Selectors in a spin again

So, after a period of deliberation, the decision has been made. England have chosen Mudhsuden Singh ‘Monty’ Panesar as their third spinner for the tour of India, ahead of Ian Blackwell and Alex Loudon. For the first time in four years, England have named a spinner in a touring squad to the subcontinent who, for all intents and purposes, cannot bat or field. A spinner whose first-class bowling average in 2005 was a brilliant 21.54, and who is only 23 years old. It would appear that England have finally taken the first step towards finding a genuine wicket-taking spinner in the future – actually picking one.

However, before Panesar can be tested against the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, he will have to worm his way past at least one other spinner in the England pecking order. Shaun Udal was selected in the original squad of 15 for the tour of India as the second spinner should England feel they need him – although his Test stats currently resemble those of a Bangladeshi specialist batsman, after his inauspicious entrance into Test cricket in Pakistan last year.

Ashley Giles is, of course, England’s first-choice spinner, and rightly so. He has proven that as well as being able to take wickets at home and away, he is capable of contributing with the bat from number eight or nine in the order, as his Ashes-sealing 59 at the Brit Oval last year would suggest. However, despite Giles’ undisputed value to his side, and his popularity in the England dressing-room, his Test bowling average remains at 39.60, a figure unbefitting a regular in one of the world’s top Test sides.

Udal’s case is a more intriguing one. Having enjoyed a successful summer with Hampshire in 2005, and at the age of 36, he found himself picked for the tour to Pakistan the following winter – once again, as the second spinner in the squad behind Giles. There can be no denying that his selection was influenced by his first-class batting average, which stands at 23.35 from 244 matches, with one century – and, indeed, he contributed usefully with the bat in his three Tests on that tour, scoring 33* in the drawn Test at Faisalabad. However, his three Test wickets from that series cost him 92.33 runs each, and his economy rate of 3.75 runs per over is less than impressive.

Beyond Udal – or, more accurately given Udal’s Test stats, beyond Giles – the situation is a complex one. There were three contenders for the third spinner’s spot on the India tour, and although Panesar was its eventual recipient, there is another contender who may yet force his way in. Ian Blackwell has provisionally been included in the England A squad to tour the West Indies in February – but increasing worries about Giles’ fitness have meant he is now on standby for the senior squad. Giles is still carrying the hip injury which caused him to miss the final Test of the Pakistan series, and his participation in the upcoming tour is in serious doubt.

Blackwell’s inclusion would present yet another selectorial dilemma – his left-arm spin was good enough to get him selected for the Pakistan ODIs as a replacement for Giles, and his performances in this series were more than useful. He extracted turn from some lifeless pitches, and was economical on occasions when England’s other bowlers were not. In spite of this, and in spite of some economical performances on his home ground of Taunton last year, his bowling would not be likely to trouble the experienced Indian batsmen a great deal. However, his batting is significantly better than that of the other spin bowlers – he averaged over 40 in first-class cricket in 2005. He is a brutally powerful hitter, capable of pulverising bowling attacks when the mood takes him; although his impatience has long been his downfall in this department. If Giles is not fit, he would not exactly be a direct, like-for-like replacement.

The one other man in the selectors’ minds for this tour was Alex Loudon – the Warwickshire off-spinner and Old Etonian. Loudon is also a capable batsman, probably more so than Giles, with a highest first-class score of 172. What caught the selectors’ eye about him, however, was his possession of what many commentators might call ‘a bit of mystery’. This quality comes from his development in the past two years of a fledgling version of the doosra, or ‘other one’, the delivery devised by Saqlain Mushtaq and used to such great effect these days by the likes of Harbhajan Singh. Loudon was picked for the tour of Pakistan, and by all accounts performed impressively in the nets with the England side. However, he failed to play any international cricket on the tour, and now finds himself on England A duty in the Caribbean, potentially alongside Blackwell.

This leaves us with a fairly straightforward equation in the lead-up to the forthcoming tour – if Ashley Giles is fit, England’s spinners will be Giles, Udal and Panesar; if he is not, they will be Udal, Panesar and Blackwell. Theoretically, those lists are in order from first-choice to third-choice – however, what complicates this is the issue of the balance of the England side. Ashley Giles has cemented his place at number eight in the England order in recent years, performing well enough to allow the selectors to be confident in selecting three non-batting bowlers below him. Shaun Udal was picked at number eight in Giles’s absence in Lahore last year; Blackwell would slot in at eight comfortably, having batted there in the Pakistan ODIs. Loudon would also have been capable of doing a job there, himself an all-rounder at county level.

Where Monty Panesar is concerned, however, the situation becomes a little more difficult. Panesar is the only one of the four spinners who could conceivably play on this tour who would be considered a genuinely attacking, wicket-taking option; something which in the past, would have been considered a must-have in the spin department when touring India. Panesar is also, however, the only one among the four spinners who would be certain to bat at number eleven.

Here is where the issue of whether England play one spinner or two must be considered. If only one spinner is selected, and Giles is fit, logic suggests it will be Giles that plays. If Giles is fit and two spinners are selected, the second spinning spot would most likely go to Panesar. This would mean England would have to replace one of their non-batting pace bowlers – most probably Matthew Hoggard – with a non-batting spinner, despite the nosebleed Stephen Harmison may receive from batting at number nine.

Where the selectors’ job becomes extremely tough, however, is if Ashley Giles is not deemed fit to play in the first Test at Nagpur on March 1, as is looking increasingly likely. They must then decide if they feel that one spinner is adequate, given that that spinner will be unproven at international level – they must also decide whether or not it is necessary that this spinner is able to bat higher than eleven. If this is not considered important, then Panesar will play, and Matthew Hoggard will move up the order to number eight. However, for the selectors to be confident in doing this, they would have to be very confident in the top order having learned from the mistakes they made in Pakistan, and having adjusted better to batting in subcontinental conditions against world-class spin bowling.

If they decide that England’s solitary spinner must be able to bat, however, then Panesar finds himself ruled out of the equation – just as quickly as the desire for an attacking spinner sees him ruled in. It then becomes a straightforward shoot-out between Udal and Blackwell for the number eight role, and the spin-bowling duties – whether Udal’s having Test experience behind him will actually count against him in this battle remains to be seen, given how ineffective he has been in his Test appearances so far.

On choosing two spinners, England’s selectors would be highly likely to make the aforementioned move to replace a pace bowler with Panesar. Hoggard would once again be the likely man to miss out, assuming Simon Jones makes a full recovery from the ankle injury which kept him out of the tour of Pakistan. The battle would then commence between Udal and Blackwell for the remaining spot – it seems that whichever way the situation is considered, Shaun Udal and Ian Blackwell appear highly unlikely to line up alongside each other when the series does begin.

The role of spin bowler appears now to be to English cricket what the role of left-midfielder once was to English football – a succession of square pegs in a round hole, followed by the odd attempt to board up the hole completely and do something different. Any suggestion that England might try something different this time around, and perhaps not play a spin bowler, is virtually negated by the fact that this series is happening in India – anywhere else, and dropping the spinner altogether might be a viable option.

For now, though, it appears that Monty Panesar has an opportunity at his feet – if the England selectors have ambitions of recovering from their demolition at the hands of Pakistan and winning this series, that is. Panesar’s selection would be a statement of intent. If the selectors were to decide to give the young left-armer license to bowl in an attacking fashion at some of the best players of spin in world cricket, then the world may find out conclusively, one way or the other, exactly how strong England’s spin-bowling resources really are.

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