December 19, 2000

Croft's recall illustrates England's lack of spin options

Robert Croft
Robert Croft: Needs to impress in Sri Lanka
Photo © Paul McGregor CricInfo Ltd.

It is tempting to view the recall of Robert Croft for the England tour of Sri Lanka as a sign that the cupboard is bare when it comes to English spinners.

Croft has been tried and found wanting at international level. It's not that he's a bad bowler - far from it - but he lacks any sort of penetration. He has experimented with greater variety, but without the huge spin of a Muralitharan, or the mystery of a Saqlain, he has often appeared rather tame. Certainly he is unlikely to bowl anywhere near the amount of "four-balls" that Salisbury produced, but is he likely to bowl out Test sides?

Croft debuted for England in 1996 against Pakistan. He impressed everyone with his enthusiasm and positive outlook, and performed with merit on the tour of New Zealand and Zimbabwe that followed. It has, in truth, been a tale of diminishing rewards ever since. The flow of wickets dried up: his strike-rate now stands at one wicket every 17 overs.

He won his recall in the summer of 2000 on the back of an excellent performance against the West Indians for Glamorgan. On a dusty Old Trafford pitch, however, he bowled 47 overs, taking 1-124. He was dropped afterwards, and made some much-publicised negative comments about the England set-up. Croft has backtracked since then, and blamed "media misrepresentation" for the furore that followed.

"What I said at the end of the season was a little bit of a clearing of the throat," he said yesterday (18th December). "With the benefit of hindsight there are certain things I would have done differently. After I got it off my chest I spoke, pretty quickly, to David Graveney and Darren Gough to let them know that nothing personal was meant at either The Management or players.

"I have always regarded myself as someone who has played with pride and given as much as one can give to the other players. Pride and passion sometimes get the better of me and I have sometimes got carried away and paid the price.

"The captain and coach (Duncan Fletcher) have done a fantastic job so far and I am sure they have already got a strategy in motion for this series," he said.

It is likely that Croft and the newcomer Jason Brown will be competing for the role of partner for Ashley Giles, who is now established as England's number one spinner. David Graveney has even suggested that all three could play if the conditions are appropriate (perhaps a warning to Caddick that a haul of a wicket a Test will not do), but it is likely that Croft and Brown will be fighting for one spot.

Brown's rise has been rapid. He started the 2000 season in Second XI cricket for Northamptonshire, but when former team-mate Michael Davies lost form, Brown took his chance brilliantly. He claimed over 60 first-class wickets at an average of barely 20, outshining off-spinning partner Graeme Swann, himself an international player, in the process.

Brown is a bold selection, having not played a full season of first-class cricket, but he is the better long-term bet as he is untainted by defeat, and is a more aggressive bowler. He describes himself as "an off-spinner that likes to give the ball a big rip. I like to see the ball turn, which is a big aspect of my game."

Croft (30) is actually only four years older than Brown, who had to wait a while before his first-class career began. And many will feel that irrespective of their abilities, Peter Such is the premier off-spinner in English cricket.

The feeling persists around Britain that Phil Tufnell is still the best slow bowler available. Few English spinners have produced match-winning performances in Test cricket, but Tufnell has done so on several occasions, most recently when he bowled Australia out at The Oval the last time they toured (1997).

The view that he is ignored due to his image as a 'maverick' no longer holds water. The inclusiveness of the Hussain-Fletcher partnership (the rehabilitation of Caddick and Croft are examples) suggests that performance is the key to his exclusion. Certainly Tufnell's tactic of bowling into the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump reaped scant rewards, and though his fielding has improved, his batting ability remains negligible. He has wilted under pressure in the past (his performances in India and the West Indies on helpful pitches were disappointing) and, crucially, his Test bowling average is only marginally better (36.78) than Robert Croft's (39.92).

Croft has the advantage over all these competitors of having some ability with the bat. His innings in the Old Trafford Test against South Africa in 1998 was vital in saving the Test, and helped secure an eventual series win. However the Australians showed that he was uncomfortable against the short ball, and his form deteriorated sharply.

He has worked hard at his batting in recent times, weighing in with valuable runs against the West Indies, and two fifties during the county season. His form is still some way short of his pre-Test days, when he hit 143 against Somerset (1995) and David Lloyd talked of him as a future scorer of Test centuries.

Certainly Sri Lanka will be crucial for Croft. The pitches will take spin, and Giles has raised the expectations of what spinners can achieve with bat and ball. The selectors have shown that they will compromise their policy of stability of selection if necessary, with Pakistan almost certainly being Ian Salisbury's last chance. Sri Lanka may similarly prove to be a last outing for Croft unless he can rediscover the form that first brought him to the attention of the national selectors.