Is it fair to say that since you retired, England have not had a world-class off-spinner who can bowl menacingly in Tests?
England have struggled with spinners since I finished. They’ve had some good bowlers, though. Moeen Ali is a vastly under-rated off-spinner. He could have taken more Test wickets. The main issue is the way spinners are captained and looked after in England. It is diabolical. A lot of captains in English cricket don’t understand how a spinner works, how his mind needs to be during a game, how his field setting needs to be. I was lucky I had captains who let me take onus and control. Andrew Strauss was exceptional. He let me have my own fields and would come up with suggestions every now and again. I was quite a gregarious, confident character so that suited me. In the past, the English way was to always be very, very negative… as a captain, to not start with attacking fields, to force a spinner to just go one an over and then gradually bring in fielders if the pressure builds. I always thought it was the other way around: as a finger spinner, you should build the pressure immediately. Your first 10-15 balls to a batsman are your most dangerous, that is when the batsman hasn’t read you.
Jack Leach has just taken 10 wickets at Headingley, and praised captain Stokes and coach McCullum. Are things changing?
Yes. With the change in management, things might be different for spinners here. Baz McCullum as coach has been brilliant so far. The confidence that breeds in players, when you’ve got a coach who backs you and a captain in Ben Stokes who is happy if you set attacking fields…it makes you believe in yourself. That could work in Leach’s favour. In Edgbaston, you might see some good spin bowling from England. It’s a wicket that definitely does turn, and Jack should be confident.
Ashwin wasn’t played in the first four Tests of this series last year, and he’s just recovered from a bout with Covid…
What a bowler he is. The professor of spin. He sometimes over-thinks it but he knows what he is doing and he knows exactly what he is going to do at Edgbaston. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a long bowl in the second innings. It has been a hot, dry and dusty summer. One thing that foreign teams sometimes do in England is overload their team with seam bowlers. It may swing, but I’m not expecting too much seam. The wicket will be geared towards the powerhouse English middle order batting. If Leach can get 10 at Headingley, India’s spinners will enjoy Edgbaston. India will be crazy not to play Ashwin.
Is there a sort of perception bias when it comes to team selections for various formats? Do selectors pigeonhole spinners too easily and too early on in their careers?
Yes. Definitely people do get pigeonholed into one or the other format and can then find it hard. A lot of bowlers come through and they’re seen as just T20 bowlers. They’re happy to bowl with the white ball too, in fact they don’t want to bowl with the red ball! In England we have Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali who are our world-class white-ball specialists. They don’t enjoy bowling with the red ball! However, Moeen recently hinted that he would come out of retirement from Tests to play for Stokes. That says more about Joe Root‘s captaincy than Ben’s! Also, I don’t think modern spinners are as drawn towards Test cricket, because it’s hard work. Being a spinner in Tests is really, really hard on the fingers, on the body, on the mind, and it doesn’t pay as well as the short fix in four overs. The IPL contracts, Hundred contracts, they pay very well for half the work.
If you could play selector, would you put Yuzvendra Chahal in that Indian Test team?
I’d sit down with Yuzi and I’d say, ‘What is it? Do you want to play red-ball cricket for India?’ If he does, I’d have him in the squad straight away. I think he is world class, he’s the best spinner in the world in my opinion. His control, bowling leg-spin in very tricky conditions, especially when that ball gets dew on it and gets wet, is incredible. There isn’t a more difficult place to bowl in the evening than in India.
Yuzvendra Chahal. (Photo by Pankaj Nangia/Getty Images)
So the best spinner is not playing Tests…what does that say about Test selections in general?
Well, I should say Yuzi is the best white-ball spinner then, because we don’t know if he can be the best red-ball spinner! But it shows that some cricketers have been pigeonholed into the white-ball format. As for the relevance of Tests, I still think it’s very healthy. As teams become more attacking, the passion for Tests is being rekindled. England are playing an exciting brand of cricket. I hope that Baz McCullum’s ethos will rub off on the Indian team and other teams around the world. It’s a way to get the crowds back in.
Can all teams afford to go for the jugular like England are looking to do at the moment?
I think India under (coach) Dravid will play a more traditional form of Tests than England. Last year this time, India were a far better Test team than England were. But it will be exciting if more teams can change the personnel and the mindset like England have. It will be good for Tests.
On another note, do India have a top-order problem?
India do have a top-order issue if Rohit Sharma is not there, but you’ve got Pujara who can open. The real problem is with England. Their openers can’t get any runs!
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