It seems we have some dewy-eyed romantics as selectors. From Hampshire they have plucked the young wrist-spinner, Mason Crane, whose bowling average is twice his age. A fresh-faced novice of 20 is on the verge of playing Test cricket after 25 first-class games.
It is an eye-catching selection and a heartwarming story and – who knows – might have a happy ending. Whether Crane actually plays in Birmingham against West Indies is debatable. This is England’s first ever day-night Test with the devious pink ball, which sometimes get up to tricks when the sun goes down. During the twilight hour it is the seamers who usually prevail. So Crane may not make the final XI.
But the intent has been shown and this set of selectors like pecking orders. If not Birmingham, then Headingley or Lord’s could be the venue of a captivating Test debut for the latest English leggie. When that first match comes along everyone will wish him success – against the odds.
For there is no doubt that the odds are against him. The catalogue of English leg-spinners over the last 50 years does not compare that favourably with our efforts in the Eurovision Song contest. The most successful wrist-spinner at Test level in that time was probably Bob Barber, whose primary job was to open the batting with Geoffrey Boycott. He took 42 Test wickets at 43 apiece.
Soon after Robin Hobbs, all effervescence from Essex, gathered 12 wickets in seven matches that were spread over four years at 40.08. In the 1990s they willed Ian Salisbury to succeed but, after an encouraging first outing against Pakistan at Lord’s in 1992, he ended with 20 wickets from 15 Tests at an average of 76.95. At the turn of the century, Chris Schofield of Lancashire was in the first batch of cricketers to receive a central contract. Selected mainly because he propelled the ball from the back of the hand, often a source of infatuation among selectors and pundits, he played two Tests, but went wicketless.
Then comes Adil Rashid, who took the last of his 38 wickets (at 42.78 apiece) in Chennai in December. Currently it seems that there may not be any more. He has been banished from the red-ball game having played all 10 of his Tests overseas, which surely threatens some sort of record.
Rashid has proven far more productive for England in limited-overs cricket and that is the way with wrist-spinners in the modern era. The shorter the game, the more effective they are. The most obvious example of this trend is South Africa’s Imran Tahir, who took 57 wickets in his 20 Tests at 40.24 apiece. He has long since been discarded from the red-ball game – to be replaced by the impressive finger-spinner, Keshav Maharaj – but Tahir is still a member of both their white-ball sides. In Test cricket it is not possible to bowl with four men on the boundary for any length of time.
All of which demonstrates the challenge facing Crane. The above is not designed to be curmudgeonly but to manage the expectations of a talented young cricketer. There is an element of wish fulfilment in this selection redolent of the Salisbury years. There will be those who cite the early introduction of Shane Warne to Test cricket (in fact Warne might offer up that argument himself) as an easy justification of Crane’s selection. There is a simple and obvious response to that: Warne was a one-off genius.
So, as Sir Humphrey used to say in Yes Minister causing considerable alarm along the way, this is a “brave” decision. In one sense it is, however, a well-timed one. West Indies do not possess the most powerful of batting lineups; meanwhile England have their bristling all-rounders, even more of them now that Chris Woakes is back in the squad, which gives them the flexibility to experiment with a luxury spinner. Moreover it is obviously easier for a novice to prosper in a dominant side and that is what we expect England to be against the West Indians.
By the same token this may be a good time for Mark Stoneman to make his debut – and he will definitely be in the starting XI at Edgbaston. Facing Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander (when fit) and Kagiso Rabada was a trial for Alastair Cook, let alone Keaton Jennings. Even though pace bowling may be one of the stronger suits of West Indies they cannot match the expertise of the South Africans. A couple of scores in less taxing conditions would be enough to take Stoneman to Australia and any disappointment on his part about missing out earlier in the summer would quickly evaporate.
This West Indies team is not burdened by high expectations – although they have two Hopes (Shai and Kyle) in their squad. Kraigg Braithwaite, a craggy opener who blocks diligently, is their most experienced batsman at 24 years of age. They have proven pace in the form of Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach. Jason Holder goes about the tricky task of leading them with composure and maturity. And they have a handy leg-spinner too, Devendra Bishoo. But at 31 he has had time to learn a few survival techniques. He might need them on chilly nights in Birmingham.