England in a Spin

“It is blindingly obvious: England just cannot play spin” says Mike Selvey

“This team has a problem against spin” says Michael Vaughan

And, of course, you can’t have cricket analysis without a bit of Boycott, who, after saying on air that he would bet all three of his houses on England chasing down the fourth innings target, came out with this on Test Match Special: “I’ve seen some poor performances in 25 years of playing and 23 years of commentating and that’s as bad as I’ve seen.”

Since 2009, which bowlers, and more specifically, which spinners have performed well against England. And is there a general trend that supports the view that the English batsmen cannot play spin. The resulting evidence should suggest that England completely dominate the pace attacks around the world and struggle against all types of spin, based on Selvey’s headline. England. Can. Not. Play. Spin.

The top six are all medium pace or quick bowlers, not a spinner in sight until we come across Paul Harris, the slow left arm ‘spinner’ from South Africa. He bowled 150 overs, taking 11 wickets at 40.36, not setting the world alight, especially when you throw in this review from the hilarious cricket blog ‘The Reverse Sweep’ 

Slightly harsh, he's not X-doh for crying out loud.

So the spinner who bowled the most overs against England, in test cricket, since the beginning of 2009, turns out not to be a spinner at all.

Down in 13th place, we have England’s current tormentor-in-chief, Saeed Ajmal, who bowled 125 overs when Pakistan infamously toured England in 2010, and took 12 wickets at an average of 29. Impressive, especially in English conditions under the whole poisoned atmosphere that surrounded that series towards the latter stages.

The only two other spin bowlers to bowl over 100 overs in a series against England were:


However, the common trend when assessing a player or team, in the test arena, is to exclude Bangladesh from consideration. Without a hint of condemnation, they’re given full test playing status, but only if you compete. So, how many players include statistics from series’ against India, Sri Lanka or New Zealand when they were granted test playing status? Do your averages only count if you’re playing against the best sides?

Shakib Al Hasan’s average suggest he struggled and although he did snaffle Kevin Pietersen a couple of times, causing many a hyperbole-fuelled headline and, as time went on, jitter in the KP camp, he took 9 wickets at 38.88. Not really suggesting that England ‘just cannot play spin’. 

Next up is Nathan Hauritz, the Australian off spinner thrown into the realms of impossibility by following Shane Warne, who bowled 103.2 overs, in England and took 10 wickets at 32. That puts him in second place, behind Ajmal, and suggests a lot of the criticism he came in for was slightly overblown. For a spinner, in England, anywhere between a 25 and 35 average is acceptable, although the difference between 25 and 35 is a lot greater, in difficulty, than 10.

Why are you only taking bowlers who bowled over 100 overs into account? I hear you cry!

Well, let us have a look at the averages chart, based on a bowler taking more than 5 wickets in a series:

If the cut off point is 35. This allows us to illustrate that any spinner, anywhere that England’s failing/flailing batsman have played them, have not been able to average less than 35, then they’re hardly causing England all kinds of problems.

The only other addition, other than repeating Ajmal and Hauritz’s record, is part-time spinner JP Duminy. The South African bowled 53 overs, taking 8 wickets at an impressive 21. This was in South Africa, not known for it’s especially spin-conducive wickets, and gives some credence to England fallibility against spin, if only SA’s captain Smith would have bowled him more. 

One thing that is undeniable, looking at England’s recent past, is their failure to win on the sub continent. It never happens, apart from one wonderful winter when England defeated Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the latter coming the the darkness of Lahore under the captaincy of Nasser Hussain. This brilliant analysis by S Rajesh on Cric Info, although he does exclude Bangladesh, highlights some of the problems England’s batsmen have shown in Asia.

 A look at England’s top run-getters during this period reveals that none of the specialist batsmen average more than 43 in the subcontinent during this period. The biggest disappointments have been Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell: in 23 innings Pietersen averages 31.54, with 13 scores of under 20. Bell is only slightly better, with an average touching 33 in 24 innings. Both these numbers are well below the career averages for these players.

So although England, based on the performances of bowlers, in every series, and not just the sub continent, have done well against spin bowling generally, when they play in Asia, a lot of them, not all (look at Cook’s stats), clearly struggle. 

Bell’s stats against spin are particularly disappointing. His two dismissals against Saeed Ajmal reduced his average against spin in the subcontinent to 23 – he has scored only 345 runs in 952 deliveries, and been dismissed 15 times by slow bowlers. On the other hand, Alastair Cook averages 39.33 overall in the subcontinent, but against spin his stats are outstanding: 286 runs for three dismissals at an average of 95.33.

Ian Bell quite clearly struggles badly in Asia, and looking at the above numbers, needs to be dropped when we play against teams from the sub continent. A ridiculous suggestion? Based on his general performance, he’s England’s most graceful, technically correct batsman. Just put him on a spinning, slow track and he is found out. That’s why they call it test cricket. And at the moment, he’s failing the test in Asia, against spin. 

Average, yes, but not a total disaster, and hardly provides the conclusive evidence to support the opening statements made in media. That’s my main point, England have had and some of their players do have technical and mental weaknesses when it comes to spin in Asia. Especially when playing the top echelon of spin bowlers, but in all honesty, which batsmen don’t have technical issues against a Murali, Kumble or Warne? The best bowlers of all-time cause problems for batsman all over the world, in all conditions. It’s no coincidence. Much the same as the best batsman punish bowlers all over the world, in all conditions, apart from Ian Bell, clearly… 

“It is blindingly obvious: England Ian Bell just cannot play spin, in Asia” 

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