By Sabyasachi Chowdhury: England were handicapped midway through the first Ashes Test and it didn’t come as a surprise. On an uncharacteristically slow track, Ben Stokes’s men did not have a proper spinner in their team. Yes, there was Moeen Ali, but he was as good as done due to a finger injury.
Moeen’s injury didn’t come as a surprise either. He returned to the Test setup after last playing way back in September 2021. In fact, Moeen hasn’t played red and pink ball cricket since the match against India at the Kennington Oval.
The off-spinner bowled 33 overs in the first innings of the Edgbaston Test and sustained the injury. For someone who hasn’t had that much of a workload for nearly two years, one could see that injury coming. Moeen did pick up some crucial wickets, but now with his injury, England have a bit of thinking to do.
Moeen had to come out of Test retirement after Jack Leach was ruled out of the series due to a lower back stress fracture. Life became tough for Stokes after Moeen’s injury in Birmingham.
Joe Root had to roll his arms over for 22 overs and although he did bowl reasonably, sticking with him as a long-term option may not pay many dividends for England. Pat Cummins got stuck into him after hitting him for massive sixes down the ground.
Surely, at the age of 36, Moeen cannot be a future option for England given that he has been out of the first-class format. It also remains to be seen if he gets back to full fitness for the remainder of the series.
That begs the question – Who if not Leach?
Before play on Day 5, Nasser Hussain talked about the abundance of pacers and the dearth of spinners in England’s domestic cricket
"The problem in English first-class cricket is that of the leading 46 wicket-takers, 44 are seamers - and the two spinners are Simon Harmer at Essex, who can't play for us, and Jack Leach, who is injured," Hussain said on Sky Sports Cricket.
One could argue about how much experience they have, but the English domestic circuit does have spinners, albeit a handful.
The options England could look up to
Rehan Ahmed made a name for himself while playing in the U19 World Cup last year in the West Indies. The 18-year-old has two five-wicket hauls to his name in 14 innings in first-class cricket. The youngster is also a handy batter.
Having scored one century and four half-centuries, Leicestershire’s Rehan has given a decent account of himself. That he can bat well lower down the order also serves the purpose of England’s tradition of having enough batting depth in Test cricket.
Rehan picked up a five-wicket haul on his Test debut against Pakistan at the National Stadium in Karachi. Although he is yet to be England’s first-choice spinner, Rehan is an excellent backup option to have.
“Rob Key has always been a fan of his,” said Nasser Hussain on Liam Dawson. And why not? Dawson has 257 wickets in first-class cricket, although with a strike-rate of 70.4, picking up wickets has been little tough for him.
Like Rehan, Dawson is more than a handy batter. Having scored 8642 runs at an average of 32.61 with 11 hundreds and 47 fifties, there is very little doubt about his credentials as a batter.
Dawson played three Tests from December 2016 to July 2017 before losing his spot in the team. He hasn’t had the best of times in the County Championship 2023. He has scored only 243 runs at an average of 24.30 and picked up 10 wickets from seven matches.
Given his current form, England may be reluctant to draft Dawson back in, but whether they have other options is the main question.
Tom Hartley is pretty new to first-class cricket, but has chipped in with handy performances for Lancashire. The left-arm spinner 28 wickets to his name from 15 matches with a four-wicket haul and a five-wicket haul to his name.
He has also scored 413 runs at an average of 31.76 with two fifties and a top score of 73 not out. But again, with no international experience until now, it is unlikely that England will look up to him in the ongoing Ashes.
Challenging times ahead for England
It goes without saying that England got plenty of chances to get Australia on the mat at Edgbaston. Until the last hour of Day 5, Stokes’s men were in the driver’s seat before an unbeaten 55-run stand between Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon robbed them of victory.
Moreover, with doubts over Moeen’s fitness, England will also need to figure out their forward in the spin department at Lord’s. Root can chip in here and there with handy overs, but it will be unfair on him to play the role of a workhorse.
Will England add an additional spinner to their squad for the remaining four Tests? It seems to be the need of the hour if England want to stage a comeback and draw level in the series.