September 14, 2010

'There's nothing better than being a legspinner'

A year and a half on from what he has realised will probably be his only Test, Bryce McGain is still in the game, playing for the joy of it, and for the elusive moments when it all falls into place

"Jacques Kallis is no idiot." Bryce McGain chuckles as he says it. It's something he does often through our chat. Laconic smile, dry chuckle, and on rare occasions even full-throated laughter. He is ready to talk about that disastrous Test match, his first and probably last.

He remembers the precise tipping point. He had just bowled a maiden to Kallis after having given away 13 runs in his previous over to Ashwell Prince. Kallis had been subjected to a bumper barrage, the feet weren't moving crisply and he was groping forward during the maiden, at the end of which he was on a laborious 4 from 39 deliveries.

McGain noted the lunge forward and thought he had a chance. And so he tried to surprise Kallis with a shortish delivery, the first ball of the next over. Mistake. The ball, as it was to repeatedly do on that nightmarish day, didn't come out of the hand properly. It was shorter than he had hoped for, and of course Kallis is "no idiot".

"He went back so quickly. He has 10,000 runs or something." That chuckle again. "And he walloped it." He hit it twice more to the boundary in that over.

It was the beginning of the end. McGain's bowling got progressively worse. At his best he can loop it up, get it to drift and dip, but that day his art deserted him. Has he bowled worse at any level before or since? "At the start of my career. In club cricket you bowl a lot of shit."

Not many would have dared watch the videos. McGain did, a few times. Masochist. "I had to. I wanted to see what went wrong."

Surely he knew what went wrong? It was one of those days. Why relive the horror?

"I like to review it, see what exactly happened, file it and not repeat it. It's a conscious and a healthy way to do it." That night, after the first innings, he didn't shut himself off, didn't order room service. He went out to dinner with his team-mates. If there was any friendly ribbing, he doesn't remember it.

"I was hoping that there would be a second chance. I wanted to bowl better, but there was to be no second innings." There was to be no second Test either. Does he think there ever will be?

"No mate, probably not. I don't think I will play a Test again. Ricky has said that [Nathan] Hauritz is his No. 1 spinner." That's that.

Sometime in the future, in some pub, McGain will feature in a discussion of one-Test wonders. A piece of trivia. Oh yeah, that bespectacled fella who got whacked. Another beer, please.

We are sitting in a restaurant in Victoria's team hotel in Port Elizabeth during the Champions League Twenty20. It leads to an open patio, beyond which the sea sparkles in the afternoon sun. It's a still, beautiful day, perfect for reflection.

"If my mind and confidence are going to be dictated by my figures, I would have gone crazy 10 years ago," McGain says calmly as he orders some coffee. "You can't do that. I remember why I started to play cricket and why I want to continue playing it as long as I can."

He dives into his past, back to when he was eight. "It's eight o'clock on a Saturday morning and I'm out on the park. The grass is wet, my mates are there - you have played footy with them in the winter, now cricket in the summer - and you are so happy to be just out there. The smell of the ball, the park, the joy in turning the ball, my mates... There's nothing better than being a legspinner. I was always a spinner right from a young age. It's a joy. That's why I play this game.

"Shane Warne once told me that he thinks spinners are born, not made. We just do it because we have to do it. It's natural. Anyone can run in and bowl fast; fast bowling doesn't have as many subtleties as legspin."

"Shane Warne once told me that he thinks spinners are born, not made. We just do it because we have to do it. It's natural. Anyone can run in and bowl fast; fast bowling doesn't have as many subtleties as legspin"

Warne has been a long-time supporter and confidant. "We would sit across the coffee, break popsicle sticks, place them as fielders and discuss strategies." Warne texted McGain on that fateful day in Cape Town, reminding him of his own figures on debut: 1 for 150.

McGain's cold coffee comes. He hasn't touched his food much. He thinks it's impolite to eat during the interview.

We return to that day. Why was he introduced so late, after four hours?

"Australia at that time had a strong theory of fast bowling being the major weapon to get most of our wickets, and Ricky in that Test pushed that as much as he could. He kept rotating the quickies, hoping one breakthrough could bring another and another." It didn't work. Prince raced towards his ton. "When they were some 200 for 2 or something, Ricky must have thought, 'Okay, as a last resort we will jog down to McGain now.'"

It can't have been great for his confidence. Especially after he had beaten Prince and Imraan Khan four times in his first two overs with the newish ball the previous day.

Even so, when his opportunity did finally come, he could have had a wicket first ball. It was a flighted delivery outside off and Prince, on 92, tried to crash it through covers but got the edge.

"I thought the ball was going straight to Ronnie [Andrew McDonald] at backward point." But it went over the fielder and ran away to the boundary. It was the beginning of the mauling. "If that had gone to hand, it could have been interesting, eh?" he smiles. "I remember [Paul] Harris came on next day, floated one across and [Simon] Katich went forward to defend. Nick and gone. Harris took a six-for. That's what happens sometimes in sport. That just wasn't my day."

There is another reason, but he doesn't want to stress on it much. "I was coming off a shoulder surgery. I was probably underdone with the bowling. I didn't have a full summer of cricket before that call-up." He is very quick to add, "But you can't offer that as excuse. You wait for an opportunity to play Test cricket."

The selectors hadn't wanted to pick him initially but there was pressure. Warne was talking him up in the media, so was Terry Jenner. And the selectors decided to gamble.

"It would have been nice to get another opportunity but sometimes in sport, especially in Australian cricket where there is a lot of depth, you don't get a second chance."

He was injured immediately after that Cape Town Test and couldn't play for six months. By he did achieve some sort of closure. He says he wasn't thinking of the incident when he jogged up to bowl in his next competitive game for Victoria. "I was calm. You can't reflect on one poor performance. You learn and move on."

The presence of his son, now 10 years old, helped. "Fatherhood is not a responsibility but a pleasure and it gives you a different perspective on life. Cricket is not the be-all and end-all." He is divorced and gets to see his son three times a week. When he is out on tour, he Skypes and calls.

The ball was coming out of the hand all right the next summer, and McGain remembers a contest with Marcus North as the highlight. "He tried to put pressure on me and attack, but that's not going to work every time, mate!" He laughs. "He holed out to mid-off. I got him out twice."

His favourites, though, are the twin dismissals of Adam Gilchrist late in 2007. "It was after the walloping he gave Monty Panesar in a Test. I was watching that and thinking I would bowl this way, do that. And here I was within a short time, bowling against him." So what happened?

"I drifted it away from him and he was reaching out for it. Exactly what I wanted. The ball gripped, turned and went through the gate to bowl him." McGain flicks his finger as if he were delivering a legbreak and looks into the distance. And in the second innings? "Oh, it dipped on him. He hit a return catch to me."

Those are the moments McGain is playing for these days. The moments of perfection when everything falls into place, when the ball lands where he wants it to, does what he wants it to do. That art deserted him on the biggest stage where he perhaps needed it the most, but McGain vows to play on.

"I don't dwell on that. Rather, I think about what got me to that stage. What I did well that gave me that opportunity. That's what I want to continue to do. I love this game. I worked in a bank for 17 years and that has made me value this sporting life. I love what I do.

"Sometimes, as soon as you release the ball, you feel, 'Awww, that's perfect.' You see the batsman getting into a position you wanted him to get into and you get him. You then jump around like an idiot."

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo