Croft endeavours to give off-spin a break

Stephen Fay watches a debutant bowler gain respect against an onslaught
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The Independent Online
The announcement of the imminent death of off-spin in Test matches appears in the latest issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly. The magazine declares that off-spin is already "a minor part of bowling" with no future in Tests. Like reports of the death of Mark Twain, it is almost certainly exaggerated.

No one told the England selectors who picked Robert Croft - an off-spinner from Glamorgan who has been the pick of the England bowling - or Croft himself. True, that is not saying a lot, but, without Croft's dependable off-spin, England's blush would have been an even deeper crimson.

The England coach, David Lloyd, singled Croft out after his first spell in Test cricket on Friday: "He bowled with good pace, good control, good discipline, and that's something we didn't have in other departments," he said.

Yesterday morning, Croft opened the bowling at the Vauxhall End and stayed on until the new ball was taken at 12.35pm; he had conceded 22 runs in 12 overs, and both boundariesscored off him were the consequence of fielding errors, by the captain, Mike Atherton, and Alan Mullally.

Croft, who is 26, stocky and fair haired, measures his run-up like a rugby player: five steps straight from the edge of the crease and one full step to the right. He grips the ball as though he were about to twist the top off a bottle. Unlike the modern heroes of spin such as Shane Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed, Croft is a finger spinner.

The action is classical: the arm action is high, and he pivots on his left foot after releasing the ball. If you can picture the actions of great off-spinners like Jim Laker, Fred Titmus and the chairman, Ray Illingworth, you will know what Croft looks like.

He confused Saeed Anwar early in the morning, and troubled Inzamam-ul- Haq at the start of his innings. When he beat these batsman, he would look across at Ian Salisbury who understood how he was feeling. His full names are Robert Damien Bale Croft. He was looking baleful.

At the end of his spell, Croft had bowled 29 overs and taken the wicket of Aamir Sohail for 64 runs, by far the best bowling figures, especially when compared to Salisbury, each of whose 17 overs - which cost 91 runs - contained at least one gift to the batsman. They had not made the case for playing two spinners in tandem.

Nor, to be honest, had Croft confuted the glum scepticism of the Wisden Cricket Monthly. His own career is enough to inspire doubts. Before this season, Croft had taken 330 wickets at 40.15 runs apiece. He owes his place in the England team to his best season so far - 64 wickets at 29.39 - and the fact that Illingworth does not rate Peter Such of Essex. But Croft is another victim of stronger batsmen and heavier bats, the precision of pad-play, and harder pitches: batsmen, Wisden concludes, now play the off-break as well as can be.

The poverty of England's bowling is Ray Illingworth's principal regret about the present state of English cricket, and he would insist of providing pitches that give bowlers more of a chance than this one at The Oval does. Lloyd called it "a flat, nothing pitch", and described Pakistan's batsmen as players who "will throw the kitchen sink at anything that's slightly off-line". At least they could not throw the kitchen sink at Robert Croft. But, while the admirable Croft may not prove to be the saviour of off- spin, someone who is will surely come along one day. He might even have been at the Oval yesterday. Pakistan have a 19-year-old off-spinner called Saqlain Mushtaq, who tops this season's bowling averages and already threatens to make a new generation of English batsmen miserable.

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