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Why England's pink-ball meltdown shows that Test cricket is not their priority

A rare opportunity to win in India may have been squandered for want of a plan against spin

George Dobell
George Dobell
England sent Zak Crawley to fulfil their media duties after the first day's play in Ahmedabad.
Crawley, to be fair, had batted very nicely earlier. He times the ball as very few can and clearly has the potential to be a significant player.
But he made 53. And it is not innings of 53 that define Tests. Certainly not in the first innings. Even in conditions like this, where scores may be somewhat lower than average. So to focus on Crawley's attributes on a day as grim as this would be like attempting to mitigate the loss of Titanic by pointing out the vol-au-vents served on-board earlier in the day had been terrific.
For the truth is, short of the team bus crashing on the way to the ground, this is a day that could hardly have gone worse for England. If you go into a Test having chosen to play the extra seamer, you don't want to have lost nine wickets to spin within the first 50 overs of the match. You win very few games in which you lose 8 for 38. Or where the second highest score in the first innings is 17. It was the lowest first-innings total England have ever made in India. Really, it would have been more appropriate to send an undertaker to fulfil England's press conferences.
England's selection will, no doubt, be the focus of much criticism. And that's fair enough: even if we accept they required four seamers - and that's quite a stretch - the choice of Stuart Broad ahead of Dom Bess or Chris Woakes left them with an unwieldly tail. Although he was clearly sent out to dead-bat media questions - he's 23 and making his way in the game, for goodness' sake, he's hardly going to lampoon those who select him - Crawley couldn't stop his self-deprecating response to a query about the ease with which he batted compared to his colleagues from showing up the fault in the selection.
"It was easier to bat against the seamers," he said before, perhaps, realising the implications of his words. It was true, though. Crawley faced 35 balls from India's two seamers and took them for 33 runs; the other 10 members of Crawley's side faced 31 balls in total from seam bowlers.
But the selection of the bowling attack really wasn't England's primary problem. No, the issue is that England's batsmen had no answer to the turning ball. Or, to be more specific, a ball that sometimes turned and sometimes skidded straight on.
To be fair to them, it was tough. This is an excellent spin attack and, with natural variation appearing to account for the unpredictable behaviour of the ball, there were no obvious clues as to which ones would spin and which ones would skid. Many sides would have struggled. Whether they would have struggled this much, however, is debatable.
For England have now succumbed to scores of 112, 164, 134 and 178 in their four most recent innings on this tour. And while it's true they have faced some challenging conditions and fine bowlers during that sequence, eventually, if something keeps happening, you have to accept it's not the pitches or the umpires or the presence of Jupiter in the House of Taurus that's the problem. It's that you, as a team, have serious issues against spin bowling.
'Wait there,' you may be crying. 'England made 578 only five innings ago; this is just a blip'. And it's true they did. It helped them complete a run of six successive Test victories in Asia. That's an impressive achievement whatever the result of this series.
But that innings was made when the Chennai surface was unusually flat. And it was disproportionately reliant upon Joe Root's contribution. Only two other men reached 35. Indeed, nobody else, across five-and-a-half Tests on this tour, has registered a century. Only three England players (Root, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow) average as much as 30. Only one more (Ben Foakes) averages as much as 25.
None of this should come as a surprise. Anyone with even a passing interest in English cricket knows the domestic schedule has been altered to ensure the prime months of (what the English laughingly call) summer, are dominated by white-ball cricket. This, it is argued, is popular with players, who can specialise on specific white-ball skills during this period, and broadcasters, who can build narratives and hope it will ensure the presence of more exciting overseas players.
All of which sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
But there is a downside. And that is, England's domestic first-class competition is played in conditions in which spin bowling is barely relevant. This year, eight of the 14 rounds of County Championship cricket are scheduled to take place before the end of May (four take place before the end of April) with four more rounds (and the Bob Willis Trophy final) taking place in autumnal September. That leaves just two rounds - eight days of cricket, in other words - scheduled to take place in July or August when surfaces might be expected to provide most assistance to spin bowlers.
Combined with the usage of a Dukes ball, it means most counties are able to rely almost completely upon their seamers. Really, if you're a young spinner with aspirations of playing first-class cricket, you may as well give it up and become a wheelwright or court jester; those, by comparison, are trades with a future. When an experienced spinner does appear in the county game - the likes of Jeetan Patel or Simon Harmer - they clean up against batsmen with little of the technique or temperament required to resist them.
All this means young batsmen in England do not face enough quality spin bowling to develop an effective game against them. And on the rare occasion a county might provide surfaces which replicate those found in recent days in India, the ECB punish them for it.
This issue was probably relevant to England's selection, too. While the team management would be reluctant to confirm it, it would appear their decision to pick the extra seamer was based at least as much on on a lack of belief in their second spin option as it was in any belief in how the pink ball would behave. Put simply, it seems they felt the extra seamer would provide them more control than a spinner who had difficulty with his length in his most recent appearance. Again and again, England's problems in developing spin bowling in the county game are coming back to hurt them.
But you know this already. Everybody, including the ECB, knows this already. It was obvious on the last tour of India in 2016. And if Test cricket really was their priority, they would act - as they did after the humiliation of the 2015 World Cup - to change things.
But they don't. Because white-ball cricket - and the money it brings in - is their No. 1 priority. Look at the full-strength squad they have named for the T20I section of this tour; look at their decision to allow players to miss Tests against New Zealand to play in the IPL; look at the white-ball window that dominates the prime weeks of summer in the domestic schedule. Whatever they say, there is little evidence that Test cricket is their priority.
And while that is the case, England will continue to struggle in these conditions.
This match - this series, even - can still be won by England. But they will have to bat far better against the turning ball in their final three innings of the campaign. At this stage, that runs of low scores is looking more like the norm than the exception.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo