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India v England

How to solve English cricket’s spin problem

Phil Walker by Phil Walker 7 minute read

Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker speaks to county cricket’s slow-bowling experts to dissect England’s perennial struggles with playing and bowling spin, and asks if it’s time to embrace a radical solution.

It’s been a rough week for cricket but a lively one for the game’s perpetually indignant, roused into grievance by an iffy pitch with a crumbly top.

Some of the online reaction has been wild, veering at times into areas best left untouched. In all the excitement it’s been largely forgotten that England were 72-2 on the first day before capitulating to 112, that the pink ball’s lacquered surface undoubtedly helped it skid on, and of the seven bowled or leg-before dismissals in England’s first innings only Joe Root’s spun to any real degree.

No question, India’s spinners were supremely accurate and England’s batsmen got stuck in several minds. The game rattles along these days, propelled by advances in ball-tracking technology, the jauntily employed referral system and the elimination of pad-play as a line of defence, all of which emboldens umpires to flick the finger at the slightest sign of life. Take out Root’s excellence, and after five winter Tests, five England batsmen have each managed a single fifty apiece. This was not just skulduggery and dark-arts pitch manipulation. Other factors were at play. Loads of them.

For all that, some things are beyond debate. No one wants two-day Tests. Not the administrators or the TV companies, who lose out big time; not the players, whose skills (and numbers) are demeaned by the capriciousness of the surface underfoot; not the groundsman, whose job (on paper at least) should be to ensure the opposite takes place; and certainly and most importantly not the fans, on both sides.

Let’s put it like this: there were more runs scored in three hours between New Zealand and Australia in their T20I the other night than were made across the whole of this match. Here was a week-long summit meeting reduced to a back-alley punch-up, wiping out much of what makes the five-dayer a slice of genius: all those internal battles and acts of cunning, the strategic swerves and deepening subplots and barely discernible shifts in power, all of it buried in the melee. Test cricket is not meant to yield like that. It’s not meant to present a part-time spinner with a five-for in 45 minutes on the morning of day two, even if he is the best part-time spinner the game has ever seen.

But brush away the debris, and what are we left with? The same old questions, recycled every few years. It’s hardly a revelation that Indian pitches are as spicy as their captain deigns them to be, nor that such verdant equivalence takes place in England. So we go again: how can England’s best cricketers survive better in such conditions? How can their batsmen bat for longer against the turning ball, and their spinners be taken more seriously? How can the alien nature of what they’ve come up against not just in the last fortnight but whenever they land in the subcontinent be at least partially demystified next time round?

“Anything we create has to involve batsmen batting long and bowlers bowling lots of overs,” says Ian Salisbury, Sussex’s new head coach. Salisbury has been around county cricket for most of his life, and as a leg-spinner (and a very good one) who later took to coaching spin, has seen how the culture of English cricket misuses and marginalises its slow bowlers.

He uses the example of the ‘uncontested toss’ in county cricket. “We had the uncontested toss thing, designed to help spin. But after a while, people started saying ‘OK, we’ll prepare a green one, we know that we’ll be batting first but we want to be bowling by tea’. So the home team is all out for 150 and they’ve got the visitors five or six down in the last session, and it’s game on.”

And the upshot? “People aren’t learning to bat long. And spinners are squeezed out because of the pitches. This is not how you learn to play Test cricket.”

From 2012-2019, Peter Such headed up the ECB’s spin bowling development programme. “It has been marginalised,” he says. “Pitches have been distinctly un-friendly to spin for quite a number of years now. Spin bowling in English cricket is healthy up to a certain point, in junior cricket and club cricket, but the glass ceiling is the professional game. Spin has declined in our professional game, especially in the longer format. Spin takes time to develop. To really develop you need to play, bowl, and learn.”

It’s no great leap to envisage Dom Bess, in his yellow bib, nodding along to that one. Ditto his fellow drinks-ferrier, Matt Parkinson. I first spoke to Parkinson in the autumn of 2019, after his first call-up to the senior squad. That year he’d had to wait until July for his first red-ball appearance. Immediately he took a 10-for against Sussex, and yet would play just three more matches all summer, for 20 wickets at 19. And this is at Lancashire, where it turns a bit and spinners are brought on.

“I wouldn’t say for me that it’s a steep hill; but I’d say it is for some lads, bowling at certain grounds. I’m fortunate at Old Trafford, it’s very dry a lot of the time. But because you play in April it doesn’t matter how dry the pitch is – because it’s overcast, the seamers get it swinging. As a whole it’s not ideal, and to be picked [for England’s winter squads] off the back of four Championship games [in 2019] says a lot, I think.”

He’s right, it does say a lot. And what England have discovered with Parkinson is a talent of immense potential who is not yet ready to be blooded in a red-ball game of consequence. It’s hardly surprising. Approaching his sixth season of county cricket, the kid’s played 20 of them.

“We have to find a way of playing on better wickets,” says Min Patel, another former Test spinner who now heads up Kent’s talent pathway programme. “We have to find a way of making county cricket, for the most part, actually last four days. If you do that then it will actually bring spinners back into English cricket. Do we need to have better county decks up and down the country? Yes.”

Gareth Batty, now on the coaching staff at Surrey after 23 years spent bowling off-breaks in the pro game, understands it as a perfect storm of results-obsessed counties producing juicy pitches that favour seamers, scheduling that pushes the four-day game further to the margins – this summer, there are just three rounds of four-day games scheduled from the start of June to the end of August – and a culture of distrust that sees spin being jumped on: “As soon as it goes off the straight, people are questioning what’s wrong with the surface.”

Batty fears the further squeezing of the skill that made his name. “Everybody complains about 70-75mph seamers in England. But the fact is, if you’re playing four-day cricket in April they’re going to be very successful. It used to be that spin came to the fore in June-July-August, and we’re losing that tradition.”

Angst around promotion and relegation, he says, exacerbates the imbalance. “Counties are often on the back-foot – they’re worrying about relegation or promotion – so they make the pitches even worse to try and get results.”

England’s best current finger spinner learned his craft at Taunton, or ‘Ciderabad’, as it was dismissively disdained. “I don’t think there’s any replacement for bowling overs as a spinner and trying to win games as a spinner,” Jack Leach told me after his first winter with England. “The opportunity to bowl those overs in England is not always that great. I’ve been very lucky to play on spinning wickets at Taunton and I think that’s played a huge part in where I am.” The kicker of course, as anyone in Somerset will tell you, is that a spicy pitch runs the risk of being penalised.

Batty is one of many who argue there are double standards at play. “If you’re making the pitch worse in a spinning capacity then you’ll get done [by the pitch inspectors]; if you’re making it worse in a seaming capacity then you won’t. My question is: where is the even playing field for both disciplines?”

There is a school of thought that the conference system, in place for this season and heavily backed to replace two divisions long term, may help bring slow bowlers back into the picture. A quick recap: three groups of six teams will play each other home and away; then two teams from each group go into three divisions, and after four further rounds of games, the winner of the top division will be crowned the County Championship winner. (Finally, and perhaps not entirely necessary, the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s will take place in the last week of September between the top two in Division One.)

Salisbury is fully behind the change: “With the conference system there’s hopefully not the same urge for players to leave clubs, so you can invest in your academy and encourage the youngsters to come through. If you’re not worried about promotion or relegation, then you can bring young spinners through with confidence.”

He cites the example of Jack Carson, a young spinner who emerged last summer in the Sussex first team. “He was 19, he was our highest wicket-taker, he got his first five-for at The Oval. We both had young spinners playing in the game [Surrey picked the promising Anglo-South African left-arm spinner Dan Moriarty]. Anything we create has to involve batsmen batting long and bowlers bowling lots of overs.”

For all the benefits to playing sustained red-ball cricket in the heart of summer, it’s a knotty problem not easily disentangled. It makes sense that The Hundred is rolled out in these prime school-holiday months; it needs all the help it can get. The attendant question is what county cricket gets played in its slipstream. As it stands, the One-Day Cup will labour along at the same time; county loyalists in despair at the loss of some of their faves to The Hundred are not yet ready to be assuaged by a fresh batch of white-ball chancers getting games in their place.

But if this was red-ball cricket, would county fans be a little more amenable to seeing new faces trying new things? If there is one issue that binds county fans it’s a collective fear for the future of red-ball cricket, across the board. Would this, then, be worth it: a clutch of midsummer Championship games, counterpointing The Hundred, just with slightly weakened playing XIs? It’s persuasive, not least because we can’t have it all. It’s no secret that there is no financial model that works for red-ball cricket alone, not in the shires and not around the world.

The English game has shown of late that it rather likes radicalism, so would it be so mad, say, to suggest the introduction of a substitute option for red-ball cricket? Naming a XII or even a XIII and working from there, thus freeing up counties to sub in a spinner if and when the game tumbles into a third and fourth day? We’d certainly see more spinners getting games, with batsmen exposed to them more often. For context: of the top 50 bowlers in Division One in 2019, just six English spinners of any sort took double-figure wickets, with a further three playing a single match each – so those numbers would head north at least. And it might even be fun, bringing an added layer of tactical intrigue to the whole affair.

OK, perhaps this is too funky by half. But what’s that line about necessity, mothers, and invention? As Simon Harmer, Essex’s world-class South African off-spinner, once said to me, “English batters on the county circuit, it’s either a boundary option or a massive forward defence. Ninety per cent of the time, either they slog-sweep, run down, or they try and block the shit out of it.” That’s not sustainable for half an hour, let alone a whole generation.

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