England miss Graeme Swann.
Their most successful off-spin bowler, and second most successful spinner, retired three years ago, halfway through England’s disastrous Ashes tour of 2013-14, and they have never come close to finding someone who could do what he did.
His ability to both take wickets and keep the run-rate down made him two different bowlers in one effervescent package. With England drawing the Test series in Bangladesh 1-1 and playing India next—the first Test starts in Rajkot on 9 November—the need for spinners who can perform well against players who have grown up playing on pitches that suit slower bowlers was the biggest talking point ahead of these tours.
This is especially relevant given that the memory of England’s series victory in India in 2012 is still fresh in people’s minds. That series win was built on the success of Swann and Monty Panesar.
With Swann calling it a day and Panesar still struggling with personal issues, neither is available for these tours. Since Swann retired, England have picked eight spin bowlers; six of them have played one Test each in that time. Only Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid have had more than one game.
Chances are Gareth Batty will play again in India, having made a comeback into the team, after an 11-year hiatus, in the first Test against Bangladesh. Zafar Ansari may well feature again this winter after making his debut in the second Test.
But England have been cycling through spinners like a channel-hopping teenager trying to stave off boredom. The progress that Ali has made since his Test debut in 2014 is remarkable, especially for a man who was more of a batsman who bowled. What he has shown in the Test series in Bangladesh endorses what captain Alastair Cook made clear when speaking about him this summer.
“Moeen is our first choice spinner,” Cook said.
There have been times when Ali’s ability with the bat has made his selection as a spinner more likely—he has three Test hundreds—but he has been worthy of his place and has improved with every match. He still bowls the odd bad ball, but he has looked the man most likely to get wickets in Bangladesh, and England will hope that continues in India.
Swann told The Telegraph in September that more than anything else, Ali needs to believe in himself and know that his team has faith in him. “Moeen is happier with a bat in his hand,” Swann said. “That is natural because he is a batsman, and as a bowler I just think he needs an arm around him all the time. He needs his tyres pumped up, and people telling him how good a bowler he is. He is a bloody good Test bowler when he believes he is.”
England’s second spinner in Bangladesh has been Adil Rashid. The leg-spinner takes wickets and bowls wicket-taking balls, but he also sends down some absolute filth. This is a huge problem for a captain.
It does not take long for boundary balls to become a problem and Cook has been concerned enough to pull him out of the bowling attack. India have a frighteningly good top order that will relish the chance to feast upon anything that is too short, too full or too wide.
England picked Batty for both the India and Bangladesh tours, and in many ways this selection represents the post-Swann era. The recall of a 39-year-old who last played Test cricket in 2005 is a pretty stark reminder that England are short of options on slow bowling. Batty is a fine cricketer who has every chance of fulfilling a role on these tours, but it is doubtful if he will play another Test once the India series finishes just before Christmas.
Some have argued that Somerset’s Jack Leach should have been picked ahead of Batty. Scyld Berry of The Daily Telegraph was impressed by Leach in a tour match against the Pakistanis, writing, “To win this winter, against Asian batsmen, England must find a spinner to hold the line.” He suggested that Leach may well have been the man for that job.
Leach took 68 first-class wickets at an average of 22 this summer and would have been in the selectors’ thoughts, but it seems they decided he was too much of an unknown quantity for a tour where there will be so much pressure on spin bowlers.
Then there is Zafar Ansari. He has been on England’s radar for a while now. He made his One Day International (ODI) debut in May 2015 against Ireland in a match that lasted just 18 overs before rain ended proceedings. Ansari neither batted nor bowled.
He was then selected for England’s tour of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last winter, only to injure his hand hours later. Ansari’s record is a modest one—122 first-class wickets at an average of 34— but England rate his temperament highly.
Just like Ali, Ansari is a batsman trying to become a spinner rather than an out-and-out specialist bowler. He has been selected with hope rather than expectation.
Once this winter of dry and turning pitches comes to an end, England will know a lot more about the men they have selected, but they won’t have come any closer to replacing Graeme Swann.
Peter Miller is a freelance cricket writer and podcaster. He is the author of 28 Days Data—England’s Troubled Relationship With One-Day Cricket.