The country boy in the big game
One blond Victorian legspinner was bad news enough. But now, the Aussies have two. Cameron White, a 21-year-old who juggles captaincy, bowling and batting for his state, was not surprised when the selectors rang earlier today. Whispers of his promotion to a bigger stage had steadily grown louder, and White had overheard them. He wasn't holding his breath, but had practised bowling on spinning pitches in the break between seasons just in case. So when the call came, he was ready.
To understand White, you have to know where he comes from. "I was a country boy," he says. He grew up 285 kilometres east of Melbourne, in a picturesque township called Bairnsdale. The town was established on the banks of a river, and the rich farmland gave birth to a trade of agriculture. It was here, nudged by a cricket-playing father, that the young White took up the game. Batting came naturally, and gradually his bowling improved. "I'd been a batter through my junior cricket, and now my bowling has sort of taken over a little bit, but I like to think I'm still a batter. A bit of an allrounder, I guess," he says lightly, as if it happened by itself.
Last year, White led Victoria's one-day side after an injury to Darren Berry, the captain. His own form wasn't outstanding, but under White's leadership the team won five out of eight games. The selectors, impressed with his skills, named him captain for the following season. But he averages 34 with the ball, 25 with the bat, and his one-day record is not as flattering. It provoked many to ask whether he was doing one job too many. Was he a legspinner or a batsman, and was the captaincy affecting him?
"I'd like to think they're all pretty much my strengths," he retorts. "If someone asks me what I do, I just say 'I'm happy to do whatever anyone wants me to do.' I'm happy to bowl, happy to bat, happy to do anything. You've just got to manage them best as you can. It's hard to divide all your time between all three, so you've just got to split it up into equal parts and prepare as well as you can."
It's the kind of spirit necessary for teams touring India, and the selectors picked him hoping that his bowling would suit Indian conditions too: quick through the air, relying more on changes of pace, bounce, the wrong'un and the top-spinner. White is more Anil Kumble than Warne.
White's action came to him naturally in his teens. Warnie, being all the rage and on TV all the time, certainly helped. Not long after, they were playing together. "I started bowling it when I was 13, so obviously I was watching Shane Warne on TV and that contributed a little bit to me bowling legspin a bit more. And obviously playing with Shane now is a great help, so that's one of the things that definitely contributed to me bowling legspin. I've been lucky enough to work with him over the last few years. It's been good so far."
A receptive player, White's take on his action's evolution is that it just happened. "I bowled legspin and that's just the way they came out. It's just my unique style. I didn't copy anyone or anything like that. When I started on legspin that's how I bowled it and that's how I've stuck with it so far.
The Victorian coach, Greg Shipperd, feels his bowling style could make a difference in India. White agreed, reminiscing about the up-and-down pitches he found during his only trip there, two years ago, when he toured with the Commonwealth Academy under Andrew Symonds. "I enjoyed bowling in India because the wickets normally turned and helped my style of bowling. But the pitches have a bit more variable bounce, so I enjoyed bowling stump to stump and, yeah ... I really enjoyed bowling there." In the three-day game at Chepauk, White picked up five wickets.
But bowling to hopefuls was one thing, facing Sachin Tendulkar was quite another. Late last year, White was part of a team that faced the Indians between Tests. He came away wicketless, and realised he needed to do much more. Echoing Warne's words, he said it was "pretty difficult". But he has begun preparing himself for further battles. You know it's a battle for him, once he calls his deliveries "weapons". The first thing he's trying to do is have a varied repertoire. Or more artillery.
"I'm definitely trying to work on certain things in my game along with my coaches and Shane," said White. "A few things, spinning it a little more, and have different deliveries, and have more weapons ... umm, deliveries. I have the normal stuff. I don't have the flipper like Warnie does. I just have a legspinner, a top-spinner and a wrong'un. I rely on bounce and drift so I don't have lots of different deliveries."
What White intends to do some time over the next month is sit and listen to Warne, and understand more from his experience of India. "I'm looking forward to speaking to him and seeing what he's got to say, and I'm sure I'll be prepared to listen as much as I can and learn as much as I can off him." They might not need to speak about baked beans: White didn't mind the food during his tour. "I ate chicken tikka masala the whole time I was in India, obviously with nan-bread, dahl and rice," the words burst out, almost eagerly. "So I don't mind Indian food."
However, travelling with the senior team will bring its own set of responsibilities, and the likelihood that White will savour an authentic dish filled with masala are remote. But the memories of his last trip are fresh, and you can tell he's raring to get here. "We travelled around in a bus, and that was pretty scary," he says with glee. "That was probably the most scary part. Travelling around the streets at night in a bus and those phut-phuts during the day were very scary. It was quite good fun!
"Cows running on the road ... it was organised chaos...," White trails off. "Maybe not even organised."
He isn't the finished product yet, and so breaking into the side won't be easy. But White is only 21, and part of Australia's next generation. He's up to the challenges that lie ahead, and he's dealing with them the same way he's dealt with everything else so far. "I just like to not worry about it too much and just get out and play and try to do the best that I can. As long as you're prepared well, I don't know if there's much else you can do."
Rahul Bhatia is on the staff of Wisden Cricinfo.