@Ben_Wisden 7 minute read
England and Lancashire leg-spinner Matt Parkinson speaks to Ben Gardner about that ball, searching for some much-needed game time and turning it more than anyone else.
“When I came off at tea, my phone was absolutely blowing up.”
If you’re not sure what Matt Parkinson is talking about then, well, where exactly have you been for the past week? Admittedly there’s been a bit happening in the sporting world, but when a leg-spinner drifts one outside leg and hits off, people tend to take notice.
As Parkinson understates, “it doesn’t normally happen”, but the intoxicating thing about leg-spin bowling is that there’s always the chance that it could. The Boltonian puts this particular moment down to the pitch, the unfortunate Adam Rossington’s shot choice, and his own frustration with a burgeoning ninth-wicket partnership.
“I know Simon Kerrigan very well, and he was batting better than I’d ever seen him bat [he made 45* off 117], so I was getting more and more frustrated,” he tells Wisden.com. “Rossington had been playing really well as well, they’d both been sweeping me from outside leg stump, so I just thought I’d try and bowl it as fast as I could. If he’d played it like he had been playing it, how he’d been sweeping, then I think he would have been alright, but when he stayed back I thought, I’m in with a sniff here, and it must have literally just clipped the rough.”
That analysis diminishes Parkinson’s own skill, to nail that particular ball and allow the rest to happen, and his fortitude, to rip it harder and faster despite things not going his way. The difficult thing to do now for the rest of us is not get carried away. The Shane Warne comparisons were immediate, warranted, and more than a little spooky; it wasn’t just the trajectory, drift and turn, but the hair colour, venue, and profile of the batsman that stood out. It took the curmudgeonly Australian himself to point out basically the only difference, that his was his first ball of the Test summer, but in any case, English leggies have been compared to Warne, who wormed himself into the psyche over a decade and a half of Ashes dominance, over far less.
— LV= Insurance County Championship (@CountyChamp) April 16, 2021
The pattern is usually one of over-excitement and then disappointment – ‘he could be’ set against ‘but he isn’t’ – and it’s a cycle which tends to neglect the bowlers English fans actually have in front of them. “People don’t want leg spinners, they want Shane Warne” is how Mason Crane put it to the Two Hacks, One Pro podcast last year, and it’s a sentiment Parkinson recognises.
“I get where Mason’s coming from, definitely,” he says. “Because there’s never really been a successful English Test leg-spinner. In red-ball cricket, if you’re not ragging it on day four or you’re not controlling it on day one, you’re a letdown, and that’s probably an attitude why a lot of us don’t play. They probably see us as a little bit of a risk, because they perceive that you can’t do what Warne did, and hold on day one and blow teams away on day four.”
In this game, against Northamptonshire, Parkinson did both – 6-88 in 52.3 overs, including the final wicket late on the last day – and even if the Rossington ball wasn’t his season opener, it was still all the more remarkable for what did, or didn’t, come before it. This marked his first first-class game since 2019, and making the most of limited opportunities has been the theme of his career so far. Even before that lengthy gap, he had averaged five first-class games a year since his debut, despite impressing pretty much whenever he played. His bowling average is now the lowest of any English leg-spinner this century. It’s time, he feels, for that to start counting. He speaks of “some pretty honest conversations” after he was left out of Lancashire’s first game this season, and while he admits his clearest route into the England team at the moment is in white-ball cricket, he also knows how quickly things can change.
“If you ask me in six months time it could be very different,” he says. “I think it’s getting to the stage where a lot of the spinners that get mentioned, the likes of Bessy, myself, Mason, Virdi, we’ve got to start playing, otherwise we’re never going to get any better.”
That first-game snub was, paradoxically, in part down to Parkinson’s England recognition, with his time away this winter depriving Lancashire’s coaches of the chance to figure out where he was at. And yet the rewards of a stretch bowling at England’s finest, even if only in the nets, were clear to see, in that ball more than any other.
