Why modern English batsmen are so poor against spin

Robert Henderson

The dismal collapse yesterday against spinners during  England’s Twenty/20 game with  India when they were shot out for 80 is the latest dire performance against spin bowlers by recent England sides. Over the past twenty years such weakness against spin has been a frequent aspect  of England’s batting.   This was not always so. Before the 1990s England generally batted capably against spin, including the most demanding spin bowling environment  India. England batsmen scored heavily on every tour of India up to 1990. This was despite playing with nothing like an England  first eleven until the
1976/7 tour. During that time  (1933/34 – 1990) England faced Mankad,
Gupte, Gulham Ahmed, Nardkani, Durani, Venkat, Prasanna,
Chandrasekhar, Bedi, Dhoshi, a positive cornucopia of quality spinners.

What has gone wrong to produce the abject batting against spin we so often see now? The fact that the rot set in circa 1990 is telling. The last time England batted well in India was the 1984/5 five match Test series which England won 2-1. India based their attack on three spinners – Shastri (SLA);  Yadav (ROB) and Shivaramakrishnan (LBG).  England scored consistently with both Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler turning in double centuries.  All of the players in the 1984/5 side had been brought up at least in part on uncovered pitches.  By the 1990s the new players coming into the England side had no experience of uncovered pitches in first class cricket.

The attack on spinners began before the covering of pitches. Offspinners were badly treated by the law makers in the 1950s when for the first and only time in the history of cricket there was a law change aimed at hindering  bowlers  of a certain  type – the restriction on leg-side fielders – simply because they were deemed too successful in what they did. Unlike bodyline, there was no safety consideration prompting the law change.

But it was pitch covering in English domestic first class cricket that gradually leeched out the potency of the English spinner. This  began in the 1960s. Over the next quarter a century or so it moved from such halfway houses  as covering bowlers’ run-ups and covering pitches outside the hours of play to full blown covering of pitches and run-ups in the 1980s. This resulted in the gradual marginalisation of spinners in England. The covering of pitches outside of playing hours simply reduced the number of rain-damaged pitches. The covering of run-ups meant that  pace bowlers could bowl on rain-damaged pitches where previously, with run-ups left exposed,  only spinners could do so because of the treacherous footholds.  Once run-ups were covered,  captains would often use pace bowlers rather than spinners  because pace bowlers on a damaged pitch could be as destructive or more  destructive than  the spinner.

There have been other forces at work. The relaxation of county qualification rules in 1969  and the influx of foreign players, official or otherwise,  which occurred, gradually produced an emphasis on pace because the most common foreign player employed by counties was a pace bowler, something especially pronounced after the West Indian production line of high class fast bowlers took off in the mid- 1970s. (So large were the numbers of foreign quick bowlers in the 1980s that the pool of English pace bowlers became dangerously small).   Spinners became, if not despised, increasingly  came to be seen as a secondary and defensive form of bowling to fill in when the fast bowlers needed a rest or, increasingly occasionally, useful when a pitch took spin. The immense success of the West Indies using four fast bowlers reinforced the idea that pace was what mattered.

The idea of the spinner as an attacking bowler was gradually lost.  This tendency was accelerated by the increasing amount of one-day cricket which  required spinners to bowl defensively and in a way foreign to  the demands of first class cricket. Over time the one-day bowling techniques were carried into first class cricket, both because the bowlers became habituated to bowling defensively and because captains increasingly saw that as their primary role.   Offspinners  in particular suffered because they began to shift their line of attack from  on or outside the offstump to middle or middle and leg.  The career of John Emburey  is instructive: he entered Test cricket in the last 1970s as an attacking bowler but by the mid -1980s had become almost entirely a defensive bowler at Test level.

Then there is the introduction in the 1980s of four day cricket and the directive to counties to produce pitches which did not give much help to bowler.  In the past counties produce pitches as they choose. This produced a good variety. In the 1950s If you played at Taunton you knew it would spin; you went to Buxton and a greentop was guaranteed ; an Oval pitch was certain  to be a general horror for batsmen and so on.  After four day cricket became the Championship norm,  most  counties produced pitches which were positively spin unfriendly  and the few such as Northants who produced turning pitches, risked visits from the pitch inspector and the deduction of Championship points.   With spinners already widely seen  as defensive fill-ins rather than as  an  attacking force,  their use understandably  became ever more restricted. Today  there is not a single county which routinely plays  two frontline spinners.  Frequently counties go into Championship matches without a front-line spinner or even a  batsman who bowls spin a bit such Chris Nash of Sussex.  I doubt whether there is a county captain today who understands either how to use a spinner as an attacking option , not just on helpful pitches but generally,  or realises that spinners bowl best in tandem where they can strangle batsmen from both ends.  To add to the spinner’s  woes,  boundaries have been shortened  (this began in the 1950s) while bats have improved, at least for heavy hitting.

