December 26, 2016

The problem with England's fondness for allrounders

When you pick players for reasonable ability in two disciplines, that affects your ability to win Test matches
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England seem to be saying Moeen Ali's runs excuse his lack of effectiveness with the ball © AFP

The thing about exceptional allrounders is that you find them by accident.

If you go out looking for allrounders thinking you must have one in your team, you will inevitably pick an ordinary allrounder, and such players add what I call illusory value to the team.

All the great allrounders of the game were either bowlers or batsmen to begin with. They commanded a place in the team because of their one primary skill. The second skill developed over a period of time, essentially due to the confidence they derived from the success of their first skill, which helped make the second skill formidable, and as a result you were looking at a great allrounder.

These players weren't allrounders from the start, they developed into allrounders as they went along.

Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee and Ian Botham were all terrific bowlers, first picked in their national sides for their bowling. All four batted at No. 8 in their first Test.

Jacques Kallis was always a batsman first; his team would still play him even if he didn't bowl a single over.

Such allrounders are never dropped from the side because their second skill starts diminishing; it's their primary skill that the team really wants. India will not drop R Ashwin even if he gets ten zeroes on the trot. Ashwin was picked to play for India in Tests as a bowler, and so was Jayant Yadav; their batting has been an unexpected bonus.

India didn't go looking for allrounders. They looked for specialists and happened to find these two allrounders. (Well, that's what they are in home conditions at least.)

England's problem seems to be that they go looking for allrounders to fit into their team, and end up picking players who can do both jobs reasonably well. Big mistake!

"Reasonably well" is just not good enough in Tests, and such players get exposed regularly in this format. For Tests, one must set off looking only for top-class batsmen and exceptional bowlers, and if one of these batsmen or bowlers goes on to add another string to his bow, that's great: you have your accidental allrounder.

Young kids look at the kind of players England select to play for the national side and start honing their skills accordingly. You end up with young players not specialised in one skill

Let's remind ourselves that all great Test sides that ruled world cricket were mostly packed with specialists. They had pure batsmen who got them runs - they rarely let the team down, and if on the odd occasion the majority of them did, their pure bowlers got them wickets early enough to bring the side back in the match.

Pure bowlers and pure batsmen are very good at their respective jobs because that is the only skill they have focused on their entire lives as cricketers.

England seem infatuated with cricketers who can bat and bowl to a decent standard. Word spreads. Young kids look at the kind of players England select to play for the national side and start honing their skills accordingly. Then you have a 15-year-old cricketer with aspirations to play for England dividing his practice and training time towards becoming a batsman and a bowler. You end up with young players not specialised in one skill, like the great allrounders did when they were growing up. This is a dangerous trend.

I saw Amit Mishra bat a lot in the nets during the series against England. No amount of batting is going to save Mishra's Test career unless he becomes a better bowler.

When young English cricketers come out of this kind of system, where all-round talent is rewarded, they will be something like Moeen Ali.

Moeen got two hundreds in the series, which is admirable, but as an offspinner he failed. So all those runs he scored to help England put up good scores were of no use, because Moeen Ali the bowler allowed the opposition to score even more runs.

In the last Test, Liam Dawson and Adil Rashid, England's two other spinners, both got fifties in the first innings, and their batting was praised by English supporters and the media, who seemed pleased with their bowlers' performance with the bat. England got 477 in Chennai only because their tail wagged.

Swann and Panesar: no one cared whether or not they made runs on the 2012 tour of India, because they served their primary purpose well © Getty Images

But India went on to get 759, a lead of 282, because Dawson and Rashid were just not good enough bowlers to stop the rampaging Indian batsmen.

When the pressure was really on, in the second innings, Moeen played an atrocious shot to get out on 44, and Dawson and Rashid got 0 and 2 respectively. Despite the two hundreds in the series, that Moeen averages only 35 in Tests as a batsman also tells us something. This is what I mean by such dual-skills players adding illusory value to the team.

Ben Stokes seems to have the potential to be a great allrounder, the kind that helps make a champion side, but at present he averages 34 with the bat and has a strike rate of 60 as a bowler, which shows he is not exceptional in either discipline yet. But he looks a fantastic cricketer with a great attitude, so there is hope.

The scoreline in the series would have looked a lot better for England if their bowlers had got fewer runs and more wickets.

Does anyone remember how well Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar batted in India in 2012? Who cares! They were bowlers and they did their main job beautifully and that is why England won that series 2-1.

That was a great win, remembered by Indians especially as the one time an overseas team turned the tables on India with spin. England's pure batsmen, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, got the runs and their pure bowlers, Swann, Panesar and James Anderson, got the wickets. It's a pretty reliable formula to win Tests.

I am told Moeen is the best offspinner England have, and that the same can be said of Rashid as a legspinner. This is a concern, because from what I saw in the series, they don't seem to be ready yet to be England's lead spinners. You wonder if these players' batting had something to do with their rise as bowlers through the ranks. Rashid has ten first-class hundreds.

However harsh it might seem on someone who looks a very earnest cricketer, England must drop Moeen from the team for their next Test - more as a symbolic move, to send a strong message through the system that England are looking for specialists now; specialists who make a champion Test team.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ilovetests on January 5, 2017, 22:01 GMT

    Obviously there are a few useful allrounders in the world (Ashwin, Stokes, Shakib) but none are as good as big CDG. A 6-fer on debut, 40 off 20 to win a T20 the other night, the bloke is the new Botham/Miller (a "Bother" to the opposition if you like).

  • magicfarang on January 4, 2017, 13:37 GMT

    None of Englands allrounders are world class. Out of the four I feel that Woakes has the most potential (he was doing great until India and Bangladesh). He is faster and has more potential to be a strike bowler, unlike Stokes and Ali. Stokes for me is the weakest-he never produces runs at important times and is a trundle with the ball that doesn't even get movement. What this article fails to note however is that there are no obvious replacements in terms of specialists. Specialist batsman have done worse than these allrounders. In my opinion they should have picked the young spinner with the best first class spin bowling record for 2016 instead of Rashid or Stokes.

  • Abhi37 on January 3, 2017, 6:06 GMT

    Dear Yoohoo, my opinion is based on a very simple fact. Most English Teams struggle in sub-continental conditions because of the lack of quality spin bowlers. In Moeen you have somebody who is not a complete wash-out. He has shown glimpses of what he can bring to the table where his spin bowling is concerned but only sporadically. England can follow one of 2 approaches. On the one hand you have a bloke who is more than a decent batsman and bit of a confidence bowler who needs to be worked on and given more confidence where his bowling his concerned. This bloke has already tasted international cricket at the highest level. On the other hand you can go back to the drawing board and start looking for a spinner from scratch and then the whole process of blooding him into the cauldron of international cricket begins, again with no guarantee of success. England would be better off nurturing the bird in hand rather than looking for one in the bush. That's the reason why I am pro-Moeen. Thanks

  • yoohoo on January 1, 2017, 6:31 GMT

    @ABHI37 - I have not spoken a single word about Ben or whether he is better or worse than Moeen. Personally, If I had to, I would prefer to choose one or the other depending on the bowling conditions (this would be in addition to specialist pacers and spinners), and not both. But that is beside the point.

    Do you know why most of the great all rounders in tests are bowling all rounders, and so few are batting all rounders? Because it is easier to improve your test batting than to improve your bowling. Your chances of getting an allrounder are always better if you start with a good bowler in tests. Both Moeen and Stokes are good batsmen, but very average bowlers.

    This is not so true in ODIs. The pressure of quick runs gives a chance for the slightly less skilled bowlers to succeed. So, Moeen and Stokes might work in ODIs, but I don't see them as long term prospects in tests. They are at best 6th and 7th bowlers in the team.

  • Abhi37 on December 31, 2016, 8:40 GMT

    Yoohoo we are now sparring just for the sake of sparring. Under no imaginable circumstances do the statistics given by me prove that Moeen has not been shunted around the order or has got enough stability at any particular batting number. Infact the statistics point towards something very contrary. Also to say that 6/7/8 are very similar positions is very similar to saying that 1/2/3 are very similar positions. Then why not make every Number 3. open in the Tests?? What is very obvious is right in front of our eyes. As far as all-rounders go Moeen has an edge over Ben. While England have produced many players like Ben in the past. they do not have a spin all rounder till this date. In Moeen they have somebody who can be groomed as a genuine spinning all-rounder and become a long term asset. The Team management should start paying more attention to Moeen's batting order and groom him properly rather than sacking him at the expense of someone overrated like Ben. I am an Indian by the way.

