A little later than usual, the English Test summer kicks off at Lord’s today with one glaring omission.
Supporters – particularly from our part of the world – will be disappointed not to see Ben Stokes, the one real positive to emerge from a dismal Ashes series, not in the starting line-up. But more depressing still will be the absence of a specialist spinner.
For England to go into a home Test without an out-and-out spinner is not new.
But this week it will be less to do with choice than necessity. The country’s spin bowling cupboard is looking pretty bare.
Graeme Swann has retired and his natural successor, Monty Panesar, seems hell-bent on self-destruction just as he should be stepping up to the plate. Durham leg-spinner Scott Borthwick, the man in possession, has only taken four County Championship wickets this season through injury and a lack of bowling, and Simon Kerrigan was dismantled by Australia’s batsmen at The Oval last year. Kent’s Adam Riley has shown promise, but is still making his way at county level. His more experienced team-mate James Tredwell is a very good limited-overs bowler, but not Test standard.
England’s spin bowling will be shared between debutant Moeen Ali and Joe Root, two batsmen who bowl. It is a sad state of affairs.
Moves are afoot to do something about it.
The Brian Johnston Memorial Trust, set up in memory of the former BBC commentator, funds the ECB’s Elite Spin Bowling Programme, which provides specialist coaching for spinners. Durham have gratefully accepted their help.
First-Class cricket’s most northerly county is an unforgiving place to bowl spin. Spinners are hindered by the cold on the rare occasions they can force the ball out of the hands of the seamers who thrive there.
So it was encouraging to see Durham field five spinners last season. Alongside Borthwick and Gareth Breese, Ryan Buckley made an astonishing First-Class debut, and Ryan Pringle and Max Morley played in the Twenty20 Cup. Pringle made his First-Class debut at Somerset last month.
Breese describes his involvement in Durham’s spin coaching programme as “probably the most important contribution I can make for Durham”.
Having swapped Jamaica for the North East 11 years ago, Breese knows better than most the challenge facing his youngsters.
“It’s very difficult bowling spin in England and it’s even more difficult regionally,” he says.
“But if we were to get dry weather over four days up here, spin does come into it. Ian Blackwell had some success at Durham, so it just shows what can be done.
“It’s just about making sure these spinners have the guidance they need in the development stages.
“There’s always a place for spin in every team. When you look at what England are trying to do, they want someone to replace Graeme Swann right now. He was an integral part of their team because you do need that variation.”
With its welter of Twenty20 cricket, where spinners can sometimes turn into cannon fodder for big-hitting batsmen, the modern county game is a harsh climate to start in. Morley was smashed out of first-team cricket after one game and Pringle found the same in the Championship after Marcus Trescothick took a liking to him.
“Even after playing 11 years of cricket at this level I’m still disappointed when I go around the ground but all you have to do is watch enough Twenty20 and you realise some of the best spinners in the world get the treatment too,” says Breese. “That’s the message I try to bring to the youngsters.
“A lot of people equate a six with you bowling a bad ball, but it’s just the way the game is evolving.
“Yes it’s going to be difficult for spinners, but they have to have the confidence in their ability to make sure they progress in the game. You have to believe in your skills and when you turn up on the day you have to back those skills to be successful.
“In the development stage, the guys need to nail down their technique and make sure they impart as much spin as they can.
“Finding an action they can wake up and bowl with every day is important. A lot of them aren’t strong enough to do that and that causes injuries.
“We talk to them about game scenarios and hopefully that gives them an understanding of what lengths to bowl when, but there’s no substitute for learning your skills by playing.
“It’s a very difficult education in club cricket. You can see a youngster come on and batsmen will say, ‘Okay, let’s take him down’. Mentally it can go one of two ways. You have to reassure these guys that they will get a chance to bowl because if you don’t get those overs in, your development is basically delayed.”
Breese is encouraged to have so many willing pupils, but urges them to follow the lead of Ali and Borthwick by working on their batting too.
“We’ve had camps here where we’ve had the hall full,” he points out. “It’s good to see guys enjoying bowling spin.
“We’ve got Callum Buckley – Ryan’s brother, Ben Whitehead, Ryan Pringle, Max Morley and Scott Borthwick. Hopefully they’ll all make professional standard.
“If you want to be that spinner you can put yourself into a stronger position by having more than one string to your bow. If you can work your way into the top six and bowl it gives you a very good balance.
“If you don’t offer much more than your spin it’s much harder to get into the team.”