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July 2, 2014
There is just one spinner in England with more first-class wickets than Adam Riley. That man is Saeed Ajmal - a doosra-wielding, Pakistan wizard with more than 100 international matches under his belt. It must be a coincidence, then, that Kent off-spinner Riley imagines that he is a wizard too.
Except it is not the wizardry of Ajmal's kind that Riley sees in himself - even if he is being widely touted as the most promising young England spin bowler around. Instead, his touch of the supernatural comes in the colour of his hair. Tall and ginger, Riley thinks that, at 22, he is a dead ringer for Ron Weasley, the fictional character in JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels.
Many a chapter was written on the adventures of Weasley. Now Riley wants to write a few chapters for himself as an England cricketer. He remains vastly inexperienced, with only 30 first-class matches to his name, but Ron Weasley managed a few adventures before adulthood so nothing can be entirely ruled out.
For the moment, though, England watch and wait. India are hardly the opposition to tempt the selectors to blood a young spinner, especially one who has not been through the system. Trent Bridge, venue for the first Test and generally a haven for swing bowlers, is hardly the ground. For the moment, England are satisfied with the spin contribution that Moeen Ali can make.
James Whitaker, the national selector, puts it this way: "Everybody has been used to the success that Graeme Swann brought to England. We think we have a decent balance to the side on the wickets we play on. It is a bit different and we have to make it work. We have a few young spinners operating in county cricket who we feel aren't quite ready yet."
If Andrew Strauss, the former England captain, can bring his influence to bear, that chance could yet be around the corner if England's summer does not go according to plan. Strauss has written strongly in support of fast tracking Riley into the squad for the India Test series. England need a new spin king and Riley is flattered.
"Andrew Strauss has been quite a big supporter of mine in the last couple of weeks. I haven't had time to catch him but if he's working at a game for Sky, I will try and find him and thank him," Riley said. It was a nice touch from a level-headed young man.
"I see what he's saying about me as a nice accolade," he continued, "especially from a man who has captained England and played as many times as he has. But I can't just rest on my laurels and accept the praise I'm getting because it'll get me nowhere. I'm getting praise as a result of some good performances over the last two months but I need to sustain that over 12 or 18 months - then we'll see where it gets me. I'm not thinking about playing the next Test."
He can rest assured, nevertheless, that he will now bowl too often in the coming months without some sort of assessment taking place behind the sightscreen. Angus Fraser was the latest England selector to take a look. Fraser, director cricket at Middlesex and a former England seam bowler, watched Riley - a classic off-spinner who bowls with a high action from 6ft 2ins and extracts plenty of bounce - take seven wickets against Derbyshire in the second division of the LV= Championship last week. The pair exchanged pleasantries but left it at that.
"It was a surprise to see him. We chatted briefly before the game. I don't know how far I am away from England or the England Lions. I've not spoken to anyone at the ECB about it or anything like that. It's just great that someone who could have a huge influence on my career is watching me."
Riley has become the spin bowler most on England's mind despite never representing the Lions, which is a turn up for a large England set-up which justifies its existence by careful planning of the next generation. The interest he has sparked brings encouragement to every professional cricketer who has made headway outside the England system.
He was even considered only as the second-choice twirler in Kent's Division Two side before the start of this season. His tutor, mentor and friend, James Tredwell, held all the cards. However, the offie office junior had not read the script. His 40 wickets at an average of 25.42, including three five-wicket hauls, have left Tredwell in the cold.
Tredwell, the England one-day specialist, flew out to Australia as cover for the Ashes squad in the winter and retained his place in England's one-day squad against Sri Lanka this season. Now he is busy clocking up the miles again: from his home in Kent to play red-ball cricket on loan at Sussex.
Riley may have an established international breathing down his neck but he's far from flustered. "I see it as a help more than anything, having Treddy around," he said. "I always feel pressure every time I play. If you don't, there's something wrong with you, so I don't worry too much about that. I've done my apprenticeship in the second team and have earned my place. Treddy has come back and is now playing Division One cricket, so it works for both of us. All I've done is try and prove I can be relied on as the sole spinner in a side.
"We stay close. We always talk and text with each other. He is the best one-day spin bowler in England and has been for three or four years. We talk tactically and technically. I'm a keen listener to anything he has to say - and the same goes for Min Patel. Their knowledge is great to tap into."
Patel, Kent's spin bowling coach, has experienced the rigours of Test cricket, albeit briefly. The slow left-armer played twice for England during the mid-90s on India's 1996 tour of England and took one wicket, that of Sanjay Manjrekar.
Riley has also relished the chanced to work with Peter Such, England's spin bowling coach, at Loughborough. There is a hint of Such in Riley's action and Such himself has watched him develop at Canterbury this season with considerable optimism.
Now Riley is being set up with a new mentor with a few more Test scalps behind him. Graeme Swann has been contacted by Such and he is set to work with the best young cricketers to find a long-term successor to replace him. It's an opportunity Riley cannot wait to grasp.
"Swanny has come out and said he'll be working with three or four young spinners and that'll be an exciting opportunity for me," Riley enthused. "Nothing is set in stone yet and it's still in the process of finding out what will be organised logistically. I've got to wait until something is in place but it's great.
"He is the man who made offspin attractive. He really reintroduced it back into international cricket. There are technical aspects of my action that I model on him. He's got a little bit of a load-up, almost like a double coil, which I have too. I've also tried to model myself on the way he used to attack with his line and lengths, rather than just contain. Sometimes Keysie [Kent captain Rob Key] will need me to bowl straighter and just contain, which I do, but my ethos it to take wickets."
Swann retired with 255 Test dismissals to his name. He picked up his first England cap before Riley had even got his hands on a cricket ball. The Bexley lad started bowling medium pace with a windball - a cheap practice ball also popular with dog lovers - and didn't play a game of junior cricket until he was 12.
Kent came calling when he was 16, his first-team call-up came three years later and his first wicket, in a T20 against a touring Indian side, was Rohit Sharma. It was a sign of things to come. Now Riley wants plenty more international scalps
"I think everyone has ambitions to play for England, whether they are realistic or unrealistic," he said. "I think it's helped me that Kent didn't pick me up until I was 16. It meant I always had that drive and I never took anything for granted. I was chucked in when I was ready and I had to work hard for it.
"Playing for England is what I've wanted to do since I started my cricket career. In the last two or three years, after I got a pro contract, the dream became closer."
If it all goes wrong, Riley will have a geography degree from Loughborough to fall back on. He expects to graduate this winter with a 2:1. With a possible England career on the horizon, that may just prove academic.
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