"He rocked up," said Andy Moles, the New Zealand head coach at the time, "and the boys said 'Bloody hell, this is like Murali'." It was 2009, and Moles was talking about Maurice Holmes, a then 17-year-old prodigal talent on the books at Kent. He had been flown out to New Zealand to bowl at Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Daniel Vettori ahead of a home series against Sri Lanka, on the basis of his bowling in the nets during the ICC World Twenty20 in England.
Just as Sachin Tendulkar prepared for Shane Warne in the nets by roughing up an area outside leg-stump, and asking local boys in Mumbai to spin the ball hard into the rough from 15 yards, so the Kiwis readied themselves for Muttiah Muralitharan by paying for Holmes to have a snack at 32,000ft.
The attraction to them stemmed from his action. Clearly influenced by Murali, Holmes was chest-on, looked at the batsman from inside his right arm, his back foot pointing down the wicket rather than parallel to the popping crease. Most Murali-like of all, his delivery seemed to come in jerks, with a late propulsion of the wrist at the top of his bowling arc. "I think wherever I have bowled, people have been quick to observe resemblances between myself and Murali," he said. "But I have never felt pressure from the comparisons."
Alas, last week they proved too apt. On Wednesday, Holmes, now with Warwickshire, was suspended by the England and Wales Cricket Board with a suspected illegal action. Holmes's action is modelled around the need to incorporate the doosra (meaning "other one"), the off-spinner's delivery that, unlike his stock ball, breaks from leg to off. He has been known to bowl a handy doosra, but given the problems it has given him and almost all others who bowl it, he may wish he were starting all over again, with the kind of classic, side-on action of Graeme Swann or Tim May.
Holmes is so much a product of his times. There is now a long line of recent off-spinners whose jerky actions have aroused controversy – and done so most when they have attempted the doosra. The human shoulder, elbow, and wrist are, for most of us, incapable of generating the necessary propulsion without straightening from a bent position. Muralitharan is the exception because of congenital defects (though he too was called, of course). His shoulder is extraordinarily supple, his arm is bent at the elbow, and he can get the fingers on his right hand to touch his inner forearm.
The same cannot be said of Jason Krejza, Johan Botha, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez or Harbhajan Singh – all of them internationally capped players whose flirtation with the doosra has led to suspicion of criminality. Ajmal is the most blatant chucker of the lot, having (like Holmes) designed his action around the need to straighten his arm. As I wrote last week, Harbhajan Singh has never been the same bowler since thrusting the doosra into his armoury. And Saqlain Mushtaq, the man wrongly credited with inventing the delivery (the Australian Jack Potter probably bowled it in the early 1960s), lost his off-break altogether and quit prematurely.
The doosra, as Holmes is discovering, is a drug of a delivery: unbearably tempting, briefly thrilling, and likely to cause a major come-down. Having swallowed that pill, though, all is not lost for the chest-on Holmes: the off-spinners Hugh "Toey" Tayfield and Lance Gibbs had great success in Tests with chest-on actions. But the lesson for young bowlers is obvious. Steer clear of this devilish attraction – and be happy if you can't bowl it.
As one bowler put it to the cricket writer Lawrence Booth: "I've had a magic mystery ball up my sleeve for 10 years ... The problem is, my action being 'classical', it doesn't lend itself too much to one that goes the other way. I've tried and failed. I can't seem to get the bowling mechanics to work."
That, in fact, has been a barely disguised blessing for Graeme Swann, the best spinner in the world today.Reuse content