England's spinners: Will they perform or perish?

Though the English spin bowling unit has sufficiently gauged itself, learning and adjusting over two Tests in Bangladesh, it remains doubtful if England can repeat its 2012 performance with Moeen Ali & Co. in the upcoming five-Test series in India.

Moeen Ali England spinner

Moeen Ali looks the best spinner in the England team with his natural pace effective on wickets that turn.   -  PTI

Spin bowling has always been redolent of Test cricket in the sub-continent.

A striking visual that Test cricket in the sub-continent exclusively evokes is of the risen dust when a spinning ball hugs the surface — no billowing clouds but the spill of impact, grainy textured. That which occurs often on the last two days of a Test. For, isn't it common here to let a pitch dry, crack, and crumble — at the behest, or a wink of a whisper, maybe, of the hosting personnel? And commoner still, for the pitch to aid turn, in turn?

What's uncommon though, and logically so, is for teams from outside the sub-continent to cope, and threaten, with spin, and excel here. Sure, England did it in 2012 here. Back when it had Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.

Though the English spin bowling unit has sufficiently gauged itself, learning and adjusting over two Tests in Bangladesh, on pitches that were, as a TV commentator put it, “toasty dry, and spinning square”, it remains doubtful if England can repeat its 2012 performance with Moeen Ali & Co. in the upcoming five-Test series in India.

Moeen, by far, looks the best spinner it has for a simple reason — his natural pace, so effective on wickets that turn because it doesn’t allow batsmen time to adjust their stroke. Ten of his eleven wickets versus Bangladesh were deliveries bowled in excess of 86 kmph, of which six were in excess of 90 kmph.

A look at his pitch map shows that he bowled a greater percentage of quicker balls to the left-handers than he did to the right-handers, and on the stumps; this was to threaten both the outside and inside edges of the bat, setting up the lbw, but also keeping other modes of dismissal in play.

Moeen was, understandably, not as effective against the right-handers. He began with a wider line, but appeared to have more success in the second Test when he bowled straight. He picked up the only three wickets of right-handers he did in the series with this change in ploy.

Gareth Batty took a cue from Ali’s two wickets off quicker balls before lunch in the second innings of the first Test, and returned to get a well-set Tamim Iqbal in a spell that saw his average speed go up by around three kmph.

Adil Rashid, the leg-spinner, too picked up pace through the series. He started the slowest of the three with an average speed of 78 kmph. As much as the two gained pace to match Ali, none of the three had the control like Mehedi Hasan and Shakib-al-Hasan to attempt as many variations of pace.

Also, it was puzzling that Rashid used his back-of-the-hand googly only sparsely. A surprise ball used as sparsely as around four times in each innings of the first test, and once each in the second Test suggests a lack of belief in its potency, especially when the conditions were conducive and the bowling had been unrewarding.

Captain Cook trusted his spinners better in the second Test, and set an aggressive, choking field at times. For instance, when Rashid was bowling to a left-hander at one point in a spell, a leg-gully, short-leg, and a slip for his googly were long-stationed.

A captain's trust of this kind is essential. The fact that the English spinners seemed to earn it over the two Tests in Bangladesh is an encouraging sign. If they continue to trust themselves and have the courage to put in practice what they saw from Bangladesh’s spinners, they will have gone a long way towards surmounting the Indian challenge.