Brian Halford
5th November 2019

The fine art of keeping to spinners

Tim Ambrose loves keeping wicket. The Warwickshire legend, who last season passed the major milestone of 1,000 dismissals in professional cricket, loves the intensity of the role. The involvement; the place at the heart of the action; the view from the "best seat in the house."

And he loves, as much as anything, keeping to spin-bowlers.

Standing up, breathing down the batsman’s neck, ready to pounce as the twirlers get to work.

In a 19-year (and counting) career firstly with Sussex and then mostly with Warwickshire, Ambrose has kept to plenty of twirlmeisters. At Hove, it was mostly the magician that is Mushtaq Ahmed who supplied the spin. Then with the Bears, Amby has kept to Paul Harris, Daniel Vettori, Alex Loudon, Ant Botha, Ian Salisbury, Imran Tahir, Jeetan Patel, Paul Best, Maurice Holmes, Chris Metters, Ian Blackwell, Ateeq Javid, Ian Westwood, Josh Poysden, Dom Sibley, Sunny Singh and Alex Thomson.

"If you want to do it well, you have to enjoy it because it takes a lot of concentration and there is a lot of pressure on you because everything happens so quickly. Opportunities come and go and a lot of the time they will be big moments in the game."

Tim Ambrose

In 11 Tests for England, meanwhile, he kept to Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann.

Some fine bowlers there – but ask Ambrose to name the best and he is torn…

Two stand out: the “bag of tricks” that is Mushy and the relentless pressure machine that is Jeets.

“I absolutely love keeping to spin,” Ambrose said. “It’s one of the best parts of the job, especially when the wicket is turning and the spinner is bowling well. I have literally got the best seat in the house.

“If you want to do it well, you have to enjoy it because it takes a lot of concentration and there is a lot of pressure on you because everything happens so quickly. Opportunities come and go and a lot of the time they will be big moments in the game. You have to welcome that pressure.

“Who is the best I’ve kept to? Tough call.

“Mushy is hard to top. In 2003 and 2004 he was pretty amazing. He had such a bag of tricks and, as a keeper, it was great fun standing there behind a batsman who has absolutely no idea which way he is going to spin it, when you do know. It can be a pretty fun place when you see the ball halfway down and know he’s out before it’s even bounced.

“Mushy was exceptional. I reckon he would do me probably once a day when I would misread him but I batted against him in the nets quite a bit too so got quite used to it and could read him.

“Jeets is very different but also a fantastic bowler. With Mushy being a wrist spinner he had that bag of tricks and subtle changes that he could use. But I’ve always thought that bowling off-spin as a career is the hardest job in cricket.

"With Jeets I know his action really well so if I spot something like his arm dropping a bit or his left-side coming away, I can see that and feed back. I talk constantly to Jeets and it is a fantastic part of the job to be able to work so closely with a bowler of that quality."

Tim Ambrose

“Most of the time you don’t have a lot to work with from pitches. Very few batters fear an off-spinner. They don’t have that bag of tricks but what I have seen over the years is Jeets become a bowler with a reputation in the game that it’s hard to find words to do justice to.

“Mushy had the gifts but Jeets is not just a different bowler but a different animal. Mushy was an incredibly talented guy who just wanted to bowl all day and that’s fine. But everything Jeets brings as a cricketer builds pressure on the batsman. In my opinion, he has been the best bowler in the country for years.

“The pace he can bowl at while still maintaining the shape and spin on the ball is amazing. He also has the subtle variations that he has created and now he has that reputation where guys are well aware he is the best bowler in the country and know, as they are walking out to bat, that he will put them under that pressure.

“They are two great bowlers and it has been a privilege to work with them both.”

Ambrose is perfectly-qualified to comment, having last season overtaken Geoff Humpage at the top of the all-time dismissals list of Warwickshire wicketkeepers. So which other spinners won the Amby seal of approval?

“Paul Harris bowled beautifully over the wicket to right-handers as a left-armer,” he said. “He had good skills and was a great competitor. He was a spinner with a fast-bowler’s mentality and was better than a lot of people thought.

“Ant Botha was another good competitor. He kept it simple, had a lot of grit and did a really good job for us at a pretty tough time for the team. He was a good guy to have around on and off the field.

“Imran Tahir was similar to Mushy in that he just wanted to take a wicket every ball. You really had to coax him into being a little bit patient sometimes and set the right fields because he just wanted six men around the bat and to bowl googlies and massive leg-spinners every delivery.

“At the time I kept to him in Test cricket, Monty Panesar was probably the best spinner in the world. At the pace he could bowl, with spin on it, was amazing. When we played against New Zealand at Old Trafford he was literally unplayable by right or left-handers.

“But then on a wicket that wasn’t spinning he would just be firing in the same deliveries that were sliding on and batsmen could just use the pace and hit through the line. He struggled to adapt to the subtle arts the way Jeets has done with all his variations of speed and flight and spin.”

One thing that all the above-named bowlers have in common is that they enjoyed the benefit of Ambrose’s skills and intelligence behind the stumps. The close-up view a keeper gets when he is standing up to a spinner leaves him perfectly-placed to offer advice – and Ambrose loves working with bowlers in that way.

“The relationship between spinner and keeper is really important,” he said. “You develop that relationship depending on how willing the spinner is to share and work with you. Good spinners will use the keeper because you have a great view of what’s going on.

“For example, with Jeets I know his action really well so if I spot something like his arm dropping a bit or his left-side coming away, I can see that and feed back. I talk constantly to Jeets and it is a fantastic part of the job to be able to work so closely with a bowler of that quality. “