The Secret Cricketer first picked up a cricket bat as a toddler and became a county junior. He secured a professional contract and has been at the coalface of the English county game since, while also appearing for the England Lions. This insider's account lifts the lid on modern cricket to reveal what life is really like for an English professional in the 21st century. In the third and final extract from his book, exclusive to Guerilla Cricket, he turns his attention to solving England's spin problems in Asia.
England's issue with spin bowling once again came into sharp focus during the series against India in early 2021 with the county game inevitably getting its share of the blame because most of our best players struggle against spin. It certainly seems that an England Test or white-ball win is celebrated by the ECB with little reference to where the players learned their trade, but a loss or poor performance invariably leads to criticism of county cricket mostly from people who hardly follow the domestic game, far less watch it on a regular basis.
The ignorance that surrounds the domestic game in England baffles me sometimes. The ECB control it – no one else. They choose the schedules and the competitions that are played and most importantly when they are played. The county game is constantly berated for being 'cosy' or lacking ambition. Let me tell you, on a day-to-day basis there is a constant commitment to improving and playing the best cricket among country pros. But when you spend 24 days in 27 playing with travel on top what do people expect?
When England won the T20 World Cup in 2010 we should have been celebrating the influence of Loughborough as a centre of excellence, of central contracts managing the workload of the top players but also the 400 county pros who are working hard every day in English domestic cricket.
When England became the top ranked team in the world in 2011 the players were nurtured through our domestic game and earned places at our national academy. Where did players like Ian Bell, Matt Prior or Andrew Strauss return and find the form that got us to that no.1 place?
The fixture list which pushes Championship cricket to the margins of the summer means that we rarely encounter any turning pitches apart from Taunton and Chelmsford during the height of the season, never mind April, May and September when most four-day cricket is played. Here's a few ideas of my own which might help us prepare better to face quality spin in Asia.
- Use a Kookaburra ball in April and September which is less likely to swing and seam.
- Play County Championship games during The Hundred. How many red-ball players are twiddling their thumbs during the peak summer months, who are not involved in The Hundred or play one-day cricket? There will be enough players on a county staff to play a Championship game which has meaning with the same points at stake, even if the team isn't necessarily full of a county's best players. It would incentivise clubs to also look at the best players in their academies and give them some exposure and forget about, for those weeks at least, meaningless second XI matches.
- Why not play two games on the same pitch and make it a prerequisite that each team plays two specialist spinners during this fortnight? This would also take a bit of pressure off county squares.
- Let's not penalise teams for preparing spinning pitches while allowing green seamers which are just as much of a lottery for batsmen. Be consistent and have criteria for pitch preparation. What about stipulating that the grass on the ends has to be a maximum of 3mm and thus creating a bit of rough? So many games are over in two days with 40 wickets taken by seamers and there is radio silence, yet Somerset or Essex are put under the microscope every time the ball turns. I always loved playing at these grounds because you felt you had to play really well to score runs. Whether it was people around the bat and big spin at Taunton or Simon Harmer bowling round the wicket with a leg slip, it focuses the mind and examines your technique but at least you have a chance. You play with a Dukes ball on a wet pitch at Worcester and it's a procession of batsmen nicking crappy half volleys. This doesn't translate to the demands at the top level so we need to change our way of thinking.
I get the whole 'it will lose its integrity' argument but the reality is the domestic game is here to serve the international arena, it is here to provide players with the platform to excel and help England become the best team in the world. Why shouldn't the ECB exert some control over how the players will be tested in regards to pitch preparation in particular?
There is no coincidence that two of the three spinners in the England team play for the same club which highlights the huge difference between being a slow bowler at Somerset and, say, Durham. In the final Test in India arguably our most accomplished batsman apart from Joe Root, who is head and shoulders above anyone else, was Dan Lawrence. Now remind me. Who does he play for and who might he encounter in the nets on a regular basis?
We have some good spinners who never bowl in April and May. I think the way we regulate our pitches must be better and the England head coach and captain should be able to influence the domestic structure, so it helps create the players they need who are capable of playing in all conditions and on all surfaces around the world. Australia now use a Dukes ball in certain rounds of the Sheffield Shield. Now why would they go and do that?