Jul 2, 2020
- Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98
It is hard to remember an occasion when England have gone into their first Test of the home summer with five different spinners all pitching a case for inclusion in the side, but these are unprecedented times.
England’s spin cadre have worked closely with Richard Dawson in the nets over the past week, and all have had the opportunity to bowl in this week’s intra-squad warm-up match.
Amar Virdi looks the least likely to play at the Ageas Bowl next week, having been parachuted into Team Buttler at the last minute when Sam Curran went down with a suspected diarrhoea and vomiting bug, while Matt Parkinson‘s relative inexperience may count against him, despite him luring Ben Stokes into a false shot on the stroke of tea on Thursday to have him stumped.
That leaves Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and Jack Leach: all three of them fingerspinners, with similar batting returns in recent years despite Moeen’s greater pedigree. All three have strong claims to the role, but it appeared instructive that it took 68 overs for Moeen to be brought into the attack on the first afternoon. When he did come on, newcomer Dan Lawrence found it easy to knock him about, and a 27-ball 5 on the second day did little to further his case.
Seemingly, then, England have a choice next week between Leach and Bess, the Somerset team-mates: the former was first-choice going into the winter before his various illnesses, while the latter took his unlikely opportunity with both hands in South Africa.
In this warm-up match, it has been Bess who has impressed more. Leach went wicketless across 15 first-innings overs while Bess took two in his 20 on Thursday; Leach also conceded 3.8 runs per over compared to Bess’ 3.0, and bowled one maiden compared to Bess’ six.
But the make-up of the West Indies batting line-up poses an interesting conundrum, given that there are 13 right-handers and only two left-handers in their 15-man squad. One of those lefties, Raymon Reifer, looks unlikely to play the first Test, while John Campbell is an opening batsman, whom England will hope to dismiss before the spinners come on.
It may be a simplification to look at fingerspinners only through the lens of whether they turn the ball into or away from a batsman, but raw statistics help illustrate the point. Across the last five English Test summers, offspinners average significantly more bowling to right-handers (37.58) than left (28.38), while the disparity is only slightly smaller among slow left-armers (36.42 to left-handers, 30.87 to right-handers).
What’s more, the players in West Indies’ middle order that a spinner may well be relied upon to dismiss have substantially better records against offspinners than slow left-armers, in particular the engine room of Jason Holder, Shai Hope and Shane Dowrich.
Bess played the issue down in his close-of-play press conference on Thursday evening, saying that he was comfortable bowling to whoever he needed to. He cited Moeen’s five-wicket haul at the Ageas Bowl against India in 2018 as evidence that it would not be a major issue – though with left-armer Curran self-isolating, it seems unlikely that there will be as many footholes created outside the right-handers’ off stump this time around.
“It’s funny, you talk about right-handers and left-handers, but a good offspinner or a good spinner is going to take wickets no matter what,” Bess said. “You’ve got to be threatening on the inside or the outside edge.
“I know a couple of years ago at Hampshire, there were big footholes and Mo took a five-for down here with footholes to the right-handers, and I don’t see any difference. If you’re bowling well, you’ve got footholes there, you’re going to be challenging to a right-hander, let alone a left-hander. West Indies have obviously only got one leftie – I wouldn’t mind a couple more lefties, but I’m very happy bowling at right-handers as well.”
While Joe Denly, Ollie Pope and Lawrence had managed to milk Leach easily enough on the first day, Bess proved effective against right-handers on the second, tieing down Zak Crawley (who scored 9 off 17 balls against him) and Ben Foakes (8 off 32) in particular. In fact, most of the damage to his figures was done by left-handers in the shape of Stokes and his rival Leach, both of whom hit him for a pair of boundaries.
“It was a really good challenge today, bowling against Stokesy,” Bess said. “I thought I genuinely did him on one of them, and he just somehow on the up hit it over extra cover for six. I was just thinking: this is why he’s probably one of the best in the world – [he was] absolutely nowhere near it and he still middled it for six.
“After such a long time off and doing so much this winter on it, I was a little bit nervous coming back into it. So I really wanted to make sure I nailed down those fundamentals and actually put myself in the best situation. But I’m really happy with how it’s coming out at the moment.”
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And regardless who England choose, it demonstrates a level of spin depth that has not been seen for several years that there is even a debate around the spot. “It would be quite an achievement [to be selected],” Bess said, “so with that it brings a lot of responsibility to make sure that actually I’m still bowling the best I can. I want to push for that spot and make it my own. That’s normal, because if you’re in our position, you want to be making that first XI, and we’ve got amazing competition.”
To add one final flavour to the situation, counties have begun to declare their interest in Bess in a development that could end the impasse that has come about at Somerset, where Leach is the first-choice spinner.
But Bess insisted that there was “no spitefulness or anything like that” among the spin group. “We help each other, we’re looking to improve each other,” he said. “It’s really nice to see Mo again and learn off him. We’ve got Parky as well who I’m really close with, Leachy I’m really close with, [and] Virds I’ve been on a lot of tours with. For that whole group, it’s great for us to intertwine with each other, chat about spin, and be back with a group of lads playing cricket.”
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