Bangladesh v Australia, 2nd Test, Chittagong, 1st Day April 16, 2006

Second fiddle, first class



Stuart MacGill: At war with himself and the world © Getty Images

Stuart MacGill rarely looks happy. Not when he delivers the ball, not when he is hit for four, not when he beats the bat and certainly not when an appeal is turned down. Even when he takes a wicket, as he does often, he seems only to be either muttering, or sometimes more intensely reiterating, "I told you so" to selectors, rather than celebrating.

And who can blame him? Eight years after his debut and in his 40th Test, he stands six short of 200 Test wickets, the acquiring of which will put him in the leg-spinning company of Richie Benaud and Clarrie Grimmett from Australia. He's not too far behind Abdul Qadir and ahead of Mushtaq Ahmed. Yet he plays second fiddle, to the other Australian leggie with over 200 Test wickets (quite a few), Shane Warne.

Friday's Numbers Game reveals that in 15 Tests MacGill and Warne have played together, the former outperforms - at least in terms of wickets - the latter. Today, however, as Australia paid their own tribute to subcontinent cricket (memory fails to recall when they last went into a Test with three spinners), both men came out even, admittedly, as always, in broadly differing manners.

It's said of MacGill for example that he bowls a four-ball almost every over, which is a fair point, except that it tends to undermine the other four to five excellent deliveries he also bowls in that over. He doesn't mind giving away runs as much as Warne sure (a spendthrift at 3.15 per over compared to Warne's miserly 2.64), but he takes wickets at a quicker rate (strike rate of 52 to Warne's 57.5). Rajin Saleh's dismissal was a case in point; having pulled a slow, loopy, big-turning leg-spinner through midwicket, he attempted the same shot next ball. Except this time, it was flatter and though not much fuller, quicker, skimming through onto his stumps.

But, if with MacGill the four-ball is a mistake, with Warne it appears a scheme, a ploy, just one step in an elaborate plan designed to entrap you later and therein lies probably the most telling difference. MacGill has a very effective, sharply-spinning googly as Mohammad Rafique found today. Warne doesn't but he has a reputation, which lured Mohammad Ashraful into chasing a leg-break and Aftab Ahmed into inside edging a dipping full toss onto his toes and to Adam Gilchrist.

Wasim Akram, of his partnership with Waqar Younis, said that competition against each other drove them in search of wickets. If one took a wicket, it only spurred the other to take two and it worked often enough. Warne is too big, has done too much for that sort of rivalry of equals to work, but does MacGill raise his game further when he plays with Warne? Maybe, though today, with Warne's success, would be a poor case study. Australia have long pondered the dilemma of Warne and MacGill; in this light, MacGill's solution of easing Warne's burden to prolong his career is actually faultless in logic and a win-win situation.

Rajin Saleh's career should be more win-win than his batting average of 28.46 suggests. Certainly that seemed to be the verdict after his maiden series in 2003 against Pakistan; it included a nearly five-hour, 235-ball 60, on his debut at Karachi and against Shoaib Akhtar, Danish Kaneria, Shabbir Ahmed and Umar Gul. He was unflappably compact through the series, taking a few blows from Shoaib at Peshawar for good measure and at the time, local opinion wondered whether Saleh, not Mohammad Ashraful, was meant to be the one.

His sixth Test fifty was again made of a resolute defence, but clearly he's added some shots and oomph to his game. A furious Brett Lee spell and one from Jason Gillespie, which would have warmed a few hearts around the world, was repelled. He twice headed Lee bouncers (once for four) but also drove him square twice. Warne was greeted with a loft over long-on to bring up Bangladesh's 50 and MacGill was clipped against the spin through midwicket an over later. Eleven overs later, he tried to loft Warne again, this time to bring up his own fifty, and deserved the luck to see a mis-hit land safe. He's not as flash as Ashraful or Shahriar Nafees but this was his second fifty and third polished knock of the series.

And thank god for him too, for the only other man to pester Australia was another leggie, Aleem Dar, though he has now become an umpire. The duel has gone on through the Australian summer and is taking on comic proportions. Lee stirred in the morning only after having words with Dar over no-balls. Stump mikes didn't capture what was said but Lee's bouncers at Saleh didn't suggest pleasantry. MacGill, freshly denied strong appeals, then did his best to re-enact Aquib Javed-Roy Palmer from Old Trafford, 1992, refusing to take his hat because Dar didn't stretch his hand out another three inches. Lee followed up later by throwing the ball back to Dar when he wasn't looking and hitting him on the back. None of it was malicious, more the tetchiness familiarity breeds but as Bangladesh depressingly crumbled, it was light respite.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo