“And we’ll go on getting bad results…”
Jimmy Hill wasn’t talking about England’s cricket team when he made that now famous remark – it is sampled in the song Three Lions for those who have been living on the moon in recent days – but it fits pretty well anyway.
England have a long-standing and serious issue when confronted by quality spin bowling. It has, in recent times, cost them dearly in the Caribbean, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE. And now there seems to be every chance it could derail their World Cup hopes.
Even here at Trent Bridge, on what might be considered the spiritual home of England’s ODI resurgence – it has been here that they have twice set world record ODI totals – they were exposed by that weakness once more.
To be fair, Kuldeep Yadav’s skill is rare and precious. There are few, if any, left-arm wristspinners on the county circuit (Akhil Patel, the brother of Samit, played 2nd XI cricket for Derbyshire as recently as last year but hasn’t played a first-class game since 2011, while Jake Lintott played one T20 match for Hampshire last year) so the challenge offered by Kuldeep is unusual. The angles, the drift, the turn – all will require adjustment time and experience. And that is even before we acknowledge that he has excellent control and found, at times, sharp turn on a perfectly good surface on which other spinners found little assistance. He looks a fine bowler.
He is also a bowler who threatens to undermine England’s whole ODI method. For such bowlers can unlock even the best batting tracks – the very quickest fast bowlers might be able to do the same thing – which means there is an Achilles heel in England’s approach. No longer can they simply prepare excellent batting surfaces and back their batsmen to drown their opposition in big hitting. They suddenly have a vulnerability.
It’s not impossible that, by the end of this English summer, Kuldeep will have lost his potency. Something similar happened with Laxman Sivaramakrishnan in 1984-85. After claiming six wickets in each innings of the first Test of that series against England (in Mumbai) to help India to victory, he gradually became less potent as the batsmen learned to pick – or at least negate – his leg-spin. After 12 wickets in that first Test, he claimed seven in the second and then just four more in the next three Tests at a cost of over 100 apiece as England fought back to win the series. The career trajectories of Paul Adams – another left-arm wristspinner – and Ajantha Mendis – who was more of an offspinner with an almost unique action – were similar.
Those examples should give England hope. It shows that, if they give themselves time, the clouds of mystery could part and batting against Kuldeep could become easier. And although you could equally look at the example of Shane Warne or Murali – bowlers who tormented England (and many other teams, to be fair) throughout their careers – Kuldeep is significantly slower than most contemporary spinners (his average pace here was 48.1 mph), which might, in time, prove an issue.
There were signs that England were learning to play him during the T20 series. After his match-winning haul in the first game at Old Trafford where he claimed 5 for 24, England played him much better in the second match in Cardiff when he went wicketless. Concluding that he had, in essence, three deliveries – a leg-break that turns into the right-hander, a googly that turns away and a much quicker delivery that goes straight but at a pace of around 66mph – they resolved that, if they couldn’t pick him out of the hand, they could play back more often and adjust off the pitch.
Kuldeep – and his captain – responded brilliantly here. By posting a leg slip, they prevented England from either attempting to sweep or simply turning the leg-break behind square into the leg side. It robbed them of both a defensive and run-scoring option. Apparently reluctant to come down the wicket, it left them almost strokeless.
Might England accept struggling against Kuldeep for a Test or two this summer if it means they are familiar with him by the time the World Cup comes round? Whatever the answer, there is, perhaps, a case for India hiding him from England again until the Test series or, perhaps, the World Cup. Yes, there is ample footage of him already out there. But there isn’t much evidence to suggest England have benefitted from that footage so far. It might be relevant, too, that he didn’t bowl one of his quicker deliveries in this match. He might, already, be keeping a couple of secrets up his sleeve.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this experience against an unusual bowler as an aberration, though. There have been too many examples against spinners of all varieties to suggest Kuldeep has a unique ability to trouble England. Remember Mehedi Hasan (the offspinner who derailed England in Bangladesh), Lloyd Pope (the legspinner who derailed England U19 in New Zealand, or Jomel Warrican (the left-arm spinner who derailed England Lions in the Caribbean). Even here, Suresh Raina – admittedly benefitting from the inroads made by Kuldeep – delivered 14 dot ball in his 18 deliveries. It’s not one style or one surface that bothers England. It’s good spin bowling.
So, what can England learn from the past? Well, on that 1984-85 tour of India they finally found a way to combat Sivaramakrishnan. But that England team contained batmen such as Mike Gatting, David Gower, Graeme Fowler and Tim Robinson (one of the umpires in this match) who had spent their formative years learning their trade in a county game that seemed to value spin bowling far more that it does presently.
And that brings us back where we started. Conditions in English cricket will generally mean that young players are exposed less to spin bowling than they are to seam and swing. It may well always be an area of potential weakness.
But, over the last decade or so, the situation has deteriorated. As older, specialist spinners have been squeezed out of the game and younger, all-rounders have focused on white-ball skills, as counties have struggled to provide opportunities for their talented young spinners in first-class cricket, as surfaces and fixtures lists and bat sizes and boundaries have all conspired against the spinner, the art has suffered in England.
There is talent out there among young spinners, for sure, but it struggles for opportunity. And, as a result, young batsmen grow up without the skills or coping strategies to know how to combat such bowling. Playing The 100 in a window in high summer will make it even worse.
England’s long-term strategy – prioritising white-ball cricket in the belief that success in that format will bring in a new audience and new riches – could, ironically, be undermined by their lack of investment in the first-class game. And no amount of off-field spin – which, to be fair, English cricket is much better at – will change that.