Tom McKibbin - Off -spinner who could bowl the wrong 'un without change of action © Wikimedia
Tom McKibbin – Off -spinner who could bowl the wrong ‘un without change of action © Wikimedia

Saqlain Mushtaq has been recognised as the innovator who added the ‘doosra’ to the off-break bowler’s repertoire. However, there is evidence to suggest that the delivery was bowled a hundred years prior to the Pakistani ace. Arunabha Sengupta analyses past chronicles, including the written reminiscences of the great Clem Hill, to conclude that Australian Tom McKibbin, by all accounts, had been an accomplished master of the craft.

The one that goes the other way

We do remember the deliveries that started deceiving the cricket world.

There was Saqlain Mushtaq, devious, cunning, with all sorts of tricks up his sleeve. Sleeves that he insisted on wearing long. On occasions, he would start his fast, short-stepped run up, stop along the way and go back to his mark to begin again. In limited overs cricket, he would don coloured clothes, bowl with the white ball, but insist on putting on the white sweater of the traditional game, even when it was blisteringly hot. Anything to needle, confuse, and fox the batsman, to get under his skin or play around with the visual background of the flight of the ball. READ: Saqlain Mushtaq drops plan to work in PCB’s current set-up

Add to that the excellent control, the flight, dip and the conventional off-break. And, wonder of wonders, the one that went the other way. No off-spinner had really mastered that before him. Rameez Raja called it the ‘Saqigly’ for a while, before the cricket world agreed on the ‘doosra’. The Urdu word for the ‘other one’, the off-spinner’s counterpart for the ‘wrong ’un’ or the googly of the leggie.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, the Pakistanis had given the world the first genuine innovation of seam bowling in over a century — the art of the reverse swing. In Mark Kidger’s The Physics of Cricket the chapter on reverse swing is aptly titled ‘Pakistani Hydrodynamics’.

And here was another Pakistani with a completely new innovation that revolutionised the role of the off-spinner.

 

Granted, when the spin is imparted the other way and the ball is projected from the back of the hand, a perfectly legitimate action makes it difficult for it to make it across the 22 yards with speed and control. A jerk of the elbow is almost a necessity. Saqlain wore full sleeves, insisted on wearing them all through the 1999 World Cup.

The others who adopted the delivery also had their actions questioned, temporarily banned, in some cases had the doosra taken out of their arsenal. Harbhajan Singh, Shoaib Malik, Johan Botha and then Saeed Ajmal. Muttiah Muralitharan survived all the probing questions about his action because of a quirk in the structure of his arm, and a perhaps necessary modification of the rules. He ended with 800 Test wickets. READ: Saqlain Mushtaq considers Ravichandran Ashwin a complete bowler

All that is known and accepted. The legality of ‘doosra’ is debated furiously till date.

But, the question we raise is, was Saqlain the inventor of this delivery? Or even the first one to use it regularly?

Some unsubstantiated claims

Of course there have been other claimants. V Ramnarayan writes in his book Third Man that in the nets EAS Prasanna had demonstrated the way of turning the ball the other way, that too with a perfectly straight arm. It was a trick that he did not use in the match because he had not perfected it.

But then, amidst the incredible deification that the Indian spinners of the 1960s and 1970s have been subjected to, one wonders where to draw the line between fact and fancy. Besides, it does not really count if not deployed in match situations.

Similarly, Ashley Mallett claims: “I could ‘bowl’ what they call a doosra today, but when I played, off-spinners did not have ICC carte blanche to throw the ball. I felt it was wrong to throw, so I discarded the whole thing.”

Once again, Mallett’s proclamations need to be taken with a pinch of salt. His writings sprinkle increasing quantities of manufactured gold dust as they describe deeds of spinners he knows or admires. With a confused facility for numbers he makes major blunders in his ‘objective’ assessment of greatness in spinners like Clarrie Grimmett and Prasanna. While that may not be enough evidence to cast a suspicious eye on his remarks about himself, it is probably a good idea to be cautious before taking his word for it. Besides, he too did not bowl it in a real match. READ: Pakistan must seek advice from Miandad, Inzamam and Yousuf to solve batting woes, says Saqlain Mushtaq

And then there was Sonny Ramadhin who turned it both ways, and if grainy videos are anything to go by, had a prodigiously suspicious action. But from Frank Worrell’s Cricket Punch we learn that the off-break would be bowled with a clockwise motion of the fingers and the leg-break with a counter-clockwise movement. The evidences suggest that he bowled the orthodox off-break and orthodox leg-break.

The claims in the living and scarcely surviving memories can perhaps be justifiably ignored. However, one of the obscure, seldom heeded and largely unknown accounts from the hoary past does indicate that the delivery was bowled well over a century ago.

Clem Hill’s Reminiscences

In February, 1933, England, having unleashed the Harold Larwood powered Bodyline tactics, clinched the Ashes by the end of the fourth Test at Brisbane. There were still several weeks left in the Australian summer, and the defeat of Australia had already rendered the final Test a dead rubber.

While the Bodyline controversy had led to an unprecedented sale of newspapers, the press was apprehensive about the steadily dwindling of interest in the cricket after this early outcome of the series. And in order to mitigate the risk of dropping sales, the Adelaide-based afternoon newspaper The News decided to rope in erstwhile batting great Clem Hill to write a series of 20 articles reminiscing about his playing days.

The articles began on February 23, the first day of the final Test match at Sydney. They ran till March 17. The series is invaluable because they remain the only published account of one of the greatest of batsmen, certainly the greatest left-handed batsman the world had seen till then. Strangely, there has been no biography of Hill even today. Peculiar indeed, because if we peel off the rosy layers of romanticism surrounding aesthetics of batsmanship and focus on figures and quality of opposition, Hill achieved rather more in his career than the illustrious and idolised Victor Trumper. READ: Harbhajan Singh not treated well by India: Saqlain Mushtaq

The newspaper series talked about Hill’s playing days, tales of important matches interspersed with amusing anecdotes. And one such anecdote provides enough reason to think that the delivery we call ‘doosra’ today had been bowled years ago, in the late 19th century.

Spinners’ Yarns

Of course, that in no way takes anything away from Saqlain.

We all associate Bernard Bosanquet with inventing the googly, but there are other claims to the delivery. William Atwell, the Nottinghamshire and England medium-pacer, had sometimes sent down a puzzling delivery that followed no rules. So did the eccentric ER Wilson of Rugby, Cambridge and Yorkshire. AG Steel and the Australian Joey Palmer are also sometimes credited to have bowled one or two by accident.

According to a letter sent to Jack Hobbs by KJ Key, HV Page of Oxford and Gloucestershire often bowled genuine googlies as long ago as 1885, although never in a match — always after the fall of a wicket, before the new batsman came in to bat. If we believe the claims of Prasanna and Mallett, we need to recognise Page as well.

Similarly, while Ellis Achong is twined with the tale of the Chinaman, there are claims that Charlie Llewellyn often bowled the delivery decades before the West Indian.

Also, newspapers of the past tell us that Roy Kilner sent down such deliveries to Bill Woodfull in 1926, described by the reporters as Chinaman. In 1931, Maurice Leyland dismissed Stan Nichols at Headingley and the batsman was reported by the papers as ‘chasing Leyland’s Chinaman’. Both these incidents predate the accepted legend that the term was popularised in the mid-1930s following the association of this type of bowling with Achong — aided by Walter Robins’ dismissal off the West Indian bowler at Old Trafford in 1933.

McKibbin’s Magic

Let us turn to Hill’s story.

In March 1896, 18-year-old Hill, fresh from a rousing 206 against New South Wales, was chosen to play for The Rest of Australia against the team selected to tour England that year.

The fascinating match took place at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Eager to prove themselves, the Australian XI bowlers skittled the challengers for 117 in the first innings. The frighteningly quick Ernie Jones claimed 6 wickets, while his partner, the medium-pacer and off-spinner Tom McKibbin, captured 3.

In response, the Rest bowled their hearts out. Test discards Charlie Turner and Albert Trott sent man after man back to the hutch, while Henry Donnan stuck around resolutely to score 88. Frank Iredale, Syd Gregory and captain Harry Trott got useful runs. The senior side led by 113 after the first innings. READ: Saeed Ajmal: Saqlain Mushtaq instilled confidence back in me

Young Hill came into bat in the second innings on a sticky wicket, with the score reading 57 for 2. McKibbin, having resorted to his off-breaks, was growing dangerous by the minute.

The sterling left-hander proceeded to play a gem of an innings of 74 that day, adding 139 with Charlie McLeod. McKibbin bowled him in the end, but the knock earned him a ticket to England. In the last meeting the selectors decided to send an extra man, and this extra man was none other than the fresh faced Hill.

In the end McKibbin picked up 6 for 104, while the Rest scored 355. Set 243 to win, Australian XI squeezed home by 2 wickets. After Joe Darling had set the platform, the side lost its way to flounder at 184 for 8 when Syd Gregory was joined by wicketkeeper Alf Johns. This pair got the remaining runs, Gregory remaining unbeaten on a splendid 75.

It was during this match, presumably in the course of Hill’s fighting innings, a phase of play occurred that was recalled by the champion batsman in 1933.

