March 26, 2009

Pity the poor leggie

Bryce McGain should be given all the help he needs to make sure his first Test is not his last

Assault mission: Bryce McGain tries to spot the ball during his unfortunate debut in Cape Town © Getty Images
There came a moment - 5.1 overs into his Test debut was the moment - when you stopped worrying about what might happen to Bryce McGain's next delivery and you started to fear for the next 25 years of his life.

Bryce and his captain had just staged a dragged-out conversation. Pointed index fingers were waved about. A run-saving course of action was settled on: a fieldsman, posted out in the deep, on the leg-side fence. But Bryce's next ball did not go anywhere near leg stump. Instead it pitched wide, and short, outside off stump, and Jacques Kallis took one step across and went whack. As the ball scudded away Bryce watched it shrink smaller and smaller. He blinked forlornly, and when his eyes opened again they were red-rimmed, and his face was flushed, and he was chomping on his chewing gum with such determined little jabs that you wanted to hug him.

It was hard to look, harder to look away. Test cricket at its most brutal is Test cricket at its most engrossing. At times like this it is possible for a kind of malicious glee to stir inside the spectator. Four balls later Kallis went whack again, and this website's ball-by-ball commentary service - not normally a bastion of malice or glee - could contain itself no longer. McGain to Kallis, FOUR, bit of rubbish, short and on the leg side, Kallis pulls it away to the recycle bin.

Bryce's bowling figures at that instant amounted to 5.5-1-48-0. They were bad, but not irretrievably bad, although the reluctance with which ball was leaving hand - wafting out, not fizzing out - made you wonder if the baddest lay ahead. And badder things soon got, bad almost beyond imagination. There was no dip, no zip, no grip, no coil. No pace off the pitch. No backspin, no sidespin, no overspin - no spin to speak of, almost. It is true that one ball, Bryce's 62nd, spun appreciably, even sharply. But he'd bounced it barely halfway up the wicket, allowing the batsman time and space to swing. The batsman swung so hard that a chap leaning over the boundary fence nearly got sconed.

Who'd be a legspinner today? Blinkered captains use them unthinkingly or not at all. Bats are like blunderbusses. Boundaries are roped in 20 metres or more, though this last injustice was of little consequence to poor Bryce. Of the eight sixes he gave away, most cleared not only the advertising boards but several rows of spectators as well.

If this were another age, a not so professional age, the done thing would be for Bryce to get shuffled on his way, never to reappear, with not a word of apology or explanation and not a jot of thanks. Digger Robertson, in Melbourne in 1884-85, bowled 11 overs of high-armed, highly unmemorable legbreaks for Australia and saw out his cricketing days in California and St Kilda. Albert Hartkopf bagged one wicket - England's No. 11 batsman - and went back to his day job as a doctor in Northcote. Rex Sellers was greeted as Ray Sellers by one of the selectors and sailed runless and wicketless through his solitary Test. He took only four more first-class wickets in his life. And John Watkins, last of Australia's one-Test leggies, perplexed team-mates who reckoned Kerry O'Keeffe should have been picked in his place. Six overs of wides and steepling full-tosses perplexed everyone but the two Pakistani batsmen.

What could be said to the disappointed legspinner who you know will probably never get selected again? And who could say it? Cricket administrators were not trained counsellors, by heck. Cricket administrators back then were not even paid.

If Bryce's time is up, then he should be talked to - by the coach, the board, the selectors. They should tell him they erred by picking him too soon after his shoulder soreness. They should admit they stuffed up when they started listening to others

How about your captain, your fellow players? Do they encourage you not to dwell on what's gone, keep practising your legbreaks, maybe one day your dream will come again? Probably not, if you're John Watkins, whose team-mates' whispers and murmurs are still a mystery to him. "If you have to contend with that sort of backbiting," he confided to journalist Peter English, "it's not worth going on tour. I was happy to get home and I could've done with some more moral support."

When Watkins finally did get home, it was as a Newcastle grade batsman who preferred not to bowl.

Bryce should be given every bit of help to make sure his first Test is not his last. The days of count-yourself-friggin-lucky-to-have-got-picked-at-all should be over. And if it is not to be, if Bryce's time is up, then he should be talked to - by the coach, the board, the selectors. They should tell him they erred by picking him too soon after his shoulder soreness. They should admit they stuffed up when they started listening to others. Hear Shane Warne's words on March 1: "Bryce is clearly the best spinner." Consider Terry Jenner's wisdom on March 17: "I can't see any point in not playing him." Read Bryce's figures on March 21: 18-2-149-0.

They should tell him they got it wrong when they stopped backing their own hunch - which, all along, right up to those four irreversible days in Cape Town, was not to pick him.

And if he seems comfortable with his lot, they should tell him again anyway, and again. Because, for sure, he will never forget those four days.

He will think of his captain, and of what his captain might have done differently. Ricky Ponting made Bryce's life difficult by ignoring him for the first four hours, which made bowling Bryce look like a last resort. But from the minute Bryce did bowl Ponting did all that he could. He offered Bryce a fresh batsman in Kallis to bowl at. He kept his close catchers in place to bolster Bryce's self-belief. He jigged the bowling ends around to make the batsmen hit Bryce into the wind. He did this not so soon that Bryce feared his captain's faith was cracking, but not so late that it was too late. And then, amid unrelenting ball battery, he kept bowling Bryce when most park cricket captains would have hauled Bryce off in high dudgeon.

Ponting does not look like a captain blessed with a deep understanding of legspinners. But he does give the impression of a captain who is trying very hard. His next task is to say sorry to Bryce, and thanks. A small hug might be a nice touch too.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009