Spin 'message' hampers England preparation
Alastair Cook admitted he wished that England had been confronted with more spin bowling as they completed their warm-up games ahead of the first Test of the series against India. While England's captain declared himself satisfied with his team's preparations, he did suggest that "a message" had been conveyed to the opposition to ensure the tourists were denied meaningful exposure to spin bowling ahead of the series.
A draw against Haryana meant England had drawn all three of their warm-up matches. But, although every batsman in England's top-order has enjoyed a lengthy innings at some stage, Cook knows that such success may prove deceptive. Some of the opposition has been surprisingly modest.
The absence of spin has been particularly noticeable. Fewer than 11% of the overs bowled against England in the second innings of the three matches has come from spinners and, arguably, none of it has come from what might be described as a quality spinner. It was typical that, in England's second innings against Haryana Amit Misha, the legspinner who has played 13 Tests for India, did not deliver a single ball. It means that England, with a less than illustrious record against top-quality spin bowling in recent times, will go into a series in which spin is expected to play a major role, having had very little meaningful practise against it.
"Clearly we can't control the standard of the opposition," Cook said. "We would have liked to have faced more spin in the matches but that hasn't happened. If anyone has been watching our training sessions while these games have been going on, we've had some good spinners bowling to us in the nets. We'd rather them in the middle but they've been turning out there and all the lads have been putting in some really good practice.
"I don't know who it has come from but clearly there's been a message of some sort. Obviously we've had Amit Mishra missing here. I don't know if he was injured or not but he didn't bowl that many overs, so clearly there's been a message of some kind."
England could have tried to force the win against Haryana. Not only did they decline to enforce the follow-on, but they agreed to an early finish when they had a minimum of 10 more overs to take only four more wickets. Instead, though, Cook opted to rest his bowlers in case they were required on Thursday.
"Clearly we would have liked to have won a game but sometimes common sense has to be used," he said. "There's no point busting a gut today on a very flat wicket with a Test match just around the corner and with [the condition of] our fast bowlers at the moment, especially with a few injury concerns as well."
Cook's caution was understandable. While Steven Finn and Stuart Broad both returned to bowling in practice, there are still question marks over the availability of both of them. Cook is adamant that they will not be selected if there are any doubts over their fitness. Indeed, the fact that there are doubts over both of them renders the decision even more tricky for England.
"It's great to see them back bowling," Cook said. "The next few days are vital for them and we must go into that game with a fully fit attack. They have to be 100%. You've seen how hot it is out here and how flat the wickets are. They won't be in the ideal state, the preparation period hasn't quite gone right with those two not playing and getting overs under their belts. We're going to have to see over the next few days and make a decision on that, but clearly we've got to be very careful. In an ideal world, they'd certainly have liked to have more match bowling.
"But what we do know is that they're quality performers. Stuart, especially, has got a lot of experience. He knows what he's doing and he knows when his body is right. We're going to have to assess these guys over the next 24 hours and then make a decision. As a captain, you'd want them to have more match practice but they are world-class bowlers. It would be great if they were fully fit and had some overs under their belt but they haven't."
The performance of Tim Bresnan in Haryana's second innings may have made England's decision a little easier. Bresnan bowled with good control, decent pace and, along with Stuart Meaker, gained enough reverse swing to trouble all the batsmen. His 2 for 13 took his tally to nine wickets in two tour matches.
"In the last session, with the reversing ball, all three of them - Bresnan, Graham Onions and Meaker - showed good control, which is encouraging," Cook said. "We've got six bowlers out here fully fit and on a tough tour like this I'm sure we're going to need that. Tim Bresnan has been an integral part of our attack for last couple of years and he's certainly done himself no harm in this game."
Cook was also encouraged by the news that Graeme Swann returning to India having flown back to the UK due to a family illness. "All the reports have been good and he is coming back on Monday. That's fantastic for us and it's fantastic that all's well at home as well. He's an experienced campaigner and he knows what's he doing. I have no doubts or concerns about Swanny."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo