In London, it was the kind of day that seemed like it would never quite get light; a twilit lunchtime, an afternoon of dusk. Even the weather was intent on illustrating the differences between here and Ahmedabad. As England's batting quivered in the heat-haze, the Twittersphere and the newspaper OBOs were all certain about one thing: they can't play spin.
It is said so often, it's a phrase that's losing any meaning it ever had. It's become a default position for the man in the pub, cricket's equivalent of the football punter who pronounces that Roy Hodgson's finest "aren't good enough technically". Without context or definition, it's really nothing more than moaning.
Not being able to play spin is as broad a church as not being able to play pace, or not being able to field. In a way, it reduces the spinners' art, turns a thing of subtlety into an amorphous block. To begin with an obvious example, not being able to play spin in 2012 is different to not being able to play spin in, say, 2007, or any other year when Murali and Warne were in their pomp. Not being able to play the spin of Murali and Warne meant not being able to play the ball that spun and bounced prodigiously. To counter them required specific thought-process and techniques that differ from the thought processes and techniques needed to play spinners like Ajmal or Ashwin, who turn the ball far less and skid it far more. Murali and Warne could be played on line in a way that Ajmal and Ashwin can't, for starters.
There is also the difference between playing spin in the sub-continent and playing it everywhere else. Lots of English players can play spinners in England, just as lots of Indian players can play quick bowlers in India. It's a matter of familiarity. The real difference for England last winter and this has been the alien nature of both bowlers and conditions.
Graham Thorpe, now batting coach for England Lions, could play all kinds of spin, and he speaks luminously (in technical terms) on how to do it. What's noticeable is the gap between Thorpe's descriptions of being able to pick length and use the depth of the crease, and the way some of England's senior players have approached batting (and let's exempt Kevin Pietersen right away: his method is unique to men who are six feet four and have the eye of Zeus. He will always confront spin and live or die by the sword, and that sword has on occasion reduced Murali and Warne and others to mortal status).
What was evident about India's first innings was how often they played back. Sometimes the ball disturbed the surface and kept low, and on several occasions they seemed to just manage to get the bat down in time, but it bothered them about as much as being beaten on the outside edge would bother Nick Compton on a greentop in April.
There is an old maxim usually applied to swing bowling, but equally useful here: see it early, play it late. Compton, Anderson and Trott were all out today playing forward, and all out going hard at the ball. It's the fallback position, yet it doesn't work. It takes great nerve to go back and wait for the ball when you're not used to it and not sure what way it's spinning, but it is a method that works on these pitches.
As well as reducing the bowling, the phrase 'they can't play spin' also reduces the batting. Each man is an island. Cook plays forward, but he takes a short stride and waits for the ball. Bell has wonderfully soft hands, and advances down the pitch like a dancer to hit over the top. His problem is often that he disobeys another old maxim: never cut an off-spinner. Horizontal bat shots are, as a rule, not the batsman's friend, unless the ball is a genuine pie. Samit Patel might be the best of all of them against this sort of spin, he plays insouciently late: even when driving, the ball is under his nose.
It's easy to be critical of men who are playing at a level beyond the comprehension of most of us. None of them are trying to fail. Remember how foreign conditions reduced India's batting, and give England a break. This is the hardest of tours. Let's not damn them with a meaningless phrase.
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