May 21, 2010

Where are Australia's spin discards?

They hoped to fill the void left by Warne and MacGill, but Casson, McGain, Cullen and Krejza are out of the picture now, though they will take heart from Hauritz's comeback

The uncertainty over Australia's spin situation has eased with the significant improvement of Nathan Hauritz and the emergence of Steven Smith, but the path for those who have been discarded remains unclear. Before Hauritz secured a spot in the Test side and the legspinner Smith arrived as the country's most exciting all-round prospect, the slow-bowling slot was a place for a flicker of excitement followed by wilderness misadventure.

Beau Casson and Bryce McGain received only one Test opportunity each, Jason Krejza got two, and Cameron White was employed for a series against India before leaving the trade and transforming into a valuable limited-overs batsman. White was the lucky one. He still plays for Australia, even though he doesn't even rate as a part-time twirler now.

The rest of that group would be ecstatic to complete a full season with their states. Throw in Dan Cullen, who played against Bangladesh in 2006, and the former specialist spin hopes are in various stages of physical and mental rehabilitation. It has been an unconventional method of grooming players who were previously rated so highly.

Offspinner Krejza is recovering from hip surgery that followed a summer in which he was dropped from Tasmania's Sheffield Shield team. Cullen has just lost his contract at South Australia and is wondering what to do next. Casson played only one first-class game before the rise of Smith and a debilitating bout of chronic fatigue ended his season.

Surprisingly, the one who did the worst in Tests has done the best at coming back, although the scale is relative. McGain, who traded places with Jon Holland in Victoria, finished 11th on the Shield wicket list with 26 at 32.50, including six in the final victory. But he won't play for Australia again, and not just for his figures of 0 for 149 against South Africa in Cape Town in March.

At 38, McGain is a season-by-season prospect with the Bushrangers, who have Holland as their youth policy. Holland, a left-arm orthodox, also suffered after being picked in Australia's one-day squad for the India tour late last year. He didn't play a game on that trip and ended the domestic season by having shoulder surgery.

The story of these men is similar to the path of Hauritz, who experienced a dramatic slide when he went from Test debutant to club player in the 2004-05 season. It led to him leaving Queensland for New South Wales and eventually winning his national spot back, a journey that is providing hope and inspiration to those who were cut so ruthlessly.

"It's a great story," Casson says of Hauritz's career. "He played his Test match quite young, went away and had some lean years, then has done very well. It's amazing how quickly things can change both ways. It's something every cricketer is holding on to, especially me as a spinner."

Hauritz was going to be 12th man for a New South Wales game Casson was playing in when he was called to replace the then-injured Krejza against New Zealand. After Krejza was ineffective on the final day in Perth a couple of weeks later, Hauritz came back and has become increasingly assured. He has taken 43 wickets in 11 Tests since the start of the Ashes.

All the rejected spinners of the past six years have sad stories, but Casson's is still moving two years later. Casson, a left-arm wrist spinner, was effectively sent on work experience under the watch of Stuart MacGill for the West Indies tour of 2008. He had finished the season strongly with New South Wales, capturing four wickets in New South Wales' final success, and wasn't expected to play a Test.

That all changed when MacGill retired mid-series, giving Casson a chance in the final match of the series, in Barbados. At the presentation of his baggy green he was teary, and when thinking back to that week he still feels chills and goosebumps. With the ball, he recovered after giving up 43 in seven first-innings overs to gain a composed 3 for 86 in the second.

After Warne and MacGill, spin bowling has returned to more traditional methods in Australia, but the leaders still expect wickets and find it hard to tolerate boundaries. The situation leaves the man with the ball unsure whether to defend or attack

Everyone outside the selection panel believed it was a performance that would earn his passage to India for a four-Test series. McGain, Krejza and White all went instead. Back home, things were becoming even harder as he struggled with New South Wales and then Hauritz catapulted into the Test team. Casson tumbled from Australia's No. 1 spinner to at least No. 5, and was soon struggling with his control so badly that in one game he was ordered out of the attack for high full-tosses. Last winter was spent in the outpost of Darwin club cricket to regain some form.

