Club Cricket Conference

Friday, 20th October 2017

Lessons from Bangladesh defeat seem unlikely to be heeded

Personal view: Charles Randall

England drew a two-match Test series on the spinning pitches of Bangladesh, and the media went to town on bat-and-ball failings in defeat at Dhaka. Only in passing  was the  point made that the  contest was a fine example of long format cricket on what the ECB would regard as the 'wrong' type of strip.

Having watched professional cricket in Bangladesh on two tours, I was surprised and delighted to note a sporty pitch, instead of the more normal featherbed variety. And at last there was gumption with the bat inspired by Tamim Iqbal, a world class left-hander.

It was obvious to everyone that England's top order as a whole failed dismally in both Tests, especially in the defeat at Dhaka, but the interesting question was the thin state of England's spin options. This has been a self-inflicted wound.

For years the odds have been stacked against a specialist spin-bowler trying to make a career in county cricket. Heavily loamed pitches rarely break up, and only Taunton in 2016 seemed to offer strips tilted towards finger spin. But a damaging attitude started in the days of Duncan Fletcher as England coach;  spinners were expected to be good batsmen. Finger-spin is hardest of all cricket disciplines to master, and any exceptionally gifted spinner had to perform on bland pitches... and aspire as a middle order batsman at the very least. That mantra whittled the talent pool down further.

I fear for Mason Crane, the Worthing CC leg-spinner, who has broken into the Hampshire side at the age of 19. He has truly exceptional talent, but unless he can establish himself as a leading batsman - as his left-arm spin colleague Liam Dawson has done - his future is far from assured at professional level. He played Sussex League for Worthing at the age of 15 and 16 without stand-out success, but his only appearance in 2016, against Billingshurst, produced match-winning figures of 8.2-3-10-5. Maybe he will be tempted to shelve spin-bowling at county level and take the easier option of batting to maintain a career like a number of players before him.

The perception that spinners cannot be specialists has persisted and will continue to persist until more pitches are prepared to assist spin. County selectors will choose specialists only when they start winning games with the ball. And with much of the four-day Championship programme shoe-horned by the ECB into seam-friendly April and May, the day of dominant spin remains a long way off.  Surely Graeme Swann will not be the last world class spinner to emerge from England.

One would have thought that Jack Leach, with 68 first class wickets for Somerset in 2016, might have earned a place in Bangladesh and India. But Leach, a Taunton Deane CC left-arm spinner, could not claim to be more than a tail-end batter. He was therefore certain to be overlooked and was probably not even close. Zafar Ansari, having missed a tour through injury last winter, was given another chance with left-arm spin that confirmed suspicions that he was more an all-rounder than specialist, more like Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.

The success of Mehedi Hasan's off-spin for Bangladesh against England could be ascribed to relentless accuracy and subtle variation rather than spin, outbowling Moeen Ali if not by much.  Mehedi  took his 19 wickets at one every 34 balls, and Ali took his 11 wickets in fewer overs at one every 40 balls, not vastly different in a five-day Test.

Mehedi reminded me of Jason Brown, the Northamptonshire off-spinner. Brown, less a  spinner of the ball than his county team-mate Graeme Swann, maintained relentless accuracy with variation and could be relied on to exploit any help in the pitch as a match-winner.  After his 61 wickets in 2000 Brown was selected for an England A tour, but needless to say, as a tail-end batsman, his spin claim was rejected out of hand by Fletcher for the senior team. An off-spinner in Brown's class would have done very well in Bangladesh this winter.
Erapalli Prasanna,  49 caps as an India off-spinner, reckoned accuracy was absolutely essential for a spinner, keeping the batsman on the front foot. "No matter how the wicket is, your first and foremost objective as a spinner should be to bowl length," he said. "You determine your pace based on how quickly the ball travels through the air to land on that length." In the early 1970s Prasanna interrupted his Test career to take a university degree and he played some matches for St Albans CC while on holiday in England. He was a sensation on one of the flattest pitches in Hertfordshire, showing a heavily spun delivery early on to 'frighten' the batsman and then concentrating on accuracy rather than spin. Such a simple formula seemed to work for the youthful  Mehedi Hasan against England, though no doubt he will find life much tougher on 'normal' Test strips.

Statistics confirm that an alliance of accuracy and big spin are essential for long Test careers, as evidenced by Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. It is pleasing to note that neither bowler would be regarded as a proper  batsman. In July the Mail Online ran an article about spin-bowling research at Victoria University in Melbourne, rather confirming with airflow diagrams that the ball deviated more with some over-spin and a high degree of side spin or 'big' spin.

This is the classic formula that few club finger bowlers ever achieve.

Incidentally in the Mail comment thread was one accusation that Muralitharan 'threw' his off-spin and doosra. The writer could not have been aware that I once faced Muralitharan in the nets at Shenley, Hertfordshire, while the Sri Lankan bowled with his right arm encased in a rigid cast as a stunt for the national media to correct public perception.  Boy, did he spin that ball with his deformed bent arm and rubbery wrists. He might have looked like a chucker, but he definitely was not so.

To achieve big spin, some professional bowlers have lapsed into throwing in desperation, such is the pressure to master bland pitches.  Aaron Phangiso, the South Africa left-armer, was stopped in 2016, and Ollie Rayner, of Middlesex, admitted he did so a few years back when his coached action was not "me".

Rayner's interesting comment in ESPNcricinfo in 2015 about natural actions was a justified dig at the coaching process. Incredibly James Anderson's action was 'remodelled' by an international  coach because he was unorthodox on delivery - he looked at the ground as he bowled - and he was deemed to be at risk of injury. A new 'classic' action stripped away all his potency for a season and caused the very injury he was supposed to avoid. Anderson lost  two years of his career before he  could return to "me" on his way to the seam bowling summit.

Even Swann's whirling action was changed at Northamptonshire without success before he reverted to "me" and developed into probably the best England off-spinner since Jim Laker. That is a good lesson for coaches at all levels. Roll on the years and one can only wonder what has happened to Steven Finn.  Coached for increased speed, his action looks ugly, with a bowling arm so floppy it looks it could rip itself off. It is hardly surprising his confidence has dipped.

Good luck to the Southall Travel Spin Scholarship winners, organised by the Club Cricket Conference for a sixth year, this time  at Leicester in September. The competition is aimed at players not connected with first class counties.  Two leg-spinners in Anaesh Patel (Cardiff CC) and Stephen Croft (Sheriff Hutton Bridge CC) and left-armer Shan Ahmadzai, an Afghan at Luton Town & Indians CC, will be attending a week's coaching in Mumbai probably in March 2017. They are due to be presented with certificates at the CCC annual lunch at Lord's on 28 November.

All sorts of pitfalls await an aspiring county spinner these days - the requirement to bat better (which has little to do with spin talent), bland pitches (widespread surfaces that weigh against slow bowling) and the insanely massive bats with edges more than three times thicker than orthodox blades. Bat size restrictions are to be written into amended Laws by the MCC in 2017, but these  do not go far enough. One fears for teenage spinners trying to impress in adult club cricket, let alone at professional level.