We counted on MacGill to play on - Nielsen
Stuart MacGill threw Australian cricket's plan for life after Shane Warne into a state of confusion when he retired almost two years earlier than expected, the former national coach Tim Nielsen has said.
Nielsen revealed in an interview with ESPNcricinfo that the team expected MacGill to play on until the end of 2009, rather than ending his career in the middle of the 2008 West Indies tour.
Such a path would have had MacGill face India, New Zealand, South Africa and then England on the 2009 Ashes tour. Instead, his retirement started a cycle of scatter-shot spin bowling selections that continued unabated for three years, and may only be settling now after Nathan Lyon's success on his first Test tour in Sri Lanka.
Nielsen admitted he was unsure whether in all that time the team and the selectors knew exactly what they were looking for in a spinner.
"I just wonder whether we ever clearly understood what role we wanted the spinner to actually play," Nielsen said. "We came off the Warne era and the MacGill era, MacGill retired in the West Indies in '08 which was why Beau [Casson] came in to debut.
"What really was the issue was we counted on MacGill to play through until the end of 2009 really, and when that changed, it put us under a bit of pressure from a spin bowling stocks point of view, we had young blokes who weren't quite ready and maybe thrown in the deep end a bit early. At different times there were decisions made that it might actually hurt them more to keep going rather than just yank them out and let them play a bit more Shield cricket."
Having spent most of his career in the shadow of Warne, MacGill became Australia's No. 1 spinner at the end of 2007 but immediately ran into a range of physical problems, from chronic knee trouble to the damaging emergence of carpal-tunnel syndrome, which robbed him of feeling in his spinning fingers.
"MacGill isn't talked about much but he took 200 Test wickets. By then he was probably older than he needed to be to play every Test match for a couple of years," Nielsen said. "He'd played a lot of Test cricket by the time he got the opportunity to be the only spinner, he must've played 50 Test matches, and he had chronic knees, he'd been around the system for a long time.
"What we did do after that was speculate a couple of times, that didn't quite work out, [Nathan] Hauritz has been pretty good I reckon. Because we've had a few spinners in a row it continues to be talked about, and in the background under all that you say is SK Warne. Someone we relied on and loved to have for so long, was no longer there.
"It was a hard place to be as a spinner because there was this public expectation of the next Warne and our Test match victories a lot of the time happened with the quicks doing damage in the first part of the game and then Warney cleaning up in the second half. When we didn't have that sort of option there was pressure put on publicly and I'm sure they felt it themselves, so it wasn't that easy."
Among the most curious cases in Australia's spin saga was that of Jason Krejza, dropped only one Test after taking 12 wickets on his debut in India as an aggressive bowler. Nielsen said that looking back, Krejza might easily have been persisted with, though he also highlighted the problem of bowlers learning their trade at Test level because they were not given enough room by their states in first-class cricket.
"In hindsight it is easy to say exactly that, we should have stuck with him," Nielsen said. "The hard part was he was very inexperienced, a bit like us having to pick Hauritz out of the NSW second XI. Everybody yells and screams about the selectors having to pick spinners, well I'd like the states to start picking some spinners as well and sticking with them.
"While the selectors can be panned for that, it is bloody hard to go up and learn your caper at the highest level. We need to get these kids in there and give them a run and a chance to get their heads around first-class cricket, and learn. Ideally by the time they get to Test match cricket they've been up and down and through the mill a couple of times, and understand how to cope when its not spinning a lot in Perth or its not going that well in Brisbane. They've learned by playing there."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo