We reckon this article will take you somewhere around six minutes to read. Only you can decide whether you trust us to justify that gargantuan investment of your valuable time. (You might also feel moved to make an angry comment afterwards, so maybe factor that time in too).
We’d argue that what might at first look like an overlong examination of a very specific selection dilemma actually leads to far more interesting, broader questions about how teams are selected and how Test matches are won. But that’s just our opinion. What we’re saying is don’t feel obliged to read on.
Leach or Rashid?
In the wake of England’s Test series victory over Sri Lanka, some observed that Jack Leach took more wickets than Adil Rashid at a lower average and concluded that Leach is therefore ‘better’ and should be picked ahead of Rashid when England inevitably play fewer than three spinners in future matches.
This is wrong. But it is not so obviously wrong that we don’t have to explain it.
To explain why Adil Rashid should be picked ahead of Jack Leach in a one- or two-spinner line-up, as well as alongside him in a three-spinner line-up, we first have to ask ‘What do England want?’ and we then have to add a whole load of context to that question because actually that’s a terrible question to ask.
What do England want?
The answer to this question is ‘the better spinner’ or something similarly vague. We need to be precise here. Let’s first try and work out what the rest of England’s attack would look like if they played fewer spinners because only then can we get some idea what we’re after.
This is easier said than done, but, just as a starting point, let’s take the side that played and won the first two Tests against Sri Lanka before Sam Curran strained one of his sides.
The batting order wasn’t fixed, but the 11 players were…
- Rory Burns
- Keaton Jennings
- Ben Stokes
- Joe Root
- Jos Buttler
- Moeen Ali
- Ben Foakes
- Sam Curran
- Adil Rashid
- Jack Leach
- James Anderson
The obvious swap to make for less overwhelmingly spin-centric conditions is Stuart Broad for one of the spinners.
However, since then, Jonny Bairstow has made a hundred batting at three and this has really thrown a huge clanking spanner in the works. If he carries on in that spot, England will either have to ditch a middle-order batsman (Root or Buttler, so no, that’s not happening) or one of their bowling options.
So either (a) we’re down to five bowlers plus Joe Root’s part-time spin or (b) Jonny Bairstow isn’t playing and England are back to rotating number threes.
Five bowlers sounds like plenty, but England’s recent success has been built on total bits and pieces cricket. You could argue that the team only truly works with six bowlers, which is a bit mental but might also be true.
In a five bowler situation… okay, we’re going to have to disagree with ourself slightly here. In a five bowler situation, your non-Moeen Ali spinner* will probably do a lot of bowling and may be asked to keep things tight while the three seamers attack from the other end. The alternative is that Ben Stokes bowls quite a lot and Ben Stokes works better when he bowls only slightly or just a medium amount.
* As you’ve no doubt deduced by this point, we’re assuming Moeen Ali should play in all of these scenarios. This seems a fair assumption to us because somehow or other, batting or bowling, there is a very good chance that Moeen Ali will be wonderful in any given match.
Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter. A five-man England bowling attack is not a good England bowling attack. It can do a job, it may win some matches, but a five-man attack gives away the one advantage England have managed to stumble onto: having an effective bowler for (nearly) every circumstance.
The Leach v Rashid argument is a good one because it is an archetype. It lets you pick a side and say something about yourself. It is finger spin v wrist spin, reliable v unreliable, predictable v magical.
Of course it’s not that simple – Jack Leach can bowl breathtaking deliveries; Adil Rashid can bowl tight, accurate spells – but there’s enough truth in there that we can run with it. Fundamentally, Leach is more likely to provide control and pressure, Rashid is more likely to do something exceptional. Which do you value more?
Your preference doesn’t matter
Whichever you personally value more, we’d argue that this particular England team should give greater weight to the peaks of Rashid. There are definitely times when the only things likely to get a team a wicket are fast bowling or wrist spin. The England bowling attack needs a coping mechanism for these times. As wonderful as Leach’s bowling is (and it is), the England attack doesn’t really need accurate, dependable, challenging finger spin.
Does a five or six-man attack need the second spin bowler to shoulder an enormous workload? Not really. Not when they’re playing in conditions where they’re looking to field three or four seam bowlers. Does it need an option when fast-medium and finger spin can’t break a partnership? Yes. This is the gap that needs filling and Adil Rashid remains England’s best option – same as he was a year ago.
So what we’re saying here is: either (a) you have a five-man attack and accept that Adil Rashid is going to bowl a lot of overs (to keep Ben Stokes reasonably fresh) or (b) you pick six bowlers and ditch a batsman.
We’d ditch a batsman.
How d’ya feel about that, Jonny?
Let’s now take Rashid v Bairstow in isolation. Unlike ‘finger spinner v wrist spinner’, ‘guy-who-just-made-a-hundred-at-number-three v wrist spinner’ is not an archetypal question, but it’s again an interesting one because it pits the value of run-scoring against the value of wicket-taking.
A lot of people think runs ‘win’ matches. Again, this is wrong. But we’ll come to that in a minute. Let’s first look at Bairstow’s case to be considered a number three batsman.
Bairstow’s case to be considered a number three batsman is not strong. This might sound an odd thing to say about a guy who literally just made a hundred batting at three, but we’d argue that batting at three in Sri Lanka is much more like batting at six in many other parts of the world – and so far, that is all the evidence we have.
(Think of it like this: if we were to rank all of the world’s Test grounds by how likely it is that a number three batsman will have the shit bounced out of him when he first comes to the crease, Colombo would appear quite low down.)
(We could almost argue that Bairstow’s hundred at number three actually strengthened the case for him batting down the order, but let’s not go down that route.)
Next, the run-scorer v wicket-taker bit
The case for a good number three batsman is basically that Bairstow might score a hundred. He might score a hundred-or-so runs, and everyone knows that when someone scores a hundred-or-so runs that is good for the team and the team stands a better chance of winning.
But what is the cost? If he plays instead of Rashid, maybe a batsman Rashid would have dismissed in single figures will instead make a hundred runs. One wicket doesn’t sound a lot, but that’s literally all we’re talking about when we’re talking about Bairstow’s possible-hundred.
This is what we’re arguing. We’re saying that even if Rashid averages 38 with the ball, he takes wickets no-one else can and in so doing saves his team-mates’ bowling averages from greater damage. Plus he’ll probably take a few other wickets (the tail, for example, who can be real bastards to get out in this sickening modern age of professionalism). He’ll score a handful of extremely fun runs down the order too – maybe even more than Bairstow would have scored.
It doesn’t really matter though because of course they’ll never drop Bairstow and then pick Rashid
Even if you think it’s the right thing to do, can you imagine leaving out a guy from this England team who just made a hundred batting at three? Can you imagine how that would be received by the people who are paid to voice opinions about said team? It’s just not an option.
(Although if we were going to argue it, we’d say this: Bairstow has repeatedly proven himself to be a person who is incredibly motivated by a desire to “prove the doubters wrong”. This even applies even when he has to go to quite a bit of trouble to imagine-up said doubters in the first place. (Literally no-one was slagging you off because you got injured playing football, Jonny. That was criticism of football, not you. It’s a completely different thing.) We’re pretty confident that dropping Bairstow immediately after he’s scored a hundred pretty much guarantees a double hundred next time you pick him.)
An alternative to all of the above
A couple of hundred words ago, we said that there are times when the only things likely to get a team a wicket are fast bowling or wrist spin. An alternative to picking Rashid could therefore be picking Olly Stone.
If you wanted a flat pitch option AND Jonny Bairstow AND Jack Leach AND only five bowlers, you could pick Stone instead of Stuart Broad.
This makes a certain sense, but again it is very hard to see it happening. Dropping Broad for a seamer probably wouldn’t go down anywhere near as well as when they dropped him for a spinner in Sri Lanka (“I don’t think I’d have made a particularly big difference”).
Adil Rashid should play. When he doesn’t play, and someone else plays instead, and England don’t do very well, these are the reasons we’ll be annoyed about it.