It is customary after a Test match for Trevor Bayliss to give his assessment of what has just happened. He seldom surprises. Bayliss is a fount of blunt cricketing commonsense. Like a good old-fashioned Aussie he does not dabble in psychobabble; he hates to overcomplicate. Which is often a relief.
Yet after England’s 211-run victory at Lord’s Bayliss’s post-mortem seemed to contain several linguistic nuances and psychological subtleties, the likes of which seldom spring from his lips. Most of them referred to Moeen Ali, England’s matchwinner after taking 10 for 112 in the game as well as hitting a silky 87 in the first innings.
Moeen, stressed Bayliss, is now regarded as England’s “second spinner”, but that still entitles him to be their “best spinner”, which begs the question whether he remains the second spinner if ever he returns to being the solitary spinner in the side. Moreover Moeen is now viewed as an “attacking spinner” – although it is not obvious how he was regarded previously. Indeed the distinction between an attacking spinner and a defensive one is not as clear-cut as you might imagine. Both are required to bowl on a length just outside the off stump of right-handed batsmen – maybe the attacking spinner might bowl a couple of inches wider. Both are required to spin the ball as much as possible; both are best advised to bowl their natural pace, which, in the case of Moeen, is relatively quickly, and that makes him more of a handful on helpful pitches.
The point is that the differences between being the second spinner and the first or an attacking spinner and a defensive one are minimal – except perhaps in the mind of Moeen. And if that is significant for Moeen then maybe the distinction is well worth emphasising. This is what our new psychological gurus from Sydney and Sheffield seem to have hit upon.
England’s spinners prevailed in spectacular and surprising fashion in the first Test. Bayliss might acknowledge this was not entirely due to the fresh psychological nous of the England management. The ball turned spitefully by the standards of Lord’s. In these circumstances the more accurate finger spinner – like Liam Dawson (by definition now England’s “first spinner”) – could be more effective than Adil Rashid, who would be more likely to take wickets than his new rival on a flatter pitch.
Clearly Bayliss likes this combination at the moment. “We’ll stick with one spinner,” he said after the game “and one batter that bowls a little [Moeen]. And that’s important for Mo more than anything. He wants to be in the team as a batter that bowls a bit so we’ve selected him as a batter and the second spinner. But if he goes into the match as a batter and the second spinner it doesn’t mean that he can’t be the best spinner.”
“I thought Dawson did a very good job”, added Bayliss. “If it is tight at the other end it allows Mo, who is an attacking style off-spinner, to attack.” He then explained the new labelling system. “This was for Mo’s benefit; it probably takes a little bit of pressure off him. He sees himself as a batter number one and a spinner second. And I suppose that doesn’t mean he’s still not our best spinner but his No1 job is to bat. Hopefully this match is the start of things to come.” Bayliss, now warming to his new Brearleyesque persona, added: “Mo is a bit of a complex character at times.
“As a combination both Rash and Mo are very similar type characters; both are attacking style spinners and we just felt if we could get someone who could control things a little better and hopefully take some wickets as well that might set us up for the long term. Dawson has the opportunity at the moment but there are a number of other good young spinners and Rash himself pushing hard. I thought in the one Test he played in India Dawson was probably our best spinner so he deserves the opportunity.”
So this is the current direction of travel. It is not good news for Rashid. But it does not feel quite as permanent as Bayliss suggests. At the risk of confusing the new categorisations Dawson, despite his three consecutive ducks for England, remains a doughty cricketer but also a batsman who bowls rather than a serious “first spinner” at Test level. Perversely Dawson has only been promoted to the first spinner role to make Moeen feel more comfortable. He is however improving when the ball is in his hands and the competition is sparse especially after the setbacks experienced by Jack Leach in the winter.
Undoubtedly the Lord’s Test was something of a renaissance match for Moeen. And the same can be said of Alastair Cook, whose responsibilities have also changed – and diminished. There are bound to be pitfalls about returning to the ranks after so long in charge. But none were in evidence as Bayliss pointed out. “Oh, he’s loving it. He does not have to come and do these things for a start. I was having a bit of a laugh about it just watching him in the field. He was out running around in the covers. He looked like he was enjoying it. For someone at this stage in his career that’s a good sign.”
Cook also batted rather better than the curmudgeons who complained about England’s slow scoring at the start of their second innings, suggested. “I thought the three guys who batted on Saturday night did an exceptional job”, said Bayliss. “Cooky came off and said the wicket was difficult. You tend to believe anyone who has 11,000 Test runs and the 19 wickets in a day proved him right.”
It may be safe to conclude that in this team, where Moeen is now the second spinner, Cook is still regarded as the “first opener”.