For England’s tours to Bangladesh and India this winter it has been clear that there has been a desire to get three spinners in the team. Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari were included in the initial touring squads. For the first Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong Ali, Rashid and Batty (making his first Test appearance since 2005) were selected. All three spinners bowled a similar number of overs with none of the three standing out in terms of wickets taken or economy rates and, if anything, they were all a little expensive. For the second Test England gave a debut to Ansari in the place of his Surrey captain Batty. Tamim Iqbal took a liking to the debutant, with his six first innings overs going for 36. Rashid was also disappointing in the first innings going for 4.40 an over. In the end Captain Alastair Cook could only rely on Ali to keep the runs down, he bowled 19.5 overs (more than Rashid and Ansari put together) and took 5-57. Cook’s inability to trust Rashid could be seen in the second innings with Ali opening the bowling, Ansari being introduced in the sixth over, and alleged front line spinner Rashid did not appear until over number 20. Rashid only bowled a short spell. He was not seen again until the 54th over where he cleaned up Bangladesh with four wickets in seven overs. Ali and Ansari both bowled 19 overs whereas Rashid only bowled 11.5.
Ansari was again selected for the first Test against India at Rajkot. His position in the side seemed unclear as he could not keep the runs down to the same extent as Ali and had nowhere near the wicket taking ability of Rashid. In the second innings at Rajkot Ansari was targeted and went for over five an over, meaning his place as a bowler did not seem justified. This scenario repeated itself at Visakhapatnam with Cook not even giving Ansari an over in the second innings. From this point, it was clear that he would not make another appearance on the tour. Batty was included for Mohali and bizarrely bowled more overs than Ali, though neither were particularly effective. With Ansari flying home to England and Batty unlikely to feature again it is clear that England need to rethink their spinning policy. In hindsight, it may be viewed as a mistake to have attempted to put three spinners in the side and England should probably go into the 4th and 5th Tests with five bowlers. Another problem that was more apparent at the time was England’s initial selection of spinners before Bangladesh. For most who keep up with the County Championship, the inclusion of Surrey’s Ansari and Batty seemed deeply odd and the recent call up of Liam Dawson has exacerbated this feeling that England’s selectors are looking for the wrong type of player to win Test matches.
What is the profile of bowler that England appear to be looking for? Ansari and Batty show two different approaches to the selection of a third spinner. Ansari is 24 years old, a left arm orthodox bowler and is a competent batsman, having played for most of his career as an opener or in the middle order. Batty is 39, bowls right arm off breaks and, with the bat, is a decent number 8. With these differences, it may seem like England do not know what they want but it can be assumed that Batty was largely picked for his experience and leadership qualities with Ansari being the intended nailed on selection. This decision to take Zafar Ansari to India seemed like a mistake from the beginning. He was intended to be included for the UAE tour in the winter of 2015/16 after his role opening the batting for Surrey in their 2015 promotion season. The plan seemed to be that he would open with Alastair Cook and be a third spinning option after Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali. This did not come to pass due to an injury picked up just after his selection. Even then this seemed like a wrong turn from England’s management. In that 2015 Division 2 season Ansari managed only 771 runs at an average of 35.71, scoring just one hundred. His bowling was also competent but not exceptional, particularly for the second division, as he took 44 wickets at 30.97. The decision to take him to India this year must have been based on these UAE plans as he had an injury ridden 2016, scoring just 493 runs at 27.43 whilst taking just 22 wickets at 31.40. These performances strike me as the record of a young player who could become a very effective Division 1 performer for Surrey but do not demand international consideration. With Ansari flying home England had three realistic replacement options. Jack Leach and Ollie Rayner who are with the Lions in the UAE or Liam Dawson who has been on the international radar screen for a while. Liam Dawson was, for most outside observers, very much the third best option from these three but he has been picked.
