Scott Borthwick: His turn to be 'the English Shane Warne'

A 21-year-old from Sunderland may have ended the long search for a leggie. He talks to Stephen Brenkley

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Leg-spin bowling can take you places. The chubby blond kid from a place called Ferntree Gully became one of the five cricketers of the 20th century and is engaged to a film star who is one of the most beautiful women of the age.

It may be premature to expect that what happened to Shane Warne – 708 Test wickets, Elizabeth Hurley on his arm, no longer chubby – lies in wait for Scott Borthwick of Sunderland but it is a telling example of the possible. England have been searching for a leg-break bowler who can cut it durably at international level at least since Warne hit the scene and, in truth, probably forever.

Borthwick is the latest in a long line on whose right wrist the selectors' spotlight has fallen. Some-times it has been possible to suppose that it has shone on anybody who can spell the word googly let alone bowl one. But suddenly, Borthwick has done something to re-energise all the old hopes and fuel all the faraway dreams.

In England's practice match on their limited-overs tour of India on Tuesday, Jonny Bairstow's scintillating hundred from 53 balls overshadowed almost everything else. But it was Borthwick who engineered the vast margin of victory, 253 runs, by taking five wickets in 29 balls for eight runs and finished with 5 for 30. No other leg spinner, safe to say, has done that in a limited-overs match for England.

It was the sort of performance that can suddenly nurture wild expectations. Borthwick was perhaps a surprising selection for this tour, though he has played one previous one-day international, against Ireland, and took his first wicket for England – with a googly – in one of the late-season Twenty20 matches against West Indies.

He has been in the selectors' thoughts and minds for a while. This is partly because there remains a quaint desperation to find an English leg-spin bowler, partly because he has developed at every stage of his short career. In the past year or so, when the subject of spin bowlers has cropped up, it has been the norm to cast about for a No 2 to Graeme Swann.

The discussion has followed similar lines: Monty Panesar is doing all right, Adil Rashid is apparently going backwards, poor old James Tredwell is not the answer, Samit Patel may be adequate in a defensive one-day role, if only Gary Keedy had been a bit taller. And it has invariably ended with the knowing insight that the selectors are keeping an extremely sharp eye on young Borthwick.

Sunderland is probably not the natural home for a leg-spin bowler. Neither the pitches nor the climate of the North-east are conducive to the craft. The last noteworthy bowler to have been born in the city was Bob Willis, who not only bowled like the wind but also did not hang around there long.

Borthwick, praise be, was enthused by Warne. "I played club cricket with my dad and I was never big enough to bowl fast so I just thought I'd try to spin it," he said. "I suppose I could have bowled finger spin, but it was just watching Shane Warne on television, and trying to spin it like him. I grew through the ranks at Durham, joined the academy and it's gone from there."

He had two huge pieces of luck. As a boy with obvious promise but limited nous he was given the support of his club captains at Philadelphia, the exotically named Sunderland club, one of whom was his dad. Instead of taking him off when he was hit for six, the fate of many a teenage leg spinner whose career was destined to go down the pan, they merely set the field back and told him to turn it some more.

"I managed to get a few wickets, I was small and used to try to spin it and club cricketers used to try and run at me," he said. "I would play for the second team at the age of 12 and picked up 40 or 50 wickets in the season. Batsmen can struggle to play leg spin but they can also smack you out of the ground as well. You have got to be brave as a young leg spinner."

The other break was not growing too soon. Many a young leg-spinner has lost his action and desire in the mid- or late-teenage years because of a growth spurt. Borthwick missed a season when he was 16 because of a stress fracture of his back but all was intact on his return.

England have never had much luck or success with the breed. Of the 44 bowlers to have taken 100 Test wickets for England only one, Doug Wright, with 108, was a leg-spinner. In recent times, Chris Schofield and Ian Salisbury have been heralded but to no avail and the early hoo-ha surrounding Adil Rashid has as yet come to nought. But there has been no shortage of men who could turn the ball away from the right-handed batsmen. Eleven of those 44 have been left-arm finger-spin bowlers.

Tich Freeman was the second-highest wicket-taker of all time but he played only 12 Test matches, in which, it is true, he took 66 wickets but never found consistent selectorial favour. The first- and third-highest wicket-takers of all time, Wilfred Rhodes and Charlie Parker, were both left-arm spinners, so perhaps there is a lesson there. Australia, with Warne the apotheosis, have regularly produced right-arm wrist-spinners, five of whom have taken 100 or more wickets.

Borthwick made his debut for Durham when he was 19 and has been carefully managed by their wise coach, Geoff Cook, who has known him since he was 10. He presents a different kind of opportunity in one-day cricket for England. With the new ball regulations – two new ones will be used from the start at alternate ends – the role for the defensive spinner purveying the softer ball may be limited. Borthwick, as he exhibited this week, may provide an attacking option. It goes virtually without saying – rarity has its allure – that he is a pleasure to watch. He has a short run, slightly longer than Warne's, at the end of which he tosses the ball from hand to hand in a spinning motion. He is slender and blond and gives the ball a real tweak. His googly is well concealed and, crucially, it seemed both in a long net session on Monday and in the middle the following day, he bowls few bad balls.

"As a young leg-spinner you've got to accept that you're going to bowl bad balls. Warne bowled them in the past as well and he was the best. You've got to keep bowling with a smile on your face and keep enjoying it. If one slips past the bat and makes the batsman look stupid and you're not getting him out you're still on top.

"I'm quite a bubbly lad and energetic and try to take my personality on to the field, to create wickets. I like being in the batsman's face especially if he's trying to get on top of you and playing shots, you want to get him out. The idea is to be energetic and to bubble around." Now, who did that sound like?

Six of the best? Er, no England's search for a top-class leg-spinner

Ian Salisbury Although he had an eminently respectable county career with 754 wickets at 31, he never quite had the penetrative skills, the variation or the consistency to have an enduring Test career. Played 15 Tests.

Chris Schofield What a to-do there was when he was handed one of the first central contracts in 2000 and picked for two Tests. Far too soon, of course. His career dried up but he has resurrected himself as a one-day specialist with Surrey.

Adil Rashid Abundantly promising teenage cricketer who has been overtaken by Borthwick and has much to do to re-stake international claims. Proof at present of the fragility of the leg-spinner's craft.

Bob Barber Attractive opening batsman, who also happens to be the most potent of England leg-spinners of the last 50 years. Although only a part-timer he was skilful enough (and turned it enough) to take 42 Test wickets.

Robin Hobbs Played seven Test matches between 1967 and 1971 without promising to match the deeds of his namesake, Jack. A clever bowler who showed how difficult the furrow is to plough for the English leg-spinner.

Doug Wright Tall, loping spinner who could be unplayable on his day and utterly frustrating the next. England played him in 34 Tests with 108 wickets either side of the second world war.

Stephen Brenkley