The sight of three left-arm wrist spinners bowling at England in the nets at Edgbaston underlined the extent to which the talk of spin bowling has dominated the lead-up to this series.
It’s not just England’s reputation against such bowling or the dramatic impact made by Kuldeep Yadav at the start of the limited-overs series between these sides. It is that England has experienced a prolonged spell of unusually hot and dry weather. Even if the squares were heavily watered, it was argued, the dry outfields would draw moisture out of them and leave the pitches dry and dusty.
So, Akhil Patel (the brother of Samit Patel), William Blackwell (a club cricketer at Coggeshall in Essex) and Sam Wisniewski (a Yorkshire Under-17 cricketer) were all recruited to bowl to England’s batsmen in the nets. And, had Jake Lintott, a left-arm wrist-spinner of the fringe of the Hampshire side been available, he would have done so, too. Dom Bess and Jack Leach also took part.
But a first look at the Edgbaston surface suggests such talk may have been overplayed. The pitch looks similar to the surfaces seen here for the 2015 Ashes – when England’s seamers took 19 of the 20 wickets to fall – and the 2016 Test against Pakistan, when England’s spinner, Moeen Ali, took just two of the 20 Pakistan wickets.
Not only has Birmingham seen the dry spell end in recent days – the city experienced minor flooding in some areas on Saturday after torrential rain – but the groundstaff at Edgbaston have pumped millions of litres of water onto the outfield in recent weeks. At one stage, they were putting as many as 47,000 litres of water on to the outfield in 36-minute bursts. Even on Monday night, the groundstaff were spraying seaweed onto the outfield in order to ensure the grass retained moisture even if another hot spell occurs during the game.
As a result, conditions are remarkably similar to usual despite the extreme weather. Indeed, it might be the sort of surface where the captain winning the toss has a tricky decision to make over whether to bat or bowl first. The first session is likely to prove hard work for batsmen and the pitch is unlikely to deteriorate much over the first three days at least.
It therefore seems most unlikely that India will play three spinners and means there is every chance that Kuldeep will not be selected.
It is also quite possible that, even after the furore into Adil Rashid‘s selection, he could be omitted. While Moeen was informed a few weeks ago that he would subsequently be considered only as a second choice spin bowler, he looked back to his best in the recently concluded Championship match against Somerset – he claimed the 10th five-wicket haul of his first-class career – and has, at least, had a chance to play some first-class cricket. Rashid has not played a first-class match since September.
It is 25 years since England played two frontline spinners (Moeen is being classified as a frontline spinner for the purposes of clarity) in an Edgbaston Test. On that occasion, England fielded two offspinners against Australia – Peter Such and John Emburey – and slumped to an eight-wicket defeat.
While Jeetan Patel has enjoyed a good season with Warwickshire – who are based at Edgbaston – he usually gains little help from the surface and sometimes benefits from the footmarks left by Keith Barker, the club’s left-arm swing bowler. The legspinner Josh Poysden also claimed a five-wicket haul at the ground when playing as a second spinner, though he would be the first to admit than some poor batting from Glamorgan played a large part in that haul.
With Moeen and Ben Stokes offering all-round depth, England are blessed with many options. They could play two spinners without weakening their seam bowling. If, for example, they omitted a batsman – Dawid Malan – they could bat Moeen at No. 7, with Rashid at No. 8 and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and, probably, Jamie Porter to follow.
While Sam Curran could also come into the equation, it could be that his left-arm angle counts against him: England, despite the possibility of playing five left-handers in their top seven, are unlikely to want to provide R Ashwin and co. with any help from Curran’s footmarks. Malan, it might be noted, averages 29 in Test cricket. Moeen averages 32.40.
Either way, it seems spin may not play the prominent role in the match that was originally anticipated. Whether by accident or design, Edgbaston appears to have survived the warm spell with its characteristics intact. It looks, in short, a good, English, Test surface with some encouragement for seamers but where batsmen can also prosper.