Paul Strang: A rare world-class leg-spinner of the '90s unearthed by Zimbabwe

Paul Strang © Getty Images

Paul Strang, born July 28, 1970, was one of the finest leg-spinners of 1990s. Abhijit Banare looks into the career of the spinner who couldn’t sustain his career due to a muscular injury, but made quick strides donning the hat of a coach.

Valuable lessons are learnt not just from the champion teams or winning individuals, but also from players who stretched themselves through tough conditions around them. Hence you need a guide who can not only help you to peak your performance, but also tread that caution about what not to do on the way up. That’s why some of the unheard of players later manage to become effective coaches. Paul Strang certainly falls in this category. As a coach with Auckland Aces, the Zimbabwe player certainly had a positive impact.

Early Days

He was a rare find in a Zimbabwe team that was still searching to establish itself on the cricketing map. In a way this wrist-spinner was part of a team which didn’t have much to offer to back his talent. Yet Strang managed to fight it out and get noticed. His father Ronald Strang was a TV umpire. Paul was drafted into the Test side for the home series against Sri Lanka in 1994-95 and managed to pick three wickets in the third Test.

The best days of Zimbabwe cricket included three set of siblings: Guy Whittall & Andy Whittall, Paul and Bryan Strang and the Flowers —  Andy and Grant. Within a year, in 1995, Paul was joined by his younger sibling Bryan, who made his debut against Pakistan. The Strang brothers played 14 Tests and 25 ODIs together.

Classic leg-spin action

For someone who wished to watch Strang’s rhythmic bowling, it’s difficult to find enough footage of his bowling except for his four-wicket haul against Sri Lanka in 1998. Perhaps the only way you could ever be reminded of his action is by watching South African leggie Imran Tahir. Strang would usually jog with a jerky run-up, close to the stumps and end up with his legs apart in such a position that if a batsman doesn’t get foxed by his flight he could easily aim the middle-stump with a straight drive through the bowler’s legs.

His short stature matched with a stereotypical image of a leg-spinner (barring Kumble). He was among the old-timers who believed in giving a nice loop to the ball which rises enough above the batsman’s eye-level to make the trajectory a matter of discomfort.

1996 World Cup

He made a mark in the 1995-96 World Cup in Sri Lanka, helping his team secure vital breakthroughs. As mentioned earlier, great performances by individuals in such a team often gets shadowed by mediocrity or in gentle words, lack of adequate skill lets such players down. His 12 wickets in six matches though were noted by many.

Player Mts Ovs Runs Wkts Avg SR
Anil Kumble 7 69.4 281 15 18.73 27.8
Waqar Younis 6 54 253 13 19.46 24.9
Paul Strang 6 42.1 192 12 16 21

The figures clearly show Strang was among the finest bowlers of the tournament; probably the best as well if the third column from right is excused for a moment. His five-wicket haul against Kenya marked his team’s only victory in the tournament. The brothers together claimed seven wickets.

Strang’s spell was unarguably rated as the best bowling spell of the World Cup. One can say his sizzling run in the marquee tournament changed the course of his career with a county stint already in the offing; first for Kent in 1997 followed by Nottinghamshire the next year.

Paul Strang: A rare world-class leg-spinner of the '90s unearthed by Zimbabwe

Paul Strang was among the old-timers who believed in giving a nice loop to the ball which rises enough above the batsman’s eye-level to make the trajectory a matter of discomfort © Getty Images

Strang’s moments of brilliance

In October 1996, Zimbabwe faced Pakistan. A 2-0 sweep was yet again on the cards, the only thing that was common between the two was a five-wicket haul from Strang. The visitors managed to pull some rabbit out of the hat in the first Test and Strang had a handsome role to play. Choosing to bat first, the Zimbabweans had put up an ordinary performance considering the impact players in the team. At 142 for six, after the dismissal of Guy Whittall, Strang walked in and revived the fortunes to score his maiden Test ton. The leggie along with Grant Flower added 131 runs against bowlers like Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq. However what made the innings more delightful was the ninth wicket partnership. Strang joined by his brother Bryan defied the strong bowling attack and added 87 runs to take their team to 375 with the senior Strang contributing 106.

Strang almost forced the Pakistan batting into submission by dismissing the openers and ran through the middle-order to bag a five-wicket haul. However, none of Strang’s heroics impressed the eventual result of the game after Wasim Akram played a marathon innings of 257 runs. All that remained was a statistical delight — only Zimbabwean to score a century along with a five-wicket haul and end up on the losing side.

The other notable performance of his career was against the Kiwis in 2000-01, where he foxed out eight batsmen and brought New Zealand close to conceding a huge first innings deficit. But unlike stronger teams who would have further tightened the noose, it was a déjà vu for Zimbabwe with opposition finding an escape route and eventually turning the table to find a victory. Despite New Zealand heading for a victory chasing 132, Strang managed to scalp two more thereby making it the first ten-wicket haul of his career. His match-figures read 10 for 158.

He played his last match for Zimbabwe in the ODI series against Bangladesh which they comfortably clinched in 2001. Strang finally had to give up due to a chronic muscle injury. He ended up with 70 Test wickets in 24 matches and 96 in ODIs. His brother Bryan’s career too came to a halt in November 2001.

While both continued in the domestic circuits, their relation with the board turned bitter after the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) banned Bryan from all domestic tournaments. His elder brother came down hard at the ZCU. Apparently no clear reason was given but Paul felt their strong views on how the game was being managed in the country had caused the eventual fall-out. The country had let down one of the rare spinner who could have made a difference to their side.

The mid 1990s had a dearth of quality leg-spinners — Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Strang and Mushtaq Ahmed being the notable ones. It’s an irony that one of the four best leg-spinners was unearthed from a nation which hardly managed to push any opposition on the field. While in Australia, Warne was so impressed with Strang that he openly expressed being an admirer of the leggie. According to Warne, Richie Benaud and Strang once happened to meet at an airport and the complements were flowing all around. Good wrist spinners have somehow been hard to come by. To distinguish him from the legends, Strang was unlike a stereotypical leg-spinner who would be hopping around with a bat. When the wickets are tough to come by, this leggie can hang around. A batting average of almost 27 does prove that.

Auckland Aces coach

While Bryan continued to stay in his country the elder brother switched to New Zealand where a new life awaited with a few years spent coaching in the domestic circuit especially with Auckland A in 2008. With a fairly familiar face around, Strang eased into the role of a high performance coach and then as a coach for the Auckland Aces team from 2009. Strang felt that the country suited him and his family. In that context one can also point to the fact that similar to Zimbabwe, he found himself dealing with limited resources — players and finance — to deal with. Winning the HRV Cup and Men’s T20 cup catapulted his reputation. His contract was renewed in 2011, but earlier this year, he chose to move on after a four-year association with the Aces.

Reasons for success

Teams which command lesser value, hardly carry any burden of expectations, pressures and pre-determined goals. As a result, the talented players who breed in this set-up though never get noticed, manage to keep moving and, sky’s the limit. Hence you see these players blooming in the latter part of their career and contribute more value and in this case, in the form of a coach putting their well-observed insights to use. Strang for the Auckland Aces, two of the well-known Zimbabweans — Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher — are at the helm of a Test champion and an ODI champion side respectively. For a country hardly known for its cricketing history, it has given two powerful personalities. While his records aren’t staggering, Strang may well make a mark in years to come as a successful coach.

If there was an all-time Zimbabwe XI, Strang would undoubtedly star alongside the Flowers and Streak. He was part of a team which forced the stronger teams to introspect. However, the efforts seem to have watered away due to lack of investment in building a new team. In the present context, finding a talent like Strang or Ray Price appears to be a far-fetched idea. Only Graeme Cremer comes close to being the next major leg-spinner for Zimbabwe.

(Abhijit Banare is a reporter at CricketCountry. He is an avid quizzer and loves to analyse and dig out interesting facts which allows him to learn something new every day. Apart from cricket he also likes to keep a sharp eye on Indian politics, and can be followed on Twitter and blog)