"That time in the West Indies is a time I'll never forget, the greatest moment in my cricketing career," Casson says. "Then the year after that definitely wasn't as planned. Coming back I wanted to try to do everything straight away and I wasn't patient. My form was probably a reflection of that." Earlier this year chronic fatigue kept Casson in bed for a couple of months and walking the three flights of stairs to his unit left him "pretty cooked". He is wishing for better next season, when his best chance is as a replacement if Smith stays in the Australian set-up. New South Wales have looked after Casson, but there are no guarantees.

"Naturally, I need performance. If there's performance on the board my opportunity will come," he says. "If I'm going well I will be a very good proposition with the side and I can help them win games." Similar thoughts bubble in the minds of Cullen, McGain, Holland and Cullen Bailey, South Australia's former Cricket Australia-contract holder.

The attack v defence dilemma
Shane Warne attended Cricket Australia's spin summit in Brisbane last week to talk mental and tactical aspects with the Centre of Excellence slow-bowling intake as well as other promising operators. Warne, the greatest modern spinner, has indirectly been one of the biggest problems for those following him.

Captains struggle to use slow men who don't have Warne's big turn and control. After Warne and MacGill, spin bowling has returned to more traditional methods in Australia, but the leaders still expect wickets and find it hard to tolerate boundaries. The situation leaves the man with the ball unsure whether to defend or attack.

Krejza has suffered from the dilemma after playing his Tests as an aggressive offie who gave the ball air and spun it hard. That worked in Nagpur, where he collected 12 wickets on debut, but not in Perth, where he gave away 4.25 an over as South Africa chased 414 for victory.

Hauritz was preferred because he was capable of greater control. At first he provided safety and balance to the attack, but has become more aggressive as he has gained belief. "Everyone needs to be able to perform both roles," John Davison, the Centre of Excellence spin coach, says. "Jason Krejza is really working with that now, finding out when he needs to be bowling his attacking lines and giving the ball plenty of air, versus when the team needs him to perform a holding-type role."

Over the past two years Davison has analysed Australia's talented spinners - he thinks Smith and Holland are the ones with the most potential - but he is also involved in the job of rehabilitating some of those who have already been tried. Cullen drifted by focusing on variations such as the doosra, which in turn ruined the strength of his offspinner. He asked Davison if he could attend the spin clinic last week, and heard Saqlain Mushtaq, the former Pakistan offspinner, say he had more success earlier in his career, when he was relying on his stock ball instead of the doosra he invented.

"Dan's been very technically focused, so we're trying to get him away from that a bit and back to the good old days when he first hit the scene," Davison says. "He was highly competitive, fiery, had a good offspinner and set good fields. We're trying to get him away from breaking down his action and being too critical of himself."

The message to spinners now is that you don't have to turn the ball in every direction, but you do need to be able to beat the bat on both sides. "If you can drift the ball in the air and get some to slide through and some to spin, which Graeme Swann does, you can still be effective," Davison says. "If you're only beating one side you're probably going to struggle."

The 2010 Academy intake includes specialist spinners in leggies Adam Zampa and Nathan Brain, Luke Doran, a left-arm orthodox, and Glenn Maxwell, an offspinning allrounder. Jason Floros and Nic Maddinson are batsmen who deliver turn on the side. Smith is also a part-time scholar but his life has quickly become crammed with overseas assignments and his appearances in Brisbane will be limited.

Smith, who is only 20, finished equal second on the World Twenty20 wicket list with 11, and for most of the rest of the winter will either be with Worcestershire or Australia's teams on their England trip. As well as being the new spin flavour, Smith has the added advantage of his quality batting skills, which make him an exciting and sensible all-round package. Modern Australian spinners have learned how important it is to have a solid back-up plan.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo