England spinners battle for positions ahead of summer

March 16, 2018

England's second warm-up match in New Zealand ahead of the first Test in Auckland produced something a little unexpected, as it was the spinners who were among the wickets. 

Like the first two-day game, the match in Hamilton is not first class and as it is being played as a means of producing extra practice, teams cannot be bowled out; batsmen have gone back in for a second go once ten wickets have fallen. 

In this curious game, England took 13 wickets for 287 against a New Zealand XI. That may sound like good news ahead of the day-night Test in Auckland, when late-season conditions and the pink ball should give the likes of Stuart Broad and James Anderson far more help than they got from the Kookaburra ball in Australia, aside from one evening in Adelaide. 

However, the slow bowlers had a surprisingly big role to play; skipper Joe Root took 3-23 and Moeen Ali 3-67, as the two off-spinners wheeled away to great effect.

While Root has always had the ability to pick up the odd wicket in his occasional spells, Moeen has come under huge pressure at times in his career. Last summer he was outstanding, winning the man of the series award against South Africa for his exploits with both bat and ball. In Australia, however, he struggled in both disciplines, dismissed more times by Nathan Lyon's off-spin (seven) than the five wickets he claimed with his own. 

The Hamilton game could provide the all-rounder with a critical confidence boost, which may be aided further by expectations that he will not be the chief weapon in the bowling attack in the upcoming two Tests. All the pressure will be off his shoulders, a situation that may help him chip in with valuable 'bonus' wickets. 

If all that makes the situation appear favourably low-key for Moeen, the situation may not be quite so simple. Jack Leech will be keen to make an impression after being called into the squad this week at the expense of legspinner Mason Crane, who made his Test debut in Sydney in January, but has flown home injured. 

Somerset left-armer Leech, who recently took 8-110 for the England Lions against West Indies A, may see this as his big opportunity to compete with Moeen for the number one spinner's place, not least because of the summer and winter coming up.

The early season Tests against Pakistan may be somewhat seam-dominated, but the later five-match series between England and world number one Test team India will be less so. Fans booking corporate hospitality for matches like the Edgbaston Test at the start of August may see a lot more slow bowling, not least from India's star performers Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.  

Virat Kohli and co. are also outstanding players of spin, which will pose a stern challenge to Moeen, Leech or whoever else they face. Indian players are particularly adept against leg-spin, as even the great Shane Warne found in his career, so Crane could face a tough battle if he returns.

The crucial importance of all this is that next winter will see England play a three-Test series in Sri Lanka on dry and dusty pitches where spin will be crucial.

England's struggles on slow Asian pitches are a major reason for their modest recent away record. Like their last away win - in South Africa two years ago - New Zealand may offer seam-friendly conditions in which they can prosper. But for the spinners, taking wickets this month - and then in the summer against players used to facing the turning ball - could provide a huge confidence boost ahead of England's next overseas assignment.

Image: Stu Forster/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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