An exchange between myself and another Roar pundit about the current English Test spinners led Dexter the Hamster to suggest our attack would struggle if anything happened to Nathan Lyon.
He posed the question: how do we get quality spinners into Test cricket?
On the surface, this seems to be quite an innocuous question with several obvious answers. We could bring in Ashton Agar or Adam Zampa, maybe Mitchell Swepson or perhaps not worry about a spinner but play four quicks and try and get a lot more overs from Marnus Labuschagne.
The last option sadly might be the best one, because Labuschagne has the best Test figures of any of these bowlers, which is probably no surprise, given only Ashton Agar has played Test cricket and he’s only played the four games to date.
Labuschagne’s Test figures are also significantly better than both Zampa and Agar’s first-class numbers and only marginally worse (average 38.66) than Mitchell Swepson (average 35.68).
What then do we need to do to get at least one spinner ready to slot into the Test side?
Cricket Australia (CA) has done something to help spinners by removing the use of Dukes balls for part of the Shield season. This should encourage spinners to not only be chosen but to be bowled for more than a handful of overs.
Shane Warne the cricket commentator is often forgettable, but when he talks about spin bowling, nearly everything he has to say is pure gold.
Last summer he talked about the difference between bowling in white-ball formats versus bowling with a red ball. He talked about bowling plans for Tests that could take overs to come to fruition, but in the meantime, the spinner has to keep applying pressure, often through bowling similar deliveries, ball after ball.
White-ball cricket demands far more variation from a spinner because as Warne said, if a spinner bowls two deliveries that are the same, back to back, the second one is likely to go the distance, especially in T20 cricket.
The main factor he talked about was patience for red-ball spinners, which is something spinners can learn. He also suggested that the gulf between a successful short-format spinner versus a first-class spinner was significant and felt young spinners probably had to make a choice between the different formats because trying to bowl both forms of the game was incredibly difficult.
If we look at look at Zampa and Agar in terms of ability, they’re clearly very capable spinners. Both are ranked in the world’s top five in the T20 format, but their first-class numbers suggest they’d seriously struggle to make an impact at Test level.
Assuming Australia needs a short-term replacement for Lyon, I’d suggest looking elsewhere and allowing Zampa and Agar to focus on maintaining their form in white-ball cricket.
Asking them to adapt their skills to Tests might cause them to lose form and confidence, which would not bode well given the upcoming T20 World Cup in India.
All things being equal though, Nathan Lyon should have at least two or three seasons in him, which should give Cricket Australia time to groom at least a couple of suitable replacements.
CA should ask all states and territories to provide players who might make good first-class spinners. These players would attend a training camp, where they’d be put through a battery of tests that are designed to assess whether they have what it takes to be a good red-ball spinner. The assessment team should include Shane Warne and as many top-class ex-Test spinners from around the world as CA could afford to bring to Australia.
Once the field is whittled down, they would receive ongoing tutelage from some or all of these former players, with one being an ongoing mentor. CA then works with those players’ clubs and states to map out a plan to give each player maximum opportunities to bowl, preferably at first-class batsmen, but only if they’re bowling well enough to earn a place in teams on merit.
That plan cannot include any white-ball cricket while the bowler is under development. If Warne’s right and learning how to bowl in Tests is as tough as he says, then having a bowler chopping and changing formats will not benefit them at all.
Warne suggested a couple of other ideas. One was to make sure spinners were chosen for all Shield teams, but surely that depends on the quality of the spinner. It’s counter-productive to bring a player into a team if they’re not good enough at their craft to be there.
His other suggestion was to get rid of drop-in pitches but that’s also not going to fly. The better option at state level is to only play first-class games at venues where a highly experienced curator can oversee preparation and make sure the pitch will offer something for the spinner.
The idea of taking Shield games away from Test locations to all sorts of venues is good in one way, but in terms of pitch preparation, it doesn’t do spinners any favours. Some pitches in recent times like Junction Oval or Drummoyne have either been complete roads or favourable to fast bowlers.
We’ve got plenty of batsmen who can score runs when the ball’s not moving a millimetre and a plethora of terrific quicks. What we need are pitches that challenge batsmen against turning deliveries and the same pitches will help hone spinners’ skills.
Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer are some of the spinners who Australian selectors tried as replacements for Shane Warne, before finally settling on Nathan Lyon.
Cricket Australia should have learnt from that and should have been developing spinners in anticipation of Nathan Lyon’s retirement.
Perhaps they assumed Agar, Zampa or Swepson would somehow transform from a bowler averaging in the high 30s per wicket with matching high strike rates into a genuine Test quality bowler.
Maybe they’re happy to play the same game as they did with the bowlers mentioned above: give them a few Tests, see how they go, then move onto the next bowler until we stumble across a bloke who maybe might just cut it at Test level.
The reality is red-ball bowling is different from white-ball bowling. Finding a spinner capable of bowling well enough to be a member of our Test side is becoming increasing harder, with the proliferation of white-ball tournaments and the big money that a top-line bowler can earn just for rolling over their arm for four overs per match.
There’s still time for CA to do something about this issue, but it needs to happen soon. Lyon won’t last forever and if he goes without a decent replacement standing by, our position as a premier Test cricket nation would be in serious trouble.