The County Championship started last week with typically little fanfare. The majority of games were rain-affected, and, as should be expected when the first round of games is played in mid-April, seam bowlers dominated. Only two of the ten counties in action picked a specialist spinner, and both of them – Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner and Warwickshire’s Jeetan Patel – were defensive off-spinners with first-class batting averages above 20. At this time of year, obduracy and grit are valued higher than risk and flair.
Should it be at all surprising, then, that England have only produced one genuinely world-class spinner in the past forty years, and no top-quality leg-spinners this side of the Second World War? The domestic calendar does not suit leg-spinners, who need thousands of hours of practice to hone the hardest skill to master in the game: why would a team take such a gamble? And while there are famous examples of English leg-spinners struggling to master their art – Adil Rashid recently gave up first-class cricket to focus on his white-ball skills, while seven years ago Scott Borthwick found he could only get into the Durham side by turning himself into a top order batsman – the county game is littered with cases of talented bowlers losing their way.
Michael Munday, who read Chemistry at Corpus Christi College between 2002 and 2006, is one such example. After what should have been a breakthrough performance at the end of the 2007 season, in which he took 8-55 against a strong Nottinghamshire side, Munday was thrust into the Somerset side at the start of 2008, and predictably struggled.
“The unfortunate thing was that 8-for came on the last day of the season,” he says. “The next April, you think to yourself: ‘it’s cold, the pitches are green, and I’ve lost that form and groove from the previous summer’. I bowled OK in the first game, then came up against Kevin Pietersen at Taunton on a flat wicket after we’d been bowled out for 100.
“That wasn’t a great situation to be in, and probably quite rightly I didn’t play for a bit after that game. I shouldn’t necessarily have been in the side in April and May, but then you have to make sure come July or August you’re in the right place, and I never quite got into that situation. You have to really fight even to get a game.”
127 wickets in the @CountyChamp yesterday. Just 12 fell to spinners and only 6 of them to English spinners.
Recent weather a bit of an anomaly but surely playing so much county champ at this time of year can't be helping development of players for overseas tours?
— Will Aitkenhead (@willaitkenhead) April 21, 2018
Two years later, Munday was unceremoniously released by Somerset, and has never played at the highest level again. His career trajectory is similar to a vast number of English leg-spinners of the past twenty years, and Munday takes issue with the country’s obsession with wrist spin.
“I don’t think leg spin is easy,” he says. “It is a tough skill – it takes time. Now if anyone breaks through in county cricket, there’s a culture of: ‘oh, let’s talk about him, he should be playing for England’, and it requires the individuals to be strong, resilient characters to live with those expectations. As soon as [Mason] Crane plays one game as does poorly, suddenly he’s written off, and then when he plays in a T20 and does well, he’s the next big thing. There aren’t many leg-spinners out there playing four-day cricket who haven’t been given a go in Test cricket.”
Similarly, Munday is happy to criticise the captains he has played under, and suggests that there is a general lack of understanding as to how a leg-spinner should be developed. “There’s this thing where people can get compared to Shane Warne – any leg-spinner who comes through gets compared to him,” Munday says. “When [Marcus] Trescothick is your captain, he’s thinking about what field positions would be there if he were facing Warne – a silly point, a short leg. The tendency was to kind of go down that route of having quite an attacking field, when that actually forces the bowler to bowl quite defensively.
“People often say you shouldn’t set a field for a bad ball, but I think you should set a field for where the ball’s going to go. If you think you might bowl a full toss at some point, and that will go to deep mid-wicket – why not have a man at deep mid-wicket? There’s not a huge culture and experience of too many leg-spinners playing in county cricket.
“It is made particularly difficult though when you come on with a field that is too attacking, and you go for a couple of boundaries, and suddenly you’re on the defensive, rather than starting more defensively, and bringing men in from there.”
— The Cricketer (@TheCricketerMag) October 31, 2016
I get the impression that Munday enjoyed his cricket most when he was still breaking through, and his time at Oxford epitomises that. As well as becoming the first man since 1866 to win four consecutive Varsities for Oxford, Munday pitted himself against some of England’s finest batsmen in the early season UCCE games against county sides, playing for the combined Oxford/Brookes side.
After taking the wickets of Andrew Strauss and Owais Shah on his first-class debut, Munday took a five-for in his first Varsity Match, under the captaincy of future England all-rounder Jamie Dalrymple. “He instilled from an early point that there was a difference between getting your Blue and being a winning Blue, and I think he was right to get that across,” Munday says. “You need to take it away from a discussion about getting in the side and competing against the other students to get a spot, and instead make it all about actually beating Cambridge.”
The following summer, another Varsity win followed, and Munday was picked for an England under-19s side featuring Alastair Cook, Samit Patel, Luke Wright, and Ravi Bopara. Another Varsity win in 2005 was followed by his fourth and finest success, in which he took 11 wickets for 143 runs, including five-wicket hauls in both Cambridge innings.
Spin to win: how Munday fared in his four first-class Varsity matches
2003: 2/46, 5/83, Oxford win by an innings and 71 runs
2004: 4/36, 2/63, Oxford win by an innings and 77 runs
2005: 1/25, 2/45, Oxford win by an innings and 213 runs
2006: 6/77, 5/66, Oxford win by nine wickets
“It was really down to me to get the best players out – I made a really significant difference,” he says. “It was a big thing for me to be able to step up. Often when you’re coming through as a young player, you’re constantly moving up a level, so you’re never one of the best players. At that point, I was one of our better players, and if I’d bowled poorly, I don’t think we’d have won.
“Four-year course, four wins. To have played in all four was a really special achievement, more so than taking the wickets – I was pretty proud.”
While Munday’s cricketing career is one that he will ultimately look back on with some regrets, I sense that his path is one that many other leg-spinners will follow. They are the next big thing as a youngster, and thrust into the spotlight on the path for greatness, only for the system to chew them up and spit them back out again. English cricket’s tortured relationship with leg spin is not news to anyone, and it seems set to continue.