With this Ashes series now mercifully finished, attention turns to a much harder test for England in the shape of Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, where the principal narrative will concern the lack of decent English spinners at the current time. This is a topic we (and our readers) have covered in the past, with the general feeling that, as is now evident, England aren’t exactly blessed with a myriad of options. Suddenly this seems to have come to wider attention despite it being an integral characteristic of English cricket for years, nay, decades.
Just four English spinners who made their Test debut since 1980 have reached 100 wickets (Messrs Swann, Panesar, Giles and Tufnell); only one other reached 50 (Nick Cook). Robert Croft reached 49, and behind him in the list is, erm, Moeen Ali. That means that the last-time an international class spinner (however you choose to define it) made their first-class debut was 2001, when Panesar first manically celebrated a wicket. We would nevertheless suggest that having just three others make their debut in the 20 years before then is not a statistically different trend. It’s just that the well is a bit drier at the moment. The truth is England have struggled to regularly find international-class spinners, let alone world-class ones, for a long time indeed.
Or is it? For only 26 players debutting in the 1980s or later meet that vague threshold of international-class, full-stop. And that includes everyone’s least favourite modeller of sunglasses, Ravi Shastri. Only India have more spinners than England who reached 100 wickets in that period, whilst Pakistan also have four. The pertinent point here is that a successful spinner will have a five, ten or even 15-year career, often as the only spinner, limiting the options for others to make the grade.
As Swann mentioned on TMS during the last Test, there is an inherent problem with coaching British kids to bowl spin. Something to do with using the wrong knuckle, apparently. Perhaps Swann should start his own spin academy or something. It is worrying that no-one since Panesar has come through county cricket to really challenge for a place in the side (fucking Tredwell does not count), and it’d be interesting to hear from Peter Such over at Loughborough about what he is actually doing with regard the rank and file spinners who he coaches. Indeed, we slightly suspect that in the future any England spinner will be selected partly due to their ability with the bat, a la Moeen Ali. In this situation the easy thing to do would be to blame coaching manuals, county pitches and the ECB. And we like doing the easy thing.
But less anyone worry that Ali is a mere part-timer, check out his average: 36.04. Hardly the stuff of Gods, but a better average than Croft, Tufnell, Giles, Eddie Hemmings, Vic Marks and the hated John Emburey amongst others. Only one English spinner in the past 100 years has as many wickets at a better strike-rate (Walter Robins). In statistical terms, it’s only his economy rate which is poor, and that can be partially excused in the modern era of Test cricket being played at hurricane speeds – albeit that’s also one reason for his good strike rate.
Let’s face facts. Unless England’s batting improves massively, they are going to lose in the UAE. Even if they had Swann and Underwood playing together, they’d still not be favourites (Underwood is 70, after all). It’s far from ideal going into that series with Ali as the front-line spinner and an untested Adil Rashid as his partner – although knowing England they’ll start the first Test with four seamers and one spinner anyway – but aside from when Swann and Panesar played together (11 matches), they have never – in our lifetimes anyway – actually had two top-class spinners to call upon. That explains why Shaun Udal (notwithstanding his performance at Mumbai in 2006), Ian Blackwell, Ian Salisbury and the 76-year old arsehole John Emburey have been selected in subcontinental tours in the past 25 years.
So where does that leave us, apart from gawping at Kylie? Incentivising – or even requiring – counties to develop their spinners, whatever their age, is one objective. Getting Swann off the air and into the nets is another. But for now let Ali and Rashid do their stuff. Ali does not deserve to be dropped and dragging Rashid around the country, and the world, never to play him is pointless. And when England lose heavily against Pakistan, let’s hope that the media don’t automatically apportion the blame to the spinners. We should be so lucky.