Counties must act to improve English spin - Flower
The quality of pitches in English domestic cricket will have to improve if England are to enjoy more consistent success at international level, and avoid the sorts of spin-influenced defeats that they suffered against Pakistan in Sharjah, according to Andy Flower.
Flower, the former England coach who is now technical director of elite coaching at the ECB, feels that too many poor surfaces in county cricket are inhibiting the development of players and creating a greater divide between domestic and international cricket.
In particular Flower and the ECB's head spin bowling coach, Peter Such, fear that the development of young spinners is being impeded by pitches that provide too much assistance to medium-pace bowlers.
"The pitches are a real problem," Flower said. "We have a situation now where dibbly-dobbly bowlers like Jesse Ryder - and no disrespect to him, because he's a fine cricketer - are match-winners in county cricket.
"Spin bowlers don't develop because the medium-pacers bowl their overs and batsmen are not exposed to quality spin. The necessity for fast bowlers is negated because the medium-pacers do the work but, when you get to international cricket, the pitches are completely different and the qualities that proved successful in county cricket will be of little use. Dibbly-dobbly bowlers are not going to win you Test matches. Their abilities are exaggerated by green county pitches.
"You can watch a game in Division Two of the County Championship and not see a bouncer bowler. That's a problem, because the first thing that a batsman will be tested by in international cricket is the short ball.
"The pitches are contributing to the divide between county and international cricket and leaving us - the coaches at Loughborough - needing to bridge a significant gap in standard."
Flower's comments are timely. It is not just that they were made as England subsided to a 2-0 defeat against Pakistan in the UAE with the level of spin bowling proving the key difference between the sides, but that the ECB are currently conducting a review into domestic cricket that seems certain to bring significant changes.
The statistics of the series in the UAE underline the current gulf between English spinners and the rest. All told, England's trio of Moeen Ali, Ali Rashid and Samit Patel, with fill-in overs from Joe Root and even Ben Stokes, claimed 20 wickets at 60.1 in 295.1 overs, only 23 of which were maidens. Pakistan's trio of Yasir Shah, Zulfiqar Babar and Shoaib Malik bowled exactly that number of maidens in the third Test alone, while also claiming 17 wickets at 18.41.
"In overseas Test cricket somewhere between 46-48% of overs are bowled by spinners, but in county cricket that figure is around 20%," Such told ESPNcricinfo. "The pitches tend to start damp, which makes them seam-bowler dominated and makes it very hard for spin bowlers to break through. We need to do more to encourage spin bowling. It's a tough gig at present.
"The most important thing in the development of spin bowlers is that they get match-play overs, so they can use their skills in match situations. There is some talent out there, but at the moment young spinners are hitting a glass ceiling and it has become very hard for them to progress."
At present, the ECB are sending up to 16 young spinners abroad this winter - some just as net bowlers (Simon Kerrigan is unavailable with a stress fracture) - in order that they can gain experience in different conditions and benefit from the volume of overs denied them in county cricket. It is not a scenario that reflects well on the contribution of the domestic game.
To that end, a scenario where the County Championship season starts abroad - probably in the UAE or Caribbean - remains possible. While it would not be a popular solution with county members, it currently seems inevitable that the county schedule will be cut to 14 games per side with two windows for white-ball cricket.
Scheduling two games overseas would at least enable the competition to remain at 16 games per side and provide conditions in which spin bowlers might feature more prominently. The defeat to Pakistan may concentrate minds on the need to improve the development of spin bowlers.
"County cricket is very much part of the solution," Such said. "It is the biggest part of the solution. But we need to see young spinners bowling overs in county cricket."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo