July 26, 2009

The anonymous Mr Hauritz

Australia's key bowler in this Ashes is a "no-hoper" turned show stealer who now knows "300 times more" about his craft than he did scant months ago

Reports of a painful injury to Australia's leading wicket-taker could have expected the back-page treatment in past Ashes campaigns; particularly if the bowler in question was a spinner and his ailment a finger dislocation. But Nathan Hauritz's career has seldom been one for the headlines.

Yes, Nathan Hauritz. The player who has taken nine wickets in the series - four more than the combined haul of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar - without creating so much as a ripple. The man whose courage in returning to the field barely an hour after his spinning finger was contorted at right angles has attracted only scant mention. The only Australian bowler, along with Ben Hilfenhaus, considered a certainty for Edgbaston.

Had any of the aforementioned scenarios concerned, say, Shane Warne, tales of success and derring-do would presumably have dominated television bulletins, newspaper columns and a good chunk of cyberspace. As it stands, Hauritz will head to Birmingham only slightly less anonymous than he was in the period leading in to Cardiff, but with an importance to the team growing by the match.

The final month of the Ashes series promises to be a painful affair for Australia's frontline spinner. The finger dislocated by a thunderous Andrew Strauss drive on the first morning at Lord's is still causing him discomfort, particularly early in his spells. But, cognisant of his place in Ricky Ponting's plans, Hauritz is not entertaining notions of a break or a back-seat role. His lot is to grip it and grit it.

"The finger was extremely painful at first," Hauritz told Cricinfo. "I was pretty concerned for a while that I wouldn't be able to grip or spin the ball. But I had a few things to numb the pain, and then getting two wickets pretty quickly after I came back on to bowl helped me forget about it a bit.

"It probably needs four weeks' rest to be fully right, but that's obviously not going to happen in this series. It's pretty painful for the first few overs of a day, and it will probably be like that for a while until I'm warmed up. I'm not all that concerned, though. I can still grip the ball okay. It's just going to be a case of plenty of ice when I can and sucking it up."

A nominee for cricket's equivalent of the Purple Heart he may be, but Hauritz isn't expecting his deeds to win over England's fans and media anytime soon. Upon arrival in the UK, the 27-year-old found himself thrust into an unusual position - headlines - but with the Sun's "No-Hoper Hauritz" setting the tone, it was notoriety he could have lived without.

"I read a fair bit of what was being said about me early on in the tour, and I obviously heard a bit in the crowd," he noted with self-deprecating resignation, not bitterness. "It just got to a point where I was sick of seeing bad stuff, so I stopped reading after the game in Hove and just focused on what it was I had to do. I had copped an absolute hiding to that point, and because I hadn't bowled all that well, a lot of it was probably the truth. But I didn't need to read that. I knew that that wasn't my best game, but on the whole I was bowling okay and just had to get used to the conditions."

And the fans? "At Lord's you seem to get more respect from the crowd, but in Cardiff I got slagged off a fair bit," he continued. "That said, probably the funniest one I've got so far was when I was going out to bat at Lord's [in the second innings] and one of the old MCC members leaned over and said, 'I'll see you soon, youngster.' I was out five balls later and as I walked back he just said, 'I told you so.'"

That Hauritz can laugh in the face of failure says much for the quiet confidence he now possesses. It was not always thus. Barely two years ago, with his first-class career in freefall at Queensland, a desperate and despondent Hauritz opted to leave home and head south to the spin-friendly climes of Sydney. He did so with no state offer on the table - indeed, NSW had just completed a successful swoop for the West Australian, Beau Casson, and were not in search of another slow bowler - but a humility and willingness to allow some of the best spinning minds in the country to recalibrate him.

Success came slowly. Ranked behind the centrally contracted Casson, Hauritz first found his mark in the Blues' one-day side and later the NSW second XI. Infrequent first-class appearances followed, gradually increasing as Casson's confidence and form tapered.

"When I made the decision to move down to NSW, there was no Australia for me, I guess," he recalled. "I was in a rut and at a stage where the opportunities weren't coming for Queensland, but deep down I still felt I was good enough to play for Australia. So I came down to NSW, really wanting to learn about spin. Just working with guys like Greg Matthews, Murray Bennett and David Freedman helped me learn what it was to be a spinner. Being used as an attacking option for NSW really opened my eyes and changed my mind to what spin bowling could be. It was fantastic to have that backing, and not just be brought into the attack for a few overs here and there around the 65th over of a match."

Then came the most stunning development of all. Despite modest state form, Hauritz was called into the Australian squad for the Adelaide Test against New Zealand after Jason Krejza, the nation's senior spinner at that point, rolled his ankle at training. While surprised at the recall, Hauritz was also quietly confident that, both mentally and mechanically, he was a bowler far improved from the one who had sparkled and faded at Wankhede Stadium four years prior.

"When I was going out to bat at Lord's, one of the old MCC members leaned over and said, 'I'll see you soon, youngster.' I was out five balls later and as I walked back he just said, 'I told you so' "

"The last time I played for Australia, I was definitely overawed when someone came at me and tried to whack me around," he said. "I didn't really know how to respond. Now I see a situation like that as a challenge, and I have plans and experience to draw on. I was extremely lucky that the Australian selectors were really keen to play a finger-spinner back then.

"Really, I didn't know anything. I didn't know my action, I didn't know what to do under pressure. I am still learning - especially about how to bowl to individual batsmen and which field setting to use. But I know 300 times more now than I did then."

Benched for all three Tests of Australia's triumphant tour of South Africa, Hauritz arrived in England unsure as to what his Ashes objectives should be. A few Tests? A wickets target? Or something altogether loftier? Answers were elusive as the Australian brains trust sought to strike the right balance for its youthful attack.

There is no such mystery now. Rounding the bend for Birmingham, Hauritz finds himself in the decidedly Warne-esque position of leading the series wicket-takers' list, along with Hilfenhaus, and in a position to chart a course ahead. He has done so without the prodigious turn, prolific bursts and all-round melodrama of his spin-bowling predecessor, but with stealth and consistency, insidiously working his way through the England batting line-up. More, he hopes, is to come.

"A lot of people on the scene have criticised me for being too defensive, but it's pleasing to know that things might be changing," he said. "My first wicket, Kevin Pietersen, was really satisfying. I had copped an absolute hiding in the press over here, everyone saying I was no good, and to get a batsman like him on a wicket not doing a lot was fantastic. I enjoyed the Matt Prior one too, just with the spin and bounce.

"I feel I am much more consistent these days. I guess I always had the belief that I was good enough to play at the top level, but it was a matter of finding that consistency and learning how to bowl that same ball over and over. I wasn't patient or consistent enough before I came to NSW. Now I really do back myself when I have the ball in my hand."

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo