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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Minhaj on March 28, 2009, 8:39 GMT

    At the age of 35, Bryce McGain went from IT worker to professional cricketer. A nice transition period for him. It will not be wise to expect brilliant performances at the debut match. Not everyone can sparkle on the debut match. Perspiration from nervousness plays vital roles on any player. He needs encouragement. He should not be discouraged. More chances should be given to him. Age does not matter and he needs to prove it well. I expect that he should be in the Australian team in the upcoming Ashes series.

  • Alistair on March 28, 2009, 0:16 GMT

    So many people here are saying that McGain can't bowl - look at the stats - he's Australia's best spin bowler by a country mile - Shane Warne says it and I think he might know something about spin bowling. Warne went for 150 in his first test and then cleaned up in the Ashes. Australia would be crazy not to try him out against a second rate batting lineup in friendly conditions in England. The problem with the last test wasn't McGain - it was leaving McDonald in the team when they lost North. You can't replace a batsman with a bowler, and McDonald has shown that he isn't much of a batsman. He made a few runs when the test was lost and they weren't looking to score. Two test test series and no results for McDonald, and people are wanting to drop McGain after one match? - and his first one at that. If there was more pressure on S.A's batsmen then I'm sure things might have gone differently for McGain.

  • Andrew on March 27, 2009, 5:05 GMT

    Although McGain clearly didn't have his best day, it's also true that he came on in a very difficult situation. He was not introduced on day 2 until the 42nd over of the day, at which time he was bowling to a well-set Price, and Kallis who had also been at te crease for more than half an hour. Moreover, South Africa only needed 18 runs to take the lead, with 8 wickets left on a good batting wicket. AND, there was relatively little pressure from the other end throughout the innings (except when Siddle bowled). Then Katich came on and had de Villiers caught on the mid-wicket boundary off a rank long-hop! That's not to say he should have gone at 8.27 an over, but it does say that the match situation couldn't have been much more difficult for a debutant leggie.

    McGain should at least be in the picture for the Ashes, because he is a chance of getting 5 in an innings. Through almost 50 first class games, Hauritz is yet to get a 5-for. Look at the stats. They speak for themselves.

  • P Subramani on March 27, 2009, 4:12 GMT

    Shane Warne's baptism in Test cricket was not too different. At Sydney in 92, Shastri and Tendulkar, not to mention others made him look a charecter from a comic strip. And yet the world saw the stuff he was made of over his illustrious career when he strode the cricketing world like a collosus which he indeed was. Mcgain is too different in temperament to Warne but he has the craft to make a mark.I hope the selectors will not judge him by his debut show where runscoring was not difficult after the initial day's play. In fact contrary to all over the wickwts in South Africa seem to get better as the match goes on. This is why Mcgain should be persisted with. He will deliver in England I think, quite convincingly.

  • Paul on March 27, 2009, 2:33 GMT

    I don't suppose there's any chance we'll hear stuff-up admissions from the members of the media who criticised the selectors for picking an unbalanced team. Balanced, schmalance - it's a great advantage to have a right and left-handed opening batting combination, but if your best two openers are left-handed, you pick them.

  • Neil on March 27, 2009, 1:11 GMT

    As much as I sympathise with McGain, he was clearly never the best selection for the tour. McGain may have some talent but it was clearly not for the top echelon of Test cricket. Australia's best spin bowler this summer (in terms of consistent performances) was Nathan Hauritz, with 3 Tests and figures of 141-40-349-9 - better figures than any Australian spinner since Warne retired yet not really good enough for Test standards. Selectors need to remember that for every Peter Taylor they select, they'll select a dozen Watkins and Sellers (and even Peter Taylor's Test bowling career wasn't top class). The solution, as always, is to follow the basic premise that the you PICK THE FOUR BEST BOWLERS IN THE COUNTRY for the top team. Even if all four bowlers are right arm quicks, they are more likely to succeed than if you pick 3 quicks and a bad spinner. Had Bracken or Noffke or Magoffin or Dorey or Nannes been picked instead of McGain, we may have had a different result.

  • d on March 27, 2009, 0:53 GMT

    I guess Bryce's T20 Economy rate is going to be better than his Test rate!

  • qwerty on March 27, 2009, 0:21 GMT

    @Arsh. You're acting like you're hard and tough. But in reality this statement just shows that you're the type of person that kicks people when they're down. Toughness is a whole another thing, it's fighting adversity and maintaining composure while doing it. Something McGain showed even though he was obvious against opponents much talented than him.

  • Edward on March 26, 2009, 22:50 GMT

    I want him to play in the T20 to see how many the South Africans get off him! Frankly, McGain was an embarassment, and the last thing Oz needs is people laughing at the Baggy Green.

  • roh on March 26, 2009, 12:33 GMT

    Well, I think what Bryce Mcgain has demonstrated is that spin bowling in general is not an wasy art, especially when you are bowling to batsmen who are well set or have their eye in and feeling comfortable at the crease. Paul Harris made the most of the conditions using drift, subtle variation in pace, loop and flight to deceive the batsmen. Finger spinner seem better suited to the elements of cape town better then the wrist spinners. Maybe if Bryce bowled on the fourth day he might have got more out of the pitch if Australia made between 300-400 in the first innings. I think Jason Krezja will more then certainly be a strong chance for the ashes squad but it seems mcgain/cullen bailey/casson my duke it out for the wrist spinner position or maybe aaron heal from WA, doherty from tassie or the experienced hauritz may get a go if the second spinner is of the finger spinning variety.

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