Right place, right time
Three of Australia's recently retired wrist-spinners have had a major impact on the career of Beau Casson, who is favoured to play his first Test in Barbados on Thursday. Shane Warne's mesmerising bowling convinced Casson to take up the discipline as a child, Brad Hogg's similar style helped the young Western Australian during his early first-class steps, and Stuart MacGill passed on the Test baton in Antigua last week.
MacGill and Casson had worked together at New South Wales over the previous two years and the junior team-mate was one of the first to learn of MacGill's life-changing retirement plan. Instead of shouting and jumping and celebrating at another chapter of good fortune, Casson asked MacGill if he was sure he wanted to quit. After re-checking, Casson gave MacGill a hug.
Casson, the 25-year-old left-arm wrist-spinner, says touring in the West Indies with the Test team is like being a kid in a candy shop. It is simple to understand why. A year ago he was wondering how to get back into the New South Wales side following a shoulder reconstruction, and questioning whether the move from his home in Western Australia had been the right one.
Like MacGill, Casson had flown east looking for more opportunities. Having recognised his developing talent, the Western Australia selectors eventually decided they would prefer Casson over Hogg in the Pura Cup, but the national one-day incumbent remained the first choice in limited-overs games. At the end of 2005-06, Casson was courted by New South Wales and his home state could not believe he stepped from the top shelf at the WACA into a group that would include MacGill, Nathan Hauritz and many highly-credentialled fast men. Even in Perth, where the quicks reigned, there was a guarantee of a spot, but in spin-friendly Sydney there would be nothing.
In his first season with the Blues, Casson played seven Pura Cup matches, averaging a wicket a game at 72, and headed for shoulder surgery. Despite the poor returns, New South Wales remained confident and he appeared in nine fixtures last season, benefitting from the international and injury absences of MacGill. With 29 wickets at 35.13, he regained his status as a settled first-class spinner.
There were four breakthroughs in the Pura Cup final and handy contributions of 17 and 89, pushing his season tally to 485, but it was hard to overlook the worrying development in Victoria's first innings. In 71 overs Casson was not used by the captain, Simon Katich. A bowler who was not employed in such an important occasion for his state did not seem ready for any further promotions. However, the struggles of the country's back-up slow bowlers turned Casson's average season into a compelling case for the national selectors.
MacGill, the No. 1, was returning from wrist surgery, Bryce McGain was 35 and relatively untested, Dan Cullen's resurgence had included a late-season broken finger and Hogg had retired. Suddenly Casson was headed for the Caribbean for state-of-the-art work experience. He could familiarise himself with the team, study with the national coaching staff, run drinks and pick brains. Only in the unlikely situation of something happening to MacGill might he play a game. With MacGill deciding his bowling powers had disappeared forever, Casson now prepares to become Australia's 401st Test representative in the final match of the three-game series.
There are still a few obstacles for Casson, including the part-time options offered by Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds and Katich. Slow bowling has been such a problem area for Australia since Warne departed that a bits-and-pieces approach, using the batsmen to break up the spells of the fast men, is something that will have been considered. However, the chance to trial a new face is too good to miss, especially when the Frank Worrell Trophy has already been recaptured. When it comes to spin West Indies' batsmen are no India, who are Australia's next, more challenging, Test opponents.
|Casson was born with Fallot's syndrome, a congenital heart defect, and had major operations when he was three and ten|
Casson's repertoire includes a legspinner honed on the sympathetic SCG and a couple of versions of wrong'uns, deliveries that are crucial in confusing batsmen who expect balls to turn into their pads. Hogg was a master of this sort of trickery in one-day internationals, where his variation was almost unpickable, but it could not make him a five-day success and he appeared in only seven Tests.
Left-arm wrist-spinners are rare and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith is considered Australia's most successful exponent for picking up 42 wickets in his ten Tests in the 1930s. South Africa's Paul Adams and England's Johnny Wardle are the only bowlers of this variety to have collected more than 100 victims. The history adds to the demands already on Casson.
Fleetwood-Smith turned to the discipline when he broke his right arm as a schoolboy and Casson also experienced hardship as a child. He was born with Fallot's syndrome, a congenital heart defect, and had major operations when he was three and ten. The condition requires regular observation and his training programme differs to the regimes of his team-mates to allow extra recovery time to reduce the potential for further problems.
The disease might have slowed down other people, but it has not prevented Casson from achieving the life of a professional athlete. He was targeted in his teens, played in Australia's Under-19 World Cup win in 2002, attended the Academy and won his first-class debut the day after turning 20. Stolid lower-order batting adds to his quality, but it will be his wrist work that determines how long he stays in the national footsteps of Warne, MacGill and Hogg. His current position in the West Indies is exciting and daunting.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo