Highly-praised Holland waits his turn
Jon Holland is one of the two best spinners in Australia at the moment, according to the national selector John Inverarity. The problem is getting a chance to prove it.
Although Nathan Lyon remains the front-runner for the spin position in Australia's squad for the first Test against South Africa early next month, the pressure will build on Lyon if Holland piles up the wickets over the next fortnight. That can only happen if Victoria's world-class pace attack led by James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, John Hastings and Clint McKay don't skittle opposition teams. And at the moment, they're making batsmen from all over the country look like Chris Martin.
That has created a selection dilemma for Victoria, who must also squeeze Andrew McDonald back into the side after his return from the Champions League Twenty20. Inverarity's panel wants to see Holland given game time, especially after his strong performances during the Australia A tour of England during the winter. On that trip, Holland picked up ten wickets at 27.30 compared to Lyon's eight at 48.75, which confirmed that he had jumped ahead of Michael Beer in the national queue.
"I think it's fair to say that we're of the view that the two best spinners we've got just at this moment are Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland," Inverarity said in Sydney on Tuesday.
"I saw [Holland] bowl in Adelaide last year in a one-dayer when he got 6 for 29 and he bowled beautifully. There was a variation in spin, a variation in pace and he flighted the ball, he bowled beautifully. We took him on the Australia A tour and he bowled very well. We all go through patches, and Lyon was in a bad patch in England and Holland outbowled him. But Lyon in Adelaide was bowling very differently to the way he bowled in England."
Wickets have not been forthcoming for Lyon early in the Sheffield Shield season - he has two victims at 112.50 - but he remains the Test incumbent and appears likely to retain his place for now. But the glowing praise from Inverarity, who himself took 221 first-class wickets bowling left-arm orthodox, has given Holland heart that he is on the right track, and that an opportunity in the baggy green could come at any time.
"It's pretty good to hear that from the chairman of selectors for Australia," Holland told ESPNcricinfo. "But I'm more focused on playing for Victoria at the moment. If that comes along then so be it. But Nathan Lyon is bowling pretty well and he's done a good job with his opportunities. I dare say he's still in front.
"On the A trip he [Inverarity] was over in England, I spoke to him a few times there. He's been pretty happy with the way I bowl, the way I go about things with my flight. He picked up something with my action in Brisbane on a pre-season camp, I was falling over a bit and my head was going to one side, he said to try and keep that as straight as possible."
Every little piece of advice is a bonus for Holland, who at 25 has been on the domestic scene for four years, and on the minds of Australia's selectors for most of that time. He was called up for Australia's ODI tour of India in October 2009 but did not play a game, and has now had four stints at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, gradually developing his art.
Initially, his opportunities with Victoria were limited by the presence of the legspinner Bryce McGain, but over the past two years Holland has clearly been the Bushrangers' frontline slow bowler. He is yet to take a first-class five-wicket haul, but that is not unusual for an Australian spinner on the cusp of a call-up - Nathan Hauritz and Nathan Lyon both claimed their maiden five-wicket hauls while playing Test cricket.
Now his chances are dictated by the success of Victoria's fast men. In the first two Sheffield Shield games this season, Holland was bowled a total of 10 overs and has taken 0 for 34.
"There hasn't really been a great deal in the wickets for me," he said. "But with the bowling attack we've had, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle are world-class bowlers and Clint McKay, John Hastings and Andrew McDonald aren't too far behind them. They've done a really good job in the first two games and have taken wickets on a regular basis, so I wasn't really required at all, which is a good thing from a team point of view. It's always good to take a few wickets yourself but as long as we're winning I'm not really that fussed."
Next week, Holland will have the chance to bowl at the MCG for the first time this season - assuming he is picked to play Tasmania - and it's a venue that is unlikely to offer him much spin. But much like Daniel Vettori, Holland's key weapon is not prodigious turn but subtle changes of pace, and he is confident that his style will allow him to have success on any surface.
"It's pretty important on Australian wickets that you do change your pace and your flight, because you don't get much help out of the wicket," he said. "The MCG last year was fairly flat, it didn't really break up and take much spin. But as long as I'm consistently bowling in the one area it should be right on any pitches and in any conditions. As long as I'm hitting the right spot and changing my pace I don't think I need to vary my bowling too much."
For the time being, just getting a bowl would be a start.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here