Book Of The Year Award 2012 > Twirlymen - The Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers
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This is an odd and difficult book to come to grips with. The author, a club spinner and journalist for The Independent has obviously spent a long time in contemplation of the intriguing subject of spin-bowling. There has been a great deal of research; a long and comprehensive reading-list and a determination to come to grips with a topic that has been curiously under-explored in cricket history. There have been many biographies and autobiographies and instructional books but few general histories, bar David Frith's The Slow Men in 1985.
So, one would expect the book to be welcomed but I'm still not sure that it will be. The key problem is the emphasis on startling revelations. Bosanquet didn't invent the googly! Grimmett wasn't the first to bowl a flipper! Jack Potter bowled the doosra in 1964! And so on. Proof of all the above? Well.... K. J. Keys, a Surrey captain, once sent a letter to Jack Hobbs claiming that H. V. Page of Oxford and Gloucestershire was bowling the googly in 1885 but not in matches and only in the nets with no batsman present and A. G. Steel might have sent down a googly in his first Test but that can't be verified. It's proof Jim but not as we know it! Similarly, there is a major claim in the book that Walter Mead of Essex, a very useful county player but who only played a single Test, bowled a flipper, based on the description of his action and a grainy photograph in Beldam's Great Bowlers and Fielders: Their Methods At A Glance and a comment from Wisden that 'he sent down an occasional leg-break to good effect,' together with some dense textual analysis from C. B. Fry. It's all pudding and no beef, as the old saying has it.
Where one might take up arms, comes with the statement that Sydney Barnes was a spinner. The ever-modest Sydney always claimed that he 'spun every ball' that he bowled but he was also a master of swing and cut, using a damp pitch to great effect and certainly didn't use a wrist action, other than to cock it, to bowl his leg-cutter. Any spin came from his long and sinewy fingers out of the front of his hand, which ought to have raised the logical possibility that SFB was bowing a doosra but the author is strangely silent on that possibility. Interestingly, the author is of the opinion that probably everyone, except Saqlain Mushtaq, throws their doosra, on the grounds that it is impossible to bowl the ball without bending the elbow, whether by accident or design.
The majority of the book is well-researched and well-argued, with most of the major world spinners being profiled and discussed. Charlie Parker gets a cursory mention in passing when 'Tich' Freeman is being discussed and Tom Goddard doesn't appear at all. Equally oddly, Jack Hearne, who was reputed to use 'swerve' bowling and could bowl a medium-fast off-break with the best of them doesn't rate a mention. These three bowlers took over 9,000 wickets between them so their omission seems strange. Or perhaps they just didn't fit the arguments pursued.
After a while, the emphasis becomes repetitive and the reader's interest wanes as the writing also tends to repeat. It's certainly a book written by an enthusiast and that shines through but the feeling persists that every available fact has been marshalled to support a thesis and anything that tends to throw a spanner in the works (should have said - bowl a googly in the works, I suppose) is neatly omitted.
I would have like to have felt enthused about this book and its quest to explain the mysteries of spin-bowling but somehow it left me a little flat. How other readers view the book may well depend on their point of view regarding spin-bowling and its place in cricket but I'd be inclined to leave the last word with Wilfred Rhodes, 'If the batsman thinks it's spinning, then it's spinning – that's all that matters.'