Last June, when England packed five seamers against New Zealand and were sent packing to a crushing defeat, the late Shane Warne tore their indifference to spinners apart. “Feel for my fellow spinners in county cricket. If you don’t pick a spinner at Edgbaston – then when?” Warne tweeted.
Feel for my fellow spinners in county cricket. If u don’t pick a spinner at Edgbaston-then when ? Edgbaston & the Gabba are the best pitches in the world to bowl spin. I looked forward to Edgbaston as much as the Gabba. Negative again from the poms @SkyCricket @MichaelVaughan !
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) June 12, 2021
The Australian loved bowling at Edgbaston — he snaffled 24 wickets at 21 at the venue, including that Andrew Strauss wonder ball, which if not the ball of the century, was the ball of the most thrilling Ashes this century.
Not just Warne, spinners have relished the fizz and zip at Edgbaston. It was where Warne’s spiritual heir Nathan Lyon cut English batting to ribbons three years ago; it’s where a spinner tops the best-bowling chart, Wilfred Rhodes’s 7/17 achieved a century and a quarter ago; it’s where eight spinners have snuck into the best 20 bowling figures at the ground.
So, one of India’s several dilemmas heading to the Edgbaston Test would be, to tweak the Warne tweet, “if you don’t pick two spinners at Edgbaston, then when?” India, even when loading their eleven with five bowlers, have seldom picked two spinners in a Test match outside Asia, even if they possess two of the finest around in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Together, they have featured just four times (twice in Australia, and one each in England and West Indies). Chances are, if they don’t pair up this time around, they will never again in England. Ashwin will turn 36 this year; Jadeja would be 34.
The most compelling factor, certainly, would be their form. Jadeja is returning from a longish lay-off, having last played a competitive game on May 4 before he incurred a rib injury. But the break was timely as he seemed knackered towards the middle phase of the IPL, perhaps burdened by the Chennai Super Kings captaincy or calendar-induced fatigue. On his return, during the practice game, he rediscovered his first-class groove. Tetchy with the bat in the first innings, he found fluency in his second and third outings. By the time he returned to the dugout on the third day, he had spent 75 balls in the middle for 56 runs.
Apart from a tendency to bowl one short ball too many — an uncharacteristic trait of his, and one that owes to rustiness —nothing was amiss in Jadeja’s bowling. In the first innings, he foxed Rishabh Pant into miscuing a slog-sweep. After he was bludgeoned for a six, he laid the bait, except that he had pulled his length back and bowled a bit slower. Subsequently, Pant had to reach out for the ball. These subtleties, besides his stifling accuracy, make him a valuable bowler even outside the subcontinent, even on tracks that don’t necessarily make him a fourth-innings terminator.
Jadeja was an invisible influence in India’s series-leading win at The Oval. Much as one eulogises Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav, Jadeja’s match analysis of 47-12-86-4 was equally game-defining.
Reunion on cards?
It was anticipated that he would reunite with Ashwin, who had warmed the benches for the entire series thus far, for the fifth Test, but for the deferment of the Test itself. Tours to England have been numbingly frustrating for the off-spinner — picked in just seven of 15 Tests. But the sight of Edgbaston should cheer him — seven of his 18 wickets in England were picked in a single match at this venue in 2018, a game he almost spun India to a win but for Ben Stokes’ last-day burst, as India lost the game by 31 runs.
The batsmen drew flak for their fourth-innings meltdown, but India were also criticised for not picking an extra spinner. England feared that India might pick even three and crammed their nets with three county spinners apart from regulars Jack Leach and Dom Bess. Then it was that kind of series where India made blunders — bowled first on bat-first tracks, batted first in seaming conditions, packed an extra seamer on (relatively) spinner-friendly surfaces, and a spinner when an extra seamer would have been useful.
They repeated the mistake in the World Test Championship final, buoyed by the Ageas Bowl’s spin-conspiring reputation. It’s the trickiest part of reading pitches in England, just like its weather. Depending on a variety of factors, from weather to whim, from curation to orders from the management, pitches at the same ground could behave differently at different times.
