“England’s second line of attack – spin. Led by the handy Adil Rashid and ably supported by Moeen Ali, England’s backup plan (if they can’t get pitches to gift runs) seems to be to get it turning”
“We had never seen a greentop. It was bitterly cold. There was a slight drizzle where you do not go off the field but it does freshen the pitch up. So the ball was moving and flying around.”
Sunil Gavaskar fondly recalls about an Old Trafford surface during India’s 1971 tour of England. He often rates his half-century, a paltry 57, on that day as a turning point in his cricketing career.
Clock back to his words and every single one of them reeks of the kind of surfaces England were known to dish out. Rain-hit, wet, green tops that aided seam and swing made up England’s fortresses at home right from the invention of the game to their mind-blowing comeback in the Ashes in 2005.
Of late this has changed.
Before you come to delusional conclusions, take a glance at the kind of scores racked up in the Royal London One Day Cup going on in England right now. There have been close to 50 centuries with the tournament yet to finish and almost 27% of the games have seen 300 plus totals.
As much as England’s ODI mantra has kept changing since the 2015 World Cup, the kind of surfaces in the country seems to be changing too. From batting belters to sluggish, slow tracks for big tournaments, England seem to be well over their obsession with green tracks.
The Eoin Morgan-led outfit’s current ploy appears to be ‘hit as many as you wish to, we will chase them down’. However, there has been a slight variation to this in ICC tournaments. The Champions Trophies in 2013 and 2017 dished flat tracks which take a bit of turn. Spinners, like never before, are finding their mojo on English tracks and this is emphasized by the kind of finalists these two tournaments witnessed. India and Pakistan fought it out in the 2017 Champions Trophy finals and India and England played out a low scoring thriller in the 2013 finals.
That sub-continental teams, who once feared to play on English tracks, now dominate them shows the change of pitch conditions in the country. One stinging example in this regard is the Cardiff surface which was deemed too batting friendly during the 2015 Ashes series. Weeks after the Test match, Glamorgan and Hampshire played a 50 over fixture at the ground that was called off in the early stages. The umpires deemed the pitch to be virtually unplayable after batsmen were struck on the head off bouncers jumping up from a length.
There is this and then the high-scoring school backyard kind of scores that get piled up in the domestic 50 over games.
“Domestic batsmen in England are increasingly becoming accustomed to surfaces that enable them to hit through the ball. It’s not just the England side that has changed; it’s whole of English cricket,” reckons Gary Barwell, the head groundsman at Edgbaston.
The 2015 series against New Zealand immediately after the World Cup debacle was perhaps the watershed moment in England cricket. England scaled the elusive 400 run mark and recorded their highest ODI run chase in the matter of a few weeks. A few months later, they knocked off 444 against Pakistan in a bilateral series.
“We don’t get the interference or instruction people seem to think, but one-day pitches in England right now are the best in the world. Well, if you’re a batsman,” chips in Barwell.
He might have a point but the first ODI of the England Australia ODI series at Kennington Oval raised further suspicions on England’s second line of attack – spin. Led by the handy Adil Rashid and ably supported by Moeen Ali, England’s backup plan (if they can’t get pitches to gift runs) seems to be to get it turning.
Not that they are amazing players of spin themselves but the confidence in their two contrasting spinners have seen England trust on drier tracks more often than not. The firepower in the batting line-up could be another factor. Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan and even Jason Roy are decent players of spin and slog through the line mercilessly. This alone is thought to give them a distinct advantage over other teams.
Since 2016, England’s highest ODI wicket-takers have been Liam Plunkett and Adil Rashid. While Plunkett has 41 wickets, Rashid is close on his heels with 38. Moeen Ali isn’t as big a force in ODIs as he is in Tests at home but the off-break bowler has kept a leash on the scoring rate to aid Rashid. Yesterday at the Oval, he took it a step further when he dismantled Australia’s middle-order with a three-wicket burst that saw the visitors plunge from 47/1 to 70/4.
Rashid further hastened the collapse and the duo walked off with combined figures of 79 in 20 overs for five wickets, a rate less than four while devouring half of the wickets to fall. With the World Cup within sights, the Royal London Cup, the recent Champions Trophy and other 50 over games in England could be telling signs of what to expect that at the marquee event. One thing that can be said with conviction is that there won’t be a lot of green.