Hauritz sheds scars of the past
Since the conclusion of The Oval Test in August, the Australian rumour mill has been abuzz with theories as to the motives behind Nathan Hauritz's omission from the starting XI. The move to play an all-pace attack on a parched pitch that turned early and substantially played a sizable role in Australia's eventual 197-run defeat, and prompted on-duty selector Jamie Cox to offer a rare mea culpa on behalf of the panel after the match.
But murmurings around the Australian camp suggest there is more to the overlooking of Hauritz than meets the eye. Several team sources have told Cricinfo that Australia's selectors intended to play their specialist spinner in the series decider but, hit with a crisis of confidence before one of the most important Ashes Tests in modern history, Hauritz either withdrew his candidacy or was deemed too great a risk.
Whether true or not - and Hauritz insists upon the latter - the issue of the spinner's confidence has been a discussion point within Australian cricket for some time. Greg Matthews, one of his spin-bowling mentors, once described him as "heavily scarred" following his arrival in New South Wales from Queensland, and Hauritz himself has been candid in discussing his need to be more assertive as a bowler.
In the immediate aftermath of The Oval defeat, the aforementioned sources expressed concern over the working relationship between Hauritz and Ricky Ponting looking ahead. Their worries appear unfounded. Ponting showed no hesitation in tossing the ball Hauritz's way throughout subsequent limited-overs campaigns in South Africa and India, and was effusive when discussing the spinner's five-wicket contribution to Australia's thumping Test win over West Indies at the Gabba.
"As far as I've been concerned for the last eight or ten months he hasn't let anybody down," Ponting said. "The more exposure he's getting to better players and different conditions to bowl in he's learning a lot about the art and craft of offspin bowling in Test cricket these days. It's not an easy skill anymore. Batsmen are playing differently and always trying to stay a step ahead of the bowlers and a lot of the wickets we play on these days around the world aren't that conducive to it. I think he's done a great job."
As for Hauritz, evidence of his evolving confidence was on display at the Gabba - both on the field and in the press conference room. He appeared in no way intimidated returning to the venue that almost broke him as a first-class cricketer, bowling with a tantalising loop that was all but absent in his latter years with Queensland. It was at the Gabba that Hauritz was jeered - first as an underperforming Queenslander, then as a New South Wales "defector" - and he admitted to a sense of self-satisfaction when, after dismissing Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach with successive deliveries on Saturday, the once antagonistic crowd erupted into chants of "Haury".
As striking as Hauritz's self-assured deeds on the pitch were his comments off it. No longer was he dealing in one-game-at-a-times. Hauritz expects to be on the plane to Adelaide on Tuesday, and Perth thereafter. "I don't know if I'll ever feel like I belong in the side," he said with trademark self-deprecation. "I don't know if that feeling exists within such a competitive culture. But I know I'm very happy with where my game's at, at the moment.
"It's going to be a different situation going to Adelaide. Adelaide is a lot slower wicket but it is renowned for turn. It's going to be different. That's one of the first Gabba wickets I've played on - and I don't know if my bowling's different now - that I got the ball to turn a little bit. I don't know if I've changed a bit as a bowler or the wicket's changed, but I enjoyed bowling out there and I'm looking forward."
Such is Hauritz's confidence in his own game at present, he is toying with the idea of revealing his experimental doosra against West Indies in Perth. Though much has been written about his "other one", Hauritz has thus far been unwilling to bowl it outside the nets. The third Test at the WACA, he hinted, might prove a suitable occasion for the unveiling.
"For me, I need to be able to consistently land it in the nets before I bring it out because I sort of feel short-leg would die if I don't get it right," he quipped. "Punter's always trying to get me to bowl it in a game. Whether it's this series I don't know, but definitely on a wicket like Perth, where the bounce is so fast and it does spin, it might come out there. I'm looking forward to playing the next two games because there's two totally different wickets."
This week Hauritz will return to the venue that staged his sudden and unexpected comeback to the Test arena last year. A training mishap involving the then Test incumbent Jason Krejza prompted Andrew Hilditch to order Hauritz, an occasional member of the New South Wales side at the time, onto the next Adelaide-bound flight. His efforts in that match and the remainder of the summer earned him a ticket to the Ashes and a chance to reignite a Test career many, himself included, feared had stalled at the Wankhede Stadium four years prior.
"The [feeling] in Adelaide was one of great relief playing that second Test," he said of last year's recall. "I never thought that would ever come along. There might not be any difference in the areas I land the ball - there might be a little bit more spin, I don't know - but definitely the mental strength and the confidence with what I'm doing makes me a lot different bowler to then.
"Mo Matthews is always keen [for me to] embrace it all. I'm generally a pretty reserved person. I'm pretty happy to stay to myself and just bowl and play cricket. Definitely one part of my game that can improve is my aura on the field. That might change after 30 or 40 Tests, I don't know. But I'm just happy to be playing each Test on its merits at the moment."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo