The condemnation of England’s recalled leg spinner has the whiff of hypocrisy, argues Nigel Henderson.
His darkest hour: I want two spinners – and make one of them Rashid.
The weeks between a one-day series and a Test series are a long time in cricket, it would appear. No sooner had the original narrative – the one simmering since 2014 about whether Virat Kohli could find a way to get runs in England’s green and pleasant land and prove once and for all that he is a class act in all conditions – been overtaken by one in which an almost unprecedented hot and dry spell would magically turn all England pitches into a spinner’s paradise, than Ed Smith provided us with yet another one.
Never, in the field of cricket conflict, has one ball meant so much to so many, as Churchill probably never declared.
That said, it is nice to know that when Adil Rashid drifted a leg break on to or just outside Virat Kohli’s leg stump and turned it across a bewildered India captain to clip his off peg as he camped on the back foot, I was not the only one to leap to my feet and proclaim its similarities to the acknowledged ball of the 20th century – Shane Warne’s delivery to Mike Gatting in 1993.
Yet time diminishes memory and, helpfully, closer analysis showed that whatever it looked like as we replayed it in our minds, Warne’s ball deviated almost three times as much as Rashid’s. And while it was Warne’s first international delivery on English soil, giving it an even more appreciable wow factor, Kohli’s dismissal was, by my reckoning and give or take the odd no-ball and wide, Rashid’s 2,251st.
But people develop at different rates and spin, we are always told, is a weapon best used in the hands of the experienced: Warne was just a freak. And, in truth, not many of us had seen a better ball bowled to a better batsman by an England slow bowler. EVER. It was also the first time Kohli had been bowled by a leg spinner in 373 international innings. It’s rarely too late to make a first impression.
The question is, then, is Smith, the England national selector, simply being seduced by this one ball? Has a single delivery, albeit it an excellent one –- turned his head when it should have been looking longingly at Jack Leach and Dominic Bess? Has he set himself up – and perhaps England – for the mother of all shellackings?
Maybe. But the collective reaction to Rashid’s selection is not unlike that displayed by Kohli when he was deceived in that final one-dayer – outrage and disbelief mixed with a sense that he had been personally affronted.
The indignation had been growing since word first escaped that Smith had sounded out Rashid over his availability and increased when it was revealed that the spinner had already turned down entreaties from his county to return to championship cricket. The day before the squad for the first Test was announced Michael Atherton devoted a column in The Times to his misgivings on the issue; the day after he was accusing Smith of going against his principles. Another senior writer, David Hopps, on Cricinfo, suggested on the day of the announcement that his recall was “expedient, unprincipled and unfaithful”. And this was before Twitter’s knees started jerking.
It is not necessarily that these writers are wrong, it’s just that cricket, in the past few years, has been steadily bypassing much of whatever is meant by principles, finding accommodations when it suits it. I have long suspected that an England-qualified county cricketer with a background in southern Africa or Australia will jump the queue of those born and brought up here: Sam Robson and Keaton Jennings (for a long time preferred to Mark Stoneman and now back because of others’ failures) are two that spring to mind. And how many of those arguing against Rashid’s inclusion are happy to back calls for the speeding up of Jofra Archer’s qualification for England – despite the fact that he might already be representing West Indies had he not grown disillusioned with his home board.
Is Rashid really such a traitor? Had he not done the same thing: disowned a system with which he had become disenchanted, a system whose scheduling had denigrated his particular art?
Arguments that he should mend his bridges with Yorkshire, return to red-ball cricket there and state his case for a recall to England Test cricket miss the point. Smith bypassed that approach with Jos Buttler, and his success with that call, gamble though it was, has earned him deserved plaudits. Some will argue that there is a difference because Buttler never turned his back on red-ball cricket, but Smith went with his instincts and did not demand the Lancashire player further hone his game at championship level to prove he was ready for the higher one. Might important time have been lost had that been demanded of him?
This, too, is a gut call. Rashid himself declared that his ball to Kohli was the “most satisfying” of his career so if his confidence has been burgeoned by that one incident, surely now is the time to get him into the team. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” someone of serious literary bent once wrote, “which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Forcing him to go back to red-ball cricket with Yorkshire risks failing to grasp that momentum.
It is a gut call that risks mockery, yes, especially if the pitch at Edgbaston fails to offer the turn our summer heatwave suggests it should – and more worryingly for England if India bat first before that turn kicks in. But, on another level, we might finally get the answer to whether Rashid can bowl successfully at the top level in this country.
Smith, though, once wrote a book called Luck and, with Buttler, it was on his side. He knows that Rashid must locate some more of those “most satisfying” deliveries if the Lady is to remain with him and help him avoid even greater condemnation.
The Jamie Porter question
Having said all the above, was Smith perhaps attempting to dilute the disapproval at his selection of Rashid by including Jamie Porter, even if only subliminally? It was not one that too many pundits saw coming, yet, on county form alone, there can be no denying that he deserves his chance. I had noted his exclusion from the Essex side to play India in the warm-up game, but considered it only a missed opportunity to expose the bowler to one or two of the finest batsmen in the world – and observe his mettle in such circumstances – not a signal that the selectors were deliberating over him for Edgbaston.
He might not be taking wickets at quite the rate he did last season – 75 at an average of 16 – but he is still second behind Simon Harmer, the off spinner, among Essex’s leading wicket-takers this term. The chances are he won’t make his debut in any case, even if England decide against going in with two spinners – and surely the selection of Moeen Ali, after playing little but white-ball cricket all season, ought to raise as many hackles as that of Rashid – because England will want the left-arm variety, not to mention the batting skills, offered by Sam Curran.
Kuldeep threat over-estimated
If England end up batting last on a raging Bunsen-burner I can envisage Kuldeep Yadav having the kind of figures that shape headlines but otherwise, despite his fine performances in the recent short-form encounters between the two countries, I am not overly worried by the threat that he poses, and neither, I think, are England. The left-arm leg-spinner and googly bowler is rare enough, the frontline one even more unusual. Two of recent vintage are Dave Mohammed and Brad Hogg. Mohammed took just 13 wickets at 51 in Tests for West Indies, although was more successful in a short ODI career in which he averaged 23, while Hogg’s 17 Test wickets came at a rate of 54 apiece; his 156 ODI wickets came at 26. Kuldeep’s great success this summer has come when players have been trying to force the pace, being drawn towards the ball after a good start has hit the buffers – hence the stumpings of Bairstow and Root in successive balls at Old Trafford. If they can wait in the crease, as Root does generally against spin and especially someone of the loopiness of Kuldeep, and play it off the pitch, that will negate his impact.
I’m more worried by Ravi Ashwin, despite him having only played two Tests in England. He has now had some experience with Worcestershire – to whom he returns after this tour – and has developed a genuine leg-break to go with his other variations, something I first witnessed during the IPL but which I’m told he was working on in England last summer.