A small slice of cricketing history will almost certainly be made on Sunday at one or more of the six fixtures in the opening round of the 2016 Specsavers County Championship – as for the first time in the world’s oldest first-class competition, the visiting captains will have the option of cancelling the toss.
Ian Bell at the Ageas Bowl, Chris Rogers at the Emirates Riverside, Gareth Batty at Trent Bridge and, in Division Two, Luke Wright at Northampton, Gareth Roderick in Chelmsford and Sam Northeast at Worcester will be the six men at the centre of attention at around 10.30am – weather permitting, of course.
If any of them want to bowl first – and the chances of that must be high in early April – then they will merely have to inform the umpires, and the home captain. Teamsheets will be exchanged in the middle as normal, and hands shaken, but the home captain’s coin will remain unused. The ground announcers will have to change their well-worn script. The scorecard will have a new entry – Toss, Not Necessary.
The decision to tinker with the toss was taken by the ECB Board late last year after a recommendation from the Cricket Committee – a group that included the former England captain Andrew Strauss, in his role as director of England cricket, as well as a current player in Rob Key, the then chief executive of the Professional Cricketers Association Angus Porter, and David Leatherdale – who was then Worcestershire’s chief executive, but has since been appointed as Porter’s successor.
It continues to provoke considerable debate, as the Board and the Committee recognised it would. Andrew Gale, who has led Yorkshire to the last two Championship titles, explains why he remains opposed to the changes below – while Ashley Giles, the former England spinner and coach who is now cricket director at Lancashire, outlines his support.
But first Peter Such, who as the ECB’s lead spin bowling coach had argued strongly for the change – with support from other senior ECB coaches including Andy Flower – explains the reasoning behind English cricket’s latest radical innovation.
What has changed?
The first point to make, and one that I think we need to make very clear, is that we haven’t scrapped the toss completely. If the visiting captain does not want to field first, it will take place as previously. But they have been given the option of choosing to field first without a toss. So it will be a little bit different on the first morning of Championship matches this season.
For a number of years pitches have been a major talking point in the county game, because they have such a huge bearing on the cricket that is played, firstly impacting on team selection and then influencing the brand of cricket played.
I feel this is a way for the game to balance itself, because the statistics show us it hasn’t been balanced in the County Championship in recent seasons – and specifically, that it has been balanced against spin bowling, and fast bowling, and has therefore not been preparing batsmen or bowlers for the challenges of international cricket.
Specific to spin bowling, in 2015 less than 22 per cent of the total number of overs in Championship cricket were bowled by spinners, compared with a much higher proportion of around 45 per cent in Test cricket.
In the last 20 years we have lost almost 50 per cent of spin bowling overs, our spin bowlers have not been getting enough opportunities to bowl – and obviously that means batsmen have not been facing as much spin bowling as in the past. Historically we have struggled in international cricket when it’s come to facing high-class spin in subcontinental conditions – you only have to look back to the last two series against Pakistan in the UAE for examples.
But it isn’t just about spin bowling. It’s about trying to create an environment in which all skill sets have an opportunity to succeed – and an environment which is more reflective of international cricket.
To succeed in international cricket – and we have coaches like Andy Flower, Graham Thorpe and many others to verify this – we need top-class pace bowlers, top-class spin bowlers, and batsmen who have a game that is able to succeed against those challenges.
County cricket should never be viewed as the problem – it has to be very much part of the solution.
Why not scrap the toss completely?
We did debate that. But it would have presented the possibility of teams preparing really flat, bland pitches, so that there was no benefit to the visiting team of batting or bowling first. We recognise that the groundsmen around the country are best-placed to produce the best possible surfaces, which is what we want to see. This empowers the ground authorities to produce the best quality surface they can.
How will you judge success?
Not in the first round of matches in mid-April, certainly. And from my point of view, I’d stretch it considerably longer than that – although this has been introduced on an experimental basis, and will be reviewed throughout the season. We can keep an eye on the amount of spin that’s being bowled, on the quality of cricket being played, and whether the different skill sets are getting more of a go. We’ve had too many games finishing early – how many are going the full four days? But the bottom line is we’ve been heading down this route of more cricket on damp, seamer-friendly pitches for a number of years now, so we’re not going to fix it in one year. We need a long-term solution, and this is hopefully one part of it.
Arguing the toss
Andrew Gale (Yorkshire captain)
What disappoints me is I like putting on my stripy Yorkshire jacket for the toss. Now I might not get that opportunity.
I just think in sport in general, everywhere in the world, everyone talks about home advantage. Isn’t that why it’s so good when you watch a football team away from home – you want them to win because they’re against the odds to start with? Why try and change that?
I think generally Division One pitches, 90 per cent of the time, are really good wickets. It was only when I played that one season in the Second Division that I found it hard work. The wickets were seaming all over the shop – you’ve got medium pace bowlers running in and bowling teams out.
I can see what the ECB are trying to do, trying to encourage spinners in the game. I just thing it’s the wrong way to do it. Given that we’ve got six Championship games before the end of May, and three Championship games in September, I’m going to find it hard to throw the ball to Adil Rashid when it’s six degrees and he’s blowing his fingers trying to get them warm.
I don’t think it will make that much of a difference at Headingley, looking at the stats and the way we play our cricket. I don’t think people generally know what to do at the toss at Headingley – I look at opposition captains scratching their heads the day before the game and looking at the wicket, and I love that. So I’m not giving anything away. But you look at a team like Durham who generally bowl first a lot of the time, they might find it a little bit more difficult.
I just think if they’d nipped it in the bud earlier, with some of the wickets around the country, then we wouldn’t be in this position.
Ashley Giles (Lancashire cricket director and head coach)
I think it’s something worth trying. There have been issues with the pitches in the last few years, and that in combination with the dearth of spin bowling in the country, I think it’s a good option. If it doesn’t work, we can change it back. But I don’t think it’s that drastic that it’s going to have that big an effect on sides. The only variable is some of these grounds with overheads – maybe the likes of Lord’s and Trent Bridge, certain days you turn up and you know you’re going to bowl because of what the clouds are doing. But I think that’s a risk worth taking.
It won’t affect us at Old Trafford. I think every game here last year the team who won the toss chose to bat first. The wickets are good, we promote spin bowling, we’ve got four or five top spinners.
Both in this job at Lancashire, and my previous job at Warwickshire, my teams have played on pitches that aren’t conducive to preparing players for England – and whether it be spin or otherwise, that’s what we’re here for surely. We’ve got to be preparing guys to play at the very highest level – and if you’re preparing bad wickets, it’s not going to help.
Nine spinners to watch
While Peter Such and other architects, and supporters, of the 2016 toss experiment are keen to stress it is not all about improving the spinners’ lot, the hope is that they will be among the beneficiaries. Here are a few of the bowlers who will be keeping their spinning fingers crossed.
Scott Borthwick (Durham, 25) – leg-spinning all-rounder who was handed an international baptism of fire in Sydney in January 2014 as Australia completed an Ashes whitewash in what remains his single Test cap. He has been consistent with the bat but struggled to make an impact with the ball in the last two county seasons. He has spent the winter in Wellington working with Jeetan Patel, the New Zealander who has been such an outstanding overseas player for Warwickshire in recent years, in a scheme supported by the ECB.
Danny Briggs (Sussex, 24) – left-arm spinner who has been a key figure in Hampshire’s one-day success in recent years, but has been allowed to move along the south coast in pursuit of more regular red-ball cricket. Selected for the England Performance Programme in Dubai before Christmas, when he was one of several bowlers who relished the opportunity of working with the former New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori.
Zafar Ansari (Surrey, 24) – earned selection for the England squad for the Tests against Pakistan in the UAE before Christmas, only to suffer a serious thumb injury in the penultimate fixture of the 2015 season at Lancashire. But Surrey hope he will be back in their side before the end of April.
Brad Taylor (Hampshire, 19) – off-spinning all-rounder who was England’s captain in the ICC Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year. Made his senior debut as a 16-year-old in 2013.
Mason Crane (Hampshire, 19) – joined Taylor in England’s Under-19 World Cup squad after making an instant impression when called into Hampshire’s Championship team last summer, taking five first-innings wickets against Warwickshire at the Ageas Bowl.
Liam Dawson (Hampshire, 26) – a late inclusion on the England Performance Programme last winter, but his excellent white-ball performances for the England Lions in their Twenty20 and 50-over series against Pakistan A earned a surprise senior call-up for the ICC World T20. Described as “the heartbeat of the team” by Hampshire’s director of cricket Giles White.
Matt Critchley (Derbyshire, 19) – another leg-spinner, originally from Wigan, who underlined his all-round ability by becoming the youngest player to score a first-class century for Derbyshire in only his second appearance against Northamptonshire last summer. He was then invited to join the England Lions in Dubai after Christmas, after making an excellent impression in the nets at the National Cricket Performance Centre.
Matt Carter (Nottinghamshire, 20) – tall off-spinner, whose elder brother Andy has joined Derbyshire after several years at Trent Bridge, who took seven for 56 on his first-class debut against Somerset at Taunton last summer but did not play again, partly because of injury. He was also invited to bowl at the Lions at the NCPC.
Arron Lilley (Lancashire, 25) – off-spinner who has made a big impression in Lancashire’s white-ball cricket over the last two years, and was set to go to Wellington to work with Patel until personal circumstances forced him to withdraw.
There are plenty of others. As Ashley Giles says, Lilley is one of several at Lancashire – along with Simon Kerrigan and Stephen Parry, who have already played for England, plus Matt Parkinson, a leg-spinner from Bolton who impressed for England Under-19s against Australia last summer.
Adam Riley earned England Lions selection with his impressive form for Kent in 2014. Ravi Patel remains highly-rated at Middlesex. The Glamorgan pair of Andrew Salter and Owen Morgan both spent time in Australia this winter, again supported by the ECB, as did Warwickshire’s leg-spinner Josh Poysden.
Will Beer will hope to team up with Briggs at Sussex. Rob Sayer is due an injury-free run at Leicestershire, after impressing in the 2014 Under-19 World Cup. Jack Leach impressed for Somerset at the back end of last season.
And of course there is the tantalising possibility of Monty Panesar rediscovering his mojo at Northamptonshire – although as he nears his 34th birthday, Monty would not expect to be included in a list of young spinners to watch.