There’s more than one way to skin a batsman

Adil Rashid has been a fixture in English cricket long enough that the England team should have known not to try to meddle too much with him. They didn’t.

It’s particularly galling, since this had happened before. Rashid previously struggled for several years after England tried to make him bowl quicker. Even as he started to trouble batsmen in limited overs games last year there were reports that Alastair Cook was worried that he bowled too slow for Test cricket.

Cook did have one data point to back up the idea: that of England’s front-line batsman turned spinner Moeen Ali. The Worcestershire all-rounder became England’s first choice spinner at the beginning of the 2014 season after a couple of good years as he took on more spin bowling responsibility for his county. Moeen bowls a good five miles per hour quicker than Rashid on average, and has managed to do that whilst still ripping the ball hard and not sacrificing loop.

It was Ian Bell who laid out the fact that Moeen had to bowl quicker, after his first three Test matches were unproductive with the ball. It was a technical tip from former off-spinner, now umpire, Kumar Dharmasena – to grab his pocket with his lead arm – that allowed Moeen to bowl quicker and not lose his loop.

That specific technical tip wouldn’t extend to Rashid, who has never managed to find a way to bowl quicker without sacrificing flight and turn. Leg-spin is such a difficult art, few players tinker majorly with their techniques through their career, and all of them have something they can’t do. Shane Warne’s side on action gave him beautiful control over his leg-break, but left him unable to bowl the googly without significant discomfort. Imran Tahir’s front on action means he barely turns his leg-break, but can disguise a big turning googly.

It’s therefore a fairly big advantage for Rashid that he can turn both his leg-break and googly significantly, in the manner of an Abdul Qadir or Stuart MacGill. Of course, as with all leg-spinners, that means something else has to give. With MacGill it meant that he didn’t have Warne’s control, and with Rashid it also means that his natural pace is slower than most leg-spinners.

That natural pace is not an impediment to success at Test level, if Rashid accepts it and bowls to his own strengths as he did in Rajkot, he’s got the strengths to be dangerous. Seven wickets in the match represented his best match figures and by far his most consistent bowling performance.

Five of the seven were top order batsmen, including Murali Vijay twice. He may have been fortuitous that Virat Kohli trod on his own stumps, and that Pujara didn’t review an LBW that had pitched outside leg, but he made the ball turn and bounce, hit a line and length, and got his rewards.

Of course because Rashid doesn’t need to up his normal pace, doesn’t mean that being able to change his pace up occasionally when needed wouldn’t be useful. Bowling quicker is sometimes better and Rashid will have to be able to do that occasionally in a match.

Moeen has that ability as a finger-spinner, but anyone who has bowled wrist-spin will attest that changing pace (like most things) is more difficult as a wrist-spinner. Moeen’s pace has allowed him to give batsmen less time to react when the ball is spinning, and meant that he proved the better bowler in Bangladesh when the ball needed to be fired into the pitch. Maybe at Rajkot the optimum pace was a bit slower, but his ability to go up and down in pace continues to develop.

There was some evidence of that sort of development in another encouraging performance by Rashid, in the second Test at Visakhapatnam. His second innings leg-break which slid on to get Wriddhiman Saha LBW was 55mph. He’s always been able to push his pace up when bowling variations but the fact that his leg-breaks stop turning at a higher pace can be used as a variation in and of itself. The wicket of Virat Kohli wicket at 52mph, above his natural pace, still spun. His second innings dismissal of Umesh Yadav – bowled at 48mph – showed how alluring, and dangerous his slower pace can be to

Every series he’s played his economy rate has come down, and while his strike-rate halved from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and remained around the same so far in India, his economy moving from 3.81 to 3.55 between the two series this year is significant and only increases Cook’s trust in him. Nobody’s asking him to hold up an end at under 3 an over, but a run-rate around 3.5 gives his captain trust in him, and it’s starting to become clear that he can do that; at his natural pace.

For all that Moeen is a completely different bowler to Rashid their Test match figures are remarkably similar, only a tenth of a run in economy rate separating them, strike rates virtually identical. It it because Moeen is an off-spinner bowling at ‘international pace’ that he is not thought of as a luxury bowler?

To be fair to Moeen, his bowling in this series has cast him as a master of economy, with run rates under three an over in three innings out of four so far in India. This may have come at the cost of incision. Bowling fast on the pitches of Bangladesh brought him wickets but not enough control, and in India the equation has gone backwards.

It’s the idea of ‘international pace’ for a spinner that brooks more investigation. What is it? One imagines that those who believe in it see it at somewhere between 50 and 55mph, but the faster the better. This is at best a partial truth. The best pace for any spin bowler is the one where they get the most spin, and if they look to flight the ball, the fastest they can still bowl with the ball still going up then dipping on a batsman.

Graeme Swann could manage this at 55mph and even higher, Moeen Ali is at his best a little slower. Rangana Herath (most wickets of any spinner in the last 5 years) bowls at the same pace as Adil Rashid, sometimes even slower, Ravi Jadeja is also a left-arm spinner and bowls 10mph quicker. Ravichandran Ashwin bowls quick, Devendra Bishoo bowls slow. Leg-spinners generally bowl slower than finger-spinners but Anil Kumble bowled fast.

There are many ways to skin a batsman.

Despite this, it’s interesting how much batsmen playing their natural games is defended, and how much bowlers are made to change. Think back to Jimmy Anderson’s natural action being changed because he was supposedly at risk of stress fractures; cue stress fracture with new unnatural action.

Adil Rashid – on making his Test debut last winter – had nearly ten years First-class experience behind him. Enough to know your own game, and it’s strengths and weaknesses, you’d think. Enough for the coaches and pundits to know? It seems not.

After that near-decade of First-class bowling, tossing it up slowly and flighted, but ripping it hard at that pace, the coaches and the pundits decided that his pace was not quick enough to prosper at international level. If they truly believed that they should never have picked him. If they didn’t, they should have resisted the urge to tinker.

Saqlain Mushtaq has to be given credit for his work with both Rashid and Moeen. Just like David Saker used to with the seam bowlers, he knows that technical changes to a bowler are best taken with care, and are worse than useless in the middle of a series.

Instead, he’s worked on tactics, how to bowl to specific batsmen, and focused on raising both bowlers’ confidence, making sure they know their strengths, and how they can succeed.

That’s the real truth it comes down to in spin bowling. Slower pace has its strengths and weaknesses, as does bowling faster.

Bowling slow leaves batsmen more time to get to the pitch. Bowling fast makes it more difficult to beat the batsmen on flat pitches

Bowling slow makes looping the ball easier. Bowling fast gives batsmen less chance to react on spinning pitches

Bowling slow requires more guile. Bowling fast requires more rip on the ball.

If you’re good enough as a spinner to pick the best pace for the pitch, the batsman, the ball you’re going to let go; congratulations, you may be Shane Warne. For the rest of us mortals, it’s all trade offs and compromises. When it comes time to pick your poison, maybe your natural way is best.

Originally published 21-Nov-2016

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