Since Graeme Swann retired halfway through the infamous 2013 Ashes tour down under, England have been searching for a frontline Test spinner. Monty Panesar seemed the obvious heir to the throne but a series of disciplinary issues and a mental health struggle meant he lost his place when Andy Flower resigned as head coach. Along came Peter Moores for his second spell in charge and chose Moeen Ali to be Englands lead spinner, a position he has occupied since.
Ali started well with 19 wickets at 23 against India in 2014 which was just his second series in the side. But since then, his bowling average has been on a downward curve.
When England play away on pitches that are spin friendly, a second spinner is often picked alongside Moeen. But in England, since his debut, the 29-year-old has been the only spinner to play. With his form with the ball on the decline and England always looking to improve, is it time that someone else is the number one option?
Commonly touted as ‘the next in line’, the leg-spinner has been the second spinner picked to play in the subcontinent since Flower resigned, and has been outstanding with the white ball for England. Although Rashid’s Test career hasn’t always been filled with wickets – starting on some flat pitches in the UAE didn’t help – the Yorkshire man has flourished in India, and is England’s leading wicket-taker so far. As more of a wicket-taking spinner than a container, Rashid offers something different to Moeen: is it time to trust him with the number one spin role?
68 County Championship wickets at an average of 22.58 has led many to crown Leach the best English spinner which, statistically at least, could be true. A place on the winter Lions programme was the reward for such a fine season, so England clearly are aware of his talents. However, last season’s Somerset captain Chris Rogers has suggested that he is not mentally ready for international cricket yet, and despite Marcus Trescothick refuting that claim, it is true that the 25-year-old has only had one full season of first-class cricket. A strong winter with his left-arm off-spin for the Lions, and surely Leach can’t be far away from a call-up.
Another man on the Lions winter programme, Rayner bowled off-spin from all of 6ft5 in Middlesex’s County Championship winning side; his 51 wickets at 23.56 often went unnoticed in a side which has such a strong seam attack. Rayner offers control and consistency and knows the role of a spinner in a seam-dominant attack, so could be an ideal fit for England.
Picking Borthwick would be very much a pick in the mould of Ali. A batsman first, leg-spinner second, Borthwick has scored big runs in the County Championship the past three seasons, almost earning a call-up as just a batsman. His leg-spin has gone from his primary skill to more of a part-time option, but he still remains a threat with his big turn and armoury of variations. A winter move from Durham to Surrey could help press his case.
The man currently at the front the pack, Moeen is valuable to England as he provides balance to the side; he can and has batted anywhere from 1-9. It’s potentially this lack of a proper role that has hindered Ali in really taking his performances to the next level. Bowling wise, the Worcestershire all-rounder’s career average has worsened year on year. It is now apparent he is not the wicket-taking threat that Swann was, but can offer consistency.
It is, of course, worth considering that two of the above options could play: if Moeen or Borthwick is picked primarily as a batsman, then Rayner, Leach and Rashid are all in line to play as specialist spinners.
However, a dilemma awaits Trevor Bayliss next summer; England’s lack of a quality frontline spinner is cause for concern.