Finally, there is the effect that limited overs cricket and especially twenty/20 has had and is having on English batting techniques and concentration.  Increasingly batsmen stand awkwardly at the crease with bats raised,  a posture often accompanied by a crouch. It is difficult to see how that can put them in a position to play any bowling,  but it is particularly unsuited against spinners because strokes need to be more precise than those against fast bowling . This is for various reasons. First, slow bowlers are much more likely to be accurate (and  bowl a ball which will hit the stumps)  because they do not have the leeway in length and direction that pace allows quick bowlers.  This  means the batsman has to play more balls than he would when facing pace.    To that can be added the need for the batsman to taken the initiative with slow bowlers. This is  because he   has to largely  generate his  own power  when making attacking strokes,  while a pace bowler provides most of the power for the batsman to use.  In addition, the wicket keeper generally stands up to spinners and back to pace bowlers which means the batsman facing spin has to keep his footwork very strictly disciplined to avoid being stumped  whereas the batsman facing a quick bowler does not.

To these technical deficiencies  must be added the reckless  lack of restraint and patience which is increasing shown by modern English batsmen.  To play a good spinner requires a period of reconnaissance to see how the pitch is playing and patience because of the accuracy of  such bowlers. If two spinners are bowling a player may have to play maidens regularly. All too often today, the  modern batsman gets impatient if he has not scored for a couple of overs and takes a risk. When such a player is facing a spinner – who in his mind he probably sees as an inferior species to the quick bowler – the impulse to dominate is at its worst and results not merely in hot headed shots of a regular nature but exotica such as switch hits and reverse sweeps.

Does it matter if spinners are an endangered species?  It certainly does, not merely when England come to play Tests against countries which play two good spinners regularly, but for the aesthetic of the game. Watching an attack with four quick bowlers and a batsman who might bowl a few overs may have been exciting when the West Indies were operating in the 1980s with often four top class genuinely fast bowlers, although even that could pall after a while. Watching sides with four fast-medium bowlers and nothing else is frankly tedious. Cricket needs the variety brought by top class spin. Spinners also speed up the game by raising the over rate.

The last great age of English spin bowling was the 1950s when offspinners Appleyard, Laker,  and Tattersall and slow left armers  Wardle and Lock took their Test wickets at a collective cost of around 20 runs apiece (that is their performances in the 1950s not their overall Test  career records).   That beat the average cost per Test wicket taken collectively by  Tyson, Statham, Bedser , Trueman and Bailey  in the decade.

Below the leading Test spinners in the 1950s were  Test  bowlers such as Titmus, Allen, Mortimer, Close, Illingworth, McConnon, Horton  (offbreaks),  Cook, Hilton, Young (Slow Left Arm) and  Wright, Hollies, Jenkins  and  Greenhough (Legbreak googly)  none of whom played as many as ten tests in the decade. Below them came solid county performers who never played a Test,  but all of whom took 100 wickets in at least one season: Marlar, Edwin Smith, Don Sheppard, Savage, Langford (offbreaks) and Sainsbury (slow left arm).  To those English bowlers there were  several top quality Australian spin bowling imports,  Jackson (offbreaks) Dooland (leg break googly), Tribe, Walsh (unorthodox SLA) and Manning (slow left arm). All those on pitches which helped the spinner more often than not. To be a county batsman in the 1950s you had to be a  highly proficient player of spin.

It is improbable that English cricket could ever match the spin bowling strength of the 1950s, but things could be greatly improved if these things were done:  pitches and  run-ups are left uncovered;  counties allowed  to prepare pitches as they choose with no risk of having points deducted; boundaries lengthened and the weight of bats restricted.  It would also help if modern cricketers were  taught about how spinners can be used as an attacking force and their effectiveness in the past in that role.

All of those changes can be undertaken y the ECB on their own authority. I would also favour the removal of  the restriction of fielders on the leg side , but that would require a change in the laws agreed by all Test playing nations.

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