2014 will be a year of transition for England. As many as three players may make their Test debuts at Sydney in the Fifth Ashes Test, and it’s likely Scott Borthwick will be one of them. Borthwick looks on the surface to be the multi-dimensional cricketer perfect to replace a man as pivotal as Graeme Swann, and indeed has he has the recently departed spinner's recommendation, but delve deeper and Borthwick is not quite the same sort of player.
Whilst Swann was of great value as a good number eight, or excellent number nine, prone to those quick cameos which intensely annoy opposition captains, and a consistently good second slip, his main value to England's balance was as a complete spinner. Swann could tie batsmen down on the first day, allowing the seamers to rest, he could tease them into mistakes on flat decks, and rip the ball square on helpful surfaces.
He was integral to the success of a four man attack, working as two bowlers. England could afford the defensive option of Ashley Giles (who had a career economy rate not much better than Swann’s) within a five man attack, but with four, a more versatile spinner was needed.
Scott Borthwick is not a front-line spinner in a four man attack yet, and he may never be one, but he could be two other things. Firstly, he would be a good second spinner. When given helpful conditions, he has the spin and flight to test good batsmen, something he proved by taking 6-70 on an Oval dustbowl this season. He could also fit into a five man attack. If England gave the responsibility for bowling ‘dry’ to Bresnan, or Stokes, or even Joe Root if his off-spin improves, they can give Borthwick the license as a strike bowler..
As a number three for a County Championship winning team, top scoring in the title season just gone, Borthwick is more of a builder of innings than Swann, who was always a hitter with great hand-eye co-ordination, but not much in the way of defensive technique or ability to bat for long periods.
An career average of just over thirty may not show a top order Test player, but the 41.51 he averaged in the county season just gone would certainly be good enough for a number seven at Test level. Of course, with Stokes currently occupying the number six spot, Borthwick one below would push the keeper down to eight.
The pure keeper has disappeared from Test cricket, with most countries now having batsmen with varying levels of keeping ability behind the stumps. But with two all-rounders in the side, England have a chance to bring a pure keeper back in the team, even if his batting isn’t quite up to Test level.
In the long term, that man could be Michael Bates, of Hampshire, whose keeping skill has the purists drooling, but whose batting leaves a bit to be desired at First-class level. But an average of 20.50, Bates’ current mark in First-class cricket, is fine for a number eight. Bates’ time may come, and he is an intriguing prospect for the future, but a more realistic option straight away is Borthwick batting at eight and Prior or Bairstow above him.
If Prior comes back into the side, it may seem counter-intuitive, but is there a certain sense in moving him up the order by one, to swap with Stokes. Too many of his innings recently, he’s come in after top order collapses, and has faced the prospect of running out of partners as Mitchell Johnson bounced out the tail-enders. Moving him up the order will give him partners, and more time to build an innings, with less pressure, knowing two decent bats are due in after him.
Wherever Borthwick bats, he’s not going to replace Swann, but he has the potential to make his own role in the team, as a purely attacking spinner, and solid lower-middle order bat. That in turn could create the return of an old role, the pure keeper. He’s not going to bring the same balance that Swann did to the side, but in a few years time he could play a part in creating a new balance.