January 17, 2011

'It's a lot easier playing for your country than for your state'

Interview by Richard Edwards
Stuart MacGill, perhaps doomed to forever be thought of as the leggie who wasn't Warne, talks about missing the buzz of the game, helping the old enemy, and the infamous boot camp of 2006

A feisty, broadminded legspinner in the old-fashioned mould, Stuart MacGill might be thought unfortunate that his career coincided with that of Shane Warne. But he still made an impact for Australia's all-conquering side, including 27 wickets in four Tests of the 1998-99 Ashes. His career was ended abruptly by injury in the Caribbean in 2008.

You come from a famous cricketing family. What was it like following in the footsteps of your father and grandfather?
They had both played for Western Australia, my dad in the early 1970s and grandpa just after the war. My grandpa [Charlie MacGill] was a bit of a hero for us - he opened the batting and bowling for WA and he knocked over Bradman as well, which always looks good on your CV.

Because of that were you always destined to be a cricketer?
You know what, I think it was the opposite. When I was about 15 I said to my dad, "I don't think I can play cricket anymore. I'm going to play tennis." I'd hurt my shoulder, so I couldn't bowl. God knows how I worked out I could still serve a tennis ball. Anyway it turned out I wasn't much chop at tennis, so I decided to give cricket another go.

So you weren't a schoolboy prodigy?
I finished school in the 1st XI but I was a fringe player. A career in cricket was the furthest thing from my mind but the year I finished school I just started to do better and better in grade cricket and managed to work my way up fourth grade to second grade. Everything happened very quickly and I went from playing bits-and-pieces cricket at school to, within 12 months, being in the Western Australia squad.

You were one of the first players to go to the Australian cricket academy. How much did that help your game?
I had played a few games for WA 2nd XI and got picked to go to Sri Lanka with an Academy XI at the beginning of 1991. Unbeknown to me, my mum and dad had a meeting with Rod Marsh [who was going to take over the academy later that year] when I was away. The academy was an amazing time for me. You got access to amazing opportunities.

Why did it take you so long to break into State cricket?
I was 20 when I was at the academy, but it took until I was 26 to start playing regular first-class cricket, so you can imagine that was pretty frustrating. The one question that bounces around your head all the time is whether or not you're good enough. I performed well in club cricket over that period. I bowled to lots of touring teams and took wickets regularly. But the frustration kept increasing, to the point that by 1995 I decided that I needed to leave Western Australia to find out once and for all.

Is it true you were used by England to prepare them for facing Shane Warne?
It is. I bowled to the England tourists in 1994-95. I spent a lot of time with that side in Perth, bowling to them all day, every day. They were helping me out with a bit of pocket money on the side as they prepared to face Warney but I think he got a hat-trick in the first Test, so I didn't do much good!

How big a wrench was it to leave WA and head to New South Wales?
I figured that going to NSW, the home of spin bowling in Australia, that would give me some answers. There were five spin bowlers in the NSW squad and I wasn't even a member of the State squad when I came over. I caught the train from Perth to Sydney, put the car and my life on it and took a bit of a punt. I guess my feeling was that I would find out one way or the other because I needed to put it to bed at that stage - I needed to know if I could do the business. It proved to be a good decision. The first season I averaged around five wickets a match for my club and we won the Premiership, I was added to the State squad and I played the very first game of the following season.

Can you remember the moment you found out you had been picked for Australia?
Trent Johnston, who has since captained Ireland, was playing with me for North Sydney. He received a message and he came up to me when I was bowling. I don't like people talking to me when I'm bowling, so there was a bit of a sigh. I thought he wanted me to move my field but instead he said: "I just wanted to let you know that you're going to Adelaide this week and you've been picked to play for Australia." It's hard to explain but seriously every time I tell that story - and it just happened to me again now - I get very emotional. That's the moment for me, the moment that validates everything I've ever done.

You managed to pick up a decent first scalp too…
Jacques Kallis sweeps the ball very well and the boundaries at Adelaide are very short, square of the wicket. I thought, "Christ, what's going to happen here?" so I bowled my first variation - my slider or zooter - and he played all round it. It was a relief, not just because it was my first wicket but because there was a lot of pain coming my way if he had hung around.

"I don't have the luxury of playing IPL, but I wish I could play still, not just for the money but I really, really miss the competition. I would die to be able to play State cricket"

You'll probably be remembered as Shane Warne's understudy. Does that rankle?
A lot of people ask me about Shane Warne but let me tell you, I never competed with another player - it's not massively helpful. Having him in the side was a huge advantage predominantly because he was such a superstar. The huge advantage when you play for your country is that you've got the best bowlers from every [state] team playing together, which means it's a hell of a lot easier playing for your country than for your state.

When do you think you peaked as a cricketer?
There are probably three main periods when I was at my best. One was in my second Test match, in Pakistan, when everything sort of clicked. I started landing everything roughly where I wanted to and it hadn't really been that way on the tour up to that point. The second would have been my statistically most pleasing Test, which was the one against England at the SCG during the 1998-99 Ashes. I was very tired at the end of a long season but I managed to pick things up and get it going again. The third one was a Test in the West Indies in Barbados [in 2003] when I took nine wickets. It was a real flat deck and we were in the field for a ridiculous amount of time. That was probably my best performance.

That tour to Pakistan has become famous for your reading exploits - how many books did you really get through?
It wasn't 24, the number was actually 17. I must stress, though, that the quality wasn't great. I wasn't reading Jane Austen or War and Peace, it was more your pulp fiction that you find on a shelf of the newsagent's at airports.

You were a victim of the infamous John Buchanan boot camp in 2006. Did that shorten your career?
I think that the premise and goal of the boot camp has merit. Unfortunately in an international cricketer's season, the time is just not there. When I did my boot camp it was at the start of the longest season Australia had ever played. The intention was good and honourable, but, mate, seriously, choose something that's not going to finish someone's career. It wasn't just me, we had an amazing run of injuries that summer - Brett Lee, Brad Hodge, Michael Clarke, Shane Warne and Michael Kasprowicz - who never played again.

Do legspinners take more punishment than other bowlers anyway?
I would certainly argue that they do. I can't feel the end of my fingertips now, and both my knees are shot to pieces. I think we give ourselves a hiding but I wouldn't swap it for the world and I knew what I was doing to myself. I wish that I had been looked after a little better, but I played for Australia and I had a good time. We work very hard for ourselves but also for our country, and I wish I could still play but I can't. I don't have the luxury of playing IPL but I wish I could play still, not just for the money but I really, really miss the competition. I would die to be able to play State cricket.

Was it tough to call it a day on that tour to the West Indies in 2008?
The reason I called it a day was because I was experiencing symptoms that were supposed to have been fixed by the carpal tunnel surgery that I'd had. My left hand went and then a day later my right hand went too. I couldn't feel when the ball was leaving my hand. It was a debacle. I wasn't fit to do what I was being asked to do.

Are you enjoying your new career?
I do breakfast radio on Triple M in Sydney. I'm not sure if I'm any good at it but I enjoy it and I'm hoping that eventually I manage to find something that in some way replaces the buzz I used to get from cricket. I don't know if a professional sportsman ever manages to do that.

This interview was first published in the January 2011 edition of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here