector Geoff Miller managed to reach number 19 in early 1984 but his successors Eddie Hemmings, Peter Such and Robert Croft – despite all having fleeting moments in the sun - never managed to crack the world’s top 25 in the longer format of the game.

So – having already attained the highest points tally for any English off-spinner since Fred Titmus, the challenge for Graeme Swann is now to see if he can emulate Billy Bates and Jim Laker and reach the coveted number one spot.