Moreover, it’s not like Edgbaston allies with spinners alone. Seamers are the predominant forces on day one — James Anderson and Stuart Broad sit cheerily at the top of the most successful bowlers’ pile and are predominant forces on most England grounds. But as the game unfolds and the surface gets drier, spinners get into the game.
There, though, are other mitigating variables that could see the reunification of Jadeja and Ashwin. This county season has been particularly high-scoring — it has already seen 16 scores above 500 in the first division alone; in the entirety of last season there were just 12 scores above 500. Last season, runs were scored at around three runs an over. This season, it has leapt to 3.2 runs per over. Sussex’s Tom Haines was the highest run-getter last season (1,176 runs in 25 innings). In just 15 innings this season, Benjamin Compton has amassed 1,039 runs. The best bowling figures of this season belong to a spinner — South African off-spinner Steve Harmer.
Not to forget that all three Tests in the England-New Zealand series were high-scoring with runs scored at a brisk clip. England managed a run rate of 4.5, which would have been difficult on green surfaces against operators of the Tim Southee-Trent Boult-Neil Wagner class. Little coincidence that Jack Leach picked up 10 wickets at Headingley, a supposed seamers’ paradise. The bespectacled left-arm spinner was England’s highest wicket-taker too.
Understandably, there has been discontent over the quality of this year’s batch of Dukes balls. They, apparently, go soft quite soon, before swelling a bit and losing shape. The seam too is smaller and narrower than last year. “It’s something to do with Dukes, they have obviously got this batch wrong. I know the seamers want them to go back to last year’s batch because I think the seams are actually smaller on them as well, so you get a little bit less sideways movement,” Durham captain Scott Borthwick said last month.
There have been rumours of entire boxes of balls being returned to the manufacturers. Though Dukes has claimed that they have addressed the issue, England bowling coach Jon Lewis admitted during the New Zealand series that it was still an issue. “It’s obvious that the balls are going a little bit soft, and a little bit out of shape, but they’re still going through the hoops. We’ve got to find a way to take wickets with the balls that we’re given to play with,” he said.
A soft ball on a dry surface is detrimental to both seamers and spinners, but would likely affect the seamers more. A spinner could pose more threat and provide less run-scoring outlets than a seamer with a soft ball. In such a circumstance, a second spinner looks a better option than a fourth seamer. Two high-quality spinners could thus be an antidote to “Baz-ball” too. Not just in their ability to stifle the run rate, but top-class spin-bowling has harried England in recent times. So, to tweak that Warne tweet: “if you don’t pick two spinners at Edgbaston – then when?”
Why both Ashwin and Jadeja could pair up at Edgbaston
The two spinners — with a wealth of 684 wickets, 5,327 runs and seven hundreds — have played just four Tests together outside Asia. Edgbaston could be a ripe chance. The factors:
Run-heavy county season
The ongoing county season has been batsman-friendlier than the last two ones. There have been 16 scores in excess of 500 with three months to go. The entire last season had only 12. Two of the four games at Edgbaston ended in draws; three of the 11 completed innings were 500-plus totals, besides three totals of 300-scores and one in the 400s. The Test series between England and New Zealand too was a reasonably high-scoring affair too. Not just the runs, the scoring rate too was higher — 3.20 as opposed to 3 last year. In the Test series, England scored at a rate of 4.5 runs an over, which points to a distinct flattening out of the pitches.
County seamers have complained about this year’s Dukes ball going soft too soon, before swelling and losing shape. The seam, too, is narrower and hence seamers are unable to harness as much sideways movement as they used to. The single-most deadly element out of the equation, batting has become easier. While softer balls don’t assist spinners either — taking out bounce and making turn slow — spinners could be more resourceful with a softer ball than a seamer would be, especially in keeping an end tight and piling pressure. A second spinner, thus, would be more useful than a fourth seamer.
England’s spin vulnerability
For all their newfound doctrine of unbridled aggression, England are yet to dominate spinners. All they faced in the series against New Zealand was the benign off-spin of Michael Bracewell, who averages 49 per wicket in first-class cricket, and a few overs from Ajaz Patel. All of their main batsmen — barring Joe Root — have storied travails against either Ashwin or Jadeja. Ben Stokes, for example, has perished to Ashwin on as many as 10 instances.