Having spent about 30 years bowling off spin and studied the various techniques of other spin bowlers and discussed this with bowlers I have met with a view to learning something, I have decided to put my thoughts into print.  

When I say “discussed this with some” it was clear that some spin bowlers, while still playing, were often reluctant to talk about what they saw as their own secrets.  It was as if details of their own skills or variations might be spread abroad and batsmen might become better prepared to bat against them.  

This was more the case outside Ireland as there were only a few top class spinners bowling in Ireland in my own particular generation.  Having a good balance in a bowling attack was not always possible.  Ideally you would have two opening bowlers, an all rounder fast or medium paced bowler, a slow left arm spinner and a right arm off spinner.  

I was fortunate to bowl at club level with Stan Oakes who was a classical left armer who turned the ball and at international level with Dermot Monteith who is seen as the foremost purveyor of slow left arm ever to play for Ireland.  

It is always an assistance to have someone bowling at the other end spinning the ball in a different direction and doing so accurately.  I would have learnt more from Dermot than anyone else.  I played a few times against the famous Essex side of the early 70s and they had David Acfield bowling off breaks, Ray East bowling slow left arm and Robin Hobbs bowling leg breaks.

Leg break bowlers had become very rare and there were very few around.  It appeared that wrist spinners could not be relied upon to be sufficiently accurate.  It is understandably more difficult to be consistently accurate if you are using your wrist far more than a finger spinner but it is one of the most welcome developments in recent times to be able to watch wrist spinners perform in all types of cricket.  

After Hobbs played 7 times for England (1967-71) there was a 21 year wait until the next leg spinner, Ian Salisbury, was capped.  He has been rated as the worst specialist bowler to play test cricket with an average of 77 in fifteen tests.

In Ireland Conor Hoey was the only regularly selected over maybe a 50 year period, and he could bowl with consistent accuracy.  Shane Warne must take credit for a virtual revolutionary revival of the art.  When trying to prise tips from Acfield and East the information I received was; from Ackfield, “Just bowl maidens quickly with a flat action and bore them out”.  

From East, “Make them laugh at something you do or say and they will lose concentration and get out.” Not much about technique there.  After play, in the bar, the two of them would do a comedy routine with Ackfield playing a ventriloquist’s dummy, sitting on East’s knee.  That was a great Essex team, on and off the field and encouraged in their humour by the skipper, Keith Fletcher.

As regards the whole point of this dissertation, “How to bowl spin”, I can safely say that I had no coaching whatsoever in how to bowl off breaks.  It is something that just happened when I started bowling in the back garden or in the street.  In school I took a run of 13 paces, held the ball down the seam, then bowled quickish off breaks.  Nobody showed me that spinners held the ball across the seam until I discovered that through observation.  My Dad, who was the one to interest me in cricket in the first place, asked me how I managed to bowl that ball.  I had no idea.

Enthusiasm for cricket was enhanced by going to see Denis Compton and Bill Edrich playing in an invitation match in Pembroke about 1958.  Compton made 50 and got out, Edrich had to be helped unto the field and helped off it a few balls later. My Dad also took me to a game at the Oval where Surrey the champion county, were playing the Rest.  I saw Fred Trueman bowling at Peter May and arguably the best ever off break bowler, Jim Laker. As I said, I picked up tips from various bowlers on technique and field placing either by observation or word of mouth.  

Ravi Shastri, the Indian left armer and current manager was one, Don Wilson, the Yorkshireman who was the head coach at Lords another. I played a rain interrupted MCC game with Eddie Hemmings, the England and Warwickshire off spinner, so I had three days to listen.  Amongst other things Eddie claimed he had a good relationship with his groundsman at Edgbaston.

Two weeks before a match an area eight feet out from the popping crease on an off spinner’s length would be scarified more than usual.  As it was two weeks away this doctoring would not be noticed but that area would wear more quickly than anywhere else on the strip, providing the required grip for a spinner.  What I learnt from this was not how to prepare a wicket but the ideal 8 foot distance to be landing the ball.  Depending on the speed at which you are bowling  the batsman can be caught in two minds about whether to play back or forward and if I am coaching spinners I use that 8 foot marker as ideal.

By the time I played for Leinster and Irish Schools, in 1966 and 67, I was bowling proper off breaks but still reverted to a long run up when time needed to be wasted.  The last time that happened was in the Irish schools match v Wales at Swansea in 1967.  Ian Johnston, the captain and opening bowler, had apparently saved the game by discovering that he could bat as well as bowl and scored 150 on the second day.  I was batting with about 6 wickets down when we declared, leaving Wales a gettable total in about 2 hours (some of these details are probably a bit off).  The staff in charge (no names) had told Ian to declare.  Ian did what he was told as that is what you did in school.  He had just saved the game and now it was thrown away.  I started bowling off breaks and gradually lengthened my run up to try and waste time.  I was soon bowling off a run up somewhere close to where Michael Holding would have started.

There was never the slightest chance of winning this game by declaring.  I tell this story to illustrate that the teachers in charge had little knowledge of what was going on so it is hardly surprising that the level of coaching available to young cricketers was no more than basic.

Perhaps more surprising is that I joined Phoenix about then and the eminence grise of Irish cricket and the greatest off spinner ever to play for Ireland, Jimmy Boucher, was ever present.  He picked me for Ireland in 1970 when I wasn’t quite up to that level but he never offered advice or coached me.  He would turn up at nets when out for his evening stroll from his home on the North Circular Road but would never come over and say try this, try that.  I partly blame myself for youthful arrogance which may have put him off involving himself but I never saw him doing any sort of coaching, even though he did some in his alma mater, Belvedere College, with schoolboys.  I should have asked him but I suppose I still thought coaching didn’t really exist.  When you consider there was no appointed coach to the senior Irish team until the 1990s I suppose you just didn’t expect coaching.

The bowling action for an off spinner and a slow left arm spinner who sometimes is rather confusingly described as bowling off spin as well is of course identical.  I will simply talk about bowling right-handed.

Although some spin bowlers take only a couple of paces I feel it is better to come in off about 7 yards. That is from your marker to the popping crease. I also feel that it is better to come in at bit of an angle.  There are 3 reasons for this. Firstly it is easier to get closer to the stumps with your front foot when approaching at a bit of an angle. You can thus bowl more wicket to wicket. There is a possible danger of stepping away a bit to the off in the delivery stride if you run in completely straight.  

Secondly, running in at an angle also makes it a bit easier to get completely sideways on in the bowling action as your left side is already at a bit of an angle when your left arm goes up in the delivery stride.  Thirdly, and I think this is a point overlooked by many, the left foot should land as close as possible parallel to the popping crease and this is helped by the angle of approach.

The position of the front foot is important because much of the spin and drift created by a spinner comes from the pronounced pivot which is created by planting the left foot at that close to parallel angle.  This ensures that the upper body pivots with the left foot in the delivery stride and if the left arm is as high as possible at the same time, with the head looking over the left shoulder there is the optimum chance of the ball turning to the right after drift to the left.  Of course conditions may not help and often don’t.  A follow through of 2 paces is all that is necessary to achieve a fluent action and as high an action as possible is important although there have been many successful spinners who couldn’t do that or maybe their arm dropped somewhat with passing years.  

Bowling into a wind that is blowing from fine leg or square leg will help drift the ball away with a good action. Some spinners who plant their front foot more like a seamer, pointing towards fine leg rather than close to parallel with the popping crease will lose the benefit of an ensuing enhanced pivot and will reduce their ability to turn the ball, relying too much on “rip” from the fingers.  

It is often the case that spinners who do not or cannot manage a decent pivot were seamers in their younger days and have not adapted. A good pivot should dig up the wicket with your spikes at the spot where the foot lands unless it is a hard, very well rolled surface. The drift away from a right-handed batsman is also enhanced by a good off break rip from the fingers.  A ball spinning in the air from left to right with good “revs” has a chance of drifting to the left.  In the same way a leg spinner can drift a ball in to a right-handed batsman and then spin it away as long as there are good “revs” on the ball.  

Long fingered spinners have an advantage as they can get a better grip and probably more turn.  I do not have long fingers but tried to make up for it by stretching the first 2 fingers as wide as possible when gripping across the seam, putting pressure on the inside of the first finger which becomes the trigger.  The “revs” will be achieved from the twist of the hand and wrist plus the added finger action on delivery.  Some bowlers simply cant do this, just as some bowlers can’t swing the ball or bowl fast.  Most off spinners can’t bowl leg breaks, or at least can’t bowl them and achieve much spin or accuracy.  So being able to specialise with a ball is actually a gift most cricketers don’t have.  It is not surprising that during a net practice most players don’t bowl at all because they are not good enough to give the batsmen any decent practice.  

The most usual variations are subtle changes of pace, line and spin but quite often variations come naturally, without intent.  You might often be commended for such variations and you should accept any compliments offered with a straight face. Shane Warne was keen to fool batsmen as to what he was actually trying to do. Observers often credited him with a wide variety of deliveries which he was happy to allow people to think he bowled, or still bowled.

He lost the ability to bowl googlies due to shoulder problems but many batsmen kept expecting them. His top spinning “flipper” which went straight and frequently kept low was a lethal ball.  
Certainly you should see any ball bowled when the batsman can play with reasonable comfort on the back foot as a bad ball.

 If batsmen know you bowl the odd bad ball they may wait for it and not take the chances you want them to take.  Also, if you are bowling to force catches at short leg you are not going to get fielders very keen to go there if you are bowling too short. It is always better to be hit straight for six off a half volley than over midwicket with a long hop. Bowling a ball that goes straight on is often the most effective one you can bowl and if you drift it or swing it as well so much the better.

The aforementioned Jimmy Boucher was the most successful off spinner to play for Ireland.  I never saw him bowl but by all accounts he looked more like a medium pace bowler with a long run up.  He had long fingers for a small man and he spun the ball so much that there was often a click from his fingers when he released the ball.  He bowled a ball that went straight on and took many wickets with it, caught at slip, bowled or lbw.  I have heard it said that he could click his fingers on his left hand when delivering this ball to make the batsman think it was the normal off spinner.  Maybe a bit hard to believe but that’s the story.

Some bowlers bowl a ball from a yard further back than normal and all bowlers should occasionally vary the spot where the front foot lands.  Ideally, if you spin the ball with sufficient “revs” it will dip in flight and the batsman will often think you have bowled him a half volley and he will find he is not quite there for the shot he has in mind.  This is when a gap between bat and pad might emerge or a mishit is hit in the air, usually on the leg side.  I once heard a good first-class batsman say, “You’re there, you think you’re there, you’re not there; you’re out!).

However, it is often best to bowl so accurately that the batsman wonders how he is going to score or at least score at a sufficient pace.  I am not saying that David Ackfield’s advice on bowling flat and boring the batsman out is the template to be used but there is some truth in it.            
If you have a variation which involves swinging the ball with a seamer’s grip, the front foot might need to come down much straighter.  As spinners are frequently required to keep one side of the ball polished for the quicker bowlers, it is not unusual to see a slow bowler polishing the ball.  This will assist in bowling a slow swinging ball.  The ball needs to be held down the seam and this grip can be hidden in a number of ways. Perhaps by using a wide fingered grip with the index finger down the left of the seam and then sliding the second finger into a seamer’s position in the delivery stride.  The shine should, of course, be on the right hand side of the ball.  I tended not to hide this ball that much as I was surprised at how often the batsman did not realise it was basically an away swinger, bowled with a slightly different action with no finger action.  Some days the ball will not swing so I would rule out that delivery on those days, but other days it could be a very useful variation.  Swing bowlers in general have days when the ball will not swing and the reasons for that are frequently debated.  It could be the ball, the weather, bowling at the wrong end for wind assistance, lack of shine, etc.etc.

As I was brought up in a time before overs cricket and one was required to take 10 wickets to win a match there is quite a difference between fielding positions used 50 years ago and today so you could say that I am not qualified to be an authority on fielding positions today.  Also, as there are very few time matches played nowadays, and with Ireland p[aying a minimum, there are times in 50 over games when attacking fields make sense, especially when there is assistance in the wicket for spinners.  

With the much more aggressive attitude of batsmen in the modern game and the development of shots that would not have been permitted in the MCC Coaching Book bowlers are often seen to be on a hiding to nothing.  I was fortunate that when Ireland started to play overs matches 6 fielders were still permitted on the leg side and leg side wides were called much less frequently.

Spinners tended to come on early and bowl out their overs before batsmen had licence to start smashing the ball all over the place.  Nowadays the smashing starts at the beginning of an innings.  The earlier Gillette and Nat West matches were also 60 over games.  This often delayed onslaughts until much later in an innings.  When Ireland started playing competitive 60 over games against professional county sides in 1980 against Middlesex in the last year of the Gillette Cup, the question was what changes, if any, should be made in the selection of Irish teams for one dayers.  

I asked Dermot Monteith that question.  “Well I wouldn’t pick you” he said.  I was amused rather than annoyed but realised some changes might be necessary.  There was a widespread opinion that slow bowlers were not such a good idea because scoring would be easier.  This was soon seen to be incorrect.  It is probably easier to set a field for an accurate slow bowler who might turn the ball than a faster bowler who might not control his line and length to the same extent.
I adjusted my line from time cricket which was generally outside the off stump to bowling at the stumps with a slightly flatter action which made it more difficult for the batsman to use his feet effectively. 

This was something I picked up from “Flat Jack” Simmons of Lancashire who used to say to batsmen “You miss I hit”.  With 6 fielders on the leg side, 3 saving one and 3 on the boundary and with batsmen generally not improvising nearly as much as nowadays, it was generally possible to achieve reasonable bowling stats.  You would sometimes come across right-handed batsmen who could drive a ball on leg stump through the off side where there were only 3 fielders but generally the ball was hit to a slightly forward square leg, a mid wicket level with the bowler’s stumps or to a 45 degrees backward square leg for no run or to the 3 boundary fielders at backward square, cow corner or long on for one run.  

Of course at times you were confronted with batsmen like Graeme Hick who could manage to avoid all these fielders.  Nowadays these fields are impossible and not having a deep point/extra cover is most unusual.  Watching one day and 20/20 cricket nowadays when there is frequently nobody saving one on the leg side and the boundary fielders are needed to catch attempted mishit sixes and hopefully will sprint in fast enough to save two is interesting to say the least.  If I had a mid off and mid on in saving one and runs were not being scored, they would be pushed back to the boundary for the last two balls as the batsman would be thinking of hitting the ball over their heads as they hadn’t been scoring earlier in the over.  

Nowadays they would be hitting over the infield at the beginning of the over.  The square fielder on the off side would be put a bit behind square as I found the ball ran there more than directly at 90% square.  A thick outside edge would go there and for a thinner edge he would be closer to the ball to save 2 or even 4.

However if the ball is turning and an attacking field is needed I would always use a short leg placed just square of the bat when a forward defensive shot is played.  A backward short leg at an angle of 45 would also be employed.  Depending on how the batsman plays forward defensively a short point might be needed.  If the batsman plays with his bat behind the reach of his front leg an inside edge is liable to pop up on the off side.  I found that a slip fielder if employed needed to be fairly straight as the wicket keeper is standing up.  For an off spinner, bowling at a left hander usually gave you more chance of a wicket (unless that was David Gower!).  

A right hander could kick you away while hiding his bat behind his leg or outside the line as long as the pad was outside the line but left handers are more vulnerable to the turning ball.  A good recent example is an English team with lots of left handers batting against the best orthodox off spinner around at the moment, Nathan Lyon.  The deep backward square leg was very important.  There is a line that the orthodox sweep will generally travel and often the ball will travel directly to the fielder.  I always brought that fielder in about 10 yards from the boundary, or more for a larger boundary, as a top edge sweep would not reach him standing right on the boundary.  It was, in effect, an attacking fielding position.  

If the ball was turning I might keep the mid-on in to encourage the batsman to hit the ball over his head. If he didn’t get to the pitch properly he might scoop the ball for a catch to deep midwicket.  However with a good athletic fielder at deep midwicket, drag, cow corner or whatever you want to call it and another at long on the catches will come.  Bishen Singh Bedi, one of the greatest slow left armers, is quoted as saying he liked being hit for six as it raised the chances of him taking wickets if the batsman continued in the same vein.

Watching cricket is fascinating if you can get inside the head of the players, bowlers, batsmen and captains.  If, while watching, you find yourself disagreeing with how the players are approaching their job, it should be even more fascinating and if you find it annoying, maybe you should keep your mouth shut as much as possible.  If you spot a good piece of cricket, for example, a subtle change in the field by the captain, go on about it as much as you like.  If you are still sufficiently old fashioned to talk about overs cricket and especially 20/20s as “not real cricket” or can’t understand bowlers trying to bowl almost wide yorkers or what look like slow long hops you are just going to have to suck it up!  That is where we are now.