With Adil Rashid’s selection stirring cricketing passions, Phil Walker tentatively welcomes the resumption of English’s deeply formal, standoffish dance with leg-spin.
Well, that escalated quickly. Ed Smith hadn’t even sat down to begin to explain, through the old fashioned thing of looking people in the eye and talking to them straight, why he and his fellow selectors had recalled the four-day exile Adil Rashid to the Test team. He’d barely begun unpicking the logic behind the call, and we’ll come to that later, before Rashid’s sometime and, one suspects, soon to be erstwhile employers, were releasing one of the tartest ripostes in living memory.
Mark Arthur, Yorkshire’s CEO, was the man who delivered it. “I hope,” he said, as the squad list did the rounds, “that England know what they’re doing to Adil and the county game.”
Doing to Adil! What, precisely, is England meant to be “doing to Adil”? What sinister acts of malevolence could be driving such a thing? Perhaps it’s some dark ploy to undercut the most effective wicket-taker they have in one-day cricket by throwing him to the five-day behemoth, but that doesn’t really add up. Or perhaps, I don’t know, they just feel that in the context of an abnormally dry summer, in which none of the other spin options have made a persuasive case for inclusion, he is the best option to take Indian wickets in a Test series.
To the charge of what England are doing to “the county game”, there is more of a case to answer, though the context is nothing especially new. Tensions between the counties and the national team is one of the consequences of the umbilical contract binding them both.
They need one another to survive. One replenishes the other, which in turn replenishes the other. But while no county will ever publicly admit that self-interest – trophies, profit margins, membership – trumps their other fundamental function, which is to produce players for England, privately it’s not always as clear-cut. By the same token, there is far from universal agreement – and not just from inside the bunker but out on the battlefields as well – that ‘The 18’ must be preserved, come what may, for eternity. Not by a long chalk.
And so against this backdrop, further discoloured by botched plans for new tournaments, controversial bailouts and swingeing sanctions, it’s not a huge leap to construe the Test selection of a player who’s not playing four-day cricket over those who are as ‘a kick in the teeth’ to the county system. And many have. Michael Vaughan was the screechiest, but he was far from alone.
Nasser Hussain was more nuanced, but was no less concerned by the “wrong message it sends to county cricket”.
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) July 26, 2018
A little perspective was needed, and Smith offered it in bundles.
He began, as all conversations in England do these days, with the weather. The parched pitches, the turning ball. “And secondly, in the event of needing to play two spinners, people who turn the ball in opposite directions, it would be eccentric to play two off-spinners and Joe Root.”
(The first off-spinner, incidentally, is once again the recalled Moeen Ali, whose presence as Rashid’s minder/older brother in the one-day side could only have helped Rashid’s cause here.)
“So it’s ideal,” he continued, eyes darting around the assembled, “to have a left-arm spinner or a leg-spinner. Into that comes Adil’s form in white-ball cricket, his confidence, his touch; he’s in the form of his life. He’s never felt more comfortable, or at home.”
Those last lines should be italicised. Rashid after all is a mercurial, confidence cricketer who has not always seemed entirely at ease in the England set-up. Intriguingly, Smith then said that he’d first spoken to him about his plans before the limited-overs stuff got underway; so that ball to Kohli, the first time a leg-break had clean-bowled the Indian skipper in his ODI career, was a nice aside within a conversation that was already happening.
After gauging his readiness to return to Test cricket if the circumstances were right, Smith than went to Root and Bayliss. “Do you want access to that capability?” he asked them. “And the answer to that was ‘yes’. Having spoken to Joe, I then spoke to Adil again…”
Smith also had some words for Jack Leach, the southpaw finger spinner whose marginal omission would have stung. A run of cruel bad luck, he said, had amounted to Leach bowling 37 overs since May, “and I’ve watched them all”. In that context, he concluded, “We felt it wouldn’t be fair to throw him into a Test match against India.”
Self-awareness and a bit of media background serves Smith well in these situations. He called himself “a county man”, recognised that people will take issue with the decision, and sought to assure that such “exceptional circumstances” will not be repeated and that in future anybody who wants to be considered for Test cricket must possess an active red-ball contract.
Into all this swaggered the man himself. In an ideal world, back in April Adil Rashid would have surveyed his place in the England Test scene – following 23 wickets in India in 2016, his last matches, he was then overlooked for Liam Dawson, Mason Crane and Jack Leach – and carried on playing red-ball cricket for his county. Instead, perhaps a bit disillusioned, and knowing he had a good thing going in white-ball cricket and with a World Cup next year to build to, he didn’t. He made a call. And then situations changed, personnel changed, policy evolved, and he was asked to make another.
So it was notable (and encouraging) to see Rashid dish it out on the BBC. The subject of English cricket’s latest “hoo-ha” – his words – is not known for his spikiness, but first he rounded on Vaughan’s “stupidity” before going after his employers for not offering their support.
“If they treat me like they have done,” he said of Yorkshire, “don’t see any value in me and are disrespectful to me, I have to think about the future in terms of which county I play for.”
If there’s one reasonably sure thing from this, it’s that the Bradford-born taker of 420 first-class wickets for his home county will not be taking too many more for them.
And so to the only important question now: how will he go? Rashid has played 10 Tests to date. In those, he’s been sporadically butchered, and sporadically effective. (We may as well add all worthwhile England Test spinners of the last 40 years into that mix, perhaps excluding Graeme Swann.)
Five times from those 10 matches he’s taken four or more wickets in an innings, and seven times he’s conceded more than 100 in an innings. After those 23 wickets against India last time out, the next best tally was Moeen’s, with 10.
But here’s where it gets persuasive. Moeen is a far more potent bowler in English conditions. He’s done most of his good work on pitches that offer a little bit of this and quite a bit of that. He has taken 82 wickets from 28 home Tests at 33, against 51 wickets at 40 from 22 Tests away.
Rashid has played all his Test cricket away from home, on miserable slabs – Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Chennai – that routinely give up monstrous scores. He has never bowled a ball in whites for England in England. It would have been something akin to a sporting travesty if the most talented English leggie of the century had never been given the chance to twirl away at Old Trafford or The Oval, just for an afternoon or two, just to see.
If England dare to live a little – and let’s face it, they need to find three bunches of 20 wickets to haul in this runaway Indian Test team – then Rashid can be deployed as a free man. Unencumbered by the task of lugging an ineffective bowling attack around the subcontinent, he will instead be working with Anderson, Broad, Moeen and Stokes – a home Ashes-winning quartet.
There has been no shortage of reasonable arguments suggesting that there’s a world of difference between white-ball and red-ball cricket, and that Rashid will be picked off, his bad balls punished, his one-day threat neutered by the differing requirements of the longer form. This may well play out. But there is no other persuasive option out there. At 30, with 13 years in the game, Rashid should know what he is by now. It’s time again for English cricket to resume its deeply formal, standoffish dance with leg-spin.