Thursday, 27 October 2016

How do you solve a problem like the spinners?

Thursday, 27 October 2016
Spin. It's the word of the winter. England will be facing plenty, and England will be bowling plenty of it. The trouble is, these are both areas where they have often struggled.

England's famous victory in India in 2012 was a triumph in many areas, and one of those was in their spin bowling. In Graeme Swann, England had a truly world class spinner, and another high quality option in Monty Panesar. The second test saw the pair combine for 19 wickets, bowling 121 out of the 159 overs England bowled in the game. They were the men trusted to win the match for England, the pair that took on Tendulkar, Kohli, Sehwag and the rest, and won.

But maybe England had never had it so good. Moeen Ali has been the main spinner for England since Swann's retirement in late 2013, and despite a strong start at home against India, for all his hard work doubts have continued to follow him around. An average of 41.12 after 31 tests isn't much to enthuse about, nor is his economy rate of 3.81. Opposition batsmen tend to fancy facing him, not allowing him to settle and be the man to keep things tight whilst the seamers rotate at the other end. But at the same time, really, he's the best England have got right now.

The best alternative is anyone's guess. Adil Rashid is England's number one spinner in the ODI game, where batsmen need to take risks which often punish them, but in test matches they can wait for when the bad ball inevitably comes. He has the advantage of being able to spin the ball both ways, the element of mystery that can see him run through teams as he did in the second innings against Pakistan on debut; but to his Dr Jekyll there's also his Mr Hyde, the one went at nearly five an over for figures of 0/163 in the same game. I'm a big fan of Rashid and I do desperately want him to succeed, but unfortunately sometimes the idea of him can be better than the reality.

Of the others, England brought the two Surrey men: Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari. Gareth Batty did a decent job in the first test, particularly impressing in the second innings where he picked up three wickets (and might have got more, if Cook didn't seem to forget about him for a session). He has experience and knows his game, offering control and a good fight to boot. But with an unremarkable record from his first spell around the team, and having taken fewer wickets than other county spinners such as Jack Leach and Olly Rayner, it was a controversial choice. That's ignoring his age, too - England's tests in Asia are now, so it's understandable to be selecting as such. Ansari, replacing his county teammate for the next test, might be more of a 'for the future' kind of pick, one the selectors are clearly keen on after being initially selected last winter (unfortunately withdrawing through injury). Even so, his selection still came as something of a surprise too, having suffered an injury-hit season that might have affected his chances.

But it's also a matter of trust. Moeen Ali took five wickets in the match, Batty four and Rashid three. It was far from plain sailing for them, but until the ball started reverse swinging they offered the more likely threat. But they were often expensive, and Cook's instinct was to go for defence. One hit down the ground and the fielder would go to long on, rather than making the batsman have to take the risk and try it once or twice more. Or they might be taken off completely. It was telling that in the crucial moments, when Cook wanted to break the partnerships, he would look to his seam bowlers, not trusting the spinners to keep up the pressure, seeing them as options that would leak runs in a tight chase.

Maybe it's just a matter of role reversal. It's a series where spinners have taken the new ball and seamers are better of with an older ball, and counted on to hold up an end. And it's something always likely to be a problem when travelling to Asia. There come the pitches crying out for spinners, but also the batsmen brought up facing spin and those conditions. It's not uncommon for spinners to have a hard time of it. It's a learning curve - knowing the right pace to bowl at and the balance between speed and spin, knowing the fields, the pitches, the batsmen, bowling with a new ball. But with six tests more to come, it's a learning curve to they will need to rise up fast.

Extra thoughts:
  • Moeen Ali does of course offer more to the team than just his bowling. His talent with the bat is plain to see, and really he's one of my favourites to watch. Without his lower order runs this year, who knows what England would have done.
  • Jack Leach really has to be in contention for England in the future, but spinners mature later and with his county coach suggestion caution, maybe that's the best route for now. After Simon Kerrigan's struggles on debut, England will always be wary of something similar. 

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