If the ongoing Test series between Australia and New Zealand has taught us one thing, it’s this: Australian pitches are currently flatter than at any other point in living memory. But this is not another think-piece decrying the loss of sporting wickets. It is not written to empathise with the plight of the fast bowler, with the much-vaunted attacks from either side of the Tasman reduced to glorified bowling machines. No, this is a bandwagon piece of another sort. Let’s talk about Mark Craig.
Craig has taken six wickets so far in this series, costing 438 runs in 86 overs of toil. For those unwilling to do the maths, that has him averaging 73 runs per wicket, striking every 86 deliveries, and conceding just a touch over five runs per over. When one factors in that arguably all of Craig’s wickets have been the result of irresponsible declaration batting, that he’s been incapable of building any pressure, and that he’s straight-up never looked threatening, even the most parochial Kiwi can probably recognise why The Daily Telegraph judged him the “worst Test spinner to tour Australia.”
Considering that Craig was generally regarded the third best spinner at his Otago club team, Albion, and only arose to Test selection when Jeetan Patel refused to make himself available for a tour to the West Indies, it is rather unsurprising that his impact on the current series has been minimal. Many fans have called for Craig to be discarded for Mitchell Santner, risking him becoming another spoke on a perpetually-turning post-Vettori wheel of mediocrity, in a desperate search for an immediate match-winner. A situation not incomparable with Australia’s rotation of spin stocks in the post-Warne era, prior to the rise of Nathan Lyon.
It does bring about the question, however, that if he’s the third best spinner at his club and he’s bowling utter shit, why is he in the squad in the first place?
To answer this question, we need to go down a rabbit hole into the depths of finger spin bowling — its technique, its biomechanics, its nuances, and how it works in Australia specifically. I’ve enlisted Rob Cribb, a new member of the Mind the Windows! team, and himself an Australian off spin bowler, to push through this topic.
Izzy Westbury, captain of Middlesex and one-time Netherlands representative, is an offie who either relishes challenge a little bit too much, or has gone slightly crazy. She’s in her second successive summer as an overseas player in Melbourne’s grade competition.
“Your pitches…,” she says, her tone implying that her head is shaking disapprovingly, face about to meet palm, as the trauma of being carted by Meg Lanning replays in her mind over and over again. While she acknowledges the immense benefits of learning new skills in different conditions, of adding facets to her game that would otherwise go undeveloped, she knows that Australian decks are not a happy hunting ground for finger spinners. They are where they go to die.
The statistics are horrific. Muralitharan averages 75.41 in the country, Harbhajan 73.22. Saeed Ajmal, touring in 2009, could only manage two wickets at 111.50 runs apiece. Of world-class contemporary spinners, only Rangana Herath and Saqlain Mushtaq can lay claim to decent statistical records, both averaging around the 34 mark in Australia.
This isn’t a result of some of the world’s greatest spinners magically forgetting how to bowl when they land in Australia. It is not an easy place to succeed as a finger spinner. That old pre-War maxim rings true: off spin in England, leg spin in Australia.
So, why Mark Craig? Why bother with a finger spinner, if finger spinners overwhelmingly suck in Australia?
Mark Craig is actually very well suited to Australian pitches. Sounds crazy, I know. But let Rob explain:
Bowling off spin in Australia is all about mastering the variation of overspin. Having control over the amount of bounce and drift you get with each ball is huge because you can’t rely on the pitch to offer you any turn. Don’t sacrifice revs; just focus them where they’re useful.
A lot of coaches focus on ‘threatening both edges’ which is a good thing to focus on all the way to First Class level, but in Tests you’re going to spend a lot of time not really threatening either edge because of the higher standard of batting and lack of turn available, so trying to do the batsmen for length/bounce is really important. Hence, Lyon.
In short, bowling off spin in Australia isn’t about massive sidespin; the lack of assistance in Test match pitches, combined with the obvious skill of Test match batsmen, means that a bowler reliant on turn and turn alone is not going to find much success. An example of this would be Jason Krejza, a big turner of the ball who often did so at the expense of accuracy, drift and bounce. He’s the type of bowler who looks unplayable in a highlights package, every wicket coming from a big-turning off break that ripped back through the gate. Alas, between those balls he’s conceded a hundred runs.
On the other hand are bowlers who gain so much success by threatening both edges in First Class cricket, utilising natural variation to get some deliveries to turn and others to go straight on. Steve O’Keefe, added to Australia’s squad for Adelaide, is a master of this in the Sheffield Shield. His phenomenal numbers in the competition come from his ability to slide deliveries past the inside edge from around the wicket, gaining LBW decisions as batsmen play — and miss — for turn that never comes. Meanwhile, Nathan Lyon’s statistics in the Shield suggest a spinner who is barely First Class standard, let alone the most prolific off spinner to ever play Test cricket for Australia.
Most spinners who come in Shield cricket are primarily sidespin bowlers, because if you impart lots of sidespin on deliveries you can get Club batsmen out. It doesn’t really work as well in Shield cricket though unless you’re awesome. It’s why Lyon is comparatively better the higher a level he plays.
O’Keefe being more accurate and challenging both edges would mean he’d take a stack of wickets just beating batsmen off the pitch in Club cricket. Lyon would try to do the batsmen in the air and accentuate his spin with bounce, and it wouldn’t work as well.
Lyon is someone who doesn’t have a strong arm ball and that’s why he’s not as effective as O’Keefe in Shield cricket. Test batsmen on really good-for-batting Test wickets aren’t particularly bothered by the sort of sidespin-based variation O’Keefe offers, but the variation in bounce that Lyon can control is a huge threat if he can beat anyone in the air.
At Test level, with a step up in the class of batsmen, O’Keefe is unlikely to threaten either edge; his arm ball isn’t quite good enough to beat the very best of batsmen, nor does he turn the ball enough to threaten the outside edge with any regularity. Meanwhile, Lyon’s ability to use overspin allows him to control his bounce. That, mixed with variations in flight and the use of drift, make him a highly dangerous off spinner:
Lyon’s wickets of Pujara and Rahane in the first innings of the 2014/15 Gabba Test, in particular, are a result of his control over bounce, utilising additional overspin to create chances. Meanwhile, the LBW decision against Vijay in the second innings of that match is brought about by his ability to vary his overspin — and utilise natural variation in the pitch — that causes the delivery not to bounce as dramatically. Key to this is Lyon’s ability to pivot over his front knee, driving through with his back hip to put additional revs on the ball; unsurprisingly, this shape through the crease is accentuated by bowling around the wicket — hence Lyon’s tendency to go around the stumps on a regular basis, the ball angling across the right hander, straightening down the line, and often threatening the splice of the bat.
Mark Craig is not dissimilar to Nathan Lyon in his style of bowling: he’s a bowler who utilises overspin more so than sidespin, bringing into play the variations of pace, bounce and flight that Lyon has used to good effect — though Craig’s action is closer in style to Graeme Swann’s than it is to Lyon’s. In short, while far from international quality, Craig is the best option amongst New Zealand finger spinners to bowl in Australia. The drawback with Craig, however, is strongly related to his life story; he is only a relatively young off spinner, picking up the bowling style late. Craig simply has far less experience bowling off spin — let along bowling off spin to high class batsmen — than Nathan Lyon, despite Lyon being the younger of the two men. In the ongoing series, and most of Craig’s career to date, this has manifest itself as inconsistency. While, like Lyon, he has the tools to succeed, Mark Craig does not have the control over them to provide the consistency needed to exert pressure on Test match batsmen game-in, game-out.
When the stars align, Craig bowls extremely well. He’s capable of brilliant, match-winning spells when he gets it right and the pitch assists him, but lacks the experience to replicate those spells and adapt them to wholly hostile pitches. At the core of this is his tendency to bowl far too short far too often, immediately releasing any pressure he attempts to build: he’s only bowled four maidens this series.
His Albion club-mates, Nathan McCullum and Nick Beard, conform more closely to the style of finger spin that succeeds at club and Plunket Shield level, and certainly offer more control than Craig. But neither of them have the tools to trouble Test class batsmen with overspin in the way Craig theoretically can.
Mark Craig is a long way from delivering consistent Test-match performances; he may well never develop that consistency. But, from a technical standpoint, he is far from the worst off spinner to ever set foot on Australian shores — no matter how apocalyptically bad his statistics appear.