Just under three weeks after the one-day series against Australia finishes, England will arrive in the UAE ahead of a three Test match series against Pakistan, followed by four ODIs and three T20s.
England were whitewashed 3-0 in 2012 on the last tour of the UAE, even with a settled Test side with an established batting line-up and two quality spin bowlers in Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, so the assignment will, once more, be very tough.
This time, England have a young side – the future – who are still settling into Test cricket, but the euphoria of winning the Ashes will give them confidence to defy the odds and do something special.
However, a major concern for England is in the spin department, an area essential to perform in to have any chance of winning in the UAE (or anywhere in Asia for that matter). Graeme Swann has been tough to replace. Monty Panesar has had off-field problems and is nowhere to be seen now.
Moeen Ali has been England’s number one spinner since the start of the ‘new era’ and has been persisted with. He’s returned 45 wickets in 27 innings at an average of 36.04 with an economy rate of 3.85, which shows he’s not a regular wicket-taker, nor does he dry up runs.
He’s shown glimpses of ability, and suggested that he can bowl well and take wickets, but he doesn’t do it on a consistent basis. Really, he’s a batting all-rounder, who’s been given the responsibility as the spinner purely because there were no other spinners putting their hand up with quality performances for their County good enough to be considered for Test selection when the spin bowling position was vacant. He’ll bat up the order at the expense of Bairstow, Buttler or even open to allow the second spinner to come into the side. Perhaps bowling in tandem with another spinner will make him perform better.
Adil Rashid will be picked for the tour of the UAE and will be pencilled in as the other spinner in England’s XI alongside Ali. He was way off England consideration after poor seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when his leg-spin regressed and batting progressed, but he put himself back on the selectors radar when he picked up 49 wickets at an average of 24.81 last season, helping Yorkshire win the County Championship. As a result, he was rewarded by being named in England’s Test squad for the WI tour earlier this year.
In conditions which suited spin bowling, he didn’t play a game, when most felt he should have done. It would’ve been the perfect time to see what he was like in Test cricket, on pitches which would’ve suited him and shown if he could be the answer. To this day, we still don’t know, but in the last 18 months, he’s been taking wickets in County Cricket and outperformed the rest of the spinners in the Championship.
He will add variety to the England attack with his leg-spin, and is a wicket-taking threat, but he also bowls a lot of loose deliveries like Moeen Ali does, and as a consequence, England are likely to struggle to contain the run rate and dry up both ends. You take the good with the bad by picking Rashid, and hopefully he takes plenty of wickets for England.
England will also need to pick a 3rd spinner, viewed as back-up to Ali and Rashid, but also provide competition, which will be tough to choose as the options are pretty scarce. Perhaps it is time to pick a wildcard – a young spinner with promise and credentials; someone who can be developed into a Test class spinner, much like Australia did with Nathan Lyon after going through countless spinners beforehand. I’m not sure the selectors will go down that path, but I would.
The bowlers the selectors will be looking at:
Simon Kerrigan has a good first-class record, taking 263 wickets at an average of 28.53, but after a horror Test debut in which he picked up figures of 8-0-53-0, after a series of long-hops and full tosses were dispatched by Shane Watson, he’s never been quite the same. His lack of confidence and bounce back ability is a worry, especially when batsmen go after him. Still, he has to have some qualities about him to possess the domestic record he does, but for now, he’d be best suited to having another winter with the England Lions.
Danny Briggs’ style of bowling isn’t suited to Test Cricket. He bowls with control and has a good economy rate, good for drying one end up, but bowls fairly flat, doesn’t spin it much and isn’t a big wicket-taker with the red ball. He’s more suited to the limited-overs game where he’s more of a wicket-taker and doesn’t go for many.
Zafar Ansari is another left arm spinner who doesn’t spin it much and bowls quickly, but gives it some air and currently stands as the leading English spin bowling wicket-taker this season, taking 39 wickets at an average of 32.41. He’s a batting all-rounder like Moeen Ali, but is getting better as a spin bowler and with huge maturity, he is one to keep an eye out for.
Almost out of the picture:
James Tredwell played one Test in the WI, but would be deemed a conservative pick, the type of pick which Trevor Bayliss is unlikely to want in his squad.
Samit Patel and Scott Borthwick are batting all-rounders almost out of the picture for selection. Patel was unimpressive when he was given a small run in the team against Sri Lanka and India. Borthwick’s leg-spin has regressed and he doesn’t bowl much in red ball cricket.
I would surprisingly pick Arron Lilley. He’s only played eight FC matches – six of them this season, in which he’s returned 24 wickets at an average of 24.95, economy rate of 2.96 and strike rate of 49.5, highlighting his wicket-taking ability and also ability to tie up an end. He bowls fast off-spin and spins it more than the likely candidates to be picked as the third spin option. He’s a competitor and isn’t the type of character to be fazed by the big occasion, even though he’s not played many FC matches. With two loopier spinners in Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, Lilley is faster and he certainly seems to have the star quality to thrive on the big stage. Even if he doesn’t play, time with the England squad and the experience of touring and practising/bowling on different pitches will be an invaluable experience for him. Adding to that, he’s a top-class fielder and useful number eight or nine batsman, so he has other valuable dimensions.
At the moment, the spin department is bleak, with no quality spinners in the Test side/squad, no established domestic spinners knocking on the door for selection, but there are young spinners coming through and showing promise, and England could do worse than to take a gamble on a young spinner like Arron Lilley, who has the credentials to be a future Test spinner. England could also do worse than to organise an England Lions/England Performance Programme/Spin camp tour to the sub-continent and further develop the likes of Mason Crane, Matthew Carter, Josh Poysden, Zafar Ansari, Simon Kerrigan, and others.
England are extremely unlikely to win in the UAE, but to have even a sniff at winning, their spinners must perform, whoever they are, and hope most of the batsmen do their job too, and bat sensibly against Zulfiqur Babar and Yasir Shah, instead of relying on a few individuals to bail England out.