McKibbin was bowling, and wicketkeeper Johns was anxious to make a good impression at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I will allow Hill to take up the story:

“He (Johns) knew that so far as taking the other bowlers was concerned he would be quite at home, but Tom McKibbin was always a puzzle to any wicket-keeper when he was bowling at his best on a sticky wicket. He could bowl a leg-break with scarcely any alteration of his action at all, and no end of watching. With the idea of assisting Johns it was arranged between the two that Tom should touch his cap when he was going to bowl a wrong ’un. But the bowler forgot all about his promise in his excitement to get the batsmen out, and Johns had a miserable couple of hours.”

There are several interesting features about this extract.

One was the use of the term wrong ’un, a synonym for googly. We know that the googly was first used in 1900, when Bosanquet got Leicestershire left-hander Samuel Coe stumped for 98 at Lord’s. The first time it was bowled in a Test was also by Bosanquet, during the 1903-04 Ashes series.

Obviously Hill’s use of the term wrong ’un is anachronistic, and he used it while writing the piece in 1933 at the age of 56, when the world knew all about the googly.

However, even more to the point is the fact that McKibbin was an off-spinner. Mark the phrase ‘he could bowl a leg-break with scarcely any alteration of his action at all’. This makes it clear that McKibbin could bowl a leg-break with an off-spinner’s action. In other words, he could bowl the ‘doosra’.

Much later, this very same conclusion was drawn by Wayne Lawrence in his article on McKibbin in the periodical Baggy Green.

Credence to this hypothesis is obtained when we consider that the ‘doosra’ is almost impossible to bowl without resorting to ‘chucking’. Indeed, McKibbin had one of the most suspect actions of his day.

During the tour of England in 1896, Sydney Pardon, Editor of Wisden, branded the action of Jones ‘unfair’, and was critical of McKibbin as well. He wrote: “McKibbin’s throwing is less noticeable than Jones’s, but there can be little doubt that he continually threw while putting on his off-break.” READ: Saqlain Mushtaq: Fans enjoying bowling from me and Muttiah Muralitharan in MCL

Let us pause here to remember that McKibbin bowled in two styles, slow medium and off-break. Hence, when Pardon wrote he threw while putting on his off-break, he was underlining that the New South Wales bowler’s action became suspect when he started bowling spin. It seems reasonable to assume that the ‘doosra’ sprinkled off-breaks necessitated this questionable action.

By the late 1890s, there was a strong push to eliminate ‘throwers’ from the game. It was in this context that Fred Spofforth, the Demon Bowler of Australia, sent a letter to the editor of the Sporting Life. Now 42, and settled in England, he wrote: “With the last Eleven there was one who hardly ever delivered a fair ball, and although I am quite aware I may raise a hornet’s nest about my head by mentioning names, I allude to McKibbin, who, I shall always maintain, should ever be allowed to play under the existing rules.”

Soon umpire Jim Phillips was in action, and Jones was called. McKibbin was not called in a match, but lost form anyway and was not considered after a couple of home Tests against England.

Which leads one to speculate further — was the scourge against the throwers instrumental in McKibbin giving up that delivery which went the other way? Perhaps because he knew he would be called if he tried bowling the ‘doosra’? And was this the reason his effectiveness reduced and he played his final First-Class game at the age of 28?

There is hardly any way to verify these conjectures, and hence conjectures they should remain. But, we notice that with the likes of umpire Phillips in the fray, McKibbin’s bowling average shot up from 14.26 in England 1896 and 14.88 in Australia 1896-97 to 36.59 in 1897-98.

In conclusion, even ignoring the figures, there is sufficient chronicled evidence to suggest that McKibbin indeed knew how to bowl the delivery we now call the ‘doosra’. What’s more, he did bowl them with fair regularity in top class matches.

Where does that leave Saqlain as innovator?

In the light of former dabblers with the googly and the advent of Bosanquet, veteran cricket writer David Frith later drew a parallel with Wilbur and Orville Wright’s claims to perfecting the first propelled flying machine. READ: ICC Cricket World Cup 1999: Facts, figures, and statistics

“Others had dabbled, though in the case of the googly ball, the instances were undoubtedly accidental. What Bosanquet and the Wright brothers had in common was that they are acknowledged as the first to succeed ‘in the field’. The flimsy-faced aircraft that stayed airborne for 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, was the forerunner of Concorde; Bosanquet’s little mischief was handed on to a school of clever, determined South Africans and on through a line of exponents whose pleasure at fooling batsmen of even the highest reputation has been deep and incomparable.”

Saqlain’s claims will also be very similar. And given the enormous lapse of time between McKibbin and the Pakistani, it will not be a stretch to say that the man from Lahore indeed reinvented this fascinating wheel in the vehicle of the off-spinner.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)