ENGLAND TOUR OF SRI LANKA, 2018
Will this pair of England spinners outshine their Sri Lankan counterparts? © Getty
As much as Asian batsmen dread playing pace and seam in conditions outside of the subcontinent, correspondingly the overseas batsmen are left in a fix when it comes to playing in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, UAE and Bangladesh. That the spinners play a prominent role in the success of teams, especially in Asian conditions, is a no-brainer considering the type of surfaces usually on offer in this part of the world.
Of the 18,000-plus wickets that have been taken in Asia to date in Test cricket, more than 51 per cent of those belong to the spinners, who make up just over 40 per cent of the types of bowlers used overall here. The spinners have bowled more than 53 per cent of the 220763 overs bowled in Asia since Test cricket started in this part in 1933, which is a larger percentage compared to the 32 per cent of overs bowled by spinners outside Asia, showing the dependence that the teams have on the tweakers to deliver.
Although the conditions do favour the slower bowlers on most occasions, the success ratio for the overseas spinners – in terms of wickets, average and strike rate – playing in Asia hasn’t been at par with the overseas pacers in Asia, as the below table reflects. Although there has been a marginal improvement in terms of the overseas spinners’ performance in Asia since 2010, with their strike rate getting better and the frequency of five-wicket hauls and 10-wicket hauls increasing, the average has also gone up in the same period.
|Bowler Type||No. of bowlers||Matches||Balls||Wickets||Avg||SR||5-fers||10-fers|
|Bowler Type||No. of bowlers||Matches||Balls||Wickets||Avg||SR||5-fers||10-fers|
|Bowler Type||No. of bowlers||Matches||Balls||Wickets||Avg||SR||5-fers||10-fers|
Ashley Giles, the former England left-arm spinner who is one of three spinners from his country to aggregate more than 50 wickets in Asia, says the superior skills of the Asian batsmen in handling spin is the reason for spinners’ skewed numbers in comparison with the pacers. “I guess the biggest challenge is you’re playing against batsmen adept at playing spin in their own conditions,” Giles told Cricbuzz. “They’re some of the best players of spin in the world.”
The other challenge that the overseas spinners faced according to Giles, especially in the pre-2010 era, was that they were pitted against some quality Asian spinners like Muralitharan, Kumble and co., whose records in Asian conditions were incomparable to that of the overseas ones. Two Sri Lankans and three Indians feature in the top-five wicket-taking spinners’ list in Asia, with Muralitharan and Kumble occupying the top two spots. If a comparison of their performances in series involving England in Asia with those of the England spinners is considered, the disparity in numbers is a reflection on the kind of competition England’s spinners were up against.
Kumble made his Test debut in August 1990 and pulled down the curtains on his Test career in November 2008. In the said period, England toured India for three Test series – in each of which Kumble finished as the highest wicket-taker – and ended up losing two and drawing one series. During the Muralitharan period – from August 1992 to July 2010 – England toured Sri Lanka three times (apart from the one-off Test in 1992-93), winning once and losing two series. Muralitharan was the top wicket-taker in two of these three series, with Sanath Jayasuriya edging him out to top the list in the other. Around the same time frame, Saqlain Mushtaq and Danish Kaneria were among the successful Pakistan spinners.
Spinners in Asia between 1990 & 2008 in Tests involving England
Giles was the stand-out performer for an England spinner in Asia from 2000-2005 but most of his subcontinent contemporaries left him behind in terms of average and strike rate – Muralitharan leading in the former and Kumble in the latter. While the spin partners of these stalwarts found reasonable success themselves, Giles had the likes of Robert Croft, Gareth Batty and Richard Dawson among his partners, with Croft offering the only genuine partnership with his nine wickets during the 2000-01 series – England’s only series win in Sri Lanka during that period.
“The thing was, when I played against Sri Lanka, we were playing against Murali,” Giles said. In many ways that was the toughest thing. In many teams you pit yourself against the opposition spinner and you have to try and take them on to win. But with Murali, that’s near impossible, our records don’t compare.”
“We really tried to double up whatever our spin combination was. We knew that we had to try and compete together against Muralitharan. You can also drive yourself mad thinking like that as well. As I said, it’s very difficult to try and compete one-on-one against Murali but we tried to have a sort of pack mentality as bowlers,” explained Giles.
“For me (playing in Asia) was always enjoyable because as a spinner in the sub-continent you get to bowl, and you get to bowl a lot, which isn’t always the case in your own conditions. I loved my time in Sri Lanka, I loved touring Sri Lanka, as I did all the subcontinent. But the memories of Sri Lanka particularly…the first tour we won, followed up by the win in Pakistan and then second time around (in Sri Lanka) was a really hard-fought series. We lost 1-0 but personally I did pretty well with the ball.”
Another problem for the England spinners, especially during the heydays of Muralitharan and Kumble, was the totals their batsmen could muster. In 31 matches in Asia from 1993 to 2010, England breached the 450 barrier only three times while they finished with less than 300 in 11 of the 12 losses they suffered. The lack of runs on the board might have had to do with the types of fields usually given to the spinners, with England seeking a balance between attacking and defensive settings.
“It’s a real mix, isn’t it,” said Giles about the field settings that he used to employ. “You got to have people around the bat in attacking positions. I liked to work, in many ways I call it ‘out to in’. Start with fields out and as you’re building pressure when you’re in the game and you got some overs, then you can bring more and more people in around the bat. It very much depends on circumstances as well. If you just have to get wickets then you’re going to have to crowd the bat and really attack. Generally, I like the mix of in-out. The modern players are very good at hitting the ball over the top, particularly Asian players in Asia. So you sometimes need to have in-out fields. But you certainly (also) need to have men around the bat to apply pressure and pick up wickets.
“There are a lot of variables in that – the state of the game, where the batsman is in his innings, has he been confident, has he been in form, the homework you do on opposition batsmen as well, where are his areas, where is he looking to score, where does he get out, all of these things. It certainly doesn’t mean you have everyone on the boundary and then you work in. But if you crowd the bat too much – you’ve got five men around the bat in your first over – naturally gaps open up in the field. If you’re going for boundaries in your first five overs, you never really get in the game and you’re never able to build pressure. And that’s the key thing for me – is being able to keep batsmen under pressure, keep them at one end so that they feel like you’re on top of them. If you give them easy boundaries or easy singles then it relieves that pressure.”
Giles was the stand out spinner for England between 2000 & 2006 © Getty
In the post-2010 period, a useful spin partnership developed for England – one between Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. Swann picked up 65 Test wickets in 11 matches from 2010-12 at an impressive average and strike rate, while Panesar bagged 33 scalps in six games. Between them, they picked up nine five-wicket hauls and three 10-fors, and were instrumental in series victories against India and Bangladesh. Since January 2010, among 13 non-Asians who have bowled 250-plus overs in Asia, only three average less than 30 (Swann, Panesan and Imran Tahir). Given criteria of 200+ overs and 40+ wickets in Asia, six spinners average less than 30 with a strike rate of less than 60 in Asia, with Swann being the lone non-Asian.
Spinners in Asia between 2008 & 2013
During the span of Swann’s Test career from December 2008 to December 2013, the likes of Rangana Herath, Pragyan Ojha, R Ashwin and Saeed Ajmal were among the successful spinners in Asia. But the England spinner held his own through some fine performances, finishing as the fifth-highest wicket-taking spinner. He was also the top wicket-taker from outside Asia, with his 73 scalps at an average of 25.97 and strike rate of 54.8 outshining the rest by a comfortable margin. Only three non-Asian bowlers have taken more wickets overall in Asia than Swann, but the England spinner’s average remains the best among the top five while his strike rate is second only to Shane Warne.
“Swanny was a fantastic bowler, for us he was a once-in-a-generation type spin bowler who’s got over 200 wickets. We don’t see that often with our spinners. When you talk about variations, he had those variations where he could beat both edges of the bat. He bowled a very good arm ball, he could slide one on, and he could beat the outside edge or inside edge of a right-hander or left-handers. And he also had good variations in pace and flight. They’re the other variations that are overlooked sometimes.”
“It’s not everything you do with your fingers, but your variations with speed, in flight, in drift, and his control of lengths. He was fantastic the way he put the left-handers in particular under pressure, consistently. He [Swann} was a very good bowler,” said Giles.
Since Swann’s retirement in 2013, there have been 14 tours from the SENA countries in Asia, with only one tour finishing in a Test series victory for a non-Asian team – South Africa’s 1-0 win against Sri Lanka in 2014, where Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were the chief architects. In the same time frame, England embarked on tours to Bangladesh, UAE (vs Pakistan) and India, and their best finish was a drawn series against Bangladesh. England, Australia and South Africa have had two spinners each who have bagged more than 15 wickets in Asia since 2014, although only Nathan Lyon and Keshav Maharaj have impressed with their average and strike rate during this period.
The aggregate of 326 wickets among 45 spinners from the SENA countries in Asia since 2014 at an average of 38.69 and a strike rate of 68.40 is a slight improvement when compared to the overall numbers of non-Asian spinners in Asia. Meanwhile, the Asian pacers too have improved their efficiency in the SENA countries in the same period – 505 wickets among 42 pacers at 36.85 and a strike rate of 62.4.
“That’s something that Pakistan and India have done well.They have developed good stocks of pace bowling – their pace bowling programmes are obviously working very well. The Indian attack this year (in England) was really impressive. Their command of reverse swing and line and length was fantastic to watch, it was a really good, hard-fought series. I think the other element is that there’s a lot more practice done against spin, everyone understands the threats of spin – it still doesn’t make any easier when you get to Asia because you know you’re going to be under a lot of pressure – but players generally, on better wickets, are generally better players of spin,” said Giles in response to the comparison between the pacers and spinners.
Swanny was a once-in-a-generation type spin bowler for us: Giles © Getty
In the 89 matches that the SENA countries have played in Asia since 2014, the opposition teams have scored 400 or more 24 times in their first innings, including five scores in excess of 500. In the same period, the SENA countries have managed only eight 400-plus first-innings totals between them – only two such efforts resulting in victories – which again leaves the overseas spinners without the comfort of big runs on the board. Despite that, Lyon’s status as Australia’s premier spinner in Asia has grown over the years while Maharaj’s stocks have also risen steadily in recent times, especially after his successful first outing in Asia during South Africa’s series defeat to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, England’s spin department has been manned by Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, who have both played 10 Tests apiece in Asia, averaging in excess of 40 with a strike rate of over 65.
Overseas spinners in Asia from 2014 to present
Five of the top-nine overseas spinners in Asia since 2014 are finger spinners, who have to make do without the kind of variations that the wrist spinners bring to the plate. Although limited by range, consistency forms a crucial weapon for the finger spinners, evidenced by Moeen Ali’s performance in the Southampton Test against India, in which he constantly targeted the rough to make life difficult for the opposition batsmen. Rashid wasn’t as effective in the same series against India, although his wrist spinning prowess is a good value add for the England team ahead of their Test series against Sri Lanka.
“In Sri Lanka my method was always trying to go a bit fuller and quicker,” said Giles. “I didn’t feel like many of the Sri Lankan players came down to hit you or just hit you from the crease over the top. If you got your lengths too short, all the Asian players are very good at playing off front and back foot, and working you around from there. So that was my method as a left-arm spinner: fuller, straighter, quicker and put pressure on them around the stumps with catchers around the bat.
“Ultimately, you’re in that area in between the batsman’s ability to get forward and back. The best players either get very close to the ball or they get very far away from the ball. So it’s that perfect length that you’re looking for where they are pushing forward with little certainty, and if the ball moves only a small bit you can put them under pressure and get them out.
“I think as a finger spinner, unless you have one that goes the other way, there’s a lot of natural variations involved on these pitches. Some are going to spin and some are going to go straight on. And variations like that is almost like the ball going two ways. If you can challenge both edges of the bat, then you’re in the game. And again that comes down to the length you bowl, the speed you bowl – I certainly wasn’t blessed with the variations that Shane Warne would have or Muralitharan would have. But the one that’s often described as the slider on the telly is the one that doesn’t spin, it just goes straight on. So, as I said, if you can challenge both edges of the bat you’re always in the game.”
England have variety in their attack this time around in their quest for a Test series win in Sri Lanka. In Moeen Ali and Jack Leach, they have traditional finger spinners of both arms while Rashid offers the legspin variety. But how skipper Joe Root uses his spin options, the kind of fields he sets for them, and a whole lot of other factors will determine England’s fortunes in the upcoming series.
“I think Root will be fine, I think he’s got guys with enough experience now. I think we’ve got an attack that’s varied enough to challenge. We’ve got guys who can reverse the ball, We’ve got guys with pace and we’ve got a decent spin department. But I don’t think anyone is under any illusions. Going to Sri Lanka is a tough tour, to beat them on their own turf is very difficult. So it’s going to be a very challenging series,” said Giles.
The last time England toured Sri Lanka for a Test series, in 2012, the two-match series ended 1-1, with Rangana Herath and Swann providing the punches and counter-punches. Herath, however, will retire after the first Test of this series, while England’s spin department is still getting to terms with Asian conditions. In this battle of inexperience, will there be valuable lessons coming through to provide a direction for the future of spin in both countries? Only time will tell.