England’s latest tour to the sub-continent has exposed one extreme failing which seems to show no sign of correction in this country. Spin bowling.
The figures for the series from England’s spinners are 295.1-23-1202-20. An average of 60.10 per wicket and a run rate of 4.07 per over. In contrast England’s seamers figures were 339.1-103-762-31, an average of 24.58 and a run rate of 2.25 per over. The difference is stark and rather alarming. This is the one part of the world where spinners should hope to prosper. Since the mid-eighties if England has gone into a test with two spinners it has generally been there. Robert Croft, Richard Dawson and James Tredwell have all been selected there when they’ve not been trusted elsewhere.
But what this latest tour has highlighted to an astonishing degree is the paucity of England’s spin resources. Following on from the season just gone it appears there’s no sign on the horizon of this changing, in fact it looks as if it is getting worse.
Looking at the First-Class averages from the 2015 season the number one spin bowler was Jeetan Patel, who of course is a New Zealander. He took 58 wickets at 25.27. Of the English-qualified players Surrey’s captain, Gareth Batty was highest placed, with 40 wickets at 28.17. Two factors against Batty receiving another call-up to the test team are his age (38) and those wickets were taken bowling in the Second Division. The next best and probably most eligible age-wise was Zafar Ansari who took 44 wickets at 30.97. Ansari was originally picked for the Pakistan tour until he injured his hand the day after his selection. Ansari is also at Surrey, so again the criticism of his wickets being worth less as they were against Second Division batsmen would be labelled at him.
Of the First Division spinners English-qualified Simon Kerrigan was the highest placed with 41 wickets at 32.21. Few can forget Kerrigan’s debut in the 2013 Ashes. What of some of the players touted as England’s replacements for Graeme Swann? Scott Borthwick (Durham) was given his test debut at Sydney in January 2014 and came away with match figures of 4-82 from just 13 overs. His performance last season was 20 wickets at 36.70. Danny Briggs (Hampshire) took 21 wickets at 34.42. Ollie Rayner (Middlesex), who took 15 wickets in a match in 2013, took 24 wickets at 32.50. James Tredwell (Kent) who is aged 33 and plays in the Second Division, took 11 wickets at 40.27. Hardly inspiring.
There have been various suggestions as to why this is. Pitches in this country are often blamed as well as captains not wanting to risk a bowler who may concede too many despite taking the odd wicket here and there. This is a worrying trend, particularly as county cricket doesn’t appear to have any bowler of real pace either.
Things have changed a lot since I first started following cricket in 1981. Back then every county had a quality spinner and many of them seemed to be over the age of 30. Spinners, like wicket-keepers, were considered to be better with age. That all seems to have changed now. A glance through the averages from then you notice players such as Derek Underwood, John Emburey, Phil Edmonds, John Childs, John Barclay, David Acfield, Nick Cook, Vic Marks, Pat Pocock. All of whom had a better average that season than Kerrigan did last.
So where is the next top class spinner to come from these shores?
It is debatable whether county cricket trust spinners. Conditions are always in favour of the swing bowler especially in early summer. Traditionally a spinner would come to the fore as the season wore on and the pitches became drier. But you have to feel sorry for the poor tweakers. They’re forgotten about throughout May, June and July, yet when August and September comes around they’re expected to win games. Few other bowlers have this pressure laid upon them. When pitches are harder and expected to turn it’s as if every other bowler just stands back and says “ok spinners, we’ll put our feet up whilst you win the game for us”. For tour after tour the spinner is seen simply as a variation, yet when England are off to the sub-continent suddenly we want to fill the squad with players we’ve barely given the time of day to before.
There are concerns over the future of spin in this country and this has generated debate amongst a number of supporters on social media. Recently I was involved in a discussion involving a couple of coaches & players from grass roots level and a number of issues highlighted where we may be going wrong. There were many suggestions as to where English cricket is going wrong and what improvements should be made. The key is whether there is enough appetite for change within the corridors of power. Here is a summary of that discussion.
The coach involved in this debate was Richard Holland, a club coach at Merstham, Surrey. He identified a number of issues concerning him at the moment. Firstly, we need specialist spin coaches. Coaching academies for spin coaching and coach the coach rather than just expect a bowling coach to coach bowling. ECB promotes medium and fast bowling at an early age but they often overlook teaching spin. When Nat West first started to sponsor One-Day Internationals there was a concern in the country for the lack of decent fast bowlers. So the sponsors set up a special ‘speed-zone’. At every international members of the public were encouraged to have a bowl in a specially constructed net and have their speed measured. This facility still exists today, about fifteen years after conception. That is all very well for those youngsters, or not so young, who want to see how fast they can fling a ball into a cushion but what about those who bowl spin. The art of spin is deception, flight, dip and although the pace you bowl is important, it’s pointless when measured without a batsman.
Bowling machines which are now affordable for many clubs only bowl medium and fast balls. You need a specialist machine to replicate spin, so when do you teach players to bat against the threat? What you can find at youth level is that kids want to spin the ball rather than bowl fast. If you can’t bowl fast then medium pacers need all sorts of other tricks up their sleeves, such as slower balls and yorkers, and unless you can master that you probably will be judged as someone who gets carted to all parts and therefore struggle to make an impression. Given the paucity of spin options and how kids often want to be able to master the art, it’s odd why more kids aren’t encouraged to take it up.
Some of the reasons could be that it is really difficult to teach at grass roots level. Plus, the nature of spin is for those who are young it is not unusual to bowl the odd bad ball maybe every over and so a captain trying to keep the score down may not want to risk the wickets he might gain for the runs given away. Added to that perhaps the fielders are not of sufficient ability to take chances which may come quickly off an edge and therefore opportunities are wasted. Yet, for many batsmen facing a good spinner can be a daunting prospect, particularly as the field will be up and crowded around him with all the opportunities for sledging and general vocal pressure to coax a player into making a mistake.
Sometimes a spinner looks to encourage a batsman to play a shot as this can bring about a false sense of security and inevitably a mistake from too much confidence. Spinners can gain an advantage over the batsman by their very presence. Shane Warne, Graeme Swann, Muttiah Muralitharan are modern examples of this, where their mere presence in the team was enough for players to perhaps take risks against the seamers in order to establish an innings in the hope they would find playing the spinner easier once he came onto bowl. But this requires a confident captain, one who is confident in his own ability. Ricky Ponting was a good example of a captain who didn’t trust his spinners. He did trust Warne, but Warne was already an established test player by the time Ponting was skipper. But once Warne went, Ponting rarely gave his spinners enough confidence for them to perform at their very best. As so much about a spinner is deception then most of the battle is in the mind, especially for the batsman.
I’m reminded of a story David Gower told of when he finally made it into Leicestershire first team. He had been a confident player in the second eleven and throughout his young career and then he faced an old off-spinner. As the ball came to him he moved forward believing this was an easy one to put away, and then suddenly it dipped and he was made to look a fool. What he hadn’t realised is as a spinner gets older and more experienced they get more crafty, and back in the mid-1970’s, as I have said earlier, most counties had old, wily spinners.
Spin is an art and one which can be very rewarding to learn but not easy for youngsters to master. In a recent interview, Graeme Swann was asked what advice he would give to young players wanting to bowl spin. He said “learn to hold the ball so you can spin it as hard as you can. Then just concentrate on spinning it as hard as possible for the first five years and not worry about anything else, such as control as that will come later on”. Swann is critical of the way the ECB coaching manual tells players to hold the ball as he believes it does not encourage them to spin the ball as much as they could.
Something else Swann is critical of with regards England and how they don’t seem to value spin highly enough is to do with specialist coaches. Sometimes England have been known to have as many backroom staff as players. They have full-time batting coaches and bowling coaches but the spin coach is part-time. This looked even worse on the recent Pakistan series, in the home of spin England had two batting coaches, Mark Ramprakash and Mahela Jayawardene, but no spin coach, yet the Third Test saw us playing more spin bowlers than seamers.
Richard explained how he coaches kids to bowl spin. “We start with a target area and put cones down for the kids to aim at, called cone strike then get it smaller.” He went onto add, “ECB directives say kids can only bowl so many overs so any kid who comes through needs to be really determined”.
“The priority for a spinner must be to hit the spot every ball. ‘Hit the dinner plate approach’. If you get the technique right at the start and let the players play then this gives them confidence. Young players need to be allowed to experiment with the ball and find out what it can do for them. The ECB gave coaches an interactive USB to help plan coaching, but guess what? There’s very little on spin! Spin is an art form and so I’d like to see more tools for coaches to use. Most at club level are ex-players, but if no one taught you then how can you pass this on?”
