In the age of social media, outrage is never too far away. Sometimes it’s over a big issue, but very often it’s not, as people work themselves into a frenzy over a matter that no one had considered before to any great degree, let alone got themselves into a moral fury. In such circumstances the usual approach is to shout ever louder, and certainly never consider that someone with a different opinion might have a valid reason for feeling that way. Debate goes out of the window in a cacophony of noise and tempestuousness, and a subject that all told has limited importance suddenly becomes a cause celebre entirely out of proportion to its significance.
So it is with the curious case of Adil Rashid’s recall to the Test team for the first match against India next week. It is perhaps a slightly surprising decision, but it’s not the first slightly surprising decision, and Ed Smith has probably raised more than a few eyebrows with his inclination to think beyond the narrow parameters employed by England selectors over the last couple of years. Certainly, if some of those currently screaming are to believed, he seems to have discarded the “good bloke” (in the opinion of the ECB hierarchy) qualification in England selection that has caused no end of rancour since 2014 and seemed to defy the natural conditions of every workplace in the land. To that end, it has to be said that Smith hasn’t made a bad start. Whether individual selections are agreed with or not is entirely beside the point, his refusal to follow the path of least resistance thus far is actually rather refreshing. Given the criticism Smith has had for his past troubles with other people’s work (and rightly so – the attempted ignoring of that issue is precisely why it keeps cropping up), it isn’t always easy to give credit where it might be due and, in this case as with any selection, no one knows whether it is inspired or destined to fail. But the point is that he has shown himself prepared to take that risk. And you know what? Well done Ed Smith.
Picking a nice safe England side is easy – we can all do it, who the hell needs selectors if that’s the intention? And if the results aren’t good, well, dump a couple and bring in the latest flavour of the month on the county circuit and see if he sinks or swims. Not the selectors fault if the team isn’t good enough, they’ve all had a crack at it. See? It’s easy.
That’s why the selection of first Jos Buttler and now Adil Rashid is in itself something to be praised. Not necessarily in terms of the players themselves, for that is an arguable point, but because it implies a willingness to do more than be confined by the exceptionally messy structure of the English professional game. And herein lies the rub. For the protestations about the supposed “integrity” of the County Championship are laughable when they come from those who have agreed to, and indeed supported, every diminution in importance of what is supposed to be the proving ground for the Test team. Over the last few years red ball cricket has been pushed ever more to the margins, to the point where the bulk of it is played in April, May and September, a situation only likely to deteriorate further once the heart of the summer is given over to whatever format the Hundred ends up with, alongside the T20 Blast that also too must be given priority.
With that being the case, the role of the selectors has become either extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending on which route they go down. If they choose to only select those players who commit to the County Championship, then they lose those who disappear to the IPL (as was the case with Buttler) because that’s when most of the county matches are played until September. Complaining about players doing that is senseless. Cricketers will go where their opportunities are, and this is particularly the case for those who aren’t central to the Test team for whatever reason. If it’s a Ben Stokes, his position is sufficiently secure that it doesn’t matter – he’s in, subject to Her Majesty’s Courts And Tribunals Service – but if it’s a Jos Buttler, by no means safe in Test selection terms, it is an opportunity to maximise the income from a short career given no security in a full central contract. What on earth do people expect? A player to plod along for a relative pittance in the county game in the vague hope of a call up? Perhaps that’s exactly what they expect, yet it is always the case that the expectations of prominent sportsmen and women among the wider public jar utterly with the way they live their own lives. Offer someone a job paying twice the money, and their own loyalty vanishes in a puff of air, with few suggesting they ought to have paid more attention to the social dimension or their responsibility to a wider group.
Thus, the selectors have a dilemma. Choose who they believe to be the best players, and they are open to the accusation of ignoring the County Championship. Fail to do so, and the side they select may not be the best one available. In the case of Buttler, selecting him worked spectacularly well, his batting proving to be a highlight in both Tests against Pakistan, which certainly set him apart from anyone else. Furthermore, his selection was welcomed by the great and the good, despite barely any first class cricket over a couple of years, and with little success on the rare occasions that he did so. Indeed, since 2015, Buttler had played only six Championship matches before his Test call up, yet this was considered more than sufficient to be selected for the England team – or rather, it wasn’t, but he was called up anyway. There was plenty of scepticism about that too, but he did well, and whatever happens with him in the future, Ed Smith can feel pleased and vindicated about his decision. And rightly so too. But here’s the point: Some were uneasy with what that said about the County Championship and those players involved in it, or more pertinently not involved in it. They were subsequently drowned out by the acclaim Buttler received but they weren’t wrong to raise that question, and when they do so about Rashid they aren’t wrong now either. The debate about the merits and indeed existence of the County Championship as constituted are entirely valid matters for discussion, particularly given the concerns over the future of Test cricket, but it needs to be done from a position of consistency and not a scattergun approach based on who the latest shiny toy is.
The ones who really are wrong, the ones who invite irritation and contempt, are those who cheered to the rafters the choice of Buttler as being creative thinking, while raging about the selection of Adil Rashid now on the basis that it undermines county cricket. This is preposterous cognitive dissonance, made worse by their inability to remember what they said the previous week. In that period when Buttler has played six Championship matches, Rashid has played twenty-four, and the last time both played a Championship match was at the same juncture. It is nothing but sheer hypocrisy to approve of one and decry the other. Ah, but Rashid gave up red ball cricket they say, that’s the difference. But is it? If Buttler isn’t playing County Championship matches, then what actually is the difference? Gary Lineker has retired from international football and I haven’t, but we’ve both played the same number of games in the last few years. It isn’t a matter of what people say, but what they do.
To add to that, the structure of the County Championship itself strongly discriminates against spin bowlers anyway. The early and late season fixtures tend to help the medium-pacers who do a bit with the ball (much as Darren Stevens is a legend, it’s not perhaps his particular skills we should be seeking to emphasise) , meaning that the likes of a Rashid are of limited value, and perhaps more importantly, may not even be selected. Why have a potentially expensive leg spinner in the side in a match where the seamers are going to do the bulk of the bowling? In the Division One bowling averages this season, you have to go down to 32nd place before you find a possible England spinner (Amar Virdi) who has bowled more than 100 overs this season. Given the structure of the County Championship now, spin as a choice is thoroughly marginalised, and Rashid is far from the only one pointing this out. English cricket has not been brilliant at producing top quality spin for a very long time – Graeme Swann was a wonderful anomaly – and the endless search for one who can measure up is only made harder by playing the game in conditions alien to spinners until it comes to the main Test matches where they are called upon to perform miracles, and then criticised when they don’t.
It is here important to note what Rashid himself said when he announced his sabbatical earlier this year:
“That [lack of high summer red ball cricket] was a big part of it. Early season, I may not bowl much. A couple of overs here and there. Doing that, I wouldn’t get my rhythm — two overs before lunch, a few overs before tea. That wouldn’t help my confidence. At the stage, I’d just be going through the motions.
“It’s not a permanent thing. It’s for this season, to see how it goes, how it unfolds and what happens. See what my mind says and what my heart feels. If it changes I could be going back to red ball cricket next season.”
Very, very little of the discussion around Rashid’s selection has focused on this issue, at least until today when Jason Gillespie wrote in the Guardian about the matter, implying there was far more going on here than the narrative about a player who simply didn’t want to play red ball cricket any more. What the truth of that is, is going to be a matter of perspective, but it is at least refreshing to read an alternate take on the character of Rashid, and from someone who is in a strong position to reject the lines of those who insist they know more than anyone else, always, just because.
