Perhaps, after a fortnight or so when the topic of pitches has dominated the conversation, it was to be expected that an England player might eventually pass comment.
Until this point, all the debate about the surfaces in India had been carried out in the media. The England team – and the England team management – have made no negative comment. Indeed, they’re reiterated the party line: the wickets have been challenging and they have been out-played on them by a fine India side.
But, after a media conference in which the question was asked, then asked again and then asked in fancy dress, someone finally broke ranks. Jack Leach had a view. And yes, he was suggesting better wickets were required.
The only issue – well, an issue for those hoping for a controversy to stoke more eye-catching headlines – was that Leach was talking about pitches in England. Echoing the comments of his captain, Joe Root, who called for “serious improvements” in the standard of county wickets after the third Test, Leach suggested that, if the county game was going to better prepare players for the spin challenge expected in Asia, it could start by preparing ‘better’ wickets.
“My thoughts are that the wickets in county cricket in general need to be good surfaces to start with,” Leach said. “Then, if they can break up and bring spin into the game later on, I think that’s a good thing for producing spinners.
“They can bowl in the first innings on good wickets. And then, in the second innings when things are starting to happen, they [learn to deal with] the pressure of being the guy who needs to try and bowl the opposition out. That’s the ideal, I think.
“If the spinner is playing in a four-man attack with three seamers and a spinner, then I think the role of the spinner becomes more important. But if there’s four or five seamers [in the side], or a couple of batters that also bowl seam, then I think your overs [as a spinner] can really go down; especially on some of the county wickets I’ve played on in the last couple of years.”
Leach built his reputation, in part at least, by bowling on wickets at Taunton which were rarely described as ‘good’. While they might provide pretty decent preparation for playing on surfaces such as those seen in Chennai and Ahmedabad in recent days – and they certainly helped Leach catch the selectors’ eyes – they are not the sort of pitches either he or Root have in mind.
Instead, they mean the sort of surface on which a spinner might be used in the first innings to offer control and variation – Root had suggested the sort of surface where teams routinely score 400 or 500 – and the sort of surface on which they may play an increasing role in the second as the wicket wears. In short, both Leach and Root are calling for surfaces which are better for batting, limit the influence of seamers armed with a Dukes ball and better replicate the conditions traditionally seen at Test level around the world. All of which seems reasonable enough.
But quite how these comments are received around the county game remains to be seen. Certainly groundstaff, who might feel a little criticised here, could be forgiven for reacting with a rueful smile. As if their jobs, given the volume of cricket played in England each summer, is not already hard, asking them to prepare Test-quality batting surfaces in the early weeks of the county season is probably unreasonable. If England really want to improve their county surfaces, they will almost certainly have to improve their domestic schedule, and avoid playing the bulk of the season when seamers predominate.
In 2021, eight of the 14 rounds of County Championship cricket are scheduled to take place before the end of May (four take place before the end of April) with four more rounds (and the Bob Willis Trophy final) taking place in autumnal September. That leaves just two rounds – eight days of cricket, in other words – scheduled to take place in July or August when surfaces might be expected to provide most assistance to spin bowlers.
This was an issue hinted at by England’s newly-appointed spin-bowling coach, Jeetan Patel. But while Patel was happy to allude to the problem, he is also a realist. Just as he found a way to flourish in county cricket, he is adamant young spinners can “upskill” to the point they “can still contribute in April and September.”
“There’s probably 20 or 30 options,” Patel said when asked how the development of England’s young spinners could be improved. “You could send spin groups away [on overseas camps], you could play [first-class cricket] in the middle of the year or the end of it.
“Ultimately, we want to be playing on the best wickets possible, whether that’s one that does a little bit on day one, flattens out days two and three, and then spins on day four – that’s the ultimate. That would be the ideal and if you spoke to any player or coach in this group here, that’s what they would ask for because that is very close to Test cricket.
“We want to build Test cricketers, that’s part of my job, and that’s what I want to see: how is a spinner going to affect a game on days one, two and three but also be a match-winner on day four.
“But for me it’s [important to] upskill those [county spinners] so they can still contribute in April and September. That’s the thing we forget: there is an opportunity to contribute as a spinner, whether it’s going at two an over, taking two wickets in the first innings or three in the third or fourth. There are opportunities for spinners in England. At county level, the pitches are either over-prepared or under-prepared. So within that is an opportunity for spinners to succeed.
“There’s so many good seamers flying around, as well. And at the end of the day the counties want to win games. Let’s not be too quick to say ‘we have to play a spinner in every XI’ because if we tour New Zealand, then there may not be an opportunity for a spinner to play in a Test match there. We also have to be prepared to pick teams that are going to win games.”
Whatever wicket England encounter in Ahmedabad this week, it seems the answer to long-term improvement may lie much closer to home.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo