Last spinner standing
Not since 1989 have Australia sent a spinner to England and expected so little. Twenty years ago the leggie Trevor Hohns, who would become more notable as Australia's successful selection chairman, was the slow-bowling specialist in a pace-dominated squad. He wasn't picked for the first Test, but was employed in the next five matches of the 4-0 triumph, impressing and surprising with 11 wickets at 27.27. If Nathan Hauritz matches that over the next three months he will be allowed to jig on a balcony at The Oval while swinging a stump and blowing smoke rings.
Hauritz and his contemporaries started their careers admiring Shane Warne's all-dancing routines, but are now caught in an un-choreographed discipline in which uncertainty is the only guarantee. Life in England is going to be hard for Hauritz, just as it would have been for Jason Krejza, Cameron White, Jon Holland, Beau Casson or any of the other fringe spinners mentioned for national service since Warne retired with his re-gripping of the Ashes in 2007.
After more than a decade - and four England tours - of stability, Australia began interchanging their slow-bowling stocks like AFL players until the selectors stuck with Hauritz, a 27-year-old offspinner in his second life as an international following a shooting star ending to his initial experience. Fortunately for Hauritz, success in his genre is now determined on a scale more familiar to those who remember Hohns and the 1980s. Back then a couple of wickets an innings were fine if the main bowlers were firing and anything more was toasted with showers of beer.
"I haven't minded it," Hauritz said of the tense spin situation, during a driving holiday from Sydney to Queensland's Hervey Bay before leaving for the Ashes. "The one thing is it has made more competition for spots, and you just enjoy your time there all the time. There's such a good breed of fast bowlers coming through who are at the same stage, and when those fast bowlers are picked the side wins. The focus is a little bit off the spin bowling, but there's always a spot for a spin bowler in a Test match. We're just part of the unlucky situation coming after Warne and [Stuart] MacGill."
There has always been talk of a tight spinner's club, where all secrets are shared, but despite the common aims of the country's twirlers, there doesn't appear to be a strong bond. "We don't really keep in contact with them," Hauritz said. "We say g'day when we play against them, but there's not much said about it. At the end of the day, you're all trying to play for Australia and stay there and play for a long time."
In England Hauritz's main competition will come not from another specialist, but three part-timers who prefer to bat. Marcus North, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke are likely to be handed extended opportunities during the series, particularly if Hauritz struggles for impact in Cardiff, where the pitch is predicted to turn. Mostly this trio will be seen as bowlers who can help the over-rate and offer rest for the fast men. Any wickets, along with those from Hauritz, will be treasured.
Hauritz has been given the closest thing to stability in the hope he can become a consistent contributor. A national contract followed an extended run in the one-day team and his status as the country's No. 1 was confirmed when he outlasted Bryce McGain to earn the Ashes job. For the past eight months Hauritz has travelled with the side, playing sometimes and training a lot. In South Africa he watched McGain's nightmare debut of 0 for 149 off 18 overs, a performance which left Hauritz as the last spinner standing.
"No, I never thought that could be me," he said of McGain's international entry. "It was tough to watch. That was his journey, he was destined to bowl there. He had to accept and deal with it the best he could. It's always tough to see a fellow team-mate go through that. It can only make you stronger from there, I believe, having been through that sort of thing myself. When I came back from India [in 2004] I had a few days like that and it made things very tough."
In his first Test Hauritz captured five wickets, including Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, but there were two problems: Clarke ripped six second-innings breakthroughs in 26 balls, exposing the relative lack of impact from the specialist, and Australia lost. When he returned to Queensland Hauritz slid out of state cricket and by the end of the summer was a club bowler. Feeling as flat as his trajectory, Hauritz wanted a change and in 2006 moved to New South Wales with no promise of any action. Slowly, benefitting from hard work and good fortune, he increased his position and last year was elevated to the Test team when Krejza hurt his ankle before the second match against New Zealand.
With four wickets, he convinced himself that he could be an international bowler, but the selectors remain unsure when to use him. He was dropped for Perth, called back in Melbourne - he tricked a sweeping Jaques Kallis for his favourite wicket of the summer - held his spot in Sydney and watched the series in South Africa from the dressing room.
He re-entered through the one-day side, appearing in every game in South Africa and the UAE. "It was fantastic to play, and great to have the backing from Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke," he said. "It was tough not playing in the Tests, but I always said it's much better to be there than not be there."
It is the brief of Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, to monitor Hauritz on tour, which seems insufficient considering Cooley's main duties revolve around the position of Mitchell Johnson's wrist and getting the attack to deliver reverse-swing. At home Hauritz relies on Murray Bennett, a left-arm orthodox who gained three Tests in the 1980s, and John Davison, the South Australian turned Canadian turned Centre of Excellence spin coach. Trent Ryan, a Queensland assistant who stuck with him during his troubled summers at the Bulls, also stays in touch.
These are not the usual names associated with slow bowling in Australia, but Hauritz is not a modern style of operator. There is rarely sharp spin, no outlandish tricks and he is regularly called a defensive bowler, a trait recalled by Ian Chappell, who said containers should be limited to the shipping industry.
"At the end of the day I'm always trying to take wickets, but sometimes the situation is you have to bowl a role," Hauritz said. "They might not attack you, you might have to just bowl a line. Or the wickets might not turn as much and you're easier to face. I never go out to think I'm not going to take wickets, or bowl defensive, I'm always just trying to bowl consistent, tight and take wickets."
He tries not to read the criticism and when describing his bowling classes himself simply as "a spinner". "I don't really know if there is such a thing as an attacking spinner or a defensive spinner," he said. "I just think there's a spinner. I bowl offspin, that's what I see myself as."
"I spoke to Stuart MacGill at length about this. He said: 'There's a difference between being aggressive and bowling poorly.' I see that when the game comes into the fourth or fifth day I can be more aggressive and set more aggressive fields, and bowl different lines. Early on, I bowl tighter lines with more defensive fields, it's part and parcel of the game."
These are the methods that worked before Warne flicked his wrist and they might be successful again. Hauritz hopes they are in England, where he played a season with Nelson in the Lancashire League in 2005. The pitches were wet, sticky and easy to bowl on. This time he wants them dry and dusty.
Twenty years ago it was a hot summer in England and Hohns was able to benefit in between the stints of the more celebrated fast men. His most memorable moment was bowling Ian Botham with a flipper at Old Trafford and at the end of the series the 35-year-old retired. Hauritz will push for similar opportunities and wish that by the conclusion of the contest he will still have a say in the direction of his career.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo