Borthwick as leg-spinning No. 3 for England Test TeamJuly 1, 2016
David Hopps, in ESPNcricinfo 1 July 2016, where his title reads “‘I’ve had a lot more good days with bat recently than ball’
At arguably the lowest point in England’s recent Test history, with the Ashes lost, his retirement announced, and his elbow feeling about as flexible as a trapped bicycle chain, Graeme Swannattempted to sprinkle a little stardust on a demoralising situation. “Personally, I hope little Scotty Borthwick gets the chance before long,” Swann said. “He’s a legspinner, he’s got a bit of X factor as well.”
Borthwick, who had been playing grade cricket in Sydney, was about to return home in time for Christmas before then heading off on a Lions tour to Sri Lanka. Swann’s namecheck felt nice, but not exactly pressing. But within days Borthwick was playing in the Sydney Test, not as much a planned selection as a pipe dream in desperate times. In the blur of a Test debut, he managed to take four wickets in the match and went at more than six an over, as England lost in three days on the way to a 5-0 whitewash and a cricketing civil war over the banishment of Kevin Pietersen. Borthwick looked like a promising county cricketer blown in by a strengthening tornado and deposited onto the wreckage.
“It was all a bit of a quick turnaround, getting the phone call: ‘Cancel your flight home, you’re coming to Melbourne,'” he recalls. “I was massively excited to be part of the Ashes. But 3-0 down – it was a bizarre time to go into a squad.
“A lot of talk came out of that series. I was only there for two weeks, happy to be with a Test side touring Australia. I was having a bit of a buzz. I was on my first Test tour, I was with Ben Stokes, my mate, and a couple of other lads I knew, and for me it was a case of ‘I’m on a high here.’ It wasn’t until everything was said that I thought there must have been a lot of stuff going on.”
Two and a half years on, with England’s unity restored, Borthwick’s name is being endorsed again, although now in strikingly different circumstances. He is presented as a favoured option to replace Nick Compton at the top of the order for the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s in July.
The romantic notion of an influential England legspinner has now been supplanted – if not quite banished – by Borthwick’s dominant reputation as a flinty No. 3 batsman at Durham, a considered strokemaker rather than a daredevil, his reputation forged in Chester-le-Street on what until this season have been the most exacting pitches in county cricket.
The mood surrounding his potential call-up is very different. If exhilaration surrounded the potential advent of Borthwick the leggie, Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, is determined to give the impression that selection must be earned. He named him, off the top of his head, during the recent second Test against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street, as one of five possible Test candidates – the list completed by his Durham team-mate Mark Stoneman, Middlesex’s Sam Robson, and two second-division batsmen Bayliss admitted he hadn’t seen: Tom Westley at Essex, and Kent’s Daniel Bell-Drummond. To do well by Compton, he even remarked at the time: “Hopefully it doesn’t get to that.”
But it has got to that. Compton has indicated that his dropping is inevitable by taking anindefinite break from the game: as someone whose involvement in county cricket has been largely based on an ambition to win England caps, his retirement cannot be ruled out. Borthwick has one more Championship outing to underline his claims for Lord’s – against Hampshire at Chester-le-Street, beginning June 3.
Zoom in on Borthwick’s career and the tempting notion of a world-class England legspinner is replaced by something more grounded. Since his first-class debut at the end of the 2009 season, he has collected 183 first-class wickets at 35, and his batting average now stands at 38. Since Durham shunted him up the order from No. 8 to No. 3 three years ago, he has rivalled Stoneman as the most consistent county batsman in the country.
In his career progression, there is more than a hint of Steven Smith, the Australian captain, who also started his career as a legspinner who batted at eight, but who now has a Test average above 60 and only 16 wickets in 41 Tests. Allowing for a bit of hedging of bets, Borthwick has come to terms with that realisation.
“I was hoping that my legspin would get good,” he says. “I was probably hoping to be the next Warne. I think most leggies think like that. You always remember your good days, but in the last three or four years I have had a lot more good days with the bat than with the ball. You just have to look at the facts: I am a No. 3 batsman who plays first-division cricket for Durham.
“I still enjoy my bowling – I think most leggies do – but I think probably as a batsman who bowls. Whatever I do, I’ve got a passion for it and I want to do well. But in terms of legspin it’s hard, and it has been a frustrating three or four seasons really, because I haven’t got the overs in. I know my batting has overtaken my legspin.”
And yet England are in no mood to abandon his legspin potential. He regularly chats to England’s spin bowling coach Peter Such, and he has been sponsored on overseas trips to Sri Lanka and New Zealand to learn more about slow bowling on different surfaces. In Wellington last winter, the hope was that he would learn about spin bowling from Jeetan Patel: Borthwick attracted attention instead by getting a hundred in his first game.
In a way, he has simply reverted to type. Irrespective of that England debut, he was an opening batsman in his initial matches for Durham’s academy side. Only when he broke into Durham’s 2nd XI was he picked as a legspinner, batting between No. 7 and 9. It is a drug that easily takes hold.
