Independent to the end
Knowing what was happening inside Stuart MacGill's head has always been a guess. Even team-mates found it tricky when they were on his side. At the national camp last month there was bemusement when a bowler who had such a light summer delivered only a few overs during the five days of training.
In the West Indies, looking very fit but short of work, he was the old spinner nobody wants to become. The zip had gone, the coach Tim Nielsen was publicly pointing out positives the bowler knew were not true, and there were only sporadic legbreak dangers. From his body language it looked like he didn't care. Behind the mask he was distraught and retirement was the only option.
To an outsider MacGill's ability to do his own thing was one of his best qualities. Sport needs independent minds and cricket had one that was thoughtful, passionate, unpredictable and prone to outbursts. He is the sort of person who could fit comfortably into an office and be valued for his creative contributions, but people like him usually make the rest uncomfortable in all-for-one sporting teams.
One young state batsman who did well against MacGill on a wearing track was surprised by the lack of verbals. "He spent his time sledging his team-mates," he said. MacGill could be liked or barely tolerated.
The correspondents of two of Australia's major newspapers displayed the difference. One found MacGill engaging, intelligent, helpful and genuine; the other couldn't stand his attitude and wrote about it regularly. Off the field MacGill was at his most prickly with News Limited's tabloid journalists.
John Buchanan, the former Australia coach, felt MacGill's vocal force during an exercise on the 2006 boot camp, a week which ended in the legspinner picking up a knee injury which would need a series of operations. MacGill's career has been limping ever since.
While the knee was a lingering problem, his right wrist was the reason for the early finish. A legspinner needs total faith in his bowling arm, from the turn of the shoulder to the ball's resting place on the inside of the fourth finger. If an offspinner feels like scaling down he can deliver containing darts or armballs and hardly anyone will notice. It's an envious scenario for an out-of-touch wrist-spinner whose every mistake is magnified. The cricket cliché says a bad ball an over is fine for leggies, but that generous rating was ended by Shane Warne's impeccable control. MacGill and Brad Hogg, who played three Tests against India, both suffered from the updated standard.
Whenever a full toss or half-tracker slips out a legspinner's life goes into slow motion. As he waits for the bat's thwack, fear and hope precede the embarrassment of a ball heading to the boundary or leaving the ground. On the second day in Antigua one of MacGill's fours ended up in the puddles next to the stadium's pool. As he dried the ball he must have known it was time to dive from the game.
After an over of bowling today he was stretching his fingers like the surgeon had attached someone else's hand. Last November in Hobart he had struggled with numbness and tingling in the arm, which caused an embarrassing performance and led to an operation to correct carpal-tunnel syndrome. He hoped he could return to his best, but realised over the past two weeks it was an impossible dream. Sensibly and individually, he is leaving so people can remember the traits that earned him almost five wickets a game in 44 Tests.
|MacGill never hid from his place and did not moan about what might have been if it wasn't for Warne|
"There is no way I will ever walk on to a cricket field unless I can guarantee that I can dismiss top-order batsmen consistently," he said. "The prospect of letting myself and the team down is simply not an option. I have worked way too hard for too long to sabotage my achievements by playing Test cricket for the wrong reasons." It is a noble move considering his six-figure contract for 2008-09 is still waiting to be activated.
Four wickets came for MacGill in the opening Test, but two of them were tail-enders and Shivnarine Chanderpaul fell to a high full toss. A better memory of MacGill is his removal of Ramnaresh Sarwan today. The batsman was so unsure what to do with a heavily overspinning legbreak that he pushed meekly and the edge arced to first slip. Usually MacGill roars with a wicket. This time he smiled at a classical legspinner's dismissal and a few team-mates rubbed his greying hair.
There have been many celebrations in a career in which he has been more than a capable understudy to the game's greatest slow bowler. MacGill never hid from his place and did not moan about what might have been if it wasn't for Warne. While Warne blocked MacGill for long and frustrating periods, his brilliance helped people understand the discipline.
If it wasn't for Warne, Australia would not have felt compelled to insist on a legspinner, and calling on MacGill would not have been a necessity. Australia were fortunate to have such a rich personality and quality slow-bowling option even though he was unable to perform to his own expectations over the past year.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo