Cricket: No quick cure for the slow death

Groundsmen refute charge that decline in spin is down to them.
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The Independent Online
THE HUMBLING of English cricket by yet another Australian exponent of spin bowling begs the revisiting of a question that has been taxing the game's sages for much longer than is healthy - can we ever produce a Shane Warne or a Stuart MacGill of our own? Or, for that matter, a Saqlain Mushtaq or a Muttiah Muralitharan?

The present fashion is to finger a lack of testing domestic competition for most of the English game's ills, and this applies to the dearth of quality in slow bowling as much as any other deficiency. Hence the move next year to a two-division County Championship, with promotion and relegation issues designed to make more matches more meaningful and give the players a harder edge.

Not far behind in the blame stakes is the state of English pitches, which are generally reckoned to be working against endeavours to improve batting technique and also to be too heavily weighted in favour of stock, medium-pace bowlers.

David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, describes spin bowling in this country as having reached a "near-crisis". "The problem is a combination of wickets - these concrete-like pitches that don't break up - and the weather," he said. "It is very difficult for young spinners to establish themselves with the type of wickets we play on."

There is no shortage of evidence to back up Graveney. In the last decade, spin bowler after spin bowler has been ushered on to the county circuit as the next great white hope for a new Laker or Underwood. Most have flattered only to deceive, many disappearing almost as quickly as they arrived.

What happened to Jeremy Batty and Ian Swallow, of whom Yorkshire once had such high expectations? Or to Neil Kendrick, of Surrey, to the Sussex leg-break specialist Andy Clarke, or Lancashire's Dexter Fitton? And why have Richard Stemp, Min Patel, Shaun Udal or Neil Smith, all of whom reached the threshold of the senior England side, not gone on to establish themselves at Test level?

The parlous state which English slow bowling has now reached is certainly depressing. As well as Australia, India and Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and South Africa all have attacking, match- winning spinners. England, on the other hand, have not produced a spin specialist of genuine world class for perhaps two decades.

But while it is true that overcast skies, low temperatures and damp, covered wickets are not ideal spin-bowling conditions, can everything be blamed on England's unfortunate summer climate and over-rolled Surrey Loam pitches? The prevailing wisdom is that only when County Championship pitches consistently offer a fair test for bat and ball will our players develop sound technique and set aside bad habits.

However, the Lancashire groundsman, Peter Marron, who will be preparing wickets for Muralitharan, and the young leg- spinner Chris Schofield, who joined up with the England squad for much of the Ashes series, this summer, wonders if the real truth about falling standards is being obscured.

During his 16 years in charge of the Old Trafford square, Marron has been the national groundsman of the year, but he has also seen Lancashire docked 25 points when one example of his work was deemed unfit for first- class use. But he feels the pitch issue is a dangerous distraction.

"It has become an English obsession," he said. "Other countries just prepare a pitch and accept that however it behaves it is the same for both sides. Not so long ago, after a period where wickets were favouring seam bowlers, the authorities insisted on every match starting on a surface that was dry and straw-coloured.

"As a consequence, everyone made a ton of runs and no one could get anybody out. When I won the groundsman of the year award, I got nothing but criticism from some members. They wanted me to take a stick of dynamite to the square.

"Nowadays, the only requirement is that there is a fair contest between bat and ball. But that is open to wide interpretation and it is easy to get it wrong. If 15 wickets go down in a day you are under automatic scrutiny.

"Of course, it is only natural to prepare a surface to suit your own team's strengths. Switching to a two-division Championship will not stop that. In fact, it will put groundsmen under even more pressure to turn out 'result' wickets."

In any case, Marron believes, too little attention is paid to how players might help themselves. "Take Muralitharan," he said. "He will not need my help to make the ball spin. He can turn it off anything because he has practised and practised and made himself a great bowler. It is all right David Graveney saying that pitches must improve. Why isn't he saying that the players must improve?

"Go back to the 60s and 70s and no one would mention the pitch, not the players nor the writers on the game. A pitch was just a pitch. What was important was the ability of the players to perform in any conditions.

"I'm getting old and cynical, but I can't help but think that if players spent more time developing their own skills rather than looking for excuses maybe we would have a more successful Test team."

SPIN DRIFT: STAR TURNS WHO WEREN'T

IAN SWALLOW

A Barnsley-born off-spinner who made his Yorkshire debut at age of 21 in 1983 but was never able to fulfil his promise at Headingley, despite taking 7 for 95 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 1987. Released at the end of the 1989 season, whereupon he joined Somerset and claimed a career-best 31 first-class wickets in 1990 but was released following year. Now the captain of Meltham in the Huddersfield League.

JEREMY BATTY

Off-spinner Batty made an immediate impact on his Yorkshire debut as an 18-year-old in 1989, taking five wickets in the Roses match. Toured Australia with England Young Cricketers the following winter and was named Yorkshire's young player of the year in 1991. However, he was released in 1994 and joined Somerset, where he stayed for two seasons. Spent last season with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League.

DEXTER FITTON

Having been the youngest Rochdale player to take 50 wickets and make 500 runs in one season, Fitton joined Lancashire in 1987 and claimed 6 for 59 with his off-breaks against Yorkshire at Old Trafford the following season. His career peaked with 33 Championship wickets in 1989 but he failed to sustain promise and was released at the end of the 1992 season. Now 33 and playing for Milnrow in the Central Lancashire League.

RICHARD STEMP

Good enough to tour twice with England A, to India in 1994-95 and Pakistan the following winter, the 31-year-old left-arm spinner spent three seasons at New Road, Worcester, before becoming the first Englishman born outside the county to join Yorkshire in 1993. Averaged around 35 Championship wickets per year in six summers at Headingley but never improved enough to win a Test place. Joining Nottinghamshire this year.

SHAUN UDAL

The 29-year-old Hampshire off-spinner took more than 50 Championship wickets in four consecutive seasons from 1992 to 1995, taking 8 for 50 against Sussex in the first game of 1992. Toured Australia with England in 1994-95 without ever making the Test side. Overlooked by the selectors the following summer, he won a place on the England A tour to Pakistan in 1995-96 but has not been picked since then and his form has dipped.

MIN PATEL

The 28-year-old Bombay-born left-armer established himself as a bowler of great promise in 1994, when he claimed 79 Championship wickets. Named Whittingdale young player of the year, he toured India with England A in 1994-95 and gained Test honours in the home series against India in 1996. Missed the whole of the 1997 season through injury and has yet to recover his best form.

JON CULLEY

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