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Do England have the right spinners for India? | Cricket

On the 2012 tour of India, England’s frontline spinners — Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar — had a combined experience of 88 Tests. In 2016, it was 37. This time, it’s 36. Not much of a difference between these two tours, but insert the clause that 35 out of those 36 Tests are under Jack Leach’s name and this selection starts to make even less sense, especially when Leach hasn’t played a first-class match since last June.

Jack Leach appears to be leading a slow bowling attack thin on experience for the five-Test series(Getty Images)

Now add leg spinner Rehan Ahmed, who has played just one Test in Pakistan, off-spinner Shoaib Bashir — he made his first-class debut for Somerset in June — and slow left-arm bowler Tom Hartley, barely into his fourth County season, and this has the feel of an undercooked slow bowling attack.

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There could have been some heft had Hampshire slow left-armer Liam Dawson — the leading spinner in the 2023 County season with 49 wickets at an average of 20 — been picked. But according to England men’s cricket managing director Rob Key, he wasn’t keen on touring as a backup option. “If he’s not going to play then I don’t think it’s high on his agenda to be going as essentially a replacement bowler,” Key had said after naming the squad last month.

Swann nevertheless feels there is enough talent to excite. “They can bowl, put it that way, and the guys that are on that trip in India, if conditions suit and they get the chance and they can handle the pressure of it, are genuinely exciting,” Swann, accompanying the touring England Lions side as bowling mentor, said on Sky Sports podcast. “Hartley and Bashir could be genuinely exciting on the sort of wickets that are going to be produced by India, or you think are going to be produced.”

Barring Dharamsala, the other four venues — Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Rajkot and Ranchi — are expected to roll out typical Indian Test pitches that will produce sharp turn with varying degree of pace and bounce from the first day itself. That has been factored into the selection, which in plain sight seems to be hinging on the right skill set, making up for the lack of experience. Also statistical relevance. Right from Panesar to Australia’s Steve O’Keefe, and as recently as Ajaz Patel, slow left-arm bowlers seem to have done exceptionally well in India, making Leach a non-negotiable for this tour. It’s the inconsistency associated with the left-arm spinner, over whether the ball will spin (away from the right-handed batter) or go with the arm, that creates doubt.

The circumstances, however, don’t seem to have changed much from the tour of 2021 where Leach took 18 wickets and did most of the bowling after off-spinner Dom Bess was found out early. That was the tour Joe Root the off-spinner really came into his own, taking a career-best 5/8 at Ahmedabad even though it didn’t prevent India from cantering to a 10-wicket win. That Root could be bowling more than part-time again this time was evident when Key said: “You should consider him as being able to do a decent job with his off-spin.” As an added measure, England have also called up Bashir — a 6ft 4in 20-year-old off-break bowler with a side-on action and a high release point.

“With that height, he can create more indecision in batters,” Matt Drakeley, head of talent at Somerset who is responsible for scouting Bashir, told HT. “He’s got incredibly long fingers which can be used to get more purchase on the ball. And another thing that complements his action is that unique point of release.”

A more resounding assessment of his bowling might already be at Leach’s disposal given both are with Somerset. “They haven’t had much of an opportunity to bowl together but they have spent loads of time,” said Drakeley. “We had a session where Jack and Shoaib were working with the spin coach and there was some real connection.”

It’s still not clear how England want to work on this partnership (Bashir too hasn’t bowled in recent days) but there’s no doubt that at least in the first Test at Hyderabad, Ahmed is expected to complement Leach, with Root as cover.

Try to read it as England covering all bases, an appropriation of all the skill sets that seem to have worked for England on different tours of India. Swann and Panesar did the job better than anyone but that was in 2012. In 2016, Adil Rashid took 23 wickets with his leg-breaks, so betting on the one-Test-old Ahmed was expected after moving on from Rashid. Root sent down a lot of overs in 2021 but is nowhere close to the kind of consistency required to thrive for five Tests in India.

That unwittingly makes Leach England’s only failsafe option, a strategy India are expected to put to test.

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