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Matt Parkinson and the plight of the English leg spinner

Lancashire leg spinner Matt Parkinson is 25 years old and at the time of writing has 127 first-class wickets at an average of 24.

He played his first Test just over a week ago as a concussion substitute, bowling tidily and picking up 1-47 off almost 16 overs.

His debut compares favourably to those of contemporaries such as Mitchell Swepson (2-188 off 62) or Rashid Khan (2-154 off 34), let alone Bryce McGain’s calamitous only Test against South Africa a few years back (0-149 off 18).

This week Matt Parkinson was dropped from the Test XI as soon as the solid but unspectacular Jack Leach had recovered.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the decision unfair and possibly capricious. But that would be to ignore one crucial fact – Matt Parkinson is an English leg spinner.

Matt Parkinson

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Over the years English selectors have treated leggies with the kind of deep distrust usually reserved for ex-cons or pork-barrelling politicians.

Contrary to popular belief, England has actually produced a number of them over the years, though their tenure at the highest level has typically been brief and unspectacular.

Do the names Mason Crane, Ian Salisbury or Chris Schofield mean anything to the average punter? They are among the group of specialist English leg spinners picked at Test level over the last 20 years or so, and their combined analysis amounts to an eye-watering 21 wickets at 86 in their combined 18 Tests.

The exception that proves the rule, Adil Rashid, has of course carved out a successful one-day career, and at least had a couple of moments at Test level before his shoulder gave out.

But even then he was often sparingly used, or not bowled at all, in the home Tests that he played.

Going back further, wrist spinners such as Robin Hobbs, Doug Wright and Eric Hollies enjoyed sporadic success.

Wright was the only English leg spinner to take 100 Test wickets in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and of course a Hollies wrong‘un famously took out Donald Bradman for a duck in his last Test innings.

Johnny Wardle, a left-arm finger spinner when playing at home, would only bowl his dangerous wrist spin on overseas tours, away from the disapproving eyes of his Yorkshire colleagues.

Contrast this sorry state of affairs with the production line of leggies to wear the green and gold: Warwick Armstrong, Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly, Colin McCool, Doug Ring, Richie Benaud, Peter Philpott, Kerry O’Keeffe, Terry Jenner, Jim Higgs, Bob Holland, Peter Sleep, Trevor Hohns, Stuart MacGill and of course the incomparable Shane Warne.

Some are great names, others enjoyed limited success, but in each case the selectors tried to give them a decent chance at the highest level.

So what’s the deal with England and wrist spinners? Why are they rarely picked, and why are they usually hustled back to the back to the shires at the first opportunity?

Matt Parkinson bowls

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Leggies embody the glorious uncertainty of cricket – unplayable one minute, bowling a rank full toss the next. They’re unpredictable, chaotic and utterly compelling to watch.

All of this doesn’t sit well with the traditional, safety-first approach of the English game – on the whole, leggies are a luxury that can’t be afforded, and a risky extravagance that should be avoided.

Sadly, this self-fulfilling prophecy took hold in England long ago. English cricket fails to place any trust in leg spinners, and expects them to falter at the highest level.

When one is finally picked, they’re doomed to fail.

Matt Parkinson has been around the England set-up for the last couple of years, and he is the best performed domestic spinner in the county game.

He was sent home early from the Ashes tour of Australia in the summer without playing a match, being deemed surplus to requirements.

Could the new Brendon McCullum-Ben Stokes axis at the top of English cricket and their apparent commitment to adventurous cricket give the young leggie an extended chance to prove his worth at Test level?

On the basis of his recent dropping and the sad and sorry history of English leg spin, you wouldn’t bet on it.

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