September 22, 2000

Australia decides that Higgs might fly

For the last few weeks, activity on the Australian cricket scene has been relatively uneventful. Preparations in each of the states are, of course, continuing in earnest in the lead-up to the beginning of the domestic season in a little over a fortnight. Thirteen of the nation's finest players are on their way out of England after another generally brilliant season for Australian imports at county level. And spectators in remote Western Australia are about to be treated to the sight of practice matches being contested between their state team, Victoria and South African visitors, KwaZulu-Natal, on a specially transported pitch. But not since Colonial Stadium's conception as a cricketing venue in August has there been much in the way of major headline news.

Until today, that was. First came word - quite unexpectedly - that enigmatic leg spinner Shane Warne requires surgery to repair damage to his left knee and that he has been withdrawn from the Australian squad to play in the International Cricket Council Knock-Out (ICCKO) Trophy tournament in Kenya next month.

The thought that Warne has sustained another injury clearly represents a grievous development for Australian cricket. After all his trouble battling pain in a shoulder and a finger over recent years, the onset of more injury trouble carries with it further worrisome implications about his potential longevity as an international cricketer. The surgery is said to represent no more than a routine exercise in repairing minor damage in a joint in his left knee, but any suspicion that the thirty-one year old's body is continuing to be subjected to the kind of exertions that even make this damage possible can not be viewed as anything other than a concern.

And if the disclosure of the former national vice-captain's need to withdraw from participation from the mini-World Cup was unforeseen, then the next revelation was even more astonishing. The name of the replacement of arguably the most famous player in the fourteen-strong Australian squad? Mark Higgs: a far from regular member of the New South Wales team at domestic level.

With all of the attention in his adopted home town of Sydney very squarely focused on another matter of sporting significance at present, it is probably little wonder that Higgs' elevation to an international squad has been greeted with a relative lack of fanfare so far. But make no mistake. This is a shock selection; as far from left field as eye-opening decisions come. More surprising than Simon Cook's rapid rise to Test level at home in 1997-98; more unexpected than the decision to pluck Matt Nicholson from obscurity and plant him into the heat of an Ashes battle in 1998-99; even more of a bolt from the blue than Scott Muller's call-up as a replacement for the tour of Zimbabwe in late 1999 and his subsequent appearance in two Tests against Pakistan in 1999-2000. That the fresh-faced twenty-four year old would not have been chosen at all if fellow New South Welshman Stuart MacGill had been available to make the trip to Nairobi instead - he is due to be married on 7 October - makes little difference to the size of the bombshell that this selection represents.

A very natural, powerful left handed batsman and tidy left arm leg spinner, Higgs was a regular member of the Australian Capital Territory team in 1997-98, the first of its three seasons of Mercantile Mutual Cup participation, and played in all six of its matches that summer. But, in the wake of his relocation to Sydney in 1998-99, only a further seven one-day matches and another five at first-class level have followed. Although he clearly shapes as a player of genuine promise, he has not made a huge impact to date. Two very fine innings - a brilliant rapid-fire 36 on interstate debut against South Australia at Canberra's Manuka Oval and a forceful unbeaten 74 in last summer's Mercantile Mutual Cup semi-final against Queensland - certainly stand out in the memory. Otherwise, though, significant successes at state level remain difficult to remember and he has yet to genuinely cement a place in his state team.

This morning, Mark Higgs was a young man with thoughts of performing well in a weekend intrastate trial game dominating his mind. This evening, he is a man ahead of whom the possibility of a glorious international debut for Australia lies. Don't let anyone tell you that cricket isn't a funny game.