Crane's emergence invites heady expectations
It is easy to see how people get carried away. Legspin is one of those skills that seems to be bound up with the prodigious, like playing the violin or showing an aptitude for chess. All the more so if the practitioner is young. A teenage English legspinner? You had me at hello.
Mason Crane has played just over a dozen senior games for Hampshire, a few on TV, but that first glimpse was enough. Mark Butcher, on ESPNcricinfo's Switch Hit, tipped him as the third spinner for England's squad to tour the UAE, as did his former international team-mate Steve Harmison. The selectors, a more swoon-resistant bunch, were not persuaded but Crane will still wear an England tracksuit this winter with the Development Programme and Under-19s.
It has been a rapid rise for a bowler who made his debut as an unknown 18-year-old in July and a few weeks later became the youngest Hampshire player to take a five-wicket haul in the Championship, but even he was not expecting a call from James Whitaker at this stage. "It's really nice that people say those things but I don't think I was ever really hoping to be included, it's a few years too soon for me," he says.
Such is his precocity that the football club Crane supports, Arsenal, have only ever had one manager in his lifetime; Arsene Wenger arrived in north London in 1996, the year before Crane was born.
His name is well known in one particular corridor of the ECB, however. "He's been on our radar for a number of years now," says Peter Such, the former Essex and England spinner who now oversees the ECB's spin programmes. Such, cautious of the burden of expectation, describes Crane as "a very talented young spin bowler" and his development is in part down to efforts to address an area of the English game that has been increasingly fallow.
With fewer seasoned spinners in county cricket - Jeetan Patel and Gareth Batty are notable exceptions - the process of handing down know-how and lore to young practitioners had stalled. This was something the ECB identified for improvement a few years ago, leading to the creation of the Elite Spin Bowling Programme, funded in part by the Brian Johnston Memorial Trust, which assigns specialist spin coaches to counties that might not otherwise be able to afford them.
Crane, having been let go by Sussex at 14, was spotted by former Hampshire spinner Raj Maru and has spent much of the past three years there working with Darren Flint. A slow left-armer whose county career was cut short by injury in the 1990s, Flint is now a familiar face at Hampshire's academy, where he drills the next crop of spinners on how to survive in an unfriendly environment. In an era of hot-housed sporting talent, even slow-burn skills have to be acquired quickly.
"My remit is to get them ready to play pro cricket earlier than a spinner ordinarily would," Flint says. "We don't mature as spinners until mid- to late-twenties really, and a lot of guys get lost to the game before they get that opportunity. With everything nowadays being a bit like fast food - everyone wants it already made - the idea is to get these guys ready and get some good stuff into them early, because quite often clubs don't have the resources to develop spin bowling."
Brad Taylor, an offspinner who made his Hampshire debut as a 16-year-old and will captain the Under-19s this winter, is another pupil and Flint believes both are good enough to play at the highest level. With conditions and scheduling in the Championship tending to suit seam bowling and fewer old pros around the dressing room to ask for advice, young spinners have to try and learn resilience and "mental toughness" through countless extra sessions with coaches like Flint.
As Flint points out, even if you can turn it a long way like Crane, there are other equally important aspects to succeeding as a spinner. "He's a very attacking bowler and he will always say that the best form of defence is to get people out, but also he needs to learn that sometimes you have to build pressure through bowling dots," Flint says. "All those little things that you do as a pro but ordinarily you wouldn't have done when you're 15 because you're turning the ball six feet and you're going to take six for nothing."
This hasn't been lost on Crane, despite his early success. "Just running and letting it go in first-class cricket doesn't really cut the mustard, you've got to think about what you're doing more, it's much more of a mental and tactical game," he says.
Shane Warne, who examined heads as much as techniques, would doubtless agree. Warne transfixed the eight-year-old Crane during the 2005 Ashes - and Hampshire plan to set up a meeting when Warne is next back at his old club - but even the great sorcerer would surely have been impressed by the apprentice's start. Crane picked up 5 for 35 in his second Championship appearance, an analysis which included removing two of Warwickshire's best batsmen in the same over: Varun Chopra bowled - "every legspinner's dream, pitch one on or outside leg, hit the top of off" - and Jonathan Trott, England's former No. 3, taken at slip.
"It was ridiculous, that five-for, it all happened so quick," Crane says. "The game before I took four against Durham in the second innings, they were having a bit of a dig to try and get as many as they could and I was going round the wicket into the rough. But in the first innings to get a five-for, in ten overs or something, it was amazing really, and a great feeling."
The game won't always bestow gifts so freely, of course, and earlier this month Crane achieved a less-coveted first when he went 0 for 108 at Taunton. But his emergence, along with Hampshire team-mate Taylor, legspinner Josh Poysden at Warwickshire and even Zafar Ansari, the Surrey left-armer who was also on the Elite Spin Bowling Programme and who was picked for the UAE before dislocating his thumb, is encouraging for Such and his team.
"It excites me to see young English legspinners come through; spinners in general - it's great to see them in the game because it offers variety and a very interesting blend of cricket to watch," Such says. "I love it, I think it's brilliant and the more that we get coming through the better it will be."
The UAE may have come too soon for Crane but the fan boys need not be disappointed. England seem set to cap a Test legspinner for only the second time in 15 years, with Adil Rashid expected to make his debut against Pakistan, and it may not be long - there are trips to India and Bangladesh next year - before they can seriously consider taking two in a touring squad.
Crane has been set on a life as a professional cricketer for as long as he cares to remember but, should he end up spending two months on the road for England, he will have one important decision to make. His dad is a hairdresser and no else has ever cut his hair. Given the impression he has made on the field, a first trip to the barber's might be more daunting than being asked to spin out the opposition in a Test.
Either way, the work to replenish England's spin-bowling stocks will continue. As Flint puts it: "I'm always trying to develop the next Graeme Swann… or Mason Crane."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick