Leg rotation expert Mark McInnes explains what made Shane Warne unique
In Shane Warne’s first autobiography, published in 2001, there is a chapter called “The Art of Leg Spin”.
After many paragraphs thanking everyone who has helped him in his cricketing career – from his wife Simone to Pakistani spinner Abdul Qadir – Warne suddenly takes you to his mind to explain what he’s thinking in the middle of a game.
Suddenly you are there with him, as he is about to play another jaffa.
“I usually decide what to play by returning to my mark after the previous ball, then pausing to be absolutely clear in my mind,” he wrote.
“If I’m not sure, the break is a bit longer than usual.
“Once my mind is clear and I start getting in, there’s no time to change plans. Leg-twisting bowlers start getting in trouble if they have any doubts.”
It’s simple, but it shows the kind of decisive confidence we’ve come to love as Warne heads for the second-most wickets in Test cricket history.
The importance of bravery
Mark McInnes is a man who knows what it takes to successfully spin legs.
The Sydney-based spin coach has helped over 100 leg spinners since he started coaching spin full-time in 2007.
A former leg spinner himself, McInnes learned his skills at the Cricket Academy in Adelaide in the late 1990s, before working with former Test players Terry Jenner and Kerry O’Keefe.
He is now passing that knowledge on to some of the best young spin talent in New South Wales.
“I was at a coaching conference, I think 10 years ago, and they were talking about what Cricket Australia expected from spinners,” McInnes said.
“It was resilience, bravery, courage, competitiveness, desire – they just listed all of Warne’s attributes.”
McInnes, who has done much of his competitive bowling at the quaint, but small, Manly Oval in Sydney, knows a spinner needs a strong mind if he is to succeed. Otherwise, there is a danger that they will be knocked out of the bowling attack before making an impact.
“It’s that unshakeable self-confidence that Warne had, that he can bring anybody out,” says McInnes.
“It’s really rare, I think. Most players have doubts. Of course, he had doubts, but he managed to overcome that.
“I think that brave approach was unique to him. It’s good to say you have to have courage and be brave, but it’s quite difficult to do that, especially when you’ve just been hit for six years. “
In that same chapter of Warne’s early autobiography, he admits that when he hit the peak of his bowling mark with too many bowling shots, or didn’t know what to do, he just walked in and did a leg break. He describes the delivery as “his bread and butter”.
And what delicious bread and butter it was. Whether it’s Mike Gatting’s “ball of the century” in 1993, the twirling performance that earned him his 700th career wicket against Andrew Strauss at the MCG more than 10 years later, or simply a standard of big turners, Warne’s stock ball shape was unmistakable.
“It’s actually the drift that’s hard to play because it knocks the batsman out of position and he loses his balance a bit,” says McInnes, as he studies old footage of Warne’s bowling alley.
“Because the ball is spinning so fast, it curves, then it quickly goes out of the wicket and also does the dough for the rhythm.”
McInnes says what made Warne’s broken leg so good was his steady approach to the wicket and powerful delivery stride.
“He came into the crease, to get into that side position,” McInnes said.
“His bowling arm was not vertical, but raised at 10 o’clock. This allows him to move a bit more to the side of the ball and get more sideways spin.
“He’s said many times that he creates the same force through the crease as a fast bowler, so force is a big part of it for him.”
Different deliveries, same result
Arguably the mainstream interest around Warne’s career has really taken off as his change deliveries have moved into the spotlight.
In a memorable TV segment on Channel 9’s Cricket Cover, Warne took commentator Mark Nicholas and viewers through all of its different variations.
The camera continues to roll as he runs through his options and appears to be nailing each different ball on the first take.
McInnes believes that what has made Warne’s variations so effective is that his delivery action has rarely changed and the variations are also available in different builds.
“He could play a fake that had a lot of side spin, so a big fake and a small fake, just by adjusting his wrist position,” McInnes said.
“The finger positions were pretty much the same, but it was how much that angle of rotation changed that mattered. It just depended on what he wanted that day, or what the pitch was doing, or drummer.”
In addition to the googly, Warne’s top spinner also brought him plenty of wickets. Among other successes, it was the ball that earned him his famous Ashes hat-trick in 1994, when David Boon landed a spectacular short-leg reflex catch.
His pinball almost developed its own mythology during Warne’s career. The YouTube highlights of Warne’s skid delivery are particularly brutal, as myriad ignorant hitters are knocked out or caught LBW before they even get their bat into position.
“It takes a lot of finger, wrist and forearm strength to throw that ball, at this rate,” McInnes said.
“These deliveries would be around 95 to 100 kilometers per hour, without faster acceleration and faster arm action.
“He would have it rolling the seam, so depending on which side the shiny side was on, it would swing almost like a conventional delivery or even in reverse, to the right.
These days, says McInnes, cricketers tend to play more sliders (a type of back-spinner that comes out of the front of the hand) rather than pinballs because they’re easier to land accurately. Warne also played that one.
A constant with all of his variations deliveries was Warne’s relentless precision no matter what he decided to send down the field.
“He didn’t throw a lot of bad balls, there weren’t a lot of full pitches and half runs, that’s the difference,” McInnes said.
“Stuart MacGill was playing balls that were spinning more than Warne’s, but he was playing more bad balls in between.”
Warne’s legacy in spin bowling
With over 700 career Test wickets and almost 300 One Day International scalps, Warne’s career will likely go down in the history books for some time to come. But his impact on the current generation of spinners could create an even longer legacy.
Current Test spinner Mitchell Swepson has spoken in recent days about how much he has gained from Warne’s instruction and encouragement, as has Ashton Agar. But even those who haven’t had the chance to work directly with Warne have learned from his career.
Teenager Jade Allen, who recently signed for the Sydney Sixers in the WBBL, says she watched Warne’s highlights as she grew up and always noticed his enjoyment of the game.
“As cricketers we all knew him, even though we only saw him on TV,” she said, on the sidelines of a coaching session with McInnes.
“I never met him, but my brother did. He got a signed photo of him saying ‘Keep spinning, Jack’ – that was pretty cool.”
Despite all of Warne’s variations, the 18-year-old rising Cobargo star says the former spinner’s standard leg break is the performance she most wants to replicate in her budding career.
McInnes thinks Warne has certainly made spin bowling more popular among young cricketers, although the skill is already changing to accommodate a more aggressive batting, due to the rise of Twenty20 cricket.
“I wonder now if the slow leg spin bowling, with the big curve and spin that Warne did, will ever happen again. I’m not sure it will,” he says.
“Bowling these days is faster and flatter, to get LBWs and bowling, and mixed with sliders and pinballs.
“I hope he comes back, because that was the purest form of leg rotation, in my opinion.”