It was on a coach to a Durham away game against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 2013 whenPaul Collingwood, who had been made Durham’s captain the previous season, his England career by then spent, caused the shift in Borthwick’s career by asking him if he wanted to bat at three.
Collingwood had batted alongside Borthwick when he made a century at No. 8 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. It was typical that his runs came from the parlous position of 50 for 6. “I often used to get runs when we were struggling,” Borthwick said. “I used to hate coming in at 400 for 6 and would just want to play the shots everyone else was playing.”
With injuries around, his batting potential could not be ignored. It was a shrewd call, an example of how those like Collingwood, who feel psychologically able to continue their county careers after their England days are over, can bring immense value to the game.
“It was a jump from eight to three, but I thought I had to take it,” Borthwick said. “I’d had a hundred at No. 8 at Edgbaston, but after the first couple of games, the routine of getting to the ground and getting your pads on felt pretty natural. I remember Geoff Cook [Durham’s coach] saying to me at Durham after 2013, ‘You’ve gone from a bowling allrounder to a genuine batter who bowls legspin.’ It felt like a second career.”
But England’s needs – and dreams – still lay elsewhere, and when the Ashes tour imploded that winter, it was his legspin in which they set store. After that series, with Peter Moores replacing Andy Flower as head coach, England opted for Moeen Ali in the role of the spin-bowling allrounder. The Borthwick vision had been short-lived. But he understood the reasons why he was immediately jettisoned.
“If they had picked me as a front-line spinner, it would have been the wrong call because I wasn’t bowling well enough and just didn’t have the overs to go into a Test Match as a bowler,” he said. “They picked Moeen and he’s done brilliantly well hasn’t he? So I wouldn’t say I was frustrated because I probably didn’t earn the right to be picked as legspinner.
“But what Ali has done really well the last couple of seasons is once he has got in he has found a way to stay in. He has either got wickets or got runs. He has floated around the order a couple of times, which is tough on him because he is a top batsman, but he has found a way to stay.”
Borthwick, like Collingwood, has deep north-east roots. He is only the second England cricketer to be born in Sunderland, the working-class town that by virtue of its early vote announcement gave the first juddering indication on June 23 that England was heading for a departure from the European Union. “I’m told Bob Willis was the other but he only lived there for about six weeks,” he says.
His family is steeped in cricket, and that includes his grandma, “Nana Borthwick”, who rarely misses a match at Emirates Riverside and who habitually brings some home cooking along to help the BBC radio commentary team get through the day. Borthwick smiles at the habit. “For me and my sister growing up, it was a case of, if you want a good feed you go there,” he says. “She does everything – a very good mince and dumplings, good old-fashioned northern grub.”
If he is given a home Test debut at Lord’s, he will be much in the mould of Collingwood’s Durham. No county side scraps harder or covers their deficiencies in such a resilient fashion. Borthwick is quick to give Collingwood recognition.
“It probably comes from Colly’s leadership because he is the best at that. When Colly first took over as captain his first words were, ‘We want to be hard to beat.’ We fight for every run and never think we are out of the game. It’s a team thing we have got, passed throughout the dressing room.”
But Durham’s playing budget is tight, Collingwood’s career is drawing to a close, and those who still champion Borthwick as a legspinner still talk of a move to a southern-based county, where pitches might be more receptive to the art.
“Obviously the wickets here don’t tend to help the leggies,” he says. “But Durham has been pretty loyal to me to give me the chance to bat up the order. I’m in the last year of my contract with Durham, but obviously I would love to stay. We’ll see. There’s a lot of cricket to be played this season.
“Yes, there has been talk of me moving counties and people have asked me, ‘Will you go down where it does spin?’ But I’ve enjoyed my batting up here. And the wickets are definitely getting better here. The changed coin-toss regulations have helped, not just here but throughout the country, spinners are getting more overs in and batters are scoring more runs, and that’s the case here as well. I’ve bowled more overs now than I have done in the last three seasons coming to July.
“You never know how close to selection you are until you get picked,” he says, “but it’s obviously in my mind because it’s getting spoken about. It’s up to me just to try and bat with a clear mind like I normally do. Each day is different: you can get a good ball. It’s just a case of turning up, preparing in the right way, keep doing the right things, and when you get in, try and cash in and go big.”
If Borthwick has faced a painful transition in how he views himself, the England selectors will still be faced by the same process. If he is selected, and progresses, against Pakistan, there will be squads to pick for winter tours to India and Bangladesh when the topic of how England mask their spin-bowling deficiencies will again be to the fore.
Moeen has pinned down an international career as a spin-bowling allrounder, Adil Rashid will hope for further opportunity, and Zafar Ansari is taking wickets again for Surrey after a hand injury wrecked his chances of an England tour last winter. All will also be in contention. There is also Mason Crane, the latest young legspinner in whom England has set store.
A suitable time perhaps for England to decide the extent of their ambitions for Borthwick’s receding legspin career.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps