Turn the clock back to the back end of 2008 – the golden age of English spin bowling. Monty Panesar was a cult figure in English and world cricket and Graeme Swann was making a name for himself in the test series in India.
Swann went on to become one of England’s great spin bowlers, taking 255 test wickets in just 60 matches. He could be relied upon not just to dry up an end, but to take regular wickets, having a canny knack of picking up a wicket in his first over of a new spell. Teams feared Swann.
Panesar too was a genuine match winning bowler. To date, Monty has 167 test match wickets to his name in his 50 matches and reached number six in the rankings in the summer of 2007. He burst onto the scene a year earlier, memorably dismissing Sachin Tendulkar to claim his first ever test wicket. Monty’s trademark celebrations and his enthusiastic eagerness in the field (despite several unfortunate moments), meant he soon became a popular figure amongst England cricket supporters. Everyone loved Monty and his hero status was confirmed when he successfully negotiated the final hour of play with James Anderson to save the first test of the 2009 Ashes series for England at Cardiff.
Sadly, four and a half years later, this golden age ended abruptly. England’s well documented and disasterous 2013-14 Ashes campaign saw the end of Swann and Panesar.
Swann immediately retired half way through the series with his performances in the series hampered by an ongoing elbow injury. Panesar too was enduring a difficult series with the ball – 1/157, 1/41 and 1/41. But Panesar was battling personal demons which were taking their toll on his personal and professional lives. Several incidents made their way into the press and Monty found himself isolated and facing a personal fight. I’m pleased to see that Monty is now back playing cricket and to hear that he still wants to play professional cricket again. Who knows what may happen in the future.
But when Monty and Swann left the scene, England’s fragility in the spin bowling department was exposed. Leg spinner Scott Borthwick was drafted into the side for the final test of the 2013/14 Ashes and hasn’t been selected since. Several other spin bowlers have been tried – Simon Kerrigan, Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson have all played less than five test matches since Panesar and Swann last played for England, nearly four year ago.
The only out and out spin bowler to have emerged in this time in the test arena has been Adil Rashid. Rashid has blossomed into a very effective one day international and T20 bowler for England, currently sitting 13th in the ODI bowling rankings. He has also played ten tests and has taken 38 wickets, with 30 of those wickets coming during England’s tours to Bangladesh and India last winter. But he too was overlooked at the start of the 2017 series against South Africa, with Liam Dawson taking his place. I personally feel that this was a bit harsh given Adil’s recent success last winter.
Moeen Ali has become England’s first choice spinner. Predominantly a batsman when he was first selected, Ali has developed his spin bowling skills and has become an effective operator. His ten wickets in last week’s Lord’s test was a fantastic achievement. He has taken just over 100 wickets in his 66 tests so far.
But Ali isn’t an out and out spinner. He has won matches for England, but I wouldn’t class him as a regular match winning bowler. In his 66 tests, Ali has taken 3 five wicket hauls. Compared to Swann’s 17 5-fors in 60 tests and Panesar’s 12 in 50 tests, his ability to bowl an opposition side out is less compared to England’s recent frontline spinners. Don’t get me wrong, I rate Ali and I feel that he has made significant improvements to his bowling and is totally worthy of a place in the team. He contributes greatly with the bat, which is something that Panesar rarely did (apart from his exploits at Cardiff mentioned above). Swann did play a number of important innings with the bat, but didn’t have the class and shot making ability that Ali possesses.
It seems that England are reluctant to select out and out spin bowlers in test match cricket. They could have selected Rashid for the South Africa series, a genuine wicket taker who is currently at the top of his game. Instead they opted for Dawson, seen as a “safe” selection by many.
England have a number of young spin bowlers coming through now. Young leg spinner Mason Crane, who made his international debut in the recent T20I series against South Africa, is rated very highly. He could be the one that we turn to in the future. He is still raw, but has huge potential. Time will tell.
Leg spin bowling in general seems to be a dying art, especially in test match cricket. Currently in the top 40 bowlers in the test rankings, only two are leg spin bowlers (Pakistan’s Yasir Shah and West Indian Devendra Bishoo). However, the very top of the rankings are dominated by spinners; Jadeja, Aswin and Herath occupy the top three spaces.
Whether or not England stick with their current plan to select batsmen who bowl spin going forward remains to be seen.
A genuine match winning frontline spin bowler can not only keep runs down, but take wickets. Look at Warne, Muralitharan, Vettori and Kumble. I’m not saying that England need to produce someone of that quality (thought it would be good if they did!), but to win test matches you have to take 20 wickets.
On batsman friendly surfaces, I’m not sure that batsman that bowl a bit of spin will be the ones do to it on a regular basis.
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