Saturday 7 May 2011
Brian Viner: Warne and his fellow masters of spin know how to weave myths around their fine art
The Last Word
Politics, it occurred to me on Thursday, as I went to exercise my democratic right in a nearby village hall, has cast a regrettable shadow over the word "spin".
We don't even hear much any more of the term spin doctor, which by evoking medical expertise at least lent some quasi-respectability to the dark arts of twisting the facts to suit a political agenda. Now the truth is just there to spin, or to be spun. All branches of government have someone relentlessly spinning.
Happily, for those of us who love the great game of cricket, the verb "to spin" will always suggest Shane Warne rather than Alastair Campbell, will unfailingly summon the image of Muttiah Muralitharan in the thick of it before that of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It. As putting is to golf, so is spinning to cricket; a game within a game.
Also on Thursday, coincidentally, a launch party was held for a book called Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers (Yellow Jersey, £14.99). The author is my colleague Amol Rajan, who as the former deputy comment editor of this newspaper knows plenty about the political phenomenon of spinning, but his splendid book makes clear where his priorities lie, spin-wise.
It is full of compelling anecdotes and perceptive analysis, and I would heartily recommend it even if it didn't also include a few excerpts from my own encounters with notable characters from the world of spin. I have conducted more than 400 sports interviews for The Independent, but I would unhesitatingly place my hour with Warne, plus a separate session in the nets with his mentor Terry Jenner, in my personal top 10.
Warne welcomed me to his room at the Grosvenor House hotel in London, one August afternoon in 2002, with almost the warmth he might have shown me had my name been Bryony, and seemed only too happy to demonstrate his extraordinary repertoire with a ball I had just bought at Selfridges for that very purpose. I can't say it improved my own occasional tweaking efforts at village cricket level, but to have a personal masterclass from the great man, albeit within the confines of a hotel suite with very little turn off the worn bedroom carpet, remains one of the privileges of my career. He signed the ball, too.
Anyway, in his book, Rajan quotes Warne on the smoke and mirrors dimension of spin bowling. "What matters is not always how many deliveries you possess, but how many the batsman thinks you have," said Ferntree Gully's finest, who was more than capable, according to Rajan, of fibbing a little to inflate his own myth, claiming during the Ashes of 2005 to have dismissed Ian Bell "with a perfect slider – in fact it was simply a leg-break that failed to grip".
Michael Atherton always recognised the way in which spinners exaggerate their own wizardry, and the way they "lay claim to more deliveries than an NHS midwife". Rajan also cites Saqlain Mushtaq as having disingenuously claimed a "teesra" to go with his famous doosra, while Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis more recently let it be known that he was working on a sixth type of delivery to go with the five already in his armoury, threatening to use it in a match situation without ever remotely explaining what it was.
None of this is exclusive to spin-bowling, of course, or even to cricket. Bill Shankly and Brian Clough knew, as Jose Mourinho does, as Muhammad Ali and Seve Ballesteros and John McEnroe did, that some opponents can be vanquished by the myth rather than the man, by the suggestion of a straight flush when you only hold a pair of jacks in your hand.
And that, I suppose, is spinning as Alastair Campbell and Malcolm Tucker might recognise it.
You'll never walk alone – but only 13 people once saw Stockport
Far be it from me to rub salt into the wounds of the Edgeley Park faithful, Stockport County's 106-year stay in the Football League having been terminated last weekend, but 90 years ago today Stockport claimed an unenviable record that will surely stand until the end of time. On 7 May 1921, a Saturday then as now, just 13 people paid to watch the club's match against Leicester City. It is the smallest crowd ever recorded in the Football League.
In fairness, there was an explanation. The previous month, after Stockport had been denied what looked like a clear penalty while losing 0-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday, the crowd had expressed its anger by breaking the windows in the referee's dressing room. The Football Association, a decisive and uncompromising lot then as not now, responded by closing Edgeley Park for the last game of the season, which instead was held at Old Trafford.
By then, Stockport had been relegated to the Third Division. And when Stockport v Leicester kicked off late that afternoon, Old Trafford had already staged Manchester United v Derby County. So although only 13 actually turned up for the Stockport game, there were already around 1,000 who'd been at the United game and decided to watch a second match for free. Whether they regretted their appetite for more football is not chronicled, but we can reach our own conclusions: the match finished Stockport 0 Leicester 0.
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