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What is Matt Parkinson?

Ben Jones looks at the numbers behind the much-admired Lancashire leg spinner.

The announcement of England’s squad for the Test series against New Zealand was broadly uneventful. The big decisions were either happening away from player selection, with the arrival of Brendon McCullum and Matthew Mott as a new coach pairing, or in the case of where the big dogs of the team were going to bat, had been made before the squad was named.

However, there was one story which stood out. The omission of Lancashire leg spinner Matt Parkinson was the latest chapter in an ongoing selection saga, and perhaps the biggest call in the squad itself. Over the last few years, Parkinson has trekked around the world, carried drinks, but has remained firmly been nestled on the bench, yet to make his debut in the format. While the decision to back Jack Leach is a conservative, rational one during a period of significant instability for the national team, it is one which has garnered substantial criticism. 

Indeed, Parkinson has become the designated cause célèbre among England’s fanbase. It is hard to remember as much angst and frustration about a player not being picked to play for Test cricket for England in many, many years. On the face of it, it’s easy to see why. In the last four domestic seasons, Matt Parkinson has been the leading wicket taker in red ball cricket for an English spinner, at a comparatively better average than his main rival for a Test berth, Jack Leach.

Yet while it might be his wickets that get Parkinson into the conversation, it’s not why he’s gathered such an adoring group of admirers. As a spinner, he has a quite outstanding set of physical skills. In T20 cricket, no spinner in the CricViz database (which goes back to 2006) turns the ball as much as Parkinson, and nobody drifts the ball as much. None of them bowl slower than him either. The only man anywhere near Parkinson, for any of those metrics, is Shane Warne. Those physical skills translate into red ball cricket – as well as the fundamentals of his record, Parkinson has a remarkable ability to produce moments of magic. 

It’s a familiar sight for those who use Twitter, to see a video of Parkinson’s latest wonder-ball gaining enormous traction, with hundreds of retweets and engagement from all over the world. These viral clips paint a particular picture, of a certain kind of bowler. The magician, drifting and ragging past defences, peeling away with giggling teammates in tow. 

You are given the straightforward image of the genius, but there is more in play. In a subtle, counter-intuitive way, those clips do Parkinson a disservice. Inadvertently attached to that sense of genius is an invitation, an invitation to distrust this curious, exotic skill. People are invited to see Parkinson as a freakish bowler, and he gets discussed in those terms: he’ll bowl bad balls, one four ball an over, mercurial talent. The easy implication for his critics and opponents, plenty of which seem to be in positions of authority, is that you only see the good balls.

The thing is, Parkinson isn’t straightforwardly that guy. As well as the loop and the turn, he’s armed with decent accuracy for a man who can produce these moments of profound attacking threat. His economy rate is directly comparable to Leach, a comparison complicated by the dimensions and characteristics of their home venues, but a comparison nonetheless. 72% of Parkinson’s deliveries in the County Championship in recent seasons have pitched on a good length, a figure lower than Leach’s 81%, but close enough to consider the trade off in physical attributes brought by the leggie.

In conversation with The Cricketer journalist Nick Friend, Parkinson expressed similar sentiments. In reference to a 7-126 effort on a flat pitch against Kent, he was eager to move away from the one-off deliveries, and to throw light on the substance behind the style: “Those wickets were very pleasing – I had to work so hard for them as well,” he explains. “Fifty-two overs is a long slog. To get lads caught at extra cover and short leg was probably more pleasing than the balls to Delray and Rossington [which caught the attention of social media]”.

In simple terms, Parkinson gets his wickets like a Test bowler – he gets through defences. In the last four years, 43% of his wickets have come with the batter playing an attacking shot – the only established spinners with a lower figure in that time are Leach, Keshav Maharaj, and Ravichandran Ashwin. It’s good company.

The main feeling here is that, right now, Parkinson exists in the abstract. A few hundred on a stream will watch him, and a portion of that might watch more than once. A decent handful will go to the ground and watch, but nothing like a critical mass. For most people, Parkinson is whatever you’d like him to be – and he can never live up to that.

In amongst this data is hopefully a more accurate, fairer reflection of the bowler Parkinson actually is. He isn’t the perfect red ball operator, but he isn’t the skittish bowler some might paint him as. So when he does get a go – and it’s when, not if – hopefully we can park the furore, and give him the chance he needs to grow. English cricket never really knows what to do with leg spinners. Few countries do, in truth. They are the strangest, most elusive players in the game. A good length, good line delivery from a leg spin bowler is the rarest ball in Test cricket, but it’s also statistically the best – and that’s the journey of finding a leg spinner. It’s tough, it’s risky, but it’s worth it.

But sometimes, pulling away from that mystique and that otherworldliness can give you a clarity of thought which cuts through the romance. Parkinson is not a genius, and to pretend he is almost sells him short. He’s just a very good red ball bowler, who happens to bowl leg spin. Perhaps the sooner English cricket sees him in those terms, and those terms alone, we’ll see the best of him.

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