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Cricket: Sodhi could be the right one

If Ish Sodhi continues to improve on the international stage it could prolong Daniel Vettori's career.
If Ish Sodhi continues to improve on the international stage it could prolong Daniel Vettori's career.

The search for a miracle-working legspinner continues for New Zealand Cricket but the arrival of Inderbir Singh Sodhi, known as Ish, on the test scene could end that 40-year quest.

Since the country's best exponent Jack Alabaster eked out 49 wickets in 21 tests between 1955 and 1972, legspinners have been rare. Only Greg Loveridge, Brooke Walker and Todd Astle have been selected with that skill in mind since Alabaster.

They have seven tests between them. Loveridge never bowled a ball after breaking his finger batting in his solitary test against Zimbabwe in Hamilton in 1996. Walker's five matches gleaned five wickets at 79.80. Astle took one for 97 in his one victorious outing against Sri Lanka last year. He hasn't featured since but did go on this year's development tour to India and Sri Lanka. Central Districts leggie Tarun Nethula showed promise on the sub-continent last year but he lost his tweaking mojo at a crucial time.

Last week in New Zealand's second test against Bangladesh, Sodhi demonstrated enough to suggest he is something special.

Rhythm, loop and speed were packaged into an action reminiscent of India's Anil Kumble.

Sodhi possesses an attacking mindset. His three first innings wickets for 59 runs from 18.5 overs made you sit up straight on the couch. If he can eliminate the four-balls which release pressure each over, he'll threaten.

That last "if' is the key. Leg spin is a fickle art. The most difficult ball to bowl in cricket, good exponents like Sodhi can rip the ball so it produces prodigious spin off the pitch. But the eternal struggle is that the force needed to exert that spin can affect accuracy.

That was what made the prince of legspin, Shane Warne, so threatening. Not only did he have a dangerous stable of different deliveries, his control was such that he could pitch them accurately into spots which caused great difficulty for batsmen.

Legspinners are definitely made and not born. Even Warne struggled at the beginning of his test career. Called into the Australian team in Sydney for a 1992 test against India, he returned the unflattering figures of 1 for 150 off 45 overs. That was followed by 0 for 78 in Adelaide and he was promptly dropped for the fifth test. His poor form continued in the first innings against Sri Lanka at Colombo, where he took 0 for 107. A spell of 3 for 11 in the second innings triggered Sri Lanka's collapse in the second innings and contributed to a win - but an ordinary second test against Sri Lanka saw him dropped again for the first test against the West Indies in the 1992-93 Australian season.

Recalled for the second test, Warne took 7 for 52 in a matchwinning second innings performance - and he was on the way to becoming the bowler who went on to win the Ashes against England, including that famous "ball of the century" to remove Mike Gatting.

That puts Sodhi's 2 for 112 (off nearly 29 overs) and 1 for 57 off 10 in the first test against Bangaldesh into perspective.

His batting also looks promising with 58 from No10 in New Zealand's first innings 437.

The timing of Sodhi's selection is handy as Dan Vettori enters the twilight of his career. It is possible, if Sodhi continues to improve, that he could help prolong Vettori's career. It is possible that 34-year-old Vettori (who returns to first-class cricket this week after 15 months of Achilles problems) could be selected as an all-rounder, rather than a bowler expected to wheel away at one end for over after over.

If Sodhi makes the grade, not only does Vettori have a spin partner and foil but the Black Caps would also be able to accommodate the former skipper as a 6 or 7 batsman.

This week Sodhi celebrates his 21st birthday and Walker says now is the time for careful nurturing: "They need to give him time at the crease to get his confidence levels up. The most important thing for a legspinner is setting the field. Because leg spinners are uncommon in New Zealand, a lot of captains don't have much experience with them.

"For instance, I never felt comfortable bowling without a '45' behind square on the legside for a catch from an attempted sweep. Mentally that worked for me. I needed it for my confidence because I wanted to be able to pitch on middle or middle-and-leg. Otherwise I was forced to bowl more towards off stump which opened up the offside to a right-hander. You don't want to take lbw or bowled out of the equation.

