<
>

Spinners stir after change to toss rules

Andrew Gale and Marcus Trescothick toss up at Headingley in 2015 Yorkshire CCC

Last year, when announcing the ECB's decision to change the coin toss before the start of Championship matches, Peter Wright, chairman of the cricket committee, set out the thinking behind the move: "By giving the away team the option of bowling first, we hope the home side will be encouraged to produce the best possible four-day pitch. That will be good for cricket in general, and not only for spinners."

So, with the dust settling on a four-day finale to remember at Lord's, has the new regulation succeeded? Did better pitches help to rebalance the game, allowing English spinners to gain more traction?

Leaving aside the sight of Alex Lees and Adam Lyth serving up a few declaration lobs against eventual champions Middlesex on Sky TV on the final day of the season (probably not the sort of exposure the ECB had in mind), there were certainly some encouraging signs.

Speaking earlier in the month, Andrew Strauss, England's director of cricket and a member of the ECB's cricket committee, indicated that the governing body has been satisfied by the trial.

"Anecdotally it's been a really important step forward," Strauss said. "We've played on better pitches, more games have gone to the fourth day, the bowlers who have done well are those more likely to play international cricket, there have been different challenges on batsmen and spinners have bowled more overs.

"From an anecdotal point of view I think it's achieved most of the objectives we set out. I've always thought we can judge it too soon. But the noises are encouraging, and once people have got their heads round the idea, in my opinion, it has nudged the right behaviour."

In Division One, the effect was marked by two spinners - Warwickshire's Jeetan Patel and Somerset's Jack Leach - topping the wicket-takers' list. Not since 2009, when Danish Kaneria and James Tredwell led the way in Division Two, were the two most successful Championship bowlers both purveyors of spin.

Patel, a vastly experienced international, has been recalled by New Zealand on the back of his good form and was already regarded as the best spinner in the county game, having taken 50-plus wickets in each of the past five seasons, although this was still his best return; Leach on the other hand enjoyed a breakthrough year as Somerset tailored their surfaces to suit the slow left-armer as the summer progressed and they narrowly missed out on a first title.

Middlesex also benefited, eventually. Despite drawing seven of their first eight games and not winning at Lord's until August, they came through strongly in the second half of the season and held off Yorkshire and Somerset in a taut last round. Ollie Rayner's 51 wickets (another personal best) made him a vital component of their attack.

"It has made a difference," Middlesex's director of cricket, Angus Fraser, said. "If its design was to get spinners more involved then it's been a success because you just have to look at the top wicket-takers in the country."

This time last year, Rayner was writing for ESPNcricinfo on the difficulties of bowling spin in England. Given greater responsibility and more overs - 444 compared to 273 in 2015 - he has risen impressively to the challenge, though ultimately neither he nor Leach won inclusion for England's subcontinental challenges this winter.

"It's been a new learning skill for a lot of county cricketers, who haven't had to face the prospect of serious spin before" Somerset captain Chris Rogers was positive about the experiment

Fraser is also an England selector and, as well as having greater options to discuss - Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Zafar Ansari and the 38-year-old Gareth Batty were the slow bowlers selected for next month's tour of Bangladesh - he suggested cricket "is more complete" when spin plays its full part. He was in no doubt about the strides that Rayner has made.

"The pitches have meant, one: he's bowled more overs, two: he's been in the game and three: he's grown in confidence," Fraser said. "So the fact he's been used as a potent weapon rather than just a stopgap has given him far more confidence, and extra overs, so therefore he's got into rhythm and the whole thing's opened up for him because of it. So it's been hugely positive for spinners in that respect.

"The fact is, he's done a bloody good job, because on pitches that weren't offering a great deal, as in the past he's offered us control, but then on the surfaces when you'd expect him to come to the front, he has done. We would have won two or three more matches but for weather and a lot of that would have been on Ollie."

While Middlesex would have liked to see a bit more pace and carry in the surfaces at Lord's - they have discussions with the MCC and groundsman Mick Hunt at the start of each year - the team they pipped to top spot went down a different route. Somerset also won one and drew seven of their opening eight matches; they then lost on a green Taunton pitch that improved to the extent that Middlesex chased 302 in 46 overs. After that, in the words of their captain, Chris Rogers, Somerset were "forced to try the spin path and it worked".

Rogers, who has suggested a similar tweak to the toss rules could work in Australia, admitted that the change of tactics did not play to his strengths, as an opening batsman with huge experience against the new ball nibbling around in damp conditions, but said his own game - batting and as a captain - had improved in the process.

"Initially it didn't overly help, there were so many draws and a lot of sides were struggling to find the best ways to create results," he said. "But certainly towards the back end of the year, there were a lot more results and teams worked things out a bit more - for instance we made the pitches spin and sometimes those games were over very quickly but at least it was a contest.

"If anything it's been a new learning skill for a lot of county cricketers, who haven't had to face the prospect of serious spin before, and facing so many overs of spin, so in many respects I think it's been good for the English game."

"By one measure, Division Two spinners were entrusted less. The number of overs of spin delivered in the second tier dropped from 4295 in 2015 to 3581 this year"

He did sound one note of caution, however: "My only worry is whether you won't find as many high-quality seam bowlers coming through that England have always seemed to be quite proud of, and even fewer opening batsmen who learn the skills to be able to play the swinging and seaming new ball. But I do think in the end it's for the benefit of English cricket."

The full picture will take time - perhaps several seasons - to come to light. While spin became an instrumental factor in Division One, the rule change had a negligible effect in the second tier, where the leading slow bowler was Northamptonshire's Rob Keogh, with 31. That more than doubled the number of first-class wickets Keogh, a top-order batsman, had taken in his career.

By one measure, Division Two spinners were actually entrusted less. While the number of overs of spin delivered in Division One rose from 4395 in 2015 to 6231 this year, in Division Two it dropped from 4295 overs to 3581.

This could have been down to a number of factors. There were few experienced spinners beyond Tredwell at Kent operating in the second division, so clubs were inevitably less inclined to set up that way; if young talent is not (yet) there, it will take time to bring through. Another consideration may be that, with only one team going up, there was greater pressure to get results. Essex, the Division Two winners, relied heavily on their seam-bowling strengths but head coach, Chris Silverwood, was positive that better pitches had been good for Essex, and the game in general.

"I think it will help everybody produce better cricketers," Silverwood said. "Playing in good conditions, you've got to bowl well to get your wickets but, equally, you've got to bat well to get your runs. To me, the blend itself will produce better cricketers, full stop, and possibly bring spin back into the game."

One inarguable statistic was that the number of results dropped from 93 to 71, although if, as Strauss suggests, the priority is to produce battle-hardened players ready for the drawn-out rigours of Test cricket, that need not be a bad thing.

There may well be dissenters out there, though. Yorkshire's captain, Andrew Gale, spoke against the move when it was announced and the change possibly contributed to his team missing out on a third straight title, having suffered rare defeats at Headingley and Scarborough (only one opponent, Surrey, opted not to insert Yorkshire on their own patch). Others grumbled darkly about Somerset switching to turners - their victory over Warwickshire saw 21 wickets fall on the opening day - to fuel an unexpected Championship bid.

Fraser has even suggested taking the rule change a step further. "You wonder whether the toss should be taken away completely from the home side, so then you avoid any of those contentious situations," he said.

It is perhaps too early to tell if the fortunes of English spin are on the turn but, either way, the flip of a coin has never been so hotly discussed.