Opinion, Player spotlight

The curse of the Chinaman: Why do left arm leg spinners rise and then fall?

 

Finding a left arm leg spinner is like winning the lottery. It’s never going to happen but if it does, you don’t know what to do with it. These specimens are found rarely on the international stage but when they do, they make fools of the world’s best batsmen for fun. For a brief period, the chinaman becomes an untouchable wizard destined for greatness but that doesn’t last for long. In a matter of months, their mystery fades away and their bowling becomes a synonym for cannon fodder. Without fail, this is the curse that has plagued pretty much every left arm leg spinner, most notably Kuldeep Yadav. I even wrote a piece on Yadav which details his decline and its various causes. However, while I talk about the mental and poor management oriented reasons for Kuldeep’s fall but I don’t answer an elusive question: Why are left arm wrist spinners so rare and why do they suddenly rise and suddenly fall?

 

Put yourself in the shoes of a left handed kid who wants to be a spinner. You’ve got two options: left arm off spin and left arm arm leg spin. Left arm off spin turns the ball away from the right hander, which is harder for the batsman, and is very easy to learn. On the other hand, left arm leg spin turns the ball into the right hander, which is relatively easier for the batsman, and is incredibly tricky to learn let alone master.

A List Of Bowlers Who Have Similar Bowling Actions

Choosing left arm off spin only seems to be the sensible option. While I doubt a 11 year old is going to weigh up his options like this, his coach definitely will. The coach will naturally encourage his pupil to take up the safer and more effective option which you can’t blame him for. But what this does mean is that the population of left arm wrist spinners will dwindle. I can testament for this because in my 5 years of playing age group cricket, I’ve only ever seen one left arm leg spinner. To be fair, things are getting better on the international stage but they still aren’t exactly abundant.

 

Now let’s pretend this 11 year old decides to rebel against his coach and become a left arm wrist spinner (which is exactly what Tabraiz Shamsi did). A keen spinner desperate to do well, he bowls overs and overs at right handers in the nets, rarely at a leftie. When he doesn’t find a batsman to bowl at, he always bowls at an imaginary right handed batsman. He soon develops a sharp angled run up, an action with many moving parts and a flimsy front arm.

These 3 features are found in every left arm leg spinner. This is because left arm wrist spinners, like all other bowlers, are used to bowling at right handers. In order to attack the right hander’s stumps, the left arm wrist spinner must slant the ball across the batter in the air and then turn it back in. This is an underratedly strenuous task as this graphic (or attempt at one) explains.

Apologies for the rubbing out and my inability to draw a consistent looking pair of stumps.

As you can see, this is a graphic to visualize the average ball path of each type of spin bowler bowling to a right hander: from the start of their run up to when the ball has passed the stumps. I know it’s not perfect but it’s clear to see that left arm wrist spin has the steepest gradient and the sharpest change in direction after the ball pitches.All the other types of spin have a much more linear path hence more chance of the ball landing where intended.

To execute the angle required to bowl left arm wrist spin, the bowler uses a wide run up, as you can see in the graphic, which gives the body ample leverage to get into a position to slant the ball across the right hander. From there, the action tends to be very rotational, especially in the trunk region (all eyes on you Paul Adams), and has many moving parts. As I’m sure you can guess, lots of moving parts mean less efficiency and more chances of something going wrong in the delivery.

This rotational style means that pretty much a left arm wrist spinners don’t have a strong front arm because they don’t need it for slanting the ball across the right hander. Now, this is problematic because the front arm is essential for consistent accuracy. A floppy front arm is like sailing without a compass: you’ve got no idea where it’s going to go. Even when a chinaman bowls at a left hander, the mirror image of a normal leg spinner to a right handed batsman, the floppy front arm remains due to sheer repetition of bowling to right handers.

This makes left arm wrist spin is less effective, accurate, penetrative (other than maybe off spin) than every other type of spin. You maybe thinking that why shouldn’t the left arm leg spinner bowl around the wicket and bowl googlies. The gradient of the ball path would decrease and it would turn away from the right hander so why not? Unfortunately, that just makes them into a glorified, less accurate version of a left arm off spinner.

All these DIY biomechanics is also why chinaman bowlers have such contrasting halves to their career. They begin rapidly as no one seems to know how to play them but suddenly batsmen decode their mystery and quickly realize that beyond the excessive turn and fancy action that left arm wrist spinners tend to lack discipline. From then on, they are milked with ease. Tabraiz Shamsi of late has proved exception to this rule as he has climbed to the rank of number 1 T20I bowler in the world. However, even he has had many patches of ineffectiveness.

Let’s get back to that 11 year old again: how can we coach a budding left arm leg spinner and ensure they are resistant to the curse of the chinaman? The truth is, I don’t know; I’m no spin bowling expert. But what I do know is that we must teach left arm leg spinners to bowl at left handers more frequently. Of course, I don’t mean avoiding right handers completely but I do believe that bowling at left handers when solidifying technique will help cultivate a strong front arm and greater linear momentum in the action. Of course, there will always be some degree of slant across the right hander but at least the fundamentals will be in place.

Another thing that could be improved is to treat chinaman bowlers differently to other spinners. This sounds too obvious but too often is chinaman bowling carelessly bunched together with normal leg spinners. They are both subtly different arts with distinctive quirks. Sure, they are very similar but the obvious differences must be addressed.

As mentioned before, the chinaman population increased significantly: Kuldeep Yadav, Tabraiz Shamsi, Zahir Khan, Noor Ahmed and Jake Lintott are ones that come immediately to mind. Perhaps due to the burgeoning sample size, more may be done to understand these rare specimens and why they rise and fall so rapidly. Despite chinaman bowling’s immediate flaws, the ability to turn the ball both ways combined with a bit of left handed exoticness will always a potent weapon. For now, let’s hope that finding a successful left arm leg spinner becomes more common than winning the lottery.

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