In the shadows of greatness
Cullen Bailey is a modern mix of elements of Australia's romantic and successful legspin past. His side-on sidling to the wicket carries more than a hint of Richie Benaud, the tutoring from Terry Jenner has covered 11 years, and the arm-raised, down-on-one-leg appeal is straight from Shane Warne. Advice from Stuart MacGill is as easy as dialing ten numbers and asking about field settings or technique.
Despite having cherry picked the attributes of his predecessors, Bailey knows who he is. He's not the next Warne. He won't rip the ball as sharply as MacGill.
"My strengths are accuracy, and when the conditions suit, I can spin it," he says, clicking his fingers like Jenner does when talking about turn. "I'm not going to bowl massive legbreaks. I'll just be consistent, accurate, and a good contributor." He calls himself a thinking legspinner; lately there has been plenty to consider.
In two years Bailey jumped from a rookie contract at South Australia to the national squad, with a six-figure bonus. As his wrist turned impressively, curling legbreaks, the whispers began about an heir emerging from Adelaide to succeed MacGill and, eventually, Warne. Barely out of his teens, Bailey entered the game's consciousness and expectations grew.
Warne's retirement after the Ashes added significantly to Bailey's premature rise, and when his elevation to Australia's contract list was confirmed in May, he answered questions about playing in the first Test against Sri Lanka in November. Surprised by the extra attention, he was able to fly out of the debate later that day, starting his honeymoon to Malaysia. At 22 he had gained a life partner and a new lifestyle in the same week.
While Bailey was away, the Australian cricket community realised a young bowler who had played only 17 first-class matches, taking 54 wickets at 41.51, could be part of the international line-up as soon as the local summer. MacGill, 36, the favourite to take over from Warne, will not have played a Test for a year and a half when Sri Lanka arrive, and if he doesn't fit in immediately, the next-best legspinner on Cricket Australia's rankings is Bailey.
Brad Hogg, who is one of the three other slow-bowling options, reinvented himself at the World Cup, but he is virtually a limited-overs specialist, having appeared in only ten Pura Cup games for Western Australia in the past four seasons. At times Cameron White doesn't seem sure what to bowl, and Dan Cullen is fighting to regain his confidence and flight after a year spent slipping from Test status to South Australia's second choice in the Pura Cup.
Jenner has already warned the national selectors who looked through Bailey's numbers and focused on his potential that an early international appointment could be devastating. Bailey accepts Jenner's advice and admits the contract promotion came a couple of years ahead of schedule, but says he is ready whenever Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, scribbles his name.
"That's what you've got to aim for," he says. "TJ always thought long term with me and I really appreciate that. I have high expectations of myself. If I improve as much in the next two years as I have in the past two, then hopefully I'll be around the mark."
Bailey's fast-tracking has involved a follow-up short-term contract at the Centre of Excellence a year after being on a full scholarship. He has been working with Jenner at home and at the Academy on trusting his variations and continuing to fine-tune his major weapon. "At times last year and the year before, I just wanted to bowl good legbreaks," he says. "There's a place for that, but I need to trust my wrong'un and my flipper, if it's going well. That's a big step for me, and that's going to make me a better bowler."
Along with Mark Cosgrove and Luke Ronchi, Bailey is one of the Academy's big names in the current Emerging Players Tournament in Queensland, and unsuspecting batsmen have become his guinea pigs. He tricked three opponents in a Twenty20 game against New Zealand A, including the left-hander Bradley Scott, who failed to pick a wrong'un and was then dismissed next ball when he misjudged the dip. Like most legspinners, Bailey dropped short when his shoulder tightened and was punished, but when he landed his zippy stock delivery there was tentativeness from the batsmen.
Bailey has played only four domestic one-day games and his time in red and black has been restricted by the jostling for prime position at South Australia. Cullen, the offspinner, is usually preferred in the limited-overs contests while Bailey became the first option in Pura Cup games last summer, capturing 26 wickets in eight matches. The interchanging adds to the national selectors' dilemma, and if MacGill is not the answer, they may be forced into picking a slow bowler who is not guaranteed to appear in every game for his state.
"It's a tough one," Bailey says during a match off at Caloundra. His words are cheerful and the semesters spent studying for a media degree in Adelaide make him want to avoid a standard answer. It is not always possible.
"Whoever is playing for South Australia has the better chance to impress. I think the selectors, the Australia ones, are pretty understanding of what happens. They realise you can't always play two spinners. If in seven games you take 30 wickets, you're probably playing anyway."
A ball has been in Bailey's pocket and as he walks back to his Academy mates he pulls it out and starts ripping legbreaks like an alcoholic knocking the top off a bottle. He is already addicted to spin bowling.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo