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From not even being handed a Big Bash League contract, to holding his own at the MCG against England, James Muirhead's rise through the ranks has been fast and spectacular
February 11, 2014
There are eight teams in the Big Bash League, each with a squad of 18 men. That means 144 players begin the season with BBL contracts. This summer, James Muirhead was not considered good enough to be one of them. It was not until December 19 that he was brought in by the Melbourne Stars as a replacement for the injured James Faulkner. Less than two months later, Muirhead has now joined Faulkner in Australia's squad for the World Twenty20.
It has been a rapid rise for Muirhead, who until he was 13th man for Australia's final ODI against England in January, had never even been to an international match. Five days later he found himself standing in the middle of a heaving MCG in front of nearly 65,000 spectators, bowling legspin to men whose sole job was to hit him out of the park. That would be enough to worry most 20-year-olds, but Muirhead showed a maturity that belied his years.
In his four overs, Muirhead took 1 for 17, tossing the ball up, turning it sharply, not worried that he might drag the odd delivery down or serve up a full toss. He did not concede a single boundary in that match. On debut two days earlier, Muirhead's third ball had been dispatched for six by Jos Buttler in Hobart, but at no stage over the three-game series did he retreat into a defensive style - he kept flighting the ball, dipping it and spinning it, and kept troubling the batsmen.
"It was definitely really daunting, especially in front of 65,000 at that game," Muirhead told ESPNcricinfo last week. "Bowling legspin you just really have to have confidence and believe in yourself and you know you can perform at that level. You just try and take in the crowd and relish the moment and enjoy yourself. You're going to get hit for a few sixes or a few boundaries bowling legspin in T20, so you can't put yourself down, you've just got to keep fighting against them.
"In Twenty20 cricket there's got to be a balance between defending and attacking, so whether that's bowling a slider, bowling a faster legbreak or throwing one up, you've just got to find that balance. That defines whether you're successful or not."
Daunting as the experience may have been, Muirhead is a young man not lacking in confidence. It is near impossible to succeed as a wrist-spinner without that self-belief. Muirhead's team-mate in those three T20s against England, as well as with Victoria, Cameron White, knows the pressure of bowling legspin at international level, and has been impressed by what he has seen.
"It's really exciting. I've stood at slip in the three Twenty20 games he's played for Australia and you can just see he's a real natural legspinner of the ball, there's a lot of sidespin on the ball," White said. "He gets really big turn. I think that's got everyone excited, including the people he plays with. I can tell you from experience it's not easy to bowl legspin, especially in front of [nearly] 70,000 that were at the MCG for that Twenty20 game.
"He bowled really well in that game and showed that he's got the mindset and the calmness to then go out and deliver his skill. It's impressive stuff so far. I think you definitely have to have that type of personality. It's that confidence, the absolute belief in your ability to perform in front of that many people. To bowl legspin is a big ask and he's doing it really well at the moment."
The TV commentators during the T20s against England would have had viewers believe Muirhead was the reincarnation of Shane Warne, so excited were they by the emergence of a confident young legspinner. But while such successes, and the upcoming World T20, will improve Muirhead's career significantly, Australia's selectors will be equally interested to see how he performs in the Sheffield Shield over the next few weeks.
Can he maintain his consistency in the long form, where batsmen have to wait for the bad ball? Can he build pressure over four days, not four overs? We are about to find out, for before the World T20, Muirhead has some red-ball cricket to play. Muirhead has already played more international matches - three - than he has first-class games. His only Sheffield Shield match came late last summer in Adelaide, when he took one wicket in each innings against South Australia.
His other first-class outing was for the Cricket Australia Invitational XI against England at the SCG in November; there he claimed six victims for the match, including Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Alastair Cook. It was that performance that really made the national selectors sit up and take notice. Now, the Victorian selectors have taken the hint from above, for Fawad Ahmed has been demoted to the Futures League while Muirhead will take on New South Wales in a Shield match starting on Wednesday.
"In the shorter format you use a lot more variation than you would in the longer form," Muirhead said. "In Sheffield Shield cricket I'd probably bowl 90% legbreaks, in Twenty20 I'd probably bowl 70% legbreaks. They're both pretty hard formats to bowl in. As a leggie, you want to dominate the batsmen and get them out, especially in the longer form. That defines how good you are. At times you've got to attack them really hard and go early if you feel confident."
Muirhead certainly speaks with confidence, certain that he knows his game and trusts in his own ability. That will be refined, of course, but it's a good starting point. Over the past few months, Muirhead has worked with Stuart MacGill on a pre-season trip to Sri Lanka and with Shane Warne, who advised him on tactics and the mindset of a legspinner.
Naturally, Warne was Muirhead's childhood idol, although it was his uncle Daryl Veteha, a club legspinner in Melbourne, who helped him learn his craft in the backyard. Muirhead's father Matt, who coached him in past years, still provides a valuable sounding board. "We talk most nights about cricket," Muirhead said of his father, "especially when things aren't going right."
It remains to be seen what sort of conversation they will have when Muirhead returns from the World T20, where the world's best strikers will be ready to take him down. Confidence is important, but nothing can really prepare Muirhead for the task ahead of him in Bangladesh, where he will join Brad Hogg and Glenn Maxwell in Australia's spin attack.
Muirhead has played a combined total of 20 days of first-class, List A and T20 cricket; Hogg has 20 years of experience in first-class and one-day cricket alone, from which to draw. Perhaps that's a Twenty20 omen.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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