This doesn’t exempt Rashid from blame, for his decision to quit red ball cricket was clearly a disappointment to Yorkshire, and explains some of their misgivings over his call up, with the proviso that as Gillespie says, this is not a straightforward matter. But it does provide a degree of context, as does the at times weird treatment of him by England. He has undoubtedly shown exceptional ability at carrying the drinks, and as a result England appeared to choose him for that role on a repeated basis. When he did play a full Test series, in India, the opprobrium heaped upon him for failing to win the series bordered on the bizarre, and caused more than one or two to question why he was singled out so specifically, particularly when even some members of the media have confirmed that there was a whispering campaign against him. Attacks on his character were many, in a way few others have received recently, and that too must have contributed to his decision to stand down from red ball cricket. There will be some who consider this confirmation of the supposed character flaws but there is little quite so distasteful as the feeding frenzy among certain quarters of the press with someone either they don’t like, or they have been briefed not to like. Casting aspersions as to the motivation behind such behaviour is easy, lazy and dangerous, but it didn’t need that for many to find the persecution of Rashid far beyond what was acceptable from supposedly professional observers.
Selvey is of course one of those – never slow to remind people of his in-depth knowledge, even of golf, and back in 2016 he wrote:
“Rashid, though, is sailing close to the wind with his club and career: there are sceptics about, some with a greater depth of knowledge than most, and his card has been marked.”
This is classic Selvey, the statement that he is far brighter than everyone else, and that he has the inside track. It is highlighted not because it is wrong, but because of how the repeated nature of the attacks are principally on character, with the cricketing ability being secondary to that. Players must fit into the prescribed format defined by others, or suffer public vilification on a repeated basis, and lest anyone try to pretend it’s just about Rashid, it’s been seen far too often with far too many “difficult” players to be coincidental. Naturally, if the player answers back, this is then considered further evidence of the character flaw, as has happened with Rashid for daring to respond to Michael Vaughan’s comments. This is the justice of witch dunking.
The worst part of this is that his selection has been the excuse for this to start again. There is not the slightest thing wrong with considering Rashid of insufficient standard to play for the England Test team, but the highly personal flavour of some of the comment betrays a personal antipathy that is startling to see. Few will believe that Rashid represents the second coming of leg spin in this country, but most will accept that whether it is him or someone else, the cupboard isn’t exactly well stocked with alternatives. His tour of India has been portrayed in many quarters as an unmitigated disaster, which is a curious reading of events. Sure, he was a long way from being outstanding, but he did take more than twice as many wickets as anyone else. To put it into further context, Rashid’s 23 wickets in that series came at the cost of 37.43 per wicket. Not brilliant by any measure, yet the 17 wickets taken by every other spinner combined that England selected came at an average of 62.53. Not only is that a huge difference, but it’s also entirely symptomatic of likely England spinners’ performances in India with the exception of a single tour.
When considering the performances of England spinners in India this century it is hardly a tale of derring do. Rashid’s wicket-taking measures up perfectly well against most others, and his average is certainly not out of kilter with what should be expected. It appears – as with Moeen Ali all too often – that Rashid is berated for failing to perform above and beyond the level that should be expected of England spinners overseas not called Swann.
This still doesn’t mean that he’s the answer, and it absolutely doesn’t exempt him from debate over whether he is sufficiently good to be in the team. Nor does it mean that his selection having given up red ball cricket shouldn’t be worthy of scrutiny, but it does mean a few other things: Praising the left field selection of Buttler and screaming about the one of Rashid is nothing but rank hypocrisy. Failing to consider how we got to the point where a player who plainly wants to play Test cricket gave up the red ball version of the game is an abrogation of thinking and in a parallel universe, Adil Rashid is being praised for answering his country’s call. Lamenting the loss of integrity of the County Championship while simultaneously applauding every move the ECB makes to sideline it even further is both stupid and taking everyone else for a fool too.
Adil Rashid may be a successful pick. He may not. He may not even play, which would be an entertaining irony. Either way, Ed Smith has certainly stayed true to his expressed determination to bring a fresh approach to his role. And the ever lamentable section of the press corps have stayed equally true to their own lack of principles. Only one of those things is a pleasant surprise.