Mason Crane is an extremely promising young spin bowler. In white-ball cricket the variety that a wrist-spinner gives you is invaluable and becoming more-and-more necessary to win tournaments. Crane is superb for Hampshire in this respect, and enjoyed a prolific T20 Blast campaign in which both his wickets and economy rates ranked near the top.
Attacked often, Crane fearlessly tosses the ball up to draw big strokes from even the most cautious of Twenty20 batsmen, turning it either way with a gorgeous googly or a ripping stock leg break. His skill was exemplified in his first foray into international cricket, scalping AB De Villiers in his second game, caught on the rope at deep square-leg. Crane has a bright future in this format of the game, be it usurping Adil Rashid as England’s primary white ball spin bowler or in franchise tournaments the world over.
What Crane is not, right now, is a good red ball bowler. He struggles to consistently tie batsmen down, offering long hops, full tosses and width allowing runs to be scored rather more easily than one would prefer. One may argue that is not the leg spinners role in a good red ball side, he should be the one taking wickets. The 9th leading spin bowling wicket taker in Division One of the County Championship, Crane does not offer great skill in this area: he struggles to consistently threaten the bat based on the limited red ball action I have seen from him.
Much is made of Crane’s winter jaunt to Australia as reasoning behind his fast-tracking into the Test squad for the West Indies series. Cricket writers and ex-pros have pointed to his exploits for New South Wales, where he became the first overseas player since Imran Khan in 1984. Lost in the hullaballoo of this admittedly excellent achievement is the nature of that call-up: Crane did not play extensive time for the representative outfit, just the one Sheffield Shield game, match figures of 5/116 good, but not outstanding. To vault a man to such loft heights based on one game is reckless, but an all-to-familiar sight for England fans given it is essentially exactly how Dawid Malan managed to break into the Test side (and Malan’s was a T20 international.) ‘Experts’ quote the Australia adventure as a strong piece of evidence for selection without caveating it with actual facts of how limited Crane’s experience Down Under actually was.
England would be unwise to take the 20-year-old as their primary backup spinner for the Ashes. And there are reasons to help understand why.
Form of Jack Leach:
Leach is THE outstanding English county spinner of the last two seasons. A left arm orthodox bowler, Leach has starred for Somerset on an admittedly spin-friendly pitch at Taunton. This season he is the second leading spinner in terms of wickets behind Kolpak phenom Simon Harmer at title-winning Essex; last he fell only behind another overseas import in Jeetan Patel. Consistent, accurate and deadly, the left armer conjures images of Daniel Vettori; like the New Zealander, Leach is often bespectacled.
It was a travesty Leach was ignored by Bayliss for last winter’s disaster in the subcontinent. An ageing Gareth Batty and two bits-and-pieces left armers in Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson made the trips to Bangladesh and India and were thoroughly underwhelming with the ball: Batty is now discarded, Ansari retired and Dawson seemingly out of the picture after similar failings at the start of the British summer.
Leach did encounter controversy after his bowling action was reported by England as suspect during those tours, and urged him to remodel it before he would be considered for full representatives. He was given time to develop with the remodelled action earlier this year and has allayed fears that it may have inhibited his effectiveness with another good season. He is coming into his prime and the longevity of the spin bowler indicate he may be around for a good time.
Able to constrict or attack, Leach offers a suitable portfolio of skills to make him an attractive backup spinner to Moeen Ali or a good alternative, should the pair be employed in tandem at Sydney. Leach would be able to develop with the squad and work with Ali and spin bowling consultants (Saqlain Mushtaq perhaps continuing in his recent role) and be familiar with the group for the next time England head to Asia or the more spin-friendly areas of the West Indies. Leach’s experienced Australian captain at Somerset last year Chris Rogers felt it took more than one good season to get into the England setup: Jack Leach now has two excellent seasons, and deserves to be on the plane to Australia.
Leg Spinners in Test Match Cricket:
Test match cricket is still the pinnacle of the game for most cricketers, but that may change in the coming years as the world’s attention is further drawn to franchise T20 cricket, and the money is moving in that direction also in most areas too. It shall not be long before more and more players follow the route of abandoning red ball cricket to strive for lucrative contracts in India, the Caribbean, the Global T20 League of South Africa and England’s new city based tournament as has been favoured particularly by West Indians in recent years.
The wrist-spinner is a crucial aspect of any bowling attack in this format of the game, as was outlined earlier in this piece. The ability to beat the bat in both directions is invaluable, and the likes of Imran Tahir, Shadab Khan and the extraordinary Rashid Khan are cashing in. It’s not inconceivable that Crane may make this jump into franchise cricket this winter, should the selectors rightfully ignore him for the Ashes.
In Test cricket, the wrist-spinner is going extinct. Of the nine regular Test-playing nations (excluding Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe) just one regularly opts for a leg spinner to lead their their attack, Pakistan and Yasir Shah. Amit Mishra, Devendra Bishoo, Imran Tahir and Adil Rashid have been largely jettisoned out of their respective Test sides in recent times. In the last two years, the top-10 leading spin wicket takers have composed of nine off spinners or left arm orthodox, and just the one leggie (Yasir).
Yasir is an anomaly: he is the leg-spinner who is not effective in T20 cricket. Pakistan do not use him in this format; it was a surprise to see the Trinbago Knight Riders opt for him as injury cover in the CPL given how little franchise cricket the 31-year-old plays. This lack of white-ball nous may help him: he does not struggle to switch between formats, changing his bowling style for the different batting attitudes. Shah proves that leg-spinners still have a place in Test cricket, but perhaps only if they do not play any T20 cricket, something that does not make financial sense.
The Simon Kerrigan Sequel:
At one time, Simon Kerrigan was the great hope for English spin bowling. In August of 2013, the left-arm spinner was called into the England squad for the final Ashes Test at the Oval after a prolific Championship summer and several years of monitoring by English coaches. Introduced on a flat deck perhaps a couple of years too soon for a meaningless game, Kerrigan (24 at the time) bowled just 8 overs, conceding 53 runs as Shane Watson battered him to all parts.
The Lancashire left-armer struggled badly for line and length, and has never recovered from the disaster debut despite again joining England for the India series in 2014. Alastair Cook at that point foresaw a good Test career for Kerrigan: alas that has not occurred, and Kerrigan’s stock has fallen such that Lancashire have loaned him to Northamptonshire this summer.
A similar battering could await Crane on a premature debut. The Australians would surely target the inexperienced and under developed youngster, potentially knocking his confidence permanently and not allowing him to see his potential. At best, Crane takes a couple of wickets as England’s second spinner for one Test match, and otherwise treks around Australia carrying drinks.
Send Mason Crane away with the England Lions, the second tier in the England Cricket setup who are running a concurrent Australia tour while the Ashes takes place. Allow the young man to get plenty of overs under his belt alongside a good crop of young fast bowlers, against a weaker batting lineup. Allow him to develop his skills and craft a successful gameplan for getting batsman out in red ball cricket. Monitor his progress and have him in the country ready should Moeen and Leach both suffer injury.
Perhaps a strong winter with the Lions and a good summer for Hampshire next year awaits for a promising Mason Crane, and he parlays those into a successful Test career. For now, though, Trevor Bayliss and the selectors would be wise to not opt for Crane. Forget Shane Warne and the like’s clamouring: Mason Crane should not be in the England squad for the Ashes.