Why England will never master the job of playing spin
As England head into third Test, batting coach Graham Thorpe explains why country’s batsmen lag behind Indian counterparts
This has been a joyous week to be an England cricketer. It has been possible to reflect on, to wallow in, one of the most remarkable of all the country’s Test wins away from home.
To a man the players and their coaches have been suddenly unburdened and it has been fascinating to observe from a distance their relaxed, happy demeanour. The defeat of India by ten wickets in the second Test did something else apart from level the series.
It gave this team back their confidence and belief, sweeping away at a stroke (let us say a booming Kevin Pietersen straight drive) the rather desperate optimism and doubts that had begun to intrude. Gym sessions excluded, the team have had a few days off, larking about, spending time with visiting families, catching up on sleep which is never quite satisfactory during a Test match.
But they left Mumbai for Kolkata today and the Third Test now looms. It is time to reassess, to understand that despite the significant win so much against the run of previous play they ain’t done nothin’ yet.
A series remains on the line and it may be appropriate therefore to dwell not only on the success but to remember some of the failings that still exist both in this team and in the English cricketer generally in the sub-continent.
In short, whatever happened at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, the playing of spin bowling is and will remain a perpetual struggle.
Both Andy Flower, the coach, and Alastair Cook, the captain, have carefully pointed out that there is much still to do. They know that the batting particularly is still a work in progress.
For instance, Cook has scored two hundreds in the series so far and averages 119, Pietersen atoned for his poor show in the First Test with a brilliant innings of 186 in the second, Nick Compton the fledgling opener, has valiantly faced 299 balls in the series.
But the positions of three, five and six, three-quarters of the batting order’s engine room, have had a quite different return. Together the four batsmen who have filled those spots have faced a mere 228 balls in nine innings for a total of 144 runs, which translates into collective averages of 25.3 balls and 16 runs per innings. They have all done a great deal of work, the progress is as yet indiscernible.
Down the road from the England players, their potential successors have been practising and playing under the charge of two of their predecessors. Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, with 100 and 52 Test matches respectively for England, are trying to groom the next generation, in the shape of the so-called Performance Programme, to try to ensure that it is better equipped than the Englishmen who have come here before. In future time spent in India will be part of the training for all potential England internationals.
Thorpe, an excellent practitioner in Asia who played two or three of the most significant of all innings by an England batsman, said: “It is constantly hard work for us to master the basic skill of playing spin and really sticking to it.
"Because of the environment Asian players play in they can pick length better. Ours have to manufacture techniques so they can stand up.
“We are always playing catch up in a nutshell. I can only speak for some of the work we do but we can never think we have got it. We should not be that arrogant.”
Thorpe and Ramprakash will complement each other as batting teachers. The former was profoundly successful in most places but especially impressive in Asia. His unbeaten 64 in the dark at Karachi in December 2000 took England to one of their other greatest away wins. Months later he made 113no and 32no on a Colombo dustbowl to achieve another superb victory.
The latter, who retired only last summer, had the soundest method of his generation of batsmen. His temperament did not quite match it. If he was slightly unfulfilled as an international cricketer, that may make him a wiser mentor now.
He said: “The ups and downs in my career should help me as a coach. I can identify with players perhaps sometimes trying too hard, feeling under pressure to make a mark or dealing with disappointment. I feel I can sympathise with guys out of the team who have had international experience but are back trying to improve their game.”
Thorpe is endlessly riveting to hear on the craft of batting. When Graham Gooch, England’s batting coach who also has a fund of wisdom, calls it a day, Thorpe will presumably succeed him. He seems in his element here.
“It is a job that is never done playing spin,” he said. “It is about having tempo. I have always said it is being clear about where your potential boundary options are. If you have four or five men around the bat you want to get them out so you need to know where your attacking areas are.
“There is also a core method of rotating the strike. That means using the depth of the crease - going forward or back to the ball, trying to avoid that middle ground which is a slight plant of front foot or half cock position. Before that it is about reading length. That is vital. Then you have to have a technique that is quick and efficient so you can work a ball into a gap.”
Thorpe did all of those things well and as the England Performance Centre batting coach he has given the young batsmen here tough practice sessions the like of which they will have never had before. In some, he denies them the opportunity to play the sweep, the slog sweep or to hit over the top, the preferred attacking options for England players against spin.
The Performance Programme squad contains 17 players in all, seven of them batsmen. No item of groundwork is overlooked in trying to improve them.
Ramprakash, who thinks his future may be as a coach, said: “It would have been amazing to have what these kids have now. I look on with envy, I really do because of the opportunities they have, the training methods to improve, the attention to detail both technically and mentally. It is wonderful.
“They can be the best they can be. Very importantly as well there are people here working them out as people.
"It is chalk and cheese to my day. The attention to fitness is at an unbelievable level. The training the lads do is amazing. It is all worked out for them.”
Ramprakash began in the Middlesex team when Mike Gatting, a superb player, wonderful company and of the last old-fashioned pros was still captain.
“These days they have supplement drinks at the end of the game and recovery techniques,” he said. “They are one percenters but they add up. When I first started recovery techniques were probably a curry and diet coke or watch Gatt eat his curry and have a few pints.”
To Eden Gardens then for England where they have won only once on Tony Greig’s tour in 1976. They can expect more trial by spin.
“Pace requires bravery,” said Thorpe. “You can be hurt. You will not be hurt playing spin but if you don’t play it very well you will look like a clown.” On this tour at least, England can only hope their supply of red noses has run out.
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