Bazball in a (lack of) spin?: England needs a plan for their young spinners

England's over-reliance on pacers and lack of quality spinners will cripple their chances when they tour India and Pakistan in the current WTC cycle.

Bazball in a (lack of) spin?: England needs a plan for their young spinners
Dillip Mohanty

Written by: Dillip Mohanty

(Sports Editor)

Last updated: 2023-07-20

Moeen Ali Retires from Test Cricket

“Ashes?”

“LOL”.

These couple of one-word texts summed up England’s plans with regards to spin bowling in the 2023 home Ashes series. England skipper Ben Stokes sent the text to white ball allrounder Moeen Ali who had retired from the longest format of the game in 2021 and did not feature in any first class fixture since India’s 2021 visit. Moeen’s last test match prior to his Ashes recall was the 4th Test against India at the Oval. He scored 35 and a duck. Getting a chance to bowl in the second innings he conceded 118 runs in 26 overs picking 2 wickets.

“I felt like I was done, to be honest. I was hoping to play the last Test - there were a couple of milestones I wanted to pass - but once that game got called off, I realised that was it.” These were Moeen’s words after taking the shocking decision after India’s fifth Test in the 5-game series was postponed due to a COVID outbreak. Moeen had played 64 Tests, scored 2914 runs with 5 hundreds at an average of around 29. He batted everywhere from opening the innings to number nine.

Mooen Ali Test Celebration 2.jpeg

Adil Rashid also played the role of spinner in 19 Tests from 2015 till 2019 but favoured white-ball cricket afterwards. Moeen Ali followed a similar route a couple of years later. Moeen’s U-Turn from retirement isn’t a new thing for world cricket. There are various players who have decided call time -  not from one format but all forms of the game and have made comebacks. Some have been successful as well. But Moeen’s recall highlight another issue ailing England cricket. The lack of spin bowlers. England could not find or did not have confidence on any spinners from the huge County circuit who could have replaced Jack Leach. They preferred Moeen Ali who had retired from Test cricket.

On the tour of Pakistan earlier this season, England handed test caps to two spinner – off spinner Will Jacks (6 wickets on debut) and leg spinner Rehan Ahmed (7 wickets on a debut with a fifer). Both Will Jacks and Rehan Ahmed are 24 and 18 years old respectively and have a long career ahead. But the England management did not have confidence on them for a marquee series like the Ashes.

On England’s tour of India in 2016, England travelled with five spin options including Moeen giving a surprise recall to then 39-year old Surrey off spinner Gareth Batty who played his last Test more than 10 years back, in 2005 before getting a recall for the tour of Bangladesh and India where he played his last Test finishing wicketless at Mohali. England had Rashid, Liam Dawson and another left arm spinner Zafar Ansari who announced a shocking retirement from the game at the age of 25 to pursue a career in law.

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Moeen's Call Up

Graeme Swann retired from Test cricket in 2013. Since then, in the last 10 years spinners have picked only 26% of wickets. At the same time Australia spinners have taken 31% and India 48% of wickets.  

Cut to the current Ashes series, Moeen is announced in the starting XI for the first Test, bats at 8 and is the fifth bowler to bowl in the first innings returning figures of 2 for 147 in 33 overs as Usman Khawaja plundered a hundred with supporting half centuries from Alex Carey and Travis Head.  Moeen struggled with the workload as he got blisters on his bowling finger and was also fined 25% of his match fee trying to put some spray on his bowling hand. His 33-over spell was his sixth joint highest in Tests.

The 2nd Ashes Test turned out to be Nathan Lyon’s 100th consecutive as an Australia player, a remarkable achievement. But England had missed the services of Moeen as he was declared unfit. Rehan Ahmed was recalled in the squad as Moeen’s back up but did not get a game with skipper Ben Stokes citing the Lord’s surface being more helpful for the seamers. But it was Joe Root late on day one who picked up two wickets in an over to turn the tide towards England though eventually England lost the Test by 43 runs and went down 2-0 in the series.

Moeen will eventually retain his spot for the 4th Test to be played at Old Trafford, Manchester but what is the future for spinners in the English Test team? The Moeen-Rashid pair continue to perform well in the white-ball format but the Bazball playing red-ball squad won’t get “seam friendly” conditions all over the world especially in the Indian subcontinent. There is an India tour coming up in early 2024 with a Pakistan tour to follow next summer as well. Moeen won’t hang around with the “LOL” texts that long and handing all the responsibility on Jack Leach alone won’t do any good.

Rehan Ahmed in Pakistan Test.jpeg

England look for consistency

England need to find the pieces of the puzzle and try to give consistent chances to the spinners who are on the fringe such as Rehan Ahmed, Will Jacks, Matt Parkinson, Dan Moriarty, Amar Virdi, Dom Bess, Liam Dawson and others who have performed consistently over the years for their respective counties. England cricket needs to take control and try to prepare some spin friendly tracks here and there to at least allow the counties to use their spinners to good effect. Most of the time they are in action in the third or fourth innings of the game however this season is getting worse for most of the prospects mentioned above as they are getting less game time, are getting loaned to other counties among other issues.

The pathway for quick bowlers is brilliant as witnessed in recent years. England are extremely lucky to have the services of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, two absolute legends of cricket who are still working hard, staying fit and are having brilliant days on the field. Backups for the two are always ready with a big crop of fast bowlers such as Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, Ollie Robinson, Matt Fisher, Craig and Jamie Overton, Olly Stone, Josh Tongue, Saqib Mahmood and many others stepping up and taking the centre stage.

England is playing some exciting, fearless brand of Test cricket since the appointment of Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes as head coach and captain respectively but creating a spin bowling reserve should also be prioritised.
 

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Dillip Mohanty

Dillip Mohanty

Dillip has over two decades of experience in creating sports content. As the Sports Editor of SportsBoom, Dillip brings in a wealth of experience and expertise to the role. Dillip has worked with leading sports broadcasters and sports web content portals in Asia. He is an adept storyteller and has a special liking for data stories. He has a keen interest in data analysis and uncovering insights from large datasets. He loves to tell the story with rich and compelling data visualisation.

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