Counties and the ECB could address a systemic dearth of spin bowlers by pooling money into a “spin bowling fund”, worth around 3 million over six years, to pay for a coaching and talent identification network that would also fund overseas apprenticeships, under a proposal to be considered by England’s cricket director Andrew Strauss.
The proposal is the brainchild of the former England captain and spin bowler John Emburey, who has become increasingly weary of what he sees as a lack of focus by the counties and ECB on developing spin bowlers. That neglect, Emburey believes, led to the vast disparity between England’s spin bowlers Moeen Ali and Mason Crane in the Ashes series, in which they took a combined 6 for 768 while Australia’s spinner Nathan Lyon (21 wickets at 29.23, 2.36 runs per over) was a leading contributor to the home side’s 4-0 victory.
Emburey, formerly the Middlesex director of cricket, is set to meet with Strauss following the conclusion of England’s tour of Australia and New Zealand, and told ESPNcricinfo that if the current schedule of county matches being pushed to the fringes of the northern summer continued, then much more needed to be done to nurture young spinners capable of playing the sorts of roles Lyon now does for Australia. He also said that the current England spin coach, Peter Such, had his “hands tied” because he could only work with what the counties produced.
“The counties don’t have spin bowling coaches, there’s no talent ID done in those counties for spin, there’s no captains that understand spin, set the right fields and know when to bring one on to bowl or take them off at the right times,” Emburey said. “We need to find a proper structure in finding and developing talent. It’s something I’ve spoken to Andrew Strauss about and he wants to have a meeting about it when we get back home, and Peter Such should be part of that because he’s the England spin bowling coach, to discuss where we go forward.
“We’ve got to go down to a younger age group, to the minor counties and the counties themselves, and do more talent ID. All those counties should be pooling their young spinners from the ages of 11-16 to do talent ID. If the counties are not going to employ [coaches], I think the Board has got to employ six to eight coaches to be divided up amongst the 38 counties in England, say five counties each to work with.
“With all the money they’re pushing forward for all the other projects they’ve got, the biggest part of the contribution is going to come from the counties themselves, with the Board contributing to make it work. Say we’re going to do it for six years, 3 million over six years, to see what can be developed and come through in terms of those younger players. You’ve got money then to pay for those coaches, and a pool of money also for Peter Such to work with to send some of those players away overseas to play or help to develop them.”
Under Emburey’s proposed scheme, each county would put in 10,000 every year, with 5,000 to come from each of the minor counties. The ECB would then add a figure in the region of 200,000 to create a war chest of 480,000 to invest in spin bowling around all 38 counties. Options for overseas education include England Lions tours, while the ECB and CA have already discussed the possibility of opening up spots in the Futures League – essentially the Australian second division – for fledgling English players.
“If the counties are not going to develop those spinners then we’ve got to do it by other means. It may be that the Board have to do it and then those players get picked up by the counties,” Emburey said. “If we talent ID players the counties don’t have, but we feel they’ve got sufficient skills relative to some already playing, take those away with the Lions to Sri Lanka or wherever and I’d imagine in a few weeks a county would pick them up if they can see them performing.”
Such measures are necessary due to a conflagration of factors, most of which chart back to the fact that precious little of the first-class county competition is scheduled in the prime summer months of July and August. These months are now subject to a surfeit of limited-overs matches. While similar to Australia’s Big Bash League scheduling, the southern summer tends to afford spin bowlers better opportunities over a longer period, while CA works closely with each state on the composition of pitches.
“It’s a shocker for them,” Emburey said of the domestic schedule facing English spin bowlers. “Pitches at the beginning of the season aren’t going to suit spinners, so they’re either going to struggle or they’re not going to play at all, and at the back end of the season when it gets cold and damp and wet, it isn’t going to suit them at the end either.
“The middle part of the season and towards the back end when you want spinners to make a contribution, there’s no cricket for them because of all the limited-overs cricket. You’ve got to develop one-day skills instead of those you need in first-class cricket and Test matches. Cricket used to finish on September 17-18, now it is the very end of September, and that’s ridiculous.
“I think Peter Such has been hamstrung in what he can do and achieve. All he’s doing is working with the players in a first-class system that doesn’t encourage them to come through. So the system has to be changed to go out and find these players and develop them. These coaches would still be available to help and develop the players already around in county first and second XIs, but I think we’re missing out on so much talent – spinners out there we’re not getting anywhere near.”
Somerset is one of few counties using spin bowling to its advantage by preparing surfaces with bare patches on a length. These pitches have been subject to plenty of criticism from opponents, such as these words from the Middlesex director of cricket, Angus Fraser, last year: “It’s disgraceful what they did. I’ve never seen such a doctored pitch. The intent was there, so the combination of a below-average pitch and intent, that changes things. There are guidelines for counties to produce the best possible pitch for matches.”
However Emburey argued that in providing an environment in which the spin bowlers Jack Leach and Dom Bess could prosper, while still leaving good grass coverage on other parts of the surface to aid the seam bowlers, Somerset should be seen as “crusaders” for a wider array of skills to be seen in the English game.
“I think they’ve been very fortunate with the pitches they’ve had not to be docked points, but are they actually the crusaders for change?” Emburey said. “Why should pitches always be flat? Why not have pitches that spin? Batsmen have got to learn and develop skills against spin as well. Taunton is a pitch where you’ve got to adapt your game to get runs.
“The issue Leach and Bess would have after bowling on turning wickets is then having to learn how to bowl on a flat wicket, in terms of changes of pace and flight. [But] the Board have got to relax a bit in this respect. They have the ends bare at Taunton, but there is a bit of grass in the middle to give the seamers some encouragement and the ball to go through. To me they’re good cricket pitches.”
As for Crane, Emburey had been impressed by elements of his debut in Sydney, but said there was still a long way for him to travel. “He needs to bowl on all types of pitches to develop his game,” Emburey said. “On a green pitch that’ll seam around, he’ll learn to bowl straighter, and to do that he’s got to bowl with more control. If you’re wide or short or bowl a long hop, you’re going to get spanked around. He needs to learn to bowl on flat wickets to bowl better and tighter, then when you get onto a wicket that gives you assistance, you’re going to bowl sides out.”