England’s slow bowling options in a spin

The Investec Ashes 2015

In a week where there has been plenty of clamoring and debate over the selection or subsequent non-selection of legspinner Adil Rashid in England’s pre-Ashes holiday party to Spain – It’s easy to forget that England selected a legspinner in their previous Ashes encounter – In the form of Scott Borthwick.

Scott Borthwick (centre) was the last legspinner to represent England in an Ashes Test.

On that occasion, a three day hiding in Sydney, Borthwick was almost brought in as a last resort. Graeme Swann decided he had had enough after Perth and Monty Panesar was so bad in Adelaide and Melbourne that he was almost deemed as “un-selectable” as Steven Finn had been on that same tour. Borthwick was seen as a “horses for courses” selection – He was already in the country playing grade cricket and it was hoped his enthusiasm would help boost an English morale that was already a long way past shot.

A similar section was made by the Australians three years previous when they called up a then little known legspinning allrounder going by the name of Steve Smith. “I’ve been told that I’ve got to come into the side to be fun,” said Smith. “For me, it’s about having energy in the field and making sure I’m having fun and making sure everyone else around is having fun, whether it be telling a joke or something like that.” For Smith the rest is history as he enters his fourth Ashes campaign as the world’s number one ranked Test batsman.
Borthwick subsequently took debut match figures of 4-82 but it was his lack of control and high economy rate of 6.30 that has prompted the selectors to turn their attention elsewhere in a time when spin bowlers in England don’t exactly grow on trees.

That Borthwick is now a number three batsman who only very occasionally rolls his arm over for his County side Durham is indicative of where the slow bowling stocks now lie in English cricket.

Borthwick, who took 4-46 in Durham’s victory at Arundel on Thursday – to more than double his tally of three championship wickets for the season, is now a long way down the pecking order in the English spin cupboard with his only realist chance of selection now being as a middle order batsman – But where are the English spinners to take this new looking aggressive England side forward?

After Panesar and Borthwick were tried and quickly disregarded as viable options, England has since stumbled across Moeen Ali as their chief spin hope. Despite his success against India last summer he remains more middle order batsman and less front line spinner.

Much criticism was directed towards Moeen after his inability to bowl out the West Indies on a spinning deck in Bridgetown and if England were ever going to select Rashid then that Barbados Test was the perfect opportunity.

Despite the fact that Rashid bowled poorly in the two Test warm up matches in St. Kitts he should have also been given an opportunity ahead of the reliable but steady James Tredwell in the series opener in Antigua.

Instead a half fit and undercooked Moeen returned to the side in Grenada where the exceptional James Anderson masked over any dramas with the Worcestershire spinner by leading England to victory. The same can’t be said of Barbados where Moeen underwhelmed in the fourth innings on a pitch inductive to spin, claiming just 1-54 while going at over four an over.

He went only marginally better in the recent home series against New Zealand where he picked up just five wickets at 50 apiece. Despite having his solid batting to fall back on, the successful promotion of Ben Stokes to number six in the line up means that Moeen now bats as low as eight in the order.

His recent form or lack of will not have gone unnoticed by the Australians and they will look to target the offspinner in the way that they targeted Swann during his Ashes swansong eighteen months ago – leaving Alastair Cook to over bowl his front line seamers.

A big concern surrounding Moeen is his lack of variation on the international stage. Although Swann was an out and out

Moeen Ali's form remains a huge concern ahead of the Ashes.
Moeen Ali’s bowling form remains a huge concern ahead of the Ashes.

orthodox off spin bowler he used his subtle changes in flight and pace to gain many wickets – while Moeen doesn’t have the same skill set as Swann he does possess a doosra. He learnt this off his great friend Saeed Ajmal whilst they were teammates at Worcestershire, but while he has the doosra in his repertoire, his reluctance to use it in Test matches could prove a huge downfall.

Rashid on the otherhand has impressed with his all round game in the recent New Zealand ODI series. Mixing sharp turning legbreaks with the odd googly and slider he claimed 4-55 as England ran out huge victors in the series opener at Edgbaston.

Having been a player and coach in Australia during Shane Warne’s dominance in the nineties, new coach Trevor Bayliss should know more than most the importance of an attacking legspinner, especially in a side lacking as much variation in its attack.

Another positive reason for having a legspinner in the side is the recent struggles the Australians have faced against such bowling on their two latest away tours. First Pakistan’s Yasir Shah claimed 12 series wickets at just 17 last October before Devendra Bishoo picked up 6-80 in the West Indians 9-wicket defeat in Dominica earlier this month.

During the dominance of Warne and to a lesser extent India’s Anil Kumble, having an aggressive legspin bowler in your attack was seen as a necessity. These days the infatuation has moved on to left arm pace bowlers – which are seen as cricket’s latest fashion accessory in the wake of the recent successes of the two Mitchell’s, Johnson and Starc along with Trent Boult. To counter this recent trend England have called up Derbyshire’s Mark Footitt.

Along with the introduction of Footitt now was surely the right time to include Rashid in the side as a make way for Moeen. Despite his exclusion from the 14-man party which leaves for Spain next Saturday, Rashid will return to county action for Yorkshire with one eye still on the Ashes.

Look beyond Moeen and Rashid and the spin bowling stocks in England remain extremely thin.

Offspinner Adam Riley, 23, of Kent showed promise last summer whilst keeping Tredwell out of the Canterbury-based side but his 2015 returns of four wickets at 86 don’t make for pretty reading. While Simon Kerrigan, 26, has a respectable mid-season return of 20 wickets at 31, it is still unknown how much a disastrous Ashes debut two years ago affected his confidence as Shane Watson and co. pummeled his slow left arm bowling to all parts of the Oval.

It also looks like Panesar’s international days are a thing of the past after the slow left-armer recently took an enforced break from all cricket – At 33 it remains to be seen if he will ever return to the game.

England will hope it doesn’t take them as long to find a permanent replacement for Swann as it did for Australia when Warne, the greatest legspinner of them all, retired in 2007.

From Beau Casson to Steve O’Keefe, thirteen men were tried before the Australians decided to put all their trust in Nathan Lyon – who recently became their most successful offspinner of all time. Their current legspinner Fawad Ahmed, like Rashid, looks set to watch the Ashes from the outside looking in.

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