Dawson is another odd selection but fits the Ansari mould. He is 26 and a left arm orthodox spinner. He is also primarily a batsman. Throughout Dawson’s county career he has never been more than a second spinner. When he made his breakthrough into Hampshire’s senior side as a teenager in 2008 he shadowed Imran Tahir and has since played second fiddle to youngsters. Firstly, Danny Briggs and more recently Mason Crane. Dawson has never taken more than 23 wickets in a Championship season and averages comfortably in the mid-30s. In fact, he was primarily an opener and top order batsman for Hampshire from 2011 to 2015 with last season seeing him placed firmly in the middle order. Last year also saw a very poor season on the bowling front for Dawson taking just 20 wickets at 43.85. Dawson has been cited as an economical option with the ball for England but concedes 3.16 an over compared to Jack Leach’s 2.62 and Ollie Rayner’s 2.84. So why has he been picked? It must be runs. However, this is where I feel England are completely misguided in their selection policy. Dawson is nothing special as a batsman and it is extremely unlikely that he will perform better as a number 8 for England than Rashid or Woakes. England are blessed with the fact that Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali would likely get in the side with the ball and with the bat, with the bonus that Adil Rashid and Chris Woakes are also allrounders. This means that including a more effective bowler at the expense of someone like Dawson or Ansari, who have batting averages in the low 30s, is far more useful and can be done without sacrificing much batting depth.
If a third spinner must be chosen, make it someone who has a track record of getting wickets at a good strike rate rather than someone who is merely a competent second choice spinner in the County Championship but can also bat a little. Jack Leach remains the obvious choice. He fits all the criteria for England selection apart from his batting average of 11.84. 25 years old and a left arm orthodox spinner which provides variation from Rashid and Ali. His First-Class career record speaks to his promise: 107 wickets at 25.68, with a strike rate of 58.6 and an economy of 2.62. The 2016 County Championship has been the breakthrough year for Leach. He only played 17 championship games between 2012 and 2015 but he has now had a full season for the first time and has made the most of it. 65 Division 1 wickets at 21.87 with five separate 5 wicket hauls. Somerset were struggling this season with too many draws leaving the county facing a probable relegation battle. When Jamie Overton, who had been their only competent seamer, was ruled out for the season against Middlesex a decision was made to create results based pitches at Taunton. Leach’s promising performances meant dusty spinning tracks produced. The results were immediate with two games, that bordered on farcical, against Durham and Warwickshire. Leach and fellow left arm spinner Roelof Van Der Merwe shared 9 wickets in the first innings and 8 in the second against Durham. This included a 17-minute spell on the third morning which saw the game won, with Durham’s last five wickets falling for just six runs. Against Warwickshire young off break bowler Dominic Bess and Leach took 16 wickets between them in the match. Merwe, Bess and Leach all played in the final match of the season at Taunton against Nottinghamshire and took 15 of the 20 wickets. While these pitches heavily favoured the spinners, it is also the case that Leach would find spin friendly wickets in India. Leach did manage two good performances away from home with 5-77 at Lords and 6-64 in a ten-wicket victory against Yorkshire at Headingly. It is tough to understand why Leach was not brought into the squad and he will be hoping to show the selectors what an error they have made in England Lions’ upcoming 4-day match against Afghanistan.
Ollie Rayner was the other option for England. At 31 and as a right arm off spinner it may be concluded that he was not considered due to the issue of age and similarity with Moeen Ali. Rayner does however provide more of a batting option than Leach, if that is what the selectors are favouring, having played at number 8 for most of his career with an average of 22. Rayner may regard himself as unlucky to have been overlooked for a call-up back in 2013. That year he took 41 Division 1 wickets at 23.36 compared to Simon Kerrigan’s (who ultimately faced the ignominy of being smashed round the ground by Shane Watson) 57 Division 2 wickets at 20.89. It was not to be in 2013 and Rayner can count himself unlucky this year as well with his 51 wickets at 23.56 helping Middlesex to the title.
For Leach and Rayner places in the Lions squad this winter show that they are in the minds of the selectors, a fact which makes Dawson’s call-up even more baffling. They will hope that they can maintain their championship form through the UAE games and into next season although, in the long run, it is unlikely either will have the chance to be in line for a Test debut until the Sri Lanka tour in 2018.