By Richard Edwards
ENGLAND’S spin cupboard is bare – and John Emburey fears that re-stocking it may take a generation.
A lack of coaching support, coupled with an attitude to pitches that last season resulted in the likes of Somerset punished for producing turning wickets, have combined to create the kind of environment that was unthinkable when Emburey was coming through the youth ranks at Middlesex in the early Seventies.
Then, following the likes of Fred Titmus into the Middlesex side, Emburey and his fellow spin-twin, Phil Edmonds, helped form one of the most formidable county attacks ever assembled.
Now Emburey, 65, fears that an over-emphasis on turning batsmen into part-time spinners is in danger of stunting the growth of bowlers trying to break into first teams across the country. It is a bleak picture but Emburey – who took 147 wickets in 64 Tests for England between 1978 and 1995 – remains hopeful that, with some careful nurturing, a successor to Graeme Swann can be unearthed.
But a pitch battle may have to take place in the meantime.
“All the pitches have been relaid and they don’t really break up too much,” he said.
“Therefore you don’t get the variety of pitches that you used to.
“When I played, every ground was very different, but now the pitches these guys are playing on are very, very similar.
“There are variations on hardness, depending on the depth of the pitch when they’re relaid but the majority of the pitches don’t break-up.
“There was a lot of criticism of Somerset’s pitches last year, but I don’t have a problem with that at all.
“When you get cricket that’s the same day-in, day-out, it’s actually nice to know that someone is prepared to have wickets that spin and encourage spinners to bowl.”
It’s no coincidence that Jack Leach and Dom Bess, both men of Taunton, are heading the queue when it comes to potentially breaking into the England line-up this summer.
Mason Crane has a chance to stake his claim in New Zealand, but his performances for the Lions on spin-friendly pitches in West Indies hardly helped his cause and mean he faces an uphill task to add to his one Test cap against the Aussies at Sydney, for the time being at least.
“Somerset have two good spinners in Leach and young Bess and they’ll both improve,” said Emburey.
“But it’s one thing bowling on pitches that turn, but you have to learn also to bowl on pitches that don’t and both Leach and Bess are doing that away from Taunton.
“They’re developing in that respect on a variety of pitches whereas other cricketers are not. The problem is that we haven’t got the number, or the quality, of spinners in the game and what’s happening is that a lot of counties are developing some of their batsmen who bowl spin in the nets to develop into performing a role in the Championship and one-day team.”
All of which simultaneously limits the opportunity for out-and-out spinners to prove their worth.
Arguably it is a similar situation to the one faced by a generation of wicketkeepers, with many counties, again, favouring players who are batsman first and keepers second, rather than the other way around.
It is a sharp contrast to the approach that was used when Emburey began in his career at Lord’s in the Seventies.
“I started on uncovered wickets – I had ten years of my early career, both in Second XI and First XI cricket, playing on uncovered pitches,” he said.
“That wasn’t to say that all pitches spun, because they were only uncovered during the hours of play, but you learned to bowl on a variety of surfaces.
“The players now don’t get that opportunity. That’s not to say that pitches are everything.
“Look at Nathan Lyon in Australia. He has learnt to bowl in the conditions he has had to play in.
“He gets a lot of over-spin and therefore he gets a lot of revs and gets turn and bounce. In that respect he’s unique and there’s a lesson there for all spinners to learn from, because to me that’s very important.
“The other factor, of course, is that there are so few spin bowling coaches out there as well. You haven’t got the quality playing in the team to justify them so it’s a vicious circle.”