As the England coach with a specialism in spin bowling, Jeetan Patel could have been forgiven for assessing his charges for the Pakistan series and invoking the words of Archie MacLaren, the captain who saw his squad for the 1902 Old Trafford Test and cried: “My God! Look what they’ve sent me.”
Jack Leach is the sole spinner with Test caps (29 to be precise), Rehan Ahmed is an 18-year-old leggie three first-class matches into his career, and there are two batting all-rounders in Will Jacks and Liam Livingstone. The pitches in Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi are yet to be seen but in terms of slow bowling experience, England appear lighter than a bag of Maltesers.
Such concerns are not the way in the uber-positive regime fostered by Brendon McCullum, however. Patel, the head coach’s fellow New Zealander, is cut from similar cloth and before the tour the former Warwickshire captain – a past critic of English cricket’s relationship with spin – sat down to discuss his task.
“I don’t think it will rag in Pakistan,” says Patel. “They have to bring their seamers into it. But it will probably spin enough, before the games accelerate at the back end. The beauty of our selection is we have guys who will be aggressive and Leachy, who can operate in a number of different ways.
“I’m really excited for our spinners on this tour – and don’t forget Joe Root. Some say he’s reluctant but, if so, that was when he was captain and had a lot going on. Now he’s not, he becomes a real option.”
Leach first, with whom Patel has struck up a close relationship since entering the setup in 2019. The 31-year-old is five Test wickets away from 100 and after struggles in Australia and the Caribbean has thrived under the captaincy of Ben Stokes. A maiden 10-wicket Test haul at Headingley in June highlighted the progress.
“The Ashes in Australia came after some tough Covid years,” Patel says. “Leachy’s role was very specific and they bullied him. He got knocked. He got to the Caribbean and bowled a lot. Could he have had more success? Yeah. Did he get it right all the time? Probably not. But the work put him in a great place to just bowl all summer and you’ve seen him grow. He was striving to be someone else before, but I said: ‘You’re Jack Leach. Chill out. You can be you and succeed.’
“As he saw where we were going under Stokesy, he became the kid at Somerset who just bowled.
“It’s become about winning small moments. As soon as you become a Test spinner, people talk of two runs an over in the first innings, five-fers in the second. But that’s old school. It’s not like that any more. It’s about exploiting nuances.”
At Patel’s suggestion, Leach’s training is primed to coincide with bowling to Root and Stokes in the nets – the best player of spin and the most aggressive – when before he was “a bit gun-shy”.
“Talking about technique was almost masking where he was at,” says Patel. “But 15 months later he is a lot more trusting in himself – he lights up the changing room. He knows how he can contribute.
“A lot of spinners get told what to do – get more side-on, be stronger through the crease – and they don’t ask why. When I reached my 30s, I had the answers to those questions and I really took off. Leachy is 31 and has come on really quickly in this respect.”
This point rather strikes to the heart of spin bowling in England, where patience is often in short supply. Patel rejects the idea that the cupboard is bare, however, rather there is a “10-year gap” between seasoned spinners and those in their infancy. Though exacerbated by Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid opting not to tour, Patel is calm about the pair’s decision as “their service to England has been immense”. He adds: “Would I want them in Pakistan? 100%. But it’s not the case and we move on to the next.”
Next right now are three newcomers in Jacks, Livingstone and Ahmed. The two all-rounders will be encouraged to bowl aggressive lines in shorter spells. Sympathetic fields will be essential, he says, but a penchant for fast scoring with the bat and fielding prowess may offset their economy. Pakistan will attack both but this creates opportunities.
Ahmed is more of a wildcard. Patel hoped he would at least travel as a net bowler, having himself benefited from a tour of Sri Lanka with New Zealand aged 19. Ahmed is a precocious talent, with a devilish googly.
“Rehan’s white-ball skills are seriously high-end: he bowls at a good lick, a tough length, spins it both ways and is not very tall, so the ball isn’t in the air long and it’s hard to get down the pitch. But he still relies on people getting out, as opposed to getting people out.
“We got him in during the ODIs this summer, to see him interact with Rash and Mo. Rash immediately said: ‘This guy is good. He needs to play red-ball cricket because he can bowl three different balls on the same length.’”
As an off-spinner with a fast bowler’s mentality, Patel caused a stir in 2015 when he claimed his English equivalents did not train hard enough. The recent high-performance review showed spinners bowl 22% of domestic overs in England – the lowest among the top eight nations – but Patel insists game time is not the only time to learn.
“That stat is disappointing,” he says. “I just think the pitches are a bit shit – too soft – and do loads for the seamers. Old Trafford is probably one of the best, Edgbaston and the Oval, too. But elsewhere they’re too soft.
“But [English spinners] don’t bowl enough outside of matches. As a player, I bowled loads in the nets and 40 minutes before every day. It’s not overs or balls, it’s time – how long are you on your feet? I’d had a couple of beers when I made those comments [in 2015] but even if it was a batting day I’d always bank bowling time so when the crunch came, I didn’t want the ball taking off me. That’s key.
“One of my other bugbears is talk of conditions. Captains and coaches get caught up with whether it will rag and ignore spin if they don’t think it will. But spin is about more than that – it always has a role to play. Stop playing the conditions, play the game.”
This no-nonsense approach is among what encouraged McCullum to keep Patel on during a recent trim of his staff.
On his former teammate’s approach, Patel says: “Brendon wants guys to realise that they’re at the top – Test cricket – and it should be as fun as possible. It’s not a chore, it’s not a ball-ache. You will never regret the time you played Test cricket. The way we operate now, jeez, I’d love to play for England.”
Had the 42-year-old’s parents remained in the UK, where they met back in the day, and not emigrated to Wellington, this may have proved the case. As it is, England’s spinners – for all their lack of experience – at least have strong backing in their corner.