“I do think I’ve got a little bit faster, but it’s not something I’ve really worried about,” he says. “I’ve just made a couple of minor technical tweaks when I was away. It’s not something that I think, ‘right I’m going to try and bowl every ball faster’, it’s just when things click and everything’s in the right place, I have the ability to, and I’m happy with that. I don’t want to start ripping up the manual and trying to bowl like Rashid Khan. I just want to have it in me to be able to do that when necessary, and I don’t think I did when I started playing international cricket.”
The speed question is one that Parkinson will continue to face for a while yet. During England’s tour of South Africa in early 2020, CricViz tweeted that his average pace was the slowest of any bowler in their database. When you’re a young player starting out in the international game, your initial impressions tend to stick, and while Parkinson gave a good account of himself in his maiden international series in New Zealand, taking four wickets in his second T20I, the going got tougher in South Africa. A pasting in a warm-up game saw Dom Bess leapfrog him in the queue for England Test selection, and after going wicketless in the first two ODIs, he was left out of the third.
“I learned a good lesson in South Africa,” he says. “ I’d never really had any negative press at all. My career was going fine. But South Africa was just negative press for the whole time, and it hit me quite hard. The press, they jumped onto the first warm-up game, and I actually bowled alright. It was so flat and small, and this lad just absolutely downed it [Parkinson claimed 2-112 in 20 overs]. I knew then and there that when they called Bessy up, I knew immediately then that I wasn’t going to play.
“I was pretty naive about it all to be honest. I look back now and I thought I was never going to play, and I wish I’d been a bit more switched on and thought, ‘Hang on a minute, if I just get through this warm-up game’ – and warm-up games are horrible things, they’re horrendous – but if I’d just managed to get through that with a bit of credit in the bank then you never now.
“They said I bowled the slowest – it was quite embarrassing actually – the slowest ball in the CricViz database, which is a real kick in the teeth, but no one really mentioned it in a negative light in New Zealand because I did well,” he says. “Whereas I didn’t go as well in South Africa, and then all of a sudden everyone was saying ‘he needs to bowl quicker, etc’. I thought too much about that in South Africa, and then again at the start of last summer when I came back from injury. And then I sort of went, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go back to doing what I do, and if that’s not good enough then it’s not good enough’. The time I’ve spent now with England, I’m ready emotionally. If I was in that position again I’d be able to deal with that a lot better.”
The issue for Parkinson, a self-confessed “cricket badger” who “listens to all the podcasts”, is that he wants to learn and absorb everything that’s out there; he can’t not read what’s being said. The challenge is to take what you can, leave the rest, and figure out the difference between the two, with the speed stat providing a clear example.
“That CricViz stat opened my eyes,” he explains. “I’m either going to have to be the only person ever to bowl the way I bowl and succeed in Test, international cricket, or I’m going to have to make slight tweaks to get me a little bit more into the pack of people that have traditionally done well. Because if I was to play and bowl at the speed that CricViz have me at, no one in the world bowls that slowly, who has done well in Test cricket, so you start having to think, well, I might have to do something about this.”
What Parkinson realises now is that any changes needed to be gradual, because the rest of his game is exactly where he needs it to be. There’s consistency there, with his economy rate in first-class cricket under three, something he puts down to bowling 40 overs a weekend in men’s club cricket as a teenager, and he’s not just an outlier for his speed; according to CricViz, no bowler in the world spins the ball as much, or drifts it as far.
“I’m going to be buzzing about that all day now,” he says on hearing the statistic. “When I bowl my best there’s a lot of energy, a lot of power,” he says. “If I don’t put a lot of energy on the ball, I can get a bit lobby, sort of putting it there, and a lot of the time you put a lot of energy on the ball and it still goes straight or it doesn’t do what you want it to do. I think that’s probably one of my strengths and one of the things that I’ve gone to under pressure. ‘Right, I’m just going to put as much energy on the ball as I can and hopefully it drifts, hopefully it spins, and you have a result at the end of it.’ I like to think I’ll spin the ball on most pitches.”
Here England have a bowler perhaps unique in the world game, who bowls it slower and rips it harder than any other, and who is smart and hardened enough now to know what he needs to improve and to ignore the suggestions that will hinder him. It might be that all that remains is for him to be given the chance to prove it.