Adil Rashid, currently displaying his bowling wares in the Big Bash League, recently took a five-wicket haul on test debut for England in the UAE. Nothing too sensational there you might say … except that he was the first English leg break bowler to bag a ‘Michelle’ (thank you Kerry O’Keefe!), five wickets in an innings, in a cricket test for 56 years! Its not that the English haven’t had any decent ‘leggies’ in that time – Robin Hobbs, Ian Salisbury, Chris Schofield, Scott Borthwick, have all been ‘capped’ for England – but when they have given them a go in the international arena they have done so ever so briefly, such is the closed mindset of the English establishment when it comes to leg-spinners!
England and Australia have diametrically opposed thought processes when it comes to assessing the value of leg-spinners. Everyone in Australia (and India) remembers Shane Warne’s test debut, 150-1 v India, grist for Ravi Shastri’s mill in 1992. And it didn’t get better in a hurry for Warne, after his first four tests he had taken precisely four wickets! But the Australian selectors, seeing the promise, persisted with Warne – and the rest was (leg spinning) history. The English authorities by contrast are neither brave or bold when it comes to encouraging and nurturing their young leggies, and it remains to be seen if England will persist with Rashid for longer than they have with other promising wrist spinners in the near past.
England invented the leg break and the ‘Bosie’ (the googly) and it is certainly not true that the country and its conditions are incompatible with good leg-spin bowling. Pakistan leggie Mustaq Ahmed in his legendary stint with Sussex took 478 wickets in five seasons of English country cricket (he remains the last bowler to take 100 wickets in an English season). Sussex won its first ever County Championship in 2003 and went on to win three in five years on the back of ‘Mushy’s’ persistent, penetrative leg breaks and wrong-uns! Indian leg-spinner Anil Kumble was similarly successful in his one (1995) season with Northamptonshire, topping the championship bowling list with 105 dismissals.
As to home-grown leggies, going deep into the history, England produced, among others, the most phenomenal, overachieving leg-spinner ever to grace an English ground! Alfred Percy Freeman, as his nickname (‘Tich’) implies, was tiny, 5’2″ (158 centimetres in the new language). Freeman achieved phenomenal success with Kent in the English County Championship in the inter-war years (see below). The attitude of the English selectors to Tich’s “class of his own” performances, emphasises what was to become the characteristic “head in the sand” reaction, a reluctance to embrace leg break bowling and give it a decent tryout.
In the historical record books of First class (FC) and English county cricket the nonpareil AP Freeman’s career include the following highlights:
:~ 3,776 wickets at 18.42 in FC career in 592 matches (6.38 wkts per match, strike rate: 40.9, economy rate 2.69) – second highest all-time wicket-taker to the great Wilfred Rhodes who took 4,204 wickets in 1,110 matches (ie, in 518 more matches)
:~ 304 wickets @ 18.05 in the 1928 English FC season – the highest of all-time & the only bowler to snare 300 in a single season (he also holds number 2 spot with 298 wkts @ 15.26 in 1933)
:~ in all FC matches: Five wickets in an innings, 386 times, & ten wickets in a match, 140 times! The next closest “five for” in an innings tally achieved in FC cricket is 287 instances (Rhodes), 99 in arrears of Tich. The next closest bowler for number of “ten fors” in matches made 91 (Charlie Parker)
:~ The only bowler to take 10 wkts in an innings thrice, the only bowler to take 17 wickets or more twice in a match
:~ Almost half of his 3,776 wkts were unassisted – the batsmen were either bowled, caught & bowled, LBW or hit-wicket
With such startling figures, leg-spinner or not, the selectors couldn’t ignore Tich forever. He was selected in an MCC ‘A’ tour to New Zealand in which he excelled on NZ pitches, followed by a full test tour to Australia in 1924-25 in which he made his debut at age 36. A combination of good, hard Australian wickets and the fact that Australian batsmen were brought up on a diet of leg spin meant that Freeman made very heavy weather of the series. Thereafter the national selectors choose the leg-spinner very irregularly. He did very well against South Africa and the West Indies, but was not considered for the tests against the Australians on either the 1926 or 1930 tours of the UK, despite getting a six for and a five for in the county games for Kent against the tourists. The selectors demonstrated a remarkable lack of perception in not showing a sustained faith in Freeman’s obvious talent and not backing him in tests, especially in English conditions. As things turned out, his record in tests suggest the magnitude of their error in judgement:
In just 12 tests, 66 wkts. ave: 25.86, strike rate: 56.5 BB: 71-7. Five wkts in inns: 5 times, Ten wkts in match: 3 times.
In the very limited opportunities afforded Freeman to represent his country, 66 wickets in tests at an average of 5.5 per match is more than respectable as returns go. In any form and at any level of the game, he was an out-and-out wicket-taking machine!
What accounts for the diminutive, right-arm Kent leggie’s exceptionality? Firstly, he was unswervingly consistent as a bowler … and he improved with age. In the eight seasons after he turned 40 in 1928, he took 2,090 wickets at 17.86, making him the leading wicket-taker in county cricket eight years in a row! Glenn McGrath has been described as ‘metronomic’ as a bowler, but it was Tich Freeman first who whirled them down with unerring accuracy like an automaton for 20 plus years. He commanded fantastic control of line and length. Although Tich was small, he was strong of hand and he had seemingly endless reserves of stamina, going on and on and on at the bowling crease. Freeman loved nothing more than to bowl and bowl and bowl. And he just hated being taken off. Regularly he would open the bowling in county games and bowl right through the innings!
Tich Freeman’s standard bowling strategy was one of relentlessly attacking the stumps. The line of his leg break was directed towards making the right-handed batsman play at the ball, rather than being able to let it spin away harmlessly. He tended to not overuse the googly, but had an extremely hard-to-pick top-spinner.
Some cricket pundits, in contrasting Freeman to later generations of bowlers, have tried to explain away or diminish his extraordinary success by predictably referring to the poor state of uncovered wickets in his day. Or to the fact that he sent down such a sheer weight of numbers of balls in his career. It is undeniable that bad wickets were an advantage for bowlers in that era, but in response I would ask what was it, given the even playing field prevailing, that made Freeman so much more successful than his contemporary counterparts? This comparison accentuates the point: in that English season when he took 304 wickets, the entire Derbyshire team in the Championship by comparison took just 324 wickets! The next closest individual county bowler to his 304 victims in 1928 managed only 190 wickets.
And while it was true that Freeman bowled a hell of a lot of balls in FC cricket, 154 thousand plus, the point remains that at the same time he maintained an outstanding career strike rate, less than 41, which is right up there with the very best of bowlers. Tich Freeman was a seriously great English wrist spinner whose fame was largely restricted to his home county of Kent. But for the timidness and blinkered vision of the national selectors in truncating his test career, Freeman’s bowling feats could be as well celebrated and lionised internationally as they are today among the Kent faithful and in pockets of the county cricket fraternity.