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Feature

Amar Virdi puts attacking spin on return to Surrey after winter in England bubble

Offspinner keen to continue development after "great experience" in India and Sri Lanka

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
04-Apr-2021
Amar Virdi got some overs under his belt during a pre-season match against Middlesex, Surrey vs Middlesex, The Oval, April 3, 2021

Amar Virdi got some overs under his belt during a pre-season match against Middlesex  •  PA Images via Getty Images

For any cricketer who has spent a winter touring with England and waiting in vain for their chance, the start of a new county season is bound to loom enticingly. For Amar Virdi, who was a reserve squad member in Sri Lanka and India, bowling in the nets for weeks in case of injury or illness affecting England's frontline spinners, it will be an opportunity to be grasped with particular relish.
A bouncy, bearded 22-year-old, Virdi has long been thought of as an England prospect, having emerged as an ever-present during Surrey's 2018 Championship-winning season. Fitness issues limited his progress but, having trained in England's Test bubble last summer, his merits as an attacking offspinner were on show during the Bob Willis Trophy, when he finished as Surrey's leading wicket-taker.
Virdi described his time with England on their trip to the subcontinent as a "great experience" but is now focused on a strong county showing with Surrey to push his case for a Test cap. April may be the cruellest month for spinners in England, but Virdi is eager to get back on the field and work out "a few different gameplans" for the grassier surfaces that are likely to predominate during the opening two-month block of Championship games.
"The last time I played a game in April would have been when we won the Championship," he said. "This time of year, as a spinner, it's a bit of a new experience for me playing on these pitches. I haven't really played on early-season pitches. I've always found you get a bit of grip when I played before, so I think this year might be a bit different.
"It's just a lot of excitement, everyone raring to go. You want to get out there, obviously with Covid and everything that happened we had a shortened season last year, so I think after a long winter like this you just want to get out there and play some games."
Even when considering what might likely be a holding role in the early part of the season, Virdi gave an indication of his approach to the spin bowler's craft.
"I think it's not necessarily a case of being defensive. I wouldn't say I'm a very defensive bowler," he said. "I think it's a case of finding other ways to attack. So it might be through maybe a defensive mindset, trying to bowl a lot of maidens and keeping things very simple and attacking in that way. I'm always looking to attack. I think I'll always keep that mindset, regardless of the conditions."
Although England did not ultimately consider their spin-bowling reserves, which included Matt Parkinson and Mason Crane, for selection in Sri Lanka or India, Virdi was pleased with how his time as part of Joe Root's touring party went. In particular, he said observing at close hand the level of control exhibited by India's spinners, R Ashwin and Axar Patel, who claimed 59 wickets between them during the four-match Test series, had been instructive.
"It was a great experience," he said. "Quite a long trip, but I think it was very beneficial, being in an environment like that, that's where I want to play. That's where I want to be so getting an insight as to what it's like bowling to guys like Rooty and [Ben] Stokes in the nets. It's great practice, and I think it's really helped my game.
"I think you've got to be prepared to bowl on any type of pitch. It's a case of trying to be a well-rounded bowler and being able to bowl in different conditions"
"The big difference is there's no room for errors. If there is, it's very minimal, even when the conditions are perhaps in the favour of the bowler. You still need to have that consistency and I think that was one of [India's] main strengths. You take Axar for example, just being able to land it in a certain area over and over again, and then relying on the pitch or allowing the pitch to do the work, seemed like the way forward. So, I think they did that very well. And I think that just overall in terms of consistency. I think it's a very important part of Test cricket."
England's struggles in India highlighted both the lack of depth in their spin bowling, as well an ability to counter it effectively - in turn raising the perennial debate about the nature of pitches for County Championship cricket.
The Kia Oval has long been a ground where spinners have needed to play their part, and with the impressive left-armer Dan Moriarity also coming through the ranks, Surrey could be tempted to lean in that direction. However, asked whether his development could be aided by bowling on more helpful surfaces, as was the case with England's incumbent spinners, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, Virdi said that he felt it was important to gain a grounding in a variety of conditions.
"My experience with county cricket has been that I find a lot of pitches do turn around the circuit. You're playing at Essex and it spins there, I've played at Hampshire and it spins there, I've played at Worcester and it spins there. So I think it really just depends on you as a bowler, what you can actually get out of the pitch. It might not turn straight away, but it may turn as a game goes on, or you get the footmarks to work with.
"I think you've got to be prepared to bowl on any type of pitch. If you're always bowling on pitches in your favour, you could go to a Test game and pitch doesn't turn for four days, then you're used to bowling really wide outside off stump and trying to spin it through the gate - and you're like 'what do I do?' So I think it's a case of trying to be a well-rounded bowler and being able to bowl in different conditions.
"You've just got a face what's in front of you, I think that will keep you in good stead going forward. Speaking with Leachy and Bessy, we always have chats. I speak to Leachy quite a lot, he's a great guy, but it's not something I've spoken to him about necessarily, playing down at Somerset and how it's aided his development. It's more about different things as a bowler that you can do on different pitches and things like that."
With Bess enduring a difficult time in India, and Moeen Ali missing the opening chunk of Championship cricket while at the IPL, Virdi could soon have the chance to put pressure on Leach for a Test spot. But for now, Virdi's chief concern remains attacking April with gusto and seeing where that takes him.
"I'm just thinking about county cricket at the moment and having the best season I can. If I have a good season and I perform well, then I think that I can't really control the things that come outside of that. So my focus is going to be on doing my best for Surrey and trying to win another Championship."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick