The travails of English spinners in Australia

Shane Warne tells a story about batting against Ashley Giles during the 2006 Adelaide Test. Now, Giles is a man of many achievements; currently the managing director of England men’s cricket, as a player he won the Ashes, was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and took 143 Test wickets. Off the field, he’s scaled Mt Kilimanjaro and played cricket at the summit, and even been awarded the honorary freedom of Droitwich Spa. Still. Warne didn’t rate him. Not as a spin bowler.

“If he or she is not trying to spin the ball,” Warne writes in his book, No Spin, “then I give them another title: slow bowler.” Warne describes Giles archly as “a slow, accurate bowler”.

So, Adelaide 2006, first ball after drinks, Giles bowls to Warne, who runs down the track and slaps him for a boundary. “I donged him over mid-on,” recalls Warne, who follows the shot through with a flourish. Dejected, Giles huffs, “You just don’t rate me, do you?” Warne turns to him and replies, “Nah!”

The story plays into the narrative of Warne as a gung-ho cricketer, all swagger and machismo, but perhaps more telling is the dismissiveness with which England’s spinner is treated. In this tale it is Giles, but really it could have been any number of English spin bowlers who have embarked on a trip to Australia in the last 30 years.

Australia has been a cruel and unforgiving place for English twirlers, the past three decades resembling a cricketing equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road starring Richard Dawson and Mason Crane. Uncompromising Aussie batters have hungrily feasted on flat wickets in sweltering heat. To Crane and Dawson add Moeen Ali, Graeme Swann, Scott Borthwick, Monty Panesar, Phil Tufnell and the afore-ridiculed Giles.

You have to go back to the 1998-99 Ashes to find an English spinner (Peter Such) who took more than 10 wickets in an away series in Australia at an average lower than 35. In 2017-18, Moeen Ali, struggling with a tear to his spinning finger, picked up five wickets at 115 runs apiece. Mason Crane was then handed his Test debut in the deadest of dead rubbers at the SCG, snaring a solitary scalp that cost 193 runs.

Crane is currently back in Australia as part of the Lions squad, and naturally memories of four years ago are swirling. Despite those figures, he looks back on the experience fondly. “It was the proudest moment of my life.” Crane was just 20 years old when he debuted, making him the youngest leg-spinner to play for England since 1928, but it wasn’t a complete curveball. He had some experience in Australia, enjoying a successful stint with Gordon CC in the Sydney suburbs. “Grade cricket is a big part of my journey,” he says. “They take it very seriously. They all want to win.”

Crane would work with Stuart MacGill during the week and then turn out for Gordon at the weekend, implementing the things he had been working on with the former Australian Test leggie. He impressed to the extent that he earned a call-up to the New South Wales side, becoming the first overseas player to represent the state since Imran Khan in 1984-85.

Still only 24, Crane is aiming to add to his solitary Test cap, and says he has learnt a lot from his Ashes experience. “You’ve got to relish it. Aussie batters get after you straightaway. It’s about hanging in there, sticking to the plan, whatever that might be.”

Mason Crane bowling for England in Sydney.
Mason Crane bowling for England in Sydney. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“You just don’t rate me, do you?” It’s a question Jack Leach could easily ask of Chris Silverwood. England’s “incumbent” spinner last played a home Test during the 2019 Ashes, under Trevor Bayliss. Leach has been the Banquo of the bubble and spent a second successive summer on the sidelines as England opted to play an extra seamer in the absence of Ben Stokes. But in an eyebrow twitching selection, Leach was given a rare trot out and picked over Stuart Broad to play in the first Test in Brisbane last week. The beleaguered Leach suffered a mauling, he wasn’t just milked by the likes of Warner, Head and Labuschagne, he was creamed – his 13 overs costing 102 runs for one solitary wicket.

Why did they decide to chuck Leach in at the Gabba? England have tended to rely on Joe Root’s part-time off-breaks of late but may have been spooked by the fact the England captain has served up 363 balls across nine Test matches in Australia and been taken for 176 runs, his two wickets costing 88 runs each. They could have been hoodwinked too, with Australia naming Nathan Lyon as part of their team a couple of days out from the Test match. It was notable though that England’s coach swiftly moved on to talk about how “excellent” he thought the seam bowlers were, “I can’t knock the efforts of the seamers…” when asked about the selection by Glenn McGrath on the outfield minutes after the Gabba defeat.

In truth, Silverwood’s attitude towards spin seems to be as mistrusting as it is confused. Take the selection of Dom Bess as the second spinner in England’s squad for the Ashes. Bess lost his action in India and has spoken candidly about a period of hating cricket, bubble life and the strain on his mental health. A move to Yorkshire appears to have been restorative but it seems short-sighted, if not unfair on Bess, to throw him back in so soon. In Australia of all places.

Spare a thought also for Matt Parkinson, who made the Lions squad but might have expected more after a stellar campaign with the red ball. The Lancashire leggie – who also didn’t make the cut for the T20 World Cup – must feel like he could parade through Silverwood’s hotel room in the dead of night performing a semaphore routine with a lit firework and still be ignored.

Crane’s summation of bowling in Australia is that it isn’t a place where you can afford to have lingering doubts about your technique. “You need the fundamentals in place,” he says. “You need to be repeatable. You can’t be thinking about your action or how it is coming out; you need to be in the fight, not letting technical things cloud your focus.”

It’s not as if recent history was on Leach’s side either, Dawson’s five wickets in 2002-03 cost 80 apiece; Giles averaged 50 for his nine wickets in Australia; Panesar’s 13 came at 48, Tufnell’s 19 at 41, Robert Croft’s two at The Gabba in 1998 at 63.

The obvious exception is 2010-11, when England won 3-1 and Graeme Swann picked up 15 wickets at a reasonable average of 39.80, including a match-winning spell at Adelaide. It was a different story three years later, though. No sooner was the urn back in Aussie clutches than Swann had handed in his P45, catching an early flight home after taking seven wickets at an average of 80 and being smacked about mercilessly.

Before the 2017-18 series, Nathan Lyon infamously spoke of “ending careers”, as Australia had done to Swann four years earlier, but the off-spinner had been less forthright this time around after his poor showing in the Test series defeat to India (nine wickets at 55) attracted criticism. The Australian recently ran the headline: “We know what Nathan Lyon did last summer. And it wasn’t enough.”

Lyon stuck one in the eye of his critics once again at the Gabba, taking a victory-securing 4-22 on the fourth morning and bringing up his 400th Test wicket in the process. He sits behind only Warne and McGrath in his country’s all-time list. He has a superb record in Australia for a spin bowler, 204 wickets at 33. Lyon credits spin consultant John Davison with having a major impact on his career, and the “Spin Whisperer” – as Davison is known – is well aware of the challenges of performing the craft in Australia.

“You can bowl your best ball, it comes out perfectly, you beat the batter in the air, and you can still disappear for six. It’s so harsh!” says Davison from his Brisbane base. He talks passionately and enthusiastically about spin bowling for nearly an hour, often losing himself in the topic, huge hands stroking a truly magnificent beard WG Grace or Charles Darwin would have been proud of. It’s revolutions he’s most interested in. “For me, the wow factor lies in how many revs someone can put on the ball. That gives it shape, curve and dip. You really need to beat the batter in the air on the pitches over here.” Before adding cheerfully: “Australia is a brutal place to bowl spin.”

It wasn’t always this way. Looking back through the Ashes annals, Billy Bates, Bobby Peel, Wilfred Rhodes and Derek Underwood all proved effective in Australia. Since the late 1980s though, moments of success have been rare, John Emburey (35 wickets at 32.11) and Geoff Miller (36 wickets at 22.47) sneaking in before a more attacking mindset and grittier approach was instilled by Allan Border, adopted by Mark Taylor and passed on to Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. And the prospect of Shane Warne’s conjury cast a long shadow on visiting spinners from the early 1990s.

Davison has a final piece of advice for English spinners in Australia, should Leach be entrusted again or Bess and even Parkinson are given a go (Sydney debut anyone?) “Beat the batter in the air, be confident in your changes of pace, embrace the bounce, create some dip and dig in.” A pause, final tug of that beard, and a chuckle: “Oh and give your batters plenty of throwdowns so they score heaps of runs and get your pace bowlers to wear some extra-long spikes and push the danger area. You need all the help you can get, seriously. The stars have to align for a spinner to have any success here.”

The new edition of Wisden, an Ashes special, is out now.
The new edition of Wisden is out now.

It’s still a case of eyes to the sky then for England’s spinners in Australia, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a kindly constellation, rather than a ball being “donged” back over their head.

Wisden Cricket Monthly has produced an Ashes digital special edition. You can read it for free here, and it’s compatible with all major devices. With contributions from writers such as Adam Collins, Tom Holland, Sam Perry, Alison Mitchell, Tim Key, Rob Smyth, James Wallace and Felix White, it’s the perfect companion to the series.

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