Australia A in India 2008 September 8, 2008

Spin trio take trial in their stride

Kanishkaa Balachandran on how Beau Casson, Bryce McGain and Jason Krejza are trying to stake their claim for national selection via the A team's tour to India

Beau Casson edged out Bryce McGain for a spot in the Australian Test side in West Indies © AFP
"I'm never going to be a Warne or a MacGill. They're absolute geniuses." Those words, from Beau Casson, the only one of Australia A's spin trio with Test experience, shouldn't be mistaken for a defeatist attitude. Almost every spinner trying to break into the Australian squad will have to accept with humility, as Casson did, that Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill will be hard acts to follow.

Warne retired with 708 Test wickets, a feat unlikely to be matched in the near future; MacGill quit the game, within the year, as the fourth quickest to reach 200 Test wickets. The retirement of Brad Hogg last summer forced the Australian selectors to dig deeper to find new treasures.

Assuming the selectors have got it right, Casson, Bryce McGain and Jason Krejza are the three best Australian spinners at the moment. The three are vying for two spots on the Australian Test team to tour India, which will be announced shortly. All three are aware of their limitations and expectations from the public following those high-profile retirements. All three are distinct in their disciplines. All three know that the prime aim is not to shatter records, but to stay in the Australian team for as long as possible. And all three are, most significantly, determined to carve out their own identities and not live under the shadow of any of Australia's spin legends.

McGain's rise gives hope to late bloomers in any field. For 15 years, he played club cricket in Melbourne, juggling his hobby with a more lucrative day job in a bank as an IT officer. He played just three Pura Cup matches from 2001-02 to 2003-04 but fortunes changed three seasons later when he replaced fellow legspinner Cameron White in the Victoria squad. Soon enough, he claimed a six-wicket haul against New South Wales. He quit his job after earning a state contract and ended the 2007-08 season as the leading spinner in the Pura Cup, with 38 wickets at 34.15. He may be 36, but if the selectors place ability over age, McGain could be in Australia whites soon. This would delight his eight-year-old son, Liam, who's gained quite a reputation at school for having a famous dad.

"My first goal was to make the state side, which I did, and had a steady season," McGain said. "From there the possibilities seemed endless. My son's very excited. His dad's going ok (laughs). He's getting a bit of notoriety around the school yard."

Only time will tell if McGain can be just as effective as his predecessors, and his access to Warne, his former state team-mate, should come in handy if he eventually steps into his shoes. "I've been in contact with Shane regularly," he said. "I really don't feel any pressure. I'm trying to be the best I can be."

For years, MacGill was forced to live with the 'No Vacancy' sign virtually staring blankly at his face while Warne creditably hogged the only slot in the Australian line-up. Fortunately for Australia's new hopefuls, it's not just one slot they're competing for

McGain doesn't believe in unnecessarily overexerting himself in trying to match Warne's mesmeric variations. He thinks there's no point in bowling six different balls in an over and if needed only for a containing job, he's fairly content with that.

Casson, a left-arm chinaman bowler, looks to be the first-choice spinner having edged out McGain for a slot in the Test side in the West Indies. He made his debut in Barbados, contributing in no small way to Australia's victory there. His migration from Perth to the more spin-friendly Sydney was a brave move, given that MacGill was first-choice spinner there. However, he stepped up in MacGill's absence the last season, taking 29 wickets and finishing as his side's second-highest wicket-taker. Add 485 runs at 60.62 and you have a useful allrounder.

Is he bogged down by the pressure and expectation back home? "The pressure is more on yourself," he says. "I'm just trying to develop a role for myself in the side, whether taking wickets or drying up one end or making useful runs. You have to put that expectation on yourself if you want to play for your country.

"I had a chat with Stuey (MacGill). I've seen him go about his work and that's the best way to learn. I'm a bit of a cricket tragic so I've loved watching him bowl."

Casson doesn't believe that there's a formulaic method in keeping batsmen in check, especially on the subcontinent. The best, including Warne, have used flight to deceive batsmen off the air and the wicket and he feels that's what every spinner should strive to do.

Casson's is also a story of hope. A congenital heart defect hasn't prevented him from launching a career in sport and it's a testament to his will that he's risen through the ranks of the most competitive domestic cricket circuit in the world, enough to knock on the doors of national selection.

McGain finished the 2007-08 season as the leading spinner in the Pura Cup © Getty Images

Krejza lived under the shadow of Casson, MacGill and Nathan Hauritz in New South Wales, but the competition for spots compelled him to move to Tasmania from the 2006-07 season. The move, he says, helped him "brilliantly" and he relished the challenge of bowling at the Bellerieve Oval in Hobart, not the most conducive venue for spinners.

A practitioner of flight, Krejza says he's adding variations to his armoury. "I'm a very attacking spinner and that's my mentality," Krejza said. "I'm not really intimidated by the batsmen here in India. In fact I'm quite excited about this challenge. I'm keen to develop more variations now. This experience here is going to build on that."

Interestingly, Krejza had discussions with Michael Clarke on a three-day camp in Australia before setting off and one of the things he learnt was the importance of staying patient on a tour like this.

He admits, like his spin rivals, that the departure of Warne and MacGill has left a tinge of sadness. On the bright side, he notes that this is probably the best time to be a spinner in Australia.

The most refreshing part about their Indian challenge is that each has a shot at selection, despite Casson being technically one step ahead with his Test experience. "Do we have one spinner who can put his hand up and walk into the Australian team? Not yet," coach Simon Helmot said. "It's all very open."

For years, MacGill was forced to live with the 'No Vacancy' sign virtually staring blankly at his face while Warne creditably hogged the only slot in the Australian line-up. Fortunately for Australia's new hopefuls, it's not just one slot they're competing for. The cupboard has suddenly swung open to a new era of Australian spin and time will tell if the search for replacements ends here.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a staff writer at Cricinfo