Sean Wilson runs through the alternative candidates to be England’s spinner in Tests.
You could pinpoint several reasons for England’s latest Ashes hammering in Australia. Weak top order batting, failure to convert starts, no Ben Stokes, lack of pace and poor preparation being the most documented flaws in the current England Test side. Another of those is the spin department. Australia is not a place known to be a paradise for spinners. Yet the impact of Nathan Lyon in this series gave England a glimpse of what might have been, had they had a spinner of such class in their side.
Lyon was integral to Australia’s success. Sure, the electric pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins will take the headlines and perhaps rightly so – they took a combined total of 66 English wickets and their pace, particularly through the air, was perhaps the difference on such flat wickets. But Lyon took 21 wickets of his own and his consistency with the ball built up pressure for the quicks to strike at the other end. It is well known that a paceman’s job becomes much easier once a spinner, at the very least, holds up an end, never mind offers the wicket-taking threat that Lyon does.
Unfortunately for England, such a luxury did not arrive. The tourists’ two spinners in the series, Moeen Ali and Mason Crane, earned series figures of 5-575 and 1-193 and never looked consistently threatening to the Australian batsmen at any point. Lyon, on the other hand, took his 21 scalps at 29.23 apiece and England couldn’t find a way to play him.
Yet, was this really that surprising? Moeen, while excellent in England, was poor during the previous winter tour to India, where he was expected to have an impact due to the turning pitches, taking just 10 wickets at 64.90 apiece. In addition, Crane averaged 44.68 with the ball from his seven matches for Hampshire during last year’s Division One season, as he struggled to get regular game time in the longer form of the game. You would be forgiven for thinking the selectors failed to pick more worthy candidates.
Admittedly, there is a dearth of talent when it comes to high-class spinners in the country at the moment. That is partly due to the early schedule and conditions in county cricket favouring seam bowlers, therefore costing potentially talented spinners game time. Yet, there are still some who have made an impression and will have felt hard done by when the Ashes squad was announced. One of those is Jack Leach. Over the past two seasons in Division One, Leach has taken 116 wickets at 23.6 with nine five-fors. The next best English spinner, in terms of number of wickets over that period of time, is Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner with 71. The underlining fact being that no English spinner has come close to Leach’s prolific wicket tally over the last two years.
In addition to last year’s problems over his action, a concern with Leach is that he only performs at Taunton, where the wicket is traditionally helpful to spinners, especially towards the end of the match. Leach was a pivotal part of Somerset’s late title charge in 2016, even opening the bowling at times due to his threat on the turning wickets. However, in 2017, Leach began to have an impact away from home. He took 4-51 against Yorkshire at Scarborough and then 5-50 at Edgbaston against Warwickshire, offering a threat in less helpful conditions. Leach now seems to be developing into a much more well-rounded bowler and the bottom line is, the only one that England fans care about, that he gets people out. The Ashes may be gone but maybe Leach could finally have a chance to show England what they have been missing in New Zealand.
If not Leach, who else? Dom Bess, Leach’s Somerset spin partner, is also one that has impressed. Last season, Bess took an impressive 36 wickets from nine matches at 23.41 with three five-fors. The young off-spinner impressed the Somerset coaching staff, as well as viewers with his flight and guile with the ball. Indeed, Bess is only 20 and would perhaps need to develop for at least another full county season before calls for an England Test spot become louder.
And then we have Adil Rashid. Whatever happened to Adil Rashid? England’s leading wicket-taker (23) by a distance in India last winter has been overlooked ever since his promising series in the subcontinent. Rashid looked to have grown in maturity and confidence during that series against a high-quality Indian batting line-up, which included Virat Kohli at the peak of his powers. Yet, there are apparent doubts within the England camp over Rashid’s mental strength in Tests as much as his ability to tie down batsmen for long periods. The Yorkshire leg-spinner remains an integral part of England’s plans in white-ball cricket but who knows when we will see him again in the Test arena.
There are other promising talents. Amar Virdi, despite playing only three Division One matches last season, is highly thought of at Surrey and leg-spinner Matt Parkinson has impressed since breaking through at Lancashire, taking 24 wickets from nine matches at 27.95. However, much like Bess, they will need more development on the county scene before warranting selection at a higher level.
The underlining factor, though, is that England need a top-class spinner. To be the best Test side in the world, which England intend to be, you need to be adaptable both home and away. That is made even more difficult without a spinner who can hold up an end, as well offer a wicket-taking threat. England love an all-rounder, as we know, but Moeen Ali has proven on two away tours now that he is not the solution to England’s continuous search for a reliable spinner.
It could well be time to try someone else and Leach, Bess and Rashid have to be in contention.