Friday, 16 November 2012

It's never worth saying 'England can't play spin'

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.

4 comments:

greyblazer said...

A few observations. I don't know whether these points make any sense:)

Now, batsmen from the SC don't plonk their front foot right into the line of the ball, bat and pad close together and play with hard hands.

Instead, you see them playing beside the line of the ball, soft hands and bat in front of pad.

As they are able to judge the length far better; you see them playing through covers with ease. Yes, Asian batsmen are wristy which helps.

Prior is the only batsman from England, who consistently plays through the covers.

The basic idea is to smother the spin and take advantage of the short ball by playing back.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear on that, well put. To contrast it with the Indians over here marks it well. In this day and age we lose patience with our teams too easily and lose sight of the difficulty of the task in India.

The only observation I would make is that the comment 'England can't play spin' is implicitly including the rider '...on Asian pitches'. No one says it here when they are playing spinners.

With the age of Warne and Murali gone, spin is a different animal now, as you say, and most test countries are doing the right thing in encouraging the 'mystery spin bowler' which will evolve the art on. It's marked that England isn't one of them. The now often quoted case of the young spinner Maurice Holmes testifies to that.

One final bit of food for thought: greyblazer comments 'Yes, Asian batsmen are wristy which helps.' Are asian batsmen wristy by nature or because of the pitches they play on and the bowlers that they play against (i.e. nurture)?

Pete D

greyblazer said...

Very hard to comment. Maybe it is a combination of both. If you look at subcontinent teams even in say hockey; you will see great wrist work on display. It doesn't always help Pakistan, or India to win matches though :)

Yes, they have got better by playing a lot against spinners on slow turning tracks.

Just look at Mike Hussey. He plays for Super Kings in the IPL? Well, they play their games on a spin friendly track at Madras. It has helped Huss to get better.

IMHO the only way a batsman can improve against spin bowling is by playing on those turning tracks.

Let us take the example of Haydos too. When Haydos was in the wilderness, he is said to have pleaded the selectors to select him for the A team on a tour to SC. He wanted to improve as a player against spin. You can say, it helped him as he did well in India.

It is similar for batsmen from the SC, as the only way they can improve against the swinging ball is by playing more in England.

live score said...

I think that the English players are playing mid games and as a result they have underestimated themselves for playing spin bowling especially of sub-continent spinners as it happened in series against Pakistan when they collapsed against Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehma.Since then they have been frightened to play spin aggressively.They have no doubt good batsmen of spin bowling like Ian Bell,Trott and Eoin Morgan.