Richard went onto to explain how T20 has made a real difference to kids wanting to get into the game. “All the kids want to switch-hit and scoop. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but Kevin Pietersen has changed the game. Look at the Big Bash there are kids all over the grounds watching and playing in the open spaces. English grounds need to have areas like that”
This last point highlights something that always makes me mad when I go to watch cricket. Not every ground will let spectators on the playing area during the breaks. What’s that all about? At international cricket you’re told you will be fined £1,000 if you go onto the playing area. This all stemmed from Australia’s tour here in 2001 when Steve Waugh complained Pakistani supporters were swarming onto the pitch and he was scared a player could get hurt. But things are different now and Pakistan doesn’t tour here every year, yet grounds continue to thwart kids and their parents from practising what they’ve just watched their heroes do.
Anyway, back to the problem of spinners in England. Richard’s point about a player needing to be really determined if they’re going to make it in the game is often highlighted by the fact they rarely get to pick their own field and captains believe they know best when setting the field. This can result in a spinner bowling to keep things tight simply to ensure he gets a bowl, for trying too many variations or attacking can result in runs conceded and hence their removal from the attack.
Richard also made a point regarding his concern very little cricket is taught in school, particularly state schools. He is concerned cricket may remain an elite sport. Richard said he’d like to see schools adopt all-weather pitches which can be bought for around £1,000 and they have zones marked out for full, short or good length. But cricket can be a complicated sport for schools to manage. Particularly where teachers are concerned. One could argue coaching is far better if done by those qualified and if you’re a budding cricket coach are you really looking for a position at a school? So many activities are set up for children in this country compared to when I was a child, so it seems logical for cricket clubs to take on this role.
Cricket clearly has a battle against a football-dominated landscape. Unfit kids generally turn to cricket believing you don’t have to run about as much as football or rugby. Of course, cricket does attract kids who play other sports yet there are loads who aren’t quite as good at those who would find the technical aspects of the game really challenging. It has been a problem for years for clubs around the country as to how they continue to attract kids too old for their Colts sections. Once teenagers discover other social attractions as well as take on part-time jobs which may involve Saturdays, they can be lost to the game. But how many would stay in touch if they discovered a skill they didn’t realise they had? If you’re a seamer of medium pace who is perhaps never going to gain enough pace to really trouble batsmen, then taking up spin as an alternative could well see them find a place in a team.
This moved us on to some points brought up by a chap who played for Sussex Colts and could’ve gone on to play for the first eleven. He highlighted a number of faults with the game and its lack of development for young players unless their faces fit or they went to the right school. His story is probably nothing new and one which could probably be echoed up and down the country. It is true many do not go onto make it at any level in most sports in this country and often you need luck and timing but Dean’s story is a frustrating one and one can only wonder what might have been, even if he doesn’t. If ECB is to really progress the game in this country they would do well to address many of the issues Dean highlights.
Dean Millard grew up in Brighton and from the ages of 14-16 he played for Sussex Colts in the early 1980’s. He got to bowl to players such as Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux, although they treated the colts ‘like dirt’. Dean was a superb athlete, excelling at many sports especially cricket, football and athletics. At the same time he was trying to make an impression with Sussex he was breaking records in long distance running. At one point he held the Sussex cross country title as well as 3000m, 1500m and 800m titles. His experience with the colts was telling though.
During his time there he played with just one spinner. Why? “Because they were not encouraged to be a spinner as it wasn’t fashionable or hip”. Dean, by his own admission was a bit of a rough diamond and still believes his cockney accent held him back in many people’s eyes. The Colts certainly opened their eyes when he “smashed the local private school all around the park in a Lord’s Taverners game”
When asked to what level he could’ve played at, Dean had no hesitation in claiming “county level”. But in the end he says his attitude let him down, although he holds no regrets to this day. He was offered professional terms at football but refused and could’ve had his pick of cricket, football or athletics for a professional career. At age seventeen Dean ran a four minute mile. He’d already run a two minute 800m at school and even over 100m was clocked at just over eleven seconds. He went onto run for Brighton and Hove Athletics club. He was coached by Chris Carter, who competed at 800m for Great Britain in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Why couldn’t a cricket coach take an interest? Talking to him you get the feeling he preferred running on his own as he was free from any constriction and it didn’t matter where he was from. If he was fast enough he was good enough.
But Dean could’ve been a decent county player and who knows he could’ve been even better than that. But his overriding feeling from his experience as a young pretender was that he didn’t go to the right school and didn’t sound right. You can argue things are different now from those days as counties have academies but if you look at some of the exciting young cricketers coming through these days, they are indeed all clean-cut, reasonably well spoken and pretty well-educated, young men. How many talented young men have been put off the sport for believing it is elitist? How many have become frustrated in having to fit in when all they needed was some encouragement?
What both Dean and Richard have in common is a belief the game is still very much an elite sport. Dean felt it was when he was trying to make it and Richard is clearly concerned cricket is not taught enough in schools. Twenty20 could change all this if kids are pushing their parents to get involved more and this should be encouraged as it is often the older cricket watching generation who are resistant to the format rather than their younger counterparts.
You feel players such as Tufnell, Ronnie Irani and Ed Giddins made it into county cricket through sheer determination and force of personality when they must have looked out of place coming through the ranks.
A recent discussion on TMS between Phil Tufnell and Graeme Swann had them talking about young spinners needing to develop a thick skin, mainly because they’re going to get battered around the park at some point and the key is how to deal with that and learn. But that highlights much of the plight of spinners in this country as often captains and coaches will be reluctant to keep going with them. There is also the concern over cricket’s place in the pecking order of sports in England, as well as the problem of being considered an elite sport.
County pitches rarely encourage spin anymore. Counties want games to go on for four days to maximise revenue and groundsmen rarely are able to prepare a pitch which will take spin. ECB also has much to answer for as pitches where wickets fall far too frequently are often deemed unsuitable and counties are fined or have points deducted as a result. Captains want attacking fields and this can put even more pressure on the spinner, particularly as runs can inevitably flow.
The county programme also seems to have deserted the county spinner. Championship matches are being pushed to both ends of the calendar and so when pitches are bare and accommodating for turners there are fewer matches for them to show off their craft. This latest season was a classic example with plenty of championship matches in April and May yet between 23rd July and 20th August there was just one round. If the spinner hasn’t been used early in the season it’s a bit rich to just expect him to turn up and, well, turn.
So what else can be done? Everything within our game in England appears to be against spinners to such an extent players like Adil Rashid are succeeding in spite of the game, not as a result of. This cannot be good. After finding his way into the England set-up he then went back to county cricket and seemed to work on his batting more than his bowling. But therein lies the problem with what we’re producing from the international academy that is county cricket. Most spinners these days need to be able to bat before they’re even considered.
The ‘Moeen Ali experiment’ is a worrying sign for me. It bears all the hallmarks of what has happened to specialist wicket-keepers. Now we choose a keeper based on his runs rather than his keeping ability. My concern is spin bowlers could go the same way. I guess the argument is a spinner is only effective if the pitch is responsive to turn, so for those games he can offer the team much more by contributing runs. Yet there is still room in a side for a seam bowler who cannot bat and yet if he is getting little out of a pitch, teams don’t drop him in favour of a better batting bowler. If we’re not careful we’ll just have sides who try to outscore each other. What I mean by that is the attitude of “we don’t care how many runs you score, we’ll score more”. Rather than “our bowling attack is good enough to bowl you out cheaply, so we can knock off the runs easily”. The difference in the two approaches is the belief and trust in your bowlers, rather than let’s fill the side with decent batsmen and forget about the specialist skills of keepers and spinners.
Recently ECB has announced a change to the rules for next season by abandoning the compulsion for a toss of the coin to determine who bats first. The idea behind this is to encourage counties to produce ‘better cricket wickets’ which would be receptive to the spin bowler than hitherto seen recently. One slight problem with this idea is this experiment may only last for a year and some counties have few spin resources to call upon in time for us to judge this to be a success or not.
Ironically, England gave T20 to the world and rather than see the end of the spin bowler, as many predicted, the format has seen them become one of the most dangerous weapons in the bowling attack. If T20 is to continue to flourish England would do well to ensure the spin bowling cupboard is well stocked for years to come.