Whither England’s three young spinners? Or when they return home in mid-March, sore of foot and finger after all their winter work, will they simply wither?
Tom Hartley will have his white-ball T20 and Hundred assignments, which have been invaluable experience for him as he learned to open the Test bowling under fire. He might even be given more than three championship matches this coming season under Lancashire’s enlightened new coach Dale Benkenstein.
Rehan Ahmed is guaranteed a championship game at Leicestershire as an all-rounder, after their main spinner Callum Parkinson has moved to Durham. But will Shoaib Bashir get a game at Somerset? Probably only when Jack Leach is representing England.
There should, of course, be a couple of ‘A’ Tests every summer in which these spinners could cut more teeth. The ECB has always been very good at arranging ‘A’ Tests abroad for its Lions in recent winters, but never find a space in the calendar – and the agreement of the counties – to reciprocate with such fixtures at home.
And all three of them deserve all the encouragement they can get. Yes, they were far too wayward in their length in the morning session of day three, when none of them could back up the fatigued James Anderson and Shubman Gill raced to his century. Hartley initially seemed emotionally drained after Hyderabad when he took 10 wickets (don’t forget his run-out); and Bashir looked tired too after he had clocked 38 overs in India’s first innings, his previous most having been 30 overs for Somerset. Yet they took India’s last eight wickets, and have only 63 years between the three of them.
We sympathise with a young batsman, perhaps a T20 specialist, who is thrown into the deep end of Test cricket – and with most West Indian batsmen who have to enter Test cricket with a minimal first-class record behind them. Yet we insist on giving England’s young spinners the barest minimum of an apprenticeship.
They have so much to learn about the game and themselves. They have to learn how to bowl over and round the wicket, to right- and left-handers, with a new ball and old, and above all judge the pace on which to bowl on every pitch. Meanwhile they have to harden their bodies and fingers for long spells, know their action and their release-points, and work on their various types of delivery. A training camp in Abu Dhabi does not quite suffice.
We do not have to go back to the “good old days”, but it is interesting to recall what they used to offer. Until 1958 almost half the counties fielded a second XI team in the Minor Counties championship. In 1959 the Second XI championship was introduced, and half-a-dozen of the wealthier counties – most remarkably Northamptonshire who were cashing in on football pools – fielded a team in both competitions. There the young spinner was not above the radar.
Brian or “Bomber” Wells, Gloucestershire’s apprentice off-spinner, bowled 456 overs in the Second XI championship in 1959, taking 87 wickets at nine runs each. You could argue that was too easy, but he never lacked confidence thereafter. Norman Gifford was learning how to become an England left-arm spinner by bowling 369.4 overs for Worcestershire Seconds (43 wickets at 19). Jack Birkenshaw, the future England off-spinner, took 26 wickets at 13 in the Minor Counties championship of 1960 – and remains the English guru of finger-spin.
Nobody can change the benighted schedule which crams the County Championship into April and September – nobody, that is, except if the ECB wants to encourage spin. But even then the counties can take a leaf out of the Hyderabad groundsman’s book: he raked and roughed up both ends, on a full i.e spinner’s length.
When the former England captain Ray Illingworth was leading Leicestershire to their first championship in 1975, he had his Grace Road groundsman do the same. If the pitch is rolled in the middle to give the pace bowlers bounce and carry, it is logical that spinners should be assisted too. But the ECB have tut-tutted and docked Northamptonshire and Somerset points for trying it.
Pristine is a horrible word in the context of championship cricket, just a cosmetic fad. Pitches should not be one green carpet. To promote a balance between pace and spin (instead of spinners being limited to one-fifth of championship wickets), used pitches should be compulsory, even at the start of the season, after staging practice games.
It is not only the spinners themselves who need to acquire expertise. England’s slip fielding for spin in this Test tended to the comical, Joe Root in his positioning then Zak Crawley barely getting a hand on a straightforward chance. While Ben Foakes has been world-class in this Test, young keepers need training too. Championship cricket will be a richer, brisker and more entertaining sport if the likes of England’s three rookie spinners are given their due.