'You can't learn to play spin overnight'
English cricket has long had an uncomfortable relationship with spin, whether batting or bowling. At their worst England have been clueless and embarrassing when faced with someone tweaking the ball, and neither has there been a consistent production line of quality spinners to trouble the opposition.
During last week's Test in Hamilton, England made painful progress against Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel. The pitch was slow and the bowling tight but that doesn't explain the extent of England's struggle. When Kevin Pietersen goes almost an entire session without hitting a boundary, something isn't quite right. You could say they have been affected to some extent by the pre-Christmas criticism over how they threw away their wickets in Sri Lanka and have now verged too far the other way. That has often been England's problem against spin: no middle ground.
In recent years England's batting against spin has improved considerably from the 1990s, when Shane Warne, Mushtaq Ahmed and Anil Kumble induced many sleepless nights. Duncan Fletcher's forward press is one of his legacies that lives on, and England's most notable victories since the turn of the century have come when combating a spin threat. It is no surprise that Nasser Hussain regarded his twin triumphs in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2000-01 as the high points of his captaincy tenure, and that Fletcher puts them a close second to regaining the Ashes - which, incidentally, Shane Warne almost managed to retain single-handedly.
Warne, more than anyone else, sent a whole generation of England batsmen into their shells and it all started with one ball at Old Trafford in 1993 - Warne's first in an Ashes Test. It doesn't need describing, but for the record it drifted outside leg stump, pitched and turned past Mike Gatting's defensive shot and onto off stump. It took until 2005 for England to really shake off the memory and attack Warne, who replied with 40 wickets.
For Gatting to be at the receiving end of the "ball of the century" was an irony as he had rightly gained a reputation as one of England's finest players of spin. "Sometimes you can do everything right and still get out," he said wryly to a group of MCC Centre of Excellence cricketers at Lord's recently, where he took part in a spin bowling clinic.
There are few better former players to pass on tips and although it's ten years since he retired from first-class cricket, Gatting quickly straps on his left pad and gets a selection of young offspinners, legspinners and left-armers to target him at the Lord's indoor school. "Keep it simple," he kept saying as ball hit middle frequently. "Watch the ball right onto the bat." It sounds very basic but why complicate matters?
Gatting believes that playing spin is based largely around the mental aspect of batting. "When you are talking about fast bowling it's a thought that you could actually get hurt at some point, but with spin the intimidation comes from the three or four men around the bat in your eye-line trying to goad you. It's almost claustrophobic. If you do something wrong there are four or five guys who can catch you.
"It's about being comfortable in what you are doing, and if something doesn't feel comfortable you have to practise it until it does. It takes a bit of time and isn't something that happens overnight."
What was noticeable as Gatting talked through his session was that he put the onus back on the players to answer questions and find solutions. A recent criticism of England's players has been that they don't think enough for themselves. Gatting says players have to take responsibility. "You see the good players of spin, the Pontings and Clarkes, they learn their own way," he says. "Justin Langer, for example, didn't sweep very well until he came here [Middlesex], but he made a big effort to learn how to sweep properly and all of a sudden you are confident doing it. Then, when you have a variety of shots, it makes the bowler change their line because they know you can sweep, which brings other strengths into play. It's all about giving yourself options, like a game of chess.
"There's no point in always telling people; they have to learn for themselves. They have to understand why and what they are doing. Everyone knows how to play a forward defensive, but it's about taking that and being confident using your feet or sweeping."
When Gatting retired from international cricket, in 1995, England's playing of spin was probably near its lowest point. Slowly the situation improved, with firstly the likes of Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe, and then Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, and latterly Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood. However, the bowling aspect has remained a major issue, with only the occasional moments of joy from a mixture of Phil Tufnell, Ashley Giles and now Monty Panesar.
"We are playing spin better, but unfortunately we don't seem to have enough spinners bowling," says Gatting. "It's one of the things that worries me slightly - do we have enough people who understand how spinners bowl and what sort of fields they need?"
Recently Vaughan has come in for criticism for over-complicating his fields for Panesar and not allowing him to just bowl. Gatting argues it needs an understanding from both parties as to what they are trying to achieve. "It's a question of confidence [in the bowler]. The captain might want him to do a certain thing.
"When you bring a spinner on it's generally about giving him a chance to get wickets, so he has to be allowed to bowl his way. Sometimes he comes on to keep it tidy, so it's a holding role. There are different ways. What Monty has to learn and understand is that there's different ways he can do those things and what his best options are."
Given Panesar's early success at Test level it is easy to forget that he is still only 25 and maturing as a bowler. The likes of Warne, Kumble, Muralitharan, and as a direct comparison, Vettori, have improved with age and experience. "The thing is that spinners have to bowl overs to build confidence and control," Gatting explains, before drawing on his own experiences. "John Emburey didn't get into the first team until he was 24-25 and nearly left because Fred Titmus was still around. He then bowled until he was 44. He had 20 years, plus six or seven in the second team, and bowled a lot of overs. It's the only way you will get better. There's no sport where the less you do the better you get."
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo