Nasser Hussain, commentating for Sky Sports on Thursday 31st July, the day that England ended an eleven month wait for a Test match win:
“That’s five for Moeen Ali, part-time spinner no more!”
It was a glorious moment for any English cricket fan, Ali had just taken his fifth wicket, leaving India nine down. A few overs later, Ali claimed his sixth wicket of the innings and England won the match. There is no doubt that Ali’s second innings performance with the ball was crucial in getting England over the line, however, his performance raises questions over the future direction of spin in the England line up.
When Graeme Swann retired last winter, amidst a calamitous away Ashes series defeat for Alistair Cook’s England, there was no doubting the fact that the team had just lost one of the most successful English spinners of all time. Swann was brilliant, he could sweep through the middle order of a batting line up. He could hold up an end to allow one of England’s pace bowlers to strike. More often than not, his off breaks alone could be enough to destroy the confidence of any left handed batsman who faced Swann.
Swann’s loss hit England hard. They were, for the first time in years, without a frontline spinner. Then, earlier this year, Ali was called up to the Test squad to face Sri Lanka. He was primarily called up for his batting, but his reputation as a spin bowler for Worcestershire left several England fans drooling at the prospect of another front line off spinner.
Ali’s most recent performance will have done little to halt the drooling fans. Many pundits and commentators alike branded Ali as a part time spinner, yet throughout this current series against India, Cook has used Ali more and more. It was during the hysteria of his first five wicket haul in Test cricket that Hussain declared Ali a “part time spinner no more!” I am not so sure.
I feel we should not get over excited by Ali’s recent performance. Yes, it was wonderful to see a spinner take six wickets on home soil and clinch England a much needed Test victory. However, we should remember that Ali is by no means the complete spinner. His first class average is currently 39.72, which is nothing to get over excited about. In comparison, Swann’s was 32.12 and he played more first class games than Ali currently has.
Ali should be selected for England not because he can bowl, but because he can bat. This is something we have all witnessed, most notably, during his splendid maiden Test century against Sri Lanka in the second match of that series. I feel that England’s selectors, in the long term, would be best placed selecting four bowlers, three pace bowlers and one spinner, with Ali acting as a fifth bowler.
At the moment, I believe that there are three main candidates for the role of England’s new front line spinner. These are Simon Kerrigan, Scott Borthwick and Adam Riley. All of these players are relatively young, Kerrigan being the oldest at twenty five and all of these players have impressive first class statistics.
Kerrigan is probably the stand out bowler if you are looking at statistics alone, having taken 213 wickets in 67 matches with a highly impressive bowling average of 27.98. Borthwick meanwhile has taken 137 wickets in 77 matches with a higher bowling average of 33.27. Meanwhile, Adam Riley, very much the young, up and coming spinner in county cricket has had a very good start to his career taking 84 wickets in 32 matches with a bowling average of 30.78. However, Riley is very much the in-form spinner this year, most recently being one of the lucky ten to appear on the shortlist for the LV County Championship breakthrough player of the year.
At 22, many see Riley as an option for England further down the line but you could argue that he perhaps deserves his chance now considering his recent electric form with the ball. However, whilst the England selectors ponder their next move regarding the selection of spin, the ECB might also want to take a look at why England have produced fewer world class spinners over the last two decades than other countries such as India and Pakistan.
The problem is very much rooted in both the clubs and the ECB itself. Not all the clubs with first class status in England and Wales have specialist spin bowling coaches, with some often relying on one bowling coach to coach both the pace and spin bowlers. The issue here is that young spinners at these clubs aren’t getting the same levels of support and coaching that they would get if they were coached by a specialist spin coach. This can lead to several young spin bowlers not fulfilling their potential.
The second main issue is that the ECB aren’t lenient enough with unorthodox actions. The law requires that the bowling arm of a player must not exceed fifteen degrees of flexion. In essence, the bowler must not straighten their bowling arm by more than fifteen degrees during the delivery of the ball.
The issue is that the ECB are considered to be too strict with regards to unorthodox actions, especially when it comes to spin. The age old question “if Murali was English would he have played first class cricket?” is often brought up in discussions like these. The answer is almost always no. The ECB are perhaps more traditional in their approach to unorthodox actions, often they try to get the player alter their action or they simply neglect the player.
This is exactly what happened with Maurice Holmes, a young unorthodox spinner who impressed batting greats such as Ricky Ponting and Warwickshire duo Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell with his ability to bowl the ever illusive “doosra”. However, in Holmes’ case, the ECB prevented the player from playing first class cricket, despite his action being deemed legal by the ICC after testing in 2010.
In the long term, it would be great to see all clubs employing spin bowling coaches and the ECB to be more lenient when considering legal, unorthodox spin bowling actions. In the short term, I feel that England should select a spinner, whether that be Ali, Kerrigan, Borthwick or Riley and persist with him. This would give the chosen player confidence and the assurance that he is indeed England’s number one spinner.
Regardless of the future of spin bowling in English cricket, I just hope that we do not have to wait another eleven months for England to win a Test match again.