Cast your mind back. All the way back to 2012, a heady year in which England somehow managed to win a Test series in India for the first time in about a hundred years. They also got completely battered at home by South Africa, but let’s not talk about that. No, what we’re interested in is perhaps the most significant event in that India series: the selection of Samit Patel in the England starting XI for the first three Tests.
Now we love Samit Patel, albeit in a gently mocking way – scientists estimate that 25% of all the pictures on this site are followed by fat jokes about him – but even we couldn’t really see why England had actually picked him. His bowling is rubbish. We can see the appeal in T20 cricket, with slow left armers often proving distinctly challenging to get away, and maybe even in ODI cricket, but in a Test match? Good lord, no.
And so it proved: Samit took just one wicket at the very chunky average of 135. And yet he did sort of impress us with his batting, even if he did only make 69 runs from four innings. He actually seemed to have some idea of how to play spin. And this got us thinking: bowling attacks are often chopped and changed depending on conditions. But how often can the same be said of batting lineups?
The answer, as far as we can remember, is almost never. There seems to be an accepted wisdom that good batsmen can prosper in any conditions, while good bowlers will often be completely thwarted by the fact that there’s no grass (or clouds) on the subcontinent. It seems a remarkable simplification to us, one that seems to become less and less true as time goes by. With every Test side now looking to milk home advantage as much as they can, the days of condition-specific specialist batsmen should be here.
To use a recent illustration, consider Australia’s hilarious gubbing at the hands of a supposedly rebuilding Sri Lanka. Realising that the tourists couldn’t play spin to save their lives, the home side asked for turning wickets and picked an army of front line spinners, with inevitably hilarious results. By the end, Suranga Lakmal was the only quick left in the side, bowling a few overs with the old ball to pass the time.
One of the mistakes Australia made was assuming that their top batsmen could simply roll up, play a couple of warmup games and then bash the Sri Lankan attack to all parts. Instead, the likes of Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja displayed all the composure of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, while Shaun Marsh – a man with previous experience of making runs in Sri Lankan conditions – spent the first two matches carrying drinks.
Of course, it’s easy to suggest that Australia should have picked some specialist spin-playing batsmen, but who would that be? We haven’t the slightest idea – the lack of quality spinners in Australia means that it’s hard to get experience playing the turning ball and even harder to pick out players who can do it. We’ll just point the finger of blame at the Australian selectors instead, as they’re probably paid to know more about this sort of thing than us.
With England set to spend their winter touring India and (security permitting) Bangladesh, this is the ideal opportunity to try and fill the giant holes in the top order with batsmen who can actually play spin, rather than those that have done well against the dibbly-dobbly seamers of division two of the County Championship. And who is there out there that fits this particular bill?
Yes, we really are naming Samit Patel as the solution to England’s problems. He can bat at number four, thus releasing us from the torment that comes from watching James Vince thrashing around outside off stump like a particularly displaced Magikarp. He can be a third spinner – as we said before, his bowling really isn’t that good, but he can at least hold up an end for a few overs while Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad nip off for a piss. Not together though, that would be weird.
One of the main controversies about selecting Samit – other than the fact that he should probably be spending the winter at some sort of fat camp – is that his county record this year hasn’t been anything special, averaging 35 in County Championship Division One, 29 in the One Day Cup and 18 in the T20 Blast. And yes, in some ways it would be a kick in the teeth for those batsmen who have actually scored domestic runs. But touring the subcontinent just isn’t the place to throw a young batsman into a troubled top order and expect him to succeed. So Samit gets the nod from us, purely as a short term pick for the winter. After that it’s time for the likes of Scott Borthwick and Ben Duckett to get their chances, leaving Samit free to concentrate on what’s important to him.