English spin hits the rough
These are interesting times for prospective England players. The first weeks of the county season have featured hundreds for numerous candidates to bat in the top order, as well as a focus on the wicket-taking exploits of James Anderson, Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Chris Jordan. Yet the process to identify England's next Test spinner remains as inchoate as it was when Graeme Swann announced his retirement in Melbourne on December 22.
Last summer, during their 3-0 Ashes win, England were widely held to have relied on producing slow, abrasive pitches that played to their supremacy in spin and reverse swing; in the final Test at The Oval, two slow bowlers were deployed at home for the first time in four years. Since Swann's final appearance, however, England have tried seven different spinners (including Joe Root and Moeen Ali) in all formats, pressing the pedal in search of revs but unsure which gear to use. The engagements this summer, against Sri Lanka and India, may feature a seam barrage: England's strength, their opponents' weakness.
April was always unlikely to provide a pageant of spin, the damp conditions around the country more suited to a sequence of green shootouts. Northamptonshire, alma mater of Swann and Monty Panesar, used to have a formidable reputation for producing spinning pitches but, during Lancashire's visit to Wantage Road this week, only one wicket out of 40 fell to a slow bowler.
That wicket went to Simon Kerrigan, England's second spinner at The Oval last August. His Test debut was a wretched experience - he conceded 53 runs from eight wicketless overs - but at a time when young spinners are rarely entrusted with significant workloads by their counties, Kerrigan remains a key part of Lancashire's attack and one of the domestic game's bellwethers.
"It's April but you've still got a role to play, whether it's a holding role like today, or bowling at Old Trafford like last week. Eventually the pitch will spin," he said, during the match against Northamptonshire. "It was in favour of the seamers but there's still a role for me to play in the side. I'm an attacking spinner, I like to think when I'm bowling well I can take wickets on any pitch, so just because it's seaming around doesn't mean there's not a role for me in the side."
Kerrigan spent the winter working on his action with Peter Moores, now England's head coach, and John Stanworth at Lancashire, before finishing as joint leading wicket-taker on the Lions' tour of Sri Lanka. In the post-Swann landscape, he says it is "plain to see if you bowl well as a spinner in England at the moment, you're going to be up there for possible selection", although it could be tricky to make that case if pitches and conditions encourage counties to rely on missionary medium pace.
Old Trafford is now one of the few grounds that regularly provides turn, which perhaps gives Kerrigan an advantage. Scott Borthwick, England's most recent Test spinner, has so far bowled 36 overs for three Championship wickets and bats at No. 3 for Durham, so auxiliary is his legspin at Chester-le-Street. Moeen, considered the frontrunner to provide a spin option against Sri Lanka on June 12, has picked up five wickets but only bowled five overs in Worcestershire's win over Derbyshire, on a New Road pitch where Saeed Ajmal claimed a match-winning 8 for 100.
Nick Cook, the 2nd XI coach at Northamptonshire who helped to bring through Swann and Panesar at a time when team-mates Jason Brown and Michael Davies were also of interest to England, says that currently "the cupboard is bloody bare of spin bowlers". Cook took 52 wickets in 15 Tests for England and sees many of the current crop in his role as an ECB umpire. He has no easy explanation for how the riches of a decade ago accrued, or what led to them being squandered, but would be "very surprised if England play a frontline spinner" this summer.
"I think it's bloody hard for any young spinner to bowl today, for a number of reasons," he says. "One, there's not many surfaces that turn; they've got to learn how to spin it and bowl it in the right spot but you do need a tad of encouragement. Old Trafford can turn, New Road can turn but only slowly, really. The Oval can turn should the powers that be want that to happen. The biggest question is: who's around?"
Cook's own tip is the Kent offspinner Adam Riley, who has an opportunity to establish himself while James Tredwell - another of England's not-so-magnificent seven - is out of the first team working on the technical side of his game, though the road from county tyro to seasoned international requires plenty of toil.
While spinners must earn their stripes - and possibly their strips - by bowling as many overs as possible in all conditions, Cook believes groundsmen should feel able to "give them something to work with" and says that umpires will not immediately call in the pitch inspectors at the sight of turn on the first day.
"There is scope for the authorities at all the grounds to produce wickets that are going to encourage a spinner," he says. "But it seems to be very much that sides, for whatever reason at the moment, are top heavy in seamers and that's the way they go. They produce a flat, slow wicket with a bit of grass on for the seamers. If England want to get more spinners bowling, perhaps an edict of some description has to come from above."
A suspicion remains that spinning surfaces are more swiftly sanctioned than those that seam - Nottinghamshire avoided a penalty earlier this week despite 33 wickets falling inside the first two days - and the modest successes for slow bowlers over recent years reflect such a dearth. The return of the heavy roller in 2013 seemed to have little effect, with only five spinners managing more than 30 Championship wickets (bonus point for the first person in the comments section to name them). Replacing Swann would have been difficult even in a time of plenty; right now, it could not be harder.
Panesar's form with Essex has not suggested he will get an immediate opportunity to add to his 167 Test wickets, while Borthwick may be considered an unaffordable luxury in an austerity era for England. If Moeen wins a place on the strength of his batting and the tantalising prospect of becoming the first English bowler to master the doosra, then Kerrigan, whose 101 Championship wickets over the last two seasons put him second only to Jeetan Patel, will doubtless remain in the thoughts of the selectors, not least because of his connection with Moores.
He certainly seems to have come through the fire of his Ashes debut. Self-belief renewed after working on his technique, he seems comfortable with the idea that he is still feeling his way, now with tougher, more calloused fingers. Moores' presence with England could provide another lift, though he was confident of being able to impress whoever was appointed - "I feel like if I'd got wickets and bowled well, I'd earn a place anyway" - and his ambition has not been cauterised. Interesting times can also be exciting times.
"I feel like I'm bowling really well at the moment, feel like I'm in good rhythm, feel like I'm enjoying my bowling, which is what I wanted to get back to, not thinking too technical about things. I'm a young spinner, it may be a few years before you figure everything out and maybe you don't, maybe you always keep searching for it. I'm ambitious, I want to play for England again, I want to play a lot of Test matches and get Test wickets, and I want to be part of a successful England side."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick