England could face some tough selection decisions after a first look at the Kensington Oval surface suggested less help for seamers than was anticipated.
Despite much of the talk in recent weeks suggesting the pitches in this series would be full of pace and carry, England have turned up to find a mottled surface that appears to be both damp and crumbling. While West Indies officials claim it will quicken and improve as it dries and the match wears on, it currently appears likely to be a little on the slow side. As a consequence, the chances of selecting two spinners has probably increased substantially.
They will probably delay any final decision until the morning of the game, given that the warm, windy weather could dry the surface pretty quickly, but it does seem, at present, that England may have to select between Sam Curran and Stuart Broad for the final seam-bowling spot. Curran’s superior batting – and, perhaps, his youth – may well give him an edge in selection, though Broad continues to impress in training.
The identity of the second spinner is not certain, either. While Jack Leach, who finished the Sri Lanka series as England’s equal highest wicket-taker (he and Moeen Ali both claimed 18 in the three Tests) remains the favourite, Adil Rashid’s ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries on flat surfaces means he is under consideration, too. He is also a better batsman. The wickets in the nets at the Oval turned – and bounced – substantially for the spinners, though the middle surface is not expected to provide such extreme assistance.
One man who does seem certain to play is Moeen. He is returning to the scene of what he believes is his worst performance as a bowler in an England shirt, but does so sounding more confident in his bowling than ever before.
On a slow, low surface Moeen – playing as the only spinner and preferred to the steady James Tredwell despite having only recently returned to the side after injury – claimed 2 for 110 in England’s most recent Test in the Caribbean, here in 2015. In the process, he went at a fraction under five an over, as West Indies won the Test to square the series.
“I’ve bowled poorly a lot of times, but that was probably the worst I ever bowled in an England shirt and I want to put that right,” Moeen said on the outfield in Barbados on Monday. “I’d just come back from injury and I was the only spinner. I bowled badly.”
But where Moeen has, in the past, talked about his bowling with some diffidence, he appears to have growing belief in his abilities. And perhaps that is not surprising as he now has 163 Test wickets – only 20 men have ever taken more for England – and, after a tough winter in Australia last year, he bounced back with good series against India (12 wickets at 21) and Sri Lanka (18 wickets at 24.50) in the second half of 2018. In the process, he has gone past the wicket tallies of some of the most respected spin bowlers in the history of English cricket; the likes of Hedley Verity, John Emburey and Fred Titmus.
As a result, the talk of him playing as England’s second spinner – a psychological ploy that was designed to lessen the pressure upon him – has decreased and he is happy to accept an increased role as a bowler.
“I’m not too fussed about being the second spinner anymore,” he said. “Maybe before I was, but now I just try and focus on myself and if someone else plays I try to help them out as much as I can. I’d be fine with playing as the only spinner.
“When you hear about the records and the people you’ve passed it gives you confidence. I’ve passed some really good spinners for England.
“Thinking better of myself might improve me. I’ve got to do that rather than almost hide behind saying I’m a second spinner. I’ve got to face it and deal with it
“I feel like I’m at the best age now. I’m 31 and I’ve played quite a bit for England. I feel I am getting, as a spinner, towards my best. I feel like I’m genuinely getting better.”
He also seems to have accepted that he may be at his most useful for the team in a lower, middle-order spot. He struggled while batting at No. 3 in Sri Lanka – he scored three runs in two innings in the first Test – and acknowledges that England probably require a different answer in future series.
“At this particular moment in my career, I don’t have the patience I used to,” he said. “I did try to bat a long time and it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. But now I think I’m more use to the side coming in down the order and having more responsibility as a spinner. We need a proper No. 3 for the Ashes.”