When leg-spinner Scott Borthwick was picked for the Sydney Test Match four years ago, it seemed like a desperate throw of the dice from an England team that had been brutalised by the Australians and decimated internally by retirements and stress-related injuries.
Borthwick was lined up to replace Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann who had gracefully (ahem) retired halfway through the series to kindly give somebody else a go. The Durham all-rounder didn’t disgrace himself with the ball, taking four wickets, but England’s group morale was lower than six feet under
Mason Crane, Hampshire’s 20-year old leggie, thus far seemed to be on an Ashes jolly, in much the same way as a 16-year-old Theo Walcott was taken on England’s 2006 World Cup squad for “the experience”. However, things have changed. The tourists’ primary spin bowler, Moeen Ali, needs a spin doctor to justify his inclusion on any basis.
Fortunately, a ready made excuse has appeared. Chris Woakes is unfit after a recurrence of his side strain. Even so, Trevor Bayliss is emboldened to look at the opportunities somebody else’s misfortune presents: “We think he’s ( Crane) a guy that has got the goods and the more he plays at this level, the better he will get. You have got to start somewhere.”
That somewhere is Sydney. Jimmy Anderson is also impressed with the young buck: “He gives the ball a good rip: he can really spin it well”. That first line must hurt Moeen, however unintentionally. Crane is not your average rookie 20-year-old though. He played grade cricket for Sydney club Gordon last winter, taking 45 wickets to become joint recipient of the O’Reilly Medal. This also earned a call-up to the New South Wales team, becoming the first overseas player to represent the state for 32 years.
Alastair Cook might have to double up his net sessions again if he wants to go big. Mitchell Starc looks set to return for another shot at the top order at the expense of the ineffective Jackson Bird. Mark Stoneman and James Vince are still in the twilight zone, and will be thinking they haven’t quite done enough to justify a longer run in the side even if they are retained. Both need to push on at the SCG for the team’s health given the extension of England’s unproven tail.
It now looks unlikely that Ashton Agar will get a chance to prove his maturity as a left-arm spinner. The once dashing young teenage debutant of the 2013 Trent Bridge Test has been becalmed internationally since. It was a dramatic entrance, on a par with the late Ben Hollioake’s swaggering intro in 1997, but maybe, like Hollioake’s, it will be a one-hit wonder.
There’s a danger that the combined off-field pressures, the scoreline and the “can we go home now?” mentality that drip feeds into even the tightest of touring squads could inflict further pain on England. They must fight their corner, even if they end up squealing like a strangled mouse.