A tale of two legspinners

In the shadow of a colossus

Sambit Bal in Adelaide

December 13, 2003

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Stuart MacGill: the second fiddle conducts his orchestra
© Getty Images

Just after Rahul Dravid had square-driven Brad Williams for his first four, Shane Warne took his eyes off the television set on which he has been following golf, and bellowed, as if to exhort Steve Waugh, "come on, bring on Stuart MacGill." There were two messages there. One, Warne reckons Dravid is suspect against legspin. Two, he rates MacGill as a legspinner.

Warne and MacGill, merchants of the same craft, peddling their ware in a market where there is room for only one, share a complex relationship, based on mutual respect and fierce competitiveness. Had he been playing for any other country, MacGill, with 137 wickets from 27 Tests at an average of 26, would have been a treasure. In Australia, he is a spare tyre for Warne, under whose towering shadow he is condemned to conduct his career.

A couple of days ago, I asked MacGill about how he dealt with this denial, whether he managed to avoid bitterness about his condition? MacGill smiled wryly. "I would have been really bitter if it was a lesser bowler keeping me out. But Shane is a colossus. Arguably the greatest spinner ever. It is just unfortunate that my career happened to coincide with his."

A couple of months from now, MacGill will be competing with Warne for his Test berth again, and that Warne will win his place back is almost a forgone conclusion. MacGill admits it himself, but he says that the pressure hasn't been any less in Warne's absence. "When Shane started his 12-month holiday, I felt more pressure because I became the number one spin bowler [in Australia]. Now if Shane does come back for the first Test in Sri Lanka that would mean I have three Tests to go and I probably wouldn't play again. Shane Warne is the best wristspinner to walk the planet."

A admirable philosophy certainly, but ask him if he has had to play second fiddle to Warne because he doesn't possess Warne's variety, and MacGill can't help a hint of sarcasm about his rival's supposed repertoire. "As much as spin bowlers like to talk about mystery balls and things, the fact is that there are only a certain amount of deliveries that you can produce. Your wrist has probably 270 degrees of angle that you can maneovre and that is the variety. I think I have a reasonable command over the angles of the wrist. If I choose not to bowl certain deliveries, it is because I don't believe that they will contribute to my cause. For instance, people asked me why I didn't bowl more googlies in the last Test. It is because I did not think it was a good idea at the time.

"I am happy with the way I am bowling and I am struggling to find any other area I can improve on. I don't really know what else I can do to improve my position. If Shane comes back and plays instead of me, that will be a real shame. But that is just the way it goes."

It is a matter of record that in the matches that they have bowled together MacGill has outshone Warne. But he wouldn't read too much into it. "To be honest, whenever we have bowled together, Shane has either been coming back from an injury, or going out with one," he says. But he believes that the idea of two spinners bowling together is not an outrageous one. "We have showed on a few occasions that it can work."

Honesty doesn't desert him when you ask him to rate his chances against the touring Indians. "The only thing that might work in my favour is that the Indian batsmen like to dominate spin bowlers. If they feel the need to get on top of of me, I might have a bit of a sniff. Otherwise I will have to look for some wickets from the tailenders. As long as I raise an eyebrow amongst their batsmen from time to time, it will be great for me. That is all I am trying to do.

"Great players of spin bowling are not deceived off the wicket. People talk about how much I turn the ball. But in this particular series, I believe that will be inconsequential. Maybe, only the tail will be deceived off the pitch. A great player of spin bowling will only be deceived if there is subtle variation. It will really test me out because generally speaking I am not all that subtle."

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.
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