England wrong to call up another spinner?
The series can still be drawn and England could still leave India as the No. 2 rated Test side but, as they head for Mumbai (or Dubai, in a few cases), it doesn’t feel much like it.
It’s not just the tour-ending injuries to Haseeb Hameed and Zafar Ansari, or the somewhat less threatening injuries to Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad. It’s the sense that, five Tests into their Asian adventure, England still do not know their best side or even what the balance of that side should be.
On the face of things, the call-up of Keaton Jennings is as a direct replacement for Hameed. But it’s more than that. It’s an acceptance of a lack of confidence in the original squad and in Ben Duckett (who has already opened in Test cricket) and Gary Ballance (who spent much of his Test career at No. 3) in particular. In retrospect, it was a mistake for England to take Ballance to India if they had decided after the Bangladesh segment of the tour not to pick him. They had the opportunity to change the squad, they failed to take it and have struggled with a lack of batting options.
One of the victims of that imbalance has been Moeen Ali. While he might well have benefited from some stability – most batsmen do – he has been shunted up and down the order to the point where his role has changed almost by the match. In his 35 Tests, he has batted everywhere in the top nine; a panacea for England’s failings, but one that comes at its own cost.
It’s hard to argue with the selection of Jennings, though. He scored more runs than anyone else (1,548) in Division One in 2016 and, while few of them were against spin, he did make a fourth-innings century against a Warwickshire attack including Jeetan Patel (arguably the best spinner in English domestic cricket).
He is well-organised, patient and, perhaps crucially, brought up with more than a hint of the South African culture that seems so popular with key figures in English cricket; more of that later. It’s probably not ideal that he is another left-hander – England may well have four in their top six against two fine off-spinners – but ‘ideal’ left this tour a while ago.
The selection of Liam Dawson is more contentious. He claimed only 20 Championship wickets in 2016 and they cost 43.65 each. Nor was that an aberration: in 2015 he claimed 22 at 38.63. He is respected as a defensive spinner, a decent batsman and a good fielder, but it is unlikely his selection has plunged the India camp into a state of fear. He simply doesn’t take enough wickets and, if his main role is as a bowler, that is quite an issue.
Few would claim Dawson is the best left-arm spinner in county cricket. But equally few would have made the same claim about Ansari or Samit Patel, who fulfilled the role this time last year. The truth is, England have a shallow talent pool and they aren’t after the best specialist: they are after a left-arm option who can bat, field and will be low-maintenance on and off the pitch. They have assessed Dawson as a member of the limited-overs squads and decided they like his character and range of skills.
With those parameters, he may prove a useful selection. He will not buckle, even if India attack him; he will be a reliable fielder, even of England are out there for five sessions; he will not be intimidated with the bat, even if he is asked to save a match. But even if he does tie up an end with his fairly flat, fairly quick spin – and that will not be easy against this India batting line-up – it is not entirely obvious who will be attacking at the other end. Besides, for a team that talks of its positivity and aggression, it seems odd to opt for a bowler whose strength is not wicket-taking but bowling maidens.
Keaton Jennings scored heavily for Durham © Getty Images
It’s not especially unusual to pick players on a hunch rather than on statistics, though. The selection in the Mohali Test of Jos Buttler, who had played only one first-class game in the previous 12-months, could only be justified on the basis of potential and, in the past, much the same might have been said about David Gower, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. It sends a less than encouraging message to those involved in county cricket, but that is nothing new.
You have to feel for Somerset’s Jack Leach. Having taken 65 Championship wickets at an average of 21.87 in 2016, albeit benefiting from Taunton’s spin-friendly wickets, he would be justified in feeling somewhat hard done-by as he comes to term with this latest rejection. Anyone watching county cricket last season would be hard placed to name a better left-arm spinner available to England.
But it seems the selectors remain unsure how he would cope with the glare of international cricket. Chris Rogers, his Somerset captain this year, suggested Leach “emotionally had a bit of a way to go” before he was ready and it seems the experience of Simon Kerrigan, who wilted in the spotlight of the Oval Ashes Test of 2013, continues to weigh heavily on the team management’s minds. Leach is 25, though, and coped well with the expectation of a Somerset side pushing for their first Championship title on pitches where he was supposed to do the bulk of the damage. The selectors may well be doing his strength of mind a disservice.
There may also be an issue here with Trevor Bayliss’ knowledge – or lack of knowledge – of county cricket. He never played it, has never coached in it and, through no fault of his own, hardly has the time to watch it. As a result, he does not know who the best players are and he has not had the opportunity to build up relationships with coaches, umpires and players in the domestic game who might have helped him. Instead, he remains heavily reliant upon Andy Flower – who is not officially a selector – who watches a lot of cricket and works with the best developing players. It is Flower who is managing the Lions team in the UAE and Flower who told Jennings of his selection.
You wonder if he told Bayliss, too. For it is hard to avoid the suspicion that both these selections owe much to his influence. The tough simplicity of Jennings and the combative all-round skills of Dawson are both characteristics Flower always seemed to admire in his players; arguably more so than flair and specialist skills. None of this is necessarily a bad thing – quite the opposite, a man with Flower’s knowledge and passion can only be an asset – but it might prove slightly at odds with Bayliss’ apparently bolder, more positive approach. Nearly three years since he stepped down as head coach, Flower power is still very much alive in English cricket.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo