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England’s spin bowling dilemma

by Connor

It feels like a long time since Jack Leach rose to prominence with his resolute last wicket partnership with Ben Stokes last summer. With the ball, Leach took at least one wicket in each of last year’s Ashes tests. His innings with the bat at Headingly became iconic. Since Graham Swann retired in 2017, England have struggled to identify a spinner with world class potential, in their ranks. England supporters could have been forgiven for dreaming, perhaps they’d found their man.

Unfortunately life is never quite that simple. Leach endured a difficult winter when he was diagnosed with sepsis whilst on tour in New Zealand, and was then overlooked in favour of fellow Somerset spinner, Dom Bess this summer. Bess was preferred despite Leach’s availability – spending the whole test summer inside the biosecure bubble. Whilst Bess bowled tidily for the most part, he did not dominate the batsman in the way that a frontline spinner should. His best return over the course of the summer produced figures of 2-51 in the first test match against West Indies.

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When the summer began, I was puzzled as to why Jack Leach was overlooked as England’s primary spinning option. Leach is arguably the better spin bowler with an average of 29 with the ball. Where Leach does not compare favourably to Bess is with the bat where he averages just 18 to Bess’ 27. Those with a memory long enough to recall Leach’s heroics last summer know that his batting average is just a number. A small contribution spent mainly at the non-strikers end whilst a specialist batsman of Stokes’ calibre runs riot, can be even more valuable. The ECB should know this only too well.

The absence of a frontline spinner in English conditions isn’t problematic. On the slow, turning pitches of the subcontinent however, the flaws in England’s bowling lineup are likely to be exposed.

The absence of a frontline spinner in English conditions isn’t problematic. On the slow, turning pitches of the subcontinent however, the flaws in England’s bowling lineup are likely to be exposed. England’s spin bowling dilemma is one that needs resolving and quickly if this England side are going to be successful away from home.

Akin to wicket keepers, it seems that England’s spin bowler is expected to contribute with both bat and ball. The great spin bowlers may well disagree that this is necessary or even desirable. Warne, Muralitharan and Kumble were selected for their spin bowling prowess alone. Nonetheless, whilst England’s selectors opt for all round cricketers rather than specialists, it is a reality they have to confront.

Many would argue that the best English spin bowler, at present, is Adil Rashid who has honed his craft in the lucrative one day format.

Many would argue that the best English spin bowler, at present, is Adil Rashid who has honed his craft in the lucrative one day format. Who can blame him? Aged 32, Rashid is in his prime but, as all athletes know, time is fleeting. You have to make the most of your sporting career whilst your body allows. The most logical pathway for Rashid is to continue with one day competitions and eschew the longer form of the game – it is not cost-effective to do otherwise.

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In recent months, many commentators have questioned whether England should seek to call Rashid into the test side, in spite of his clear preference for the one day game. Rashid’s last test match was in January 2019 against West Indies but, despite not holding a red ball contract the door remains ajar. Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, is keen to explore the possibility of bringing Rashid into the test squad. Perhaps the key factor in whether it will happen is his desire to play test cricket. With the current emphasis of the ECB on the shorter forms of the game and the impending introduction of The Hundred, Rashid is likely to be the first of many to provide the ECB with the quandary.

England isn’t a place where spinners are given the best opportunities to develop. The timing of the four-day season and lure of more profitable competitions such as the IPL mean that the longer format of the game is overlooked. Orthodoxy is favoured over more experimental techniques. Creativity is stifled. The impact of COVID-19 compounds these problems.

On the county circuit, 2020 has been out of the ordinary in many ways and has further restricted any opportunities to impress. Perhaps I am biased as a Lancastrian but I would love to see Matt Parkinson progress from the England Lions into the England Test team. Parkinson is a young leg spinner who averages 25.22 with the ball in first-class cricket over 20 appearances. Like Rashid, Parkinson excels at the shorter form of the game with an average 16.88 at a strike rate of 13.2 in T20s playing in a Lancashire side that has had recent success in the T20 format. Given the current climate, it is difficult to see why Parkinson wouldn’t follow Rashid into the more lucrative career the shorter formats offer.

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Amir Virdi is the other obvious candidate for a call up. Also an England Lion, Virdi is a right-arm off spinner who has seized the opportunities he has had this summer. At just 22 years of age, his best is ahead of him. He has plenty of time still to develop and England could nourish him into the type of spin bowler they so desperately need.

The England selectors must consider a number of factors should the subcontinent tour go ahead this winter. England’s success will not be based on their choice of spinner alone but making the wrong choice is something that the selectors will likely regret. Choosing the right spinner to complement the seam attack might just give England the edge, both metaphorically and literally.

In both the immediate and long term future, the future of England’s spin bowlers is far from certain.

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