There will be an intriguing subplot that is easily overlooked whenever Durham face Warwickshire in the summer of 2016 – starting with the Specsavers County Championship match at Edgbaston in May.
Scott Borthwick, Durham’s leg-spinning all-rounder, has spent the winter in Wellington working closely with Jeetan Patel, the former New Zealand off-spinner who has proved such a consistent overseas performer for the Bears in six of the last seven seasons.
Their partnership was the product of several conversations last summer between Patel and Peter Such, the former England offie who is determined to secure more opportunities for talented spinners in his role as the ECB’s National Spin Coach.
Borthwick, who took four wickets when he was thrown in at the deep end for a Test debut in Sydney in early 2014, had already spent the winter of 2014-15 playing in Sri Lanka for the Chilaw Marions at the instigation of Such and the ECB.
As a result of the Patel-Such initiative, he switched to Wellington this winter – and the partnership has gone so well that the MCC agreed to withdraw Borthwick from their team for the traditional first-class season opener against the champion county, Yorkshire, in Abu Dhabi later this month, to allow him to stay a little longer in New Zealand.
“It’s been going really well,” said Borthwick, still only 25, having scored a century on his Wellington debut in the Plunket Shield, New Zealand’s domestic first-class competition, against Otago in Queenstown last month, and followed up with further handy contributions with bat and ball versus Auckland and Central Districts.
“I’d initially come over here to work with Jeetan and play club cricket in the Wellington competition. But I got into the Wellington four-day side which was good, and I’ve played in our last three away trips.
“It’s very different to Sri Lanka last year. That was an amazing opportunity in really different conditions, harder off the field because of the language barrier, and only three-day cricket, although the standard was very high. New Zealand is a bit more home-like, and again it’s been a good standard. The wickets are much flatter, so you really have to work hard for your wickets.”
Borthwick is due to play in two more Plunket Shield fixtures, at home to Northern Districts next week followed by a trip to Christchurch to face Canterbury, before returning home to join Durham’s preparations for the season.
But he argues that those first-class appearances have been the icing on the cake, as he would have benefited anyway from the chance to work so closely with Patel – who was again the most successful spinner in English cricket last summer.
“To have so much time with Jeets, and training full-time with the Wellington Firebirds, has been fantastic,” he added. “I’d played against him plenty of times back home, and unfortunately he’s got me out a few times as well. But I knew he was a top bloke who was always happy to talk about spin bowling, has a great knowledge of the game, and he’s keen to help English spinners.”
Patel, who won 19 Test caps between 2006 and 2013 and also represented New Zealand in 50 limited-overs internationals, was happy to confirm that to ecb.co.uk.
“I caught up with Peter Such as you do, because he travels around the country looking at how the spinners are going,” the 35-year-old explained.
“We got chatting about the way things were going with spin in England, and I said I’d love to be involved in helping. I’m not saying I know everything, but I’ve certainly bowled a few overs, both in England and other places around the world.
“We were a little bit too late to set anything up for last winter but with me still playing for the Firebirds in Wellington, we found a way to get somebody out here this season. Scotty being a leg-spinner is a bit different obviously, but what better way to challenge myself?
“He’s such a proactive kid that he’s really impressed everyone out here. He’d always be getting to our nets early, doing his batting work and his spin work. He was playing club cricket for Johnsonville before Christmas but the chance of getting in our first-class team was always there as a carrot for him.
“He did that and made an immediate impact with his batting, and he’s had a bit of a chance with the ball as well, especially in the second innings. At times he’s bowled well and the important thing is getting overs under his belt, and all the time building his understanding.
What a way to start for Wellington, great performances and great win!! And what a ground to play… https://t.co/W0TsXgcfkv
— Scott Borthwick (@Borthwick16) February 8, 2016
“I think Suchy does a good job with finding these opportunities around the world in the winter. Whether that’s sending guys out with the Performance Programme and the Lions, or getting them out to play in places like New Zealand and Australia.”
Through the ECB spin programme Glamorgan and Warwickshire have sent younger spinners to the Darren Lehmann Academy in Adelaide – Owen Morgan and Sunny Singh respectively – and Jack Leach of Somerset was plying his trade in Perth through a similar initiative. Derbyshire’s Matt Critchley, Nottinghamshire’s Matthew Carter, Will Beer of Sussex and Ravi Patel of Middlesex have all been involved with the EPP in Dubai.
“As I said at the end of last season, one of the challenges our young spin bowlers face is getting enough overs to keep developing their skills in match situations,” Such explained.
“So we have been working for a while on finding them opportunities during the winter. Sending Scott out to Wellington to work with Jeetan Patel fits well in that programme. Jeetan has been a top-level performer in county cricket for a number of years, he has international experience of playing around the world, and he was keen to help.
“The reports that have come back are that Scott has done well. He earned his place in the Wellington Firebirds side, and I think it’s a good move for him to stay out there and play a couple more four-day matches.”
The ideal scenario of course, for Such and Borthwick, is that he returns to bowl considerably more overs than the 149 he sent down in the Championship in 2015 (taking 15 wickets at an average of 42.73).
It will be fascinating to see what impact, if any, the great toss experiment makes at grounds like the Emirates Riverside, where Durham open their campaign against Somerset next month.