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The rapid rise of James Muirhead

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

Brydon Coverdale

February 11, 2014

Comments: 12 | Text size: A | A

James Muirhead impressed in his second international appearance, Australia v England, 2nd T20, Melbourne, January 31, 2014
James Muirhead has already played three Twenty20 internationals © Getty Images
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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 here

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Posted by OzFan001 on (February 13, 2014, 10:25 GMT)

Agree with ygkd comments. Let's not get carried away. He is young, and very inexperienced. Today in Sheffield Shield vs a very average NSW side he took 0/61 off 7 overs. Meanwhile Fawad took 4/89 off 32 overs for Vic 2nd XI, and is Victoria's leading spin bowler this season (14 wkts vs Holland 1 wkt). Muirhead will be under SERIOUS pressure to perform. Don't be surprised if he is out of the team after only one game.

Posted by ygkd on (February 12, 2014, 7:11 GMT)

This could be the best thing that yet happens to him - which is why, in time, it could also be the worst. Much better to let him consolidate in Shield cricket than to play too much biff 'n' bash. He's still a work very much in progress, after all. @ ShutTheGate - took the words out of my mouth!

Posted by ShutTheGate on (February 12, 2014, 2:05 GMT)

I guess Fawad Ahmad's Australian career is over.

Posted by dunger.bob on (February 11, 2014, 11:35 GMT)

Good luck to him and a nod to the selectors. Something old, something new.

@ C.Gull: Good call on Lyon. Bringing him in now would be an another Agar episode. Let's see how he goes in this tournament first and take it from there. Besides, Gazz is going pretty bloody good anyway. Given a chance he could be our best ever offie. I'm backing him to take 10+ wickets over the 3 Tests. Doesn't sound a lot, but could be very handy.

Posted by Dangertroy on (February 11, 2014, 11:28 GMT)

The selectors keep trying to tell this story, plucking from obscurity some young kid with a bit of promise and then throwing them into international cricket. Especially spinners. There is an obsession with finding the next shane warne, when we've already got a Nathan Lyon, who was himself an inexperienced kid when given a test debut.

That said, Muirhead is genuinely exciting, given the prodigious amount of turn he gets. I just don't want to see him as another victim of being over hyped to early.

Posted by Sir_Ivor on (February 11, 2014, 11:14 GMT)

Muirhead is just 20 and is a good looking youngster much like Ashton Agar. Ever since the great Shane Warne retired, their selectors have been looking for someone similar. Debonair and cricket playing. The likes of Shane Warne happen once in one's lifetime I wish to assure everyone. It takes more than just good looks and a basic skill to make a great cricketer.It is a combination of skills and variations cricketing intelligence,good luck and the rub of the green. Not to mention a willing and gambling captain like Alan Border and Mark Taylor were. Then there is the small matters of temperament and the mental toughness to fight. Shane Warne was an embodiment of all these qualities and having seen and heard cricket being played for a long long time, I can safely say that I may not see another Warne in my life time. I wish James a lot of luck and a successful career.He could prove me to be just another skeptic. But I would simply love to see another Shane Warne play this game.

Posted by C.Gull on (February 11, 2014, 7:55 GMT)

I have to say he looked pretty darn good in the T20I that I saw. Nerveless and spun the ball a long way. I just hope this doesn't mean Lyon's place in the Test side will come under threat from impatient selectors yet again.

Posted by smudgeon on (February 11, 2014, 7:45 GMT)

CA...for the love of puppies, be good to this kid. If he's as good as you think he is, give him time and latitude to develop his game and confidence. So often we see spinners who take wickets early on before fading once confidence deserts them, people start to tinker with their technique, or batsmen figure them out (or a combination of these). Likewise, try not to give him the SOK treatment if he somehow survives all this and manages to be a handy domestic spinner. It'll be great for him to be in the squad alongside Brad Hogg, but perhaps don't throw him in the deep end unless you're absolutely certain he can swim. A few T20i games at home at the fag-end of a series where you've wiped the floor with the opposition isn't the fiercest intro to international cricket. Like CA, I want to see how he fares in longer-form cricket too - and if it turns out he can't cope witht hat, but has a natural flair for short-form cricket, nurture that. Not every player's talents are suitable long forms...

Posted by Mitty2 on (February 11, 2014, 7:19 GMT)

Hasn't been overawed in his two Vic shield games -- an average of 34 is certainly better than what Boyce started off with (and still is better) - and I guess now the folly of him being behind Holland (dart-thrower) and Ahmed (another Tahir - in one shield game at the G Cameron White was far more threatening) is shown to the Vic selectors. Excited to see his progress, just hope he doesn't get too overhyped (will happen, but hopefully it won't be as detrimental as it was to previous spinners and the likes of Hughes/Marsh).

Posted by austentayshus on (February 11, 2014, 6:59 GMT)

Hope that he would be next warney.

He's got drift and elegant style and release is also good . Come on warney take him under your wings

Posted by izzidole on (February 11, 2014, 6:57 GMT)

When I saw James Muirhead bowl for the first time in a BBL game I was very impressed and commented on cricinfo that I reckon that he is currently the finest spin bowler in Australia and wondered why nobody raved about his bowling. But I knew sooner than later he would catch the eye of the selectors and play for Australia. I think if he could only improve his approach to the wicket and put a little more effort into his bowling I am sure he could be quite dangerous.To be selected for the T20 world cup in Bangladesh so soon would be quite a challenge.

Posted by Sir_Francis on (February 11, 2014, 6:44 GMT)

I wonder if 20/20 will affect his technique for FC cricket. Hopefully not.

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.
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