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.

Ajmal absence makes Australia favourites

Just a day after announcing their limited overs and Test squads for the upcoming tour of the UAE, the Australian’s received the best possible news.

Ajmal's career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.
Ajmal’s career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.

Pakistani mystery spinner Saeed Ajmal has been given an indefinite bowling ban by the ICC.

The 36-year-old had been ordered to the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane for expert tests after his action was deemed to be illegal for all of his repertoire of deliveries. He was reported by umpires Ian Gould and Bruce Oxenford during the first of his side’s two Tests in Sri Lanka last month.

The news of course comes as a massive blow to Pakistan. Ajmal has been the world’s leading wicket taker across formats in the last three years and is the spearhead to his side’s commonly spin orientated attack.

Although the PCB could have appealed the decision to the ICC straight away, it could have risked inducing a longer ban on Ajmal in the long run. Instead the spinner is set to begin work with former Pakistan favourite Saqlain Mushtaq next week in an attempt to rectify his action with a hopeful timescale of 3-6 weeks being muted.

With such a timescale being indeed optimistic for a full renovation of a bowling action and with Ajmal having to go through a thorough re-assessment process after modifying his bowling – It is now certain he will still miss the entire Australian programme, which starts in less than a month’s time and includes a T20I, three ODI’s and two Test matches.

For Australia the news must come as a huge boost. It is no secret that the current set of players, Michael Clarke and Steve Smith aside, have regularly struggled against slow bowling in helpful spin conditions and the absence of Ajmal will ease many a heart rate in the camp.

Although Pakistan still have solid spin options in fellow veterans Abdur Rehman, 34, Mohammad Hafeez, 33, Zulfiqar Babar, 35, Atif Maqbool, 32 and Adnan Rasool, 33, it was Ajmal, the current No. 1 ranked ODI bowler and a man also inside the top ten ICC rankings in both T20I’s and Tests, who was deemed their most potent weapon.

Without their key weapon to lead the line, Pakistan must now be looked at as very much outsiders especially in the two Test series. Apart from the five veteran candidates named above it remains to be seen who they will draft in to replace the mystery and nous of Ajmal – who has 67 Test wickets over 12 matches in the UAE.

The likes of 22-year-old left-armer Raza Hasan have been touted as the next spin sensation, but despite bursting onto the scene with impressive first-class and T20I form two years ago, injuries have taken there toll and he remains on the outside looking in.

The current Australian outfit have had a retched time against quality spin bowling on turning surfaces in recent times and their last Test tour of the subcontinent ended up in complete shambles with a 0-4 whitewash to the Indians 18 months ago.

The general theme of that series was the complete inept that the Australian’s played the trio of Indian spinners Ravindra Jadeja, Pragyan Ojha and Ravi Ashwin with. The tour famously ended with an injured Australian captain, three players being suspended for not doing their homework and it was also the beginning of the end for then coach Micky Arthur.

Such a low ebb of course brought about change and the appointment of Darren Lehmann has brought about a change in mentality and an improvement of team sprint and on field success. Despite all of this and the fact that Lehmann was such an aggressive and productive player of spin bowling in his own playing career, his sides struggles against the turning ball still remain.

Australia's batsmen stumbled against the spin of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.
Australia’s batsmen stumbled against the spin attack of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.

This was most recently highlighted in Harare last month – where the side were restricted to a total of 9-209 in an eventual 3-wicket ODI defeat to Zimbabwe.

The bowling quartet on that occasion wasn’t the likes of Ajmal or Ashwin it was the lesser known names of John Nyumbu, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller who each had the Australians in a stranglehold. They would go on to bowl 36 of the allotted 50 overs and claim impressive match figures of 36-3-117-6.

It was unsurprising that Clarke (68no) was the only player to truly get to grips with the Zimbabwean attack before he limped off with a troubled hamstring. Post match the captain was annoyed at the selectors decision to omit Smith for the starting XI that day and said that they had got the decision undoubtably wrong.

Clarke’s hamstring remains a problem, especially after a long haul flight, but he is set to arrive early ahead of the ODI and Test series in the UAE to allow himself extra time to recover.

One area in which CA have sought to improve their handling of spin bowling for the tour of the UAE is the hiring of former Sri Lankan off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan as a coaching consultant. Murali will not only be used as a net bowler and brain to the batsmen but also as a bowling mentor to Nathan Lyon and the freshly called up New South Wales left armer Steve O’Keefe.

O’Keefe’s call up is a deserved one. The 29-year-old topped the Sheffield Shield bowling charts last season with 41 wickets at just 20.43 and has been the leading spinner in the competition for the past two years during a career that has brought him 128 victims at 24.72.

Elsewhere, Clarke has been given a 15-man squad for the two-Test series, which seems to have all based covered. Alongside the spin duo of Lyon and O’Keefe the party includes all rounders Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh – who have both impressed in ODI and first-class cricket in the recent past.

So with a settled Australian side coming into the series on the back of series wins over England and South Africa, it’s hard to look beyond the baggy green’s against an unpredictable Ajmal-less Pakistan outfit.