Ashes 2010: All-time Ashes England XI: Spin King

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David Green aka The Reverse Sweep picks his all time England Ashes spinner

The presence of that box of tricks Sydney Barnes – off-breaks and leg-breaks as well as seam and swing – in our all-time England Ashes XI means that unlike with their Australian counterparts, we will name only one specialist spinner to join him. A second will be named as 12th man.

Whilst England’s spin heritage is perhaps not quite as impressive as Australia’s, there are a number of outstanding twirlers that wouldn’t look out of place in a pantheon XI to take on Australia’s finest. As usual, we looked at and discounted a number of good English spinners before arriving at our shortlist of four. We’d have liked to have included Johnny Wardle on that list – so criminally underused by England – but he only played eight Ashes tests for his 24 wickets.

We also examined closely the credentials of England’s two great Victorian spinners – Bobby Peel (101 Ashes wickets at 16.98) and Johnny Briggs (97 at 20.55) – but ruled them out because of the difficulty in comparing them to more recent spinners – cricket being very much a bowler’s game in the 1800’s.

There was also no room for anyone from the last 30 years with no English spinner of this periodcoming close to achieving greatness – although Graeme Swann has made a good start in trying to rectify this. So this leaves our four candidates – one off and three leg spinners.

Taking them in chronological order, we start with the leading wicket taker in cricket history Wilfred Rhodes. In an amazing test career lasting over 30 years, Rhodes took more wickets than any other English spinner against Australia – 109 wickets at 24 in 41 Ashes tests. And he could bat too – helping England win at test at The Oval in 1902 as number eleven and then hitting 179 as an opener at Melbourne in 1912.

Rhodes’ replacement for Yorkshire and England was the imperious Hedley Verity who despite plying his trade exclusively in the batsman dominated 1930s achieved an extraordinary average of 14.90 for his 1956 first-class wickets. He excelled in the test arena too – tying up one end for Larwood, Voce and Allen in the ‘Bodyline’ series and taking 14 wickets in a day at Lord’s in 1934 – including Bradman and McCabe twice each. The pitch may have been helpful but Bradman said he had seen worse and it was Verity’s ability to change pace, spin and direction that earnt him his reward. In all Verity took 59 Ashes wickets at 28.

If Verity’s 15 for 104 at Lord’s was impressive then Jim Laker‘s immortal 19 for 90 at Old Trafford in 1956 was even better. The wicket made off-spinner Laker unplayable and with Tony Lock having a poor game at the other end, the genial Laker cleaned up. And it wasn’t a one-off either as Laker took 79 Ashes wickets at 18.27 in a period of mostly English dominance in the 1950s.

Our final candidate is Derek Underwood, who bowled at a similar pace and style to Verity. With Alan Knott already installed as keeper in our XI, the other part of the double-act ‘Deadly’ would be immediately at home. When conditions suited such as at The Oval in 1968 where he took four Australian wickets in 27 balls to give England a last gasp win, Underwood’s nickname was entirely appropriate. His 88 wickets against Australia came at just over 26 a piece.

A difficult decision with all four on our shortlist having a justifiable claim. But our decision to go with Verity is partly based on finding a balance to Barnes – which points to a left-armer, partly on the opinion of Bradman – who he dismissed eight times in tests – who admitted that he “could never claim to have completely fathomed Hedley’s strategy” and partly personal as along with Jardine and Gower, Verity is our all-time cricketing hero.

In a photo-finish like this, we believe the heart can be allowed to rule the head. In the further interest of balance, Laker will carry the drinks for our side.

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