  • yoohoo on December 31, 2016, 7:03 GMT

    @CRICFAN04636050 - So, there you go it's moeen's batting again and not his bowling. The questions here are - 1. is moeen a good enough batsman to be in the top-5? Or 2. is he a good enough bowler to be chosen in the team as a bowler? I think the answer to 1 is 'not good enough' or 'should try some middle order batsman from domestic cricket' or 'maybe until we find a better middle order batsman' The answer to (2) is 'no'.

  • cricfan04636050 on December 30, 2016, 16:27 GMT

    @YOOHOO whilst I'm not Ali's biggest fan he averaged 68 in both series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer and 44 away to India. Even if we exclude high scoring bore draws, he's averaged 43 in 2016, as a comparison Bairstow averaged 52, Root 48, Cook 41, Stokes 27, Hales 28, Ballance 28, Vince 20 and Woakes 34. If you look at those averages then only Cook, Root, Ali and Bairstow should be feeling confident of retaining their places as top order batsmen.

    I've excluded the high scoring draws for 2 reasons a) there was never any chance of a result and these just bumped up batting averages and b) Ali got 0* and 10* in South Africa so is unfairly penalised compared to Stokes and Bairstow especially but also Root and Cook

  • yoohoo on December 30, 2016, 15:44 GMT

    @ABHI37 - So, the bulk of his batting (40 innings) happened at no.6/7/8. Those are very similar positions, and he got a good run in those positions. He was promoted to 4/5 for india bangladesh, and his performance there is debatable. I was pointing out that it is not true he was picked as a batsman, and it is not true he has been shunted around. Both of these are proved by the statistics you put up.

    My understanding has been that there aren't too many good spinners in Eng, but there are more than enough good middle order batsmen. If moeen is playing as a spinner, he should be compared to other spinners performance. If he is playing as a middle order batsman, then is he the best available? I am not convinced. He is attacking, but seems to lack the ability to keep going and make big scores especially on pitches that are not roads.

  • cricfan04636050 on December 30, 2016, 11:59 GMT

    @GWILLS1990 averages breakdowns of Stokes, Ali, Root and JP Duminy. Stokes won bat 1st 46.2, field 1st 17.75. Lost bat 1st 19.9, field 1st 23.16. Draw, bat 1st 111, field 1st 19.66. Ali won bat 1st 55.36, field 1st 22.83. Lost bat 1st 46.7, field 1st 21.75. Draw bat 1st 42.6, field 1st 20. Root won bat 1st 61, field 1st 188.25, lost bat 1st 35.25, field 1st 29.48. Draw bat 1st 52.15, field 1st 74.33. Duminy won bat 1st 65.27, field 1st 40.25, lost bat 1st 12.25, field 1st 23.57, draw bat 1st 35.11, field 1st 3.25.

    Quite clearly Stokes is well behind a genuine test quality too order batsman and is roughbly on par with JP Duminy, who's been in and out the South African side for his whole career. Your Boycott argument was nonsensical as well, Stokes averages 38 when we won and 22 when we lose, Ali averages 44 when we win and 30 when we lose, which is actually much closer to Boycott. As I said, England would have won no less and lost no more without Stokes, he typifies bits and pieces.

  • Abhi37 on December 30, 2016, 6:22 GMT

    Dear Yoohoo , the trouble is that we decide to take a stance before doing sufficient homework. There is no problem in taking a stance but at-least we should be aware of what we are talking about. Making general pronouncements will never further a cause. I am enclosing below a batting position wise break-up of Moeen Ali's 62 Test innings and leave the rest of the deductions to you. Position Innings No. 1 2 No. 2 4 No. 3 1 No. 4 5 No. 5 7 No. 6 11 No. 7 10 No. 8 19 No. 9 3 Rest I can only say that if Moeen Ali is rubbish as a bowler then I shall have to raid my dictionary to attach a suitable epithet to the drivel which Ben Stokes churns out. Moeen Ali is an absolute certainty in any format of the game merely on his batting strength and should never be left out. Persisted with and given the right opportunity the guy will become a Premier all-rounder for England one day. As I said in my previous article England have enough players of Ben's pedigree (Woakes et al) but none of Moeen's.

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