"He needs support from senior players. In Brendon [McCullum] he's fortunate to have an aggressive captain who's pretty clued up and prepared to find out what makes him comfortable. Picking Ish over Bucko [Bruce Martin] for this test sends a strong message they believe in him."

Walker says backing Sodhi in the field is not enough, the onus also lies with the top order batsmen.

"Sometimes you can be in a rut when the batsmen have got you too few runs. It means your options are limited and there is little room for error if you want to try a wrong 'un or a flipper. As a legspinner, it's hard to put together maiden after maiden. Unless you're Shane Warne that's not going to happen. But I would look at Warne and get jealous because he was often bowling to opposition who were under pressure because Australia would have 400-plus runs on the board.

"Unfortunately if New Zealand gets rolled and things are tight, it snowballs. If you're used as an attacking weapon you'll go for a few runs.

"Fields need to be set accordingly with sweepers on boundaries and close catchers. It's different to using someone like Dan [Vettori] who can dot up an end in a tight situation. Obviously I struggled internationally. I never felt like I belonged in tests because there were certain situations where you can't be flexible enough to accommodate a leg spinner."

Walker knows Sodhi's biggest issue - like any leggie - is inconsistency: "He's faced flat tracks and stinking hot conditions [on the sub-continent] but he's holding his own. They've just got to remember he can create four to five chances in 20-30 overs of an innings with sheer miracle balls.

"He's quite front-on, like Kumble. I suspect he'll be able to develop a great googly variation. He just needs the confidence about when to use them."

Grant Bradburn coaxed Sodhi from Auckland to play for Northern Districts last summer which has been a catalyst for his growth. He played all 10 first-class matches and collected 20 wickets at 44.80. He also had Sodhi on this winter's New Zealand development tour to India and Sri Lanka. Sodhi took just seven wickets at 73.14 in four matches but Bradburn says that statistic is deceptive.

"He learned what it takes to bowl in hot, batsman-friendly conditions in front of players born and bred to play spin. He is an aggressive wicket-taker who often landed the ball in great areas and built pressure for others to take wickets at the other end. The first innings [of the second test] against Bangladesh was reward for him spinning the ball hard.

"I think he's a special treasure whose feet are firmly on the ground. He's a fanatical spin wizard; just loves the art. He can bowl everything - including off-spin and the doosra - but his real skill is accuracy and a number of deadly variations which are rare for a spinner that young."

Famous leg spinners

Shane Warne

Age: 44
Tests: 145 (1992-2007)
Wickets: 708 (2nd)
Average: 25.41
Career start: Midway through his third test in Sri Lanka he had one wicket and his average was 335. Then, with Sri Lanka needing 31 runs to win chasing 181, Warne took three wickets in 13 balls without conceding a run to mop up the innings and the match. In his 12th test, he bowled Mike Gatting in the Ashes opener at Old Trafford with a ball the cricketing world will never forget.

Anil Kumble

Age: 43
Tests: 132 (1990-2008)
Wickets: 619 (3rd)
Average: 29.65
Career start: Debuted against England at Old Trafford in 1990. He took three for 105 in the first innings and went wicketless in the second. Spent 26 months on the outer until, bouncing in from his height of 1.85m, he took 13 for 138 for the Rest of India against Delhi. Helped win all three tests against England in his 7th, 8th and 9th outings four months later to take a mortgage on the spin spot.

Abdul Qadir

Age: 58
Tests: 67 (1977-1990)
Wickets: 236 (42nd=)
Average: 32.80
Career start: An inauspicious debut against England at Lahore in 1977 was followed by first innings carnage in the draw at Hyderabad with six for 44 off 24 overs. Took until his 12th test - the 3-0 series win against Australia - to perfect his rhythm, five years into his career. By then he benefited from an excellent working relationship with captain Imran Khan.

- Herald on Sunday

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