WHERE have all the English spinners gone?
Up went the cry after the Test series defeat to Pakistan.
Well, shock, horror, there are not too many knocking on the door and it is no surprise to Yorkshire’s director of cricket Martyn Moxon.
For Moxon, the problem dates back several years. “It all stems from years ago when the pitches in England were dug-up and relaid in an attempt to generate more pace.
“Effectively what’s happened now is that the pitches don’t wear any more, and there aren’t the surfaces that encourage spin.
“The pitches only wear in the bowlers’ follow-throughs as opposed to the main part of the pitch, where it kind of almost stays like concrete.
“They simply don’t wear, and the only thing you might get is indentations sometimes if they start a little damp.”
If that is the background to a problem highlighted by England’s performance in the UAE, where Yorkshire’s Adil Rashid and Worcestershire’s Moeen Ali found the going difficult, there are supplementary factors, too.
The fixture list does not help, shoving the County Championship – the competition in which spin bowlers have traditionally learned and nurtured their craft – into the start and end of the summer, when the weather is unpredictable and conditions favour seamers.
The growth of Twenty20 has led to this moving of the Championship, with the crash-bang-wallop played at the height of summer in an effort to gain more crowds and cash.
And, increasingly, young spinners are playing more one-day cricket than ever.
“Two of our three major domestic competitions are one-day cricket,” said Moxon. “On top of that, a lot of the England Under-19 fixtures are one-day games, and it’s more about not going for runs than spinning the ball.
“Consequently, because England U-19 cricket is predominantly one-day stuff, Karl Carver (the 19-year-old Yorkshire left-arm spinner) was involved in probably about 18 months of bowling in one-day cricket at a crucial stage of his development.
“So we’ve got to decide as a sport what we want – do we want our young players who are developing their skills playing one-day cricket or do we want them playing four-day cricket?”
The reality is that the evolution of county cricket in recent times has hindered spinners.
Rashid is one of the few who has prospered despite the rise of 50-over and T20 cricket, although not to the extent that he is anything like the finished article.
Rashid managed eight wickets in the Pakistan series – five in one innings – at an average of 69 and a strike-rate of 102.
In contrast, Yasir Shah, the Pakistan leg-spinner, took 15 at 21 with a strike-rate of 49.
When it comes to Rashid, however, Moxon has expressed concern at the advice being given by England to the bowler.
Having been his county coach for nine of Rashid’s 10 seasons in first-class cricket, he knows better than anyone that the way to get the best out of him is to keep things as simple as possible and encourage him to spin the ball hard. “I don’t know what’s been said to Rash by England, but what I do know is that all I would have been talking to him about is spinning the ball.
“Don’t worry about how many runs you’re going for, or the pace you’re bowling at – in fact, I wince at this continual talk about the fact that he’s not bowling the ball fast enough, because all that happens then is that he stops spinning it. Rash just bowls it flatter, quicker and it doesn’t spin.
“The Pakistanis are good players of spin at the best of times, but they’re even better players if the bowler’s not spinning it.”
The lack of spinners, of course, is not peculiar to England.
“If you look around world cricket, how many top-class spinners are there in countries other than the sub-continent where the pitches turn?” queried Moxon.
“Pitches, in general, don’t turn very much, and that’s the reality we need to face.
“In the West Indies, the pitches have started to turn a bit more than they used to, but certainly in England there aren’t enough pitches in county cricket that encourage turn.
“We have a lot of games where there’s, say, 12-17 wickets on the first day of a Championship match, and, in my opinion, pitch inspectors and the like have been too lenient for a number of years in addressing that issue.”
In reality, the fixture list is not going to change, the Championship programme is only ever going to decrease going forward, batsmen are not suddenly going to stop attacking spinners on increasingly flat surfaces, and spinners are not magically going to be given more overs by captains under pressure to keep down the runs.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from the Pakistan series is that when a young spinner like Rashid comes along, do not hammer him, as some have done, but recognise the potential that he has and encourage him for all he is worth, because English cricket is lucky to have him.