A lucky man
Beau Casson considers himself a lucky man. Lucky to be part of a big and happy family. Lucky to have a beautiful girlfriend, Sally. Lucky to have played first-class cricket for Western Australia and New South Wales. And luckiest of all to have played one Test for Australia, a victory over the West Indies.
When he ponders a cricket career that began at the age of 20 with the Warriors and formally ended last week at the Steve Waugh Medal presentation in Sydney, Casson will try to remember the good times rather than the circumstances, never fully explained, in which he was cast aside by the national selectors.
Nor will he spend too much time mulling over his struggles after that, as his confidence and bowling form ebbed away, replaced by mounting difficulties with a congenital heart problem that crescendoed when he was forced from the field on the first morning of a Sheffield Shield match against South Australia in Adelaide last October
He will, however, wonder about what might have been, had he been granted the chance to do what most spin bowlers do - get better with age. At 29, Casson will never again deliver more than the occasional ball in the nets as a coaching aid, and he is clearly pained by the fact. He remains a cricketer with a limitless love of the game, spending hours watching it and more playing it.
"I would love to still be playing. History says that's the plan for legspinners," he told ESPNcricinfo. "You hear all the greats before you say that the reason they stop playing is when they feel like they can no longer improve. I'd love to still be plying my trade. I've learned a lot being a legspinner and playing cricket - it brings you a hell of a lot of life skills, and I think I've been very lucky to have a lot of those, whether it's been through some health setbacks or good days and not so good days in cricket."
Casson's was a swift rise, moving from WA to NSW, then the fringes of the squad to the first XI, in time to help the Blues lift the Shield in 2008. His second-innings wickets helped earn a place on the plane to the Caribbean, before Stuart MacGill's unfortunate dalliance with carpal tunnel syndrome gave Casson the chance to bowl in the third Test of the series in Barbados.
"When I saw the side going to the Windies again it brings back incredibly happy memories," he said. "The two places I would've loved to go to play cricket were the West Indies and the Ashes, so to be able to go to a place that I'd seen on TV, and watching guys like Viv Richards, Richie Richardson and the Steve Waugh-Curtly Ambrose saga when that happened... it brings incredible excitement when I see cricket on there. I still watch a hell of a lot of cricket. I'm a cricket tragic and I absolutely love the game and watch it as much as possible.
"I naturally didn't see my opportunity coming the way it did, through the misfortune of Stuey's body. It's never great to see someone of his calibre and such a brilliant bowler be struck down. But you had to prepare yourself. Personally I was looking for the experience of seeing how the national side goes about it, being around guys I'd idolised for a long time and trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I possibly could. Things then fell my way. I was incredibly lucky to get the opportunity.
"Officially getting the nod to say I was playing the third Test was probably the greatest memory I have, but singing the song after the game was even more special to me. You hear about David Boon, Justin Langer, all those sorts of players leading the team song, and then to be able to have the song sung by Huss and be in that celebration was a huge highlight for me. Making my debut with Huss and playing a lot of first-class cricket with him for WA, it was an incredible thrill."
The thrill was enhanced by the fact that Casson felt he had contributed, taking three second-innings wickets and bowling tidily as Australia closed out the series. Most felt he had done enough to deserve further chances on the following tour to India, particularly given that MacGill's career was over. But for reasons variously ascribed to the appetite of Indian batsmen for spin, doubts about Casson's ability to bowl swiftly enough on slow pitches, or then chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch's statement that a right-arm legspinner was preferred, he never played again. Casson said he might have read the signs a little better had he been less swept up in the moment, but then his enthusiasm was part of what had taken him to the West Indies in the first place.
"I'm incredibly proud that I played one Test and we won it," Casson said. "But it's professional sport, every cricketer would like to put up a better performance than what they do, but I was very happy with the way it went, to contribute to the side being successful was the most important thing and I believe I did that, and the rest looks after itself.
Casson's case has been pondered over by many. It may have been one of those alluded to by Simon Katich in his fiery address to the former selection panel upon losing his Cricket Australia contract last year, and at his retirement presentation Casson's omission was described as "inexplicable", to the approval of a Blue-blooded audience. Suffice to say that as a young spin bowler Casson needed confidence to be shown in him, and after responding well to the chance he gained in the West Indies, he responded poorly to the sudden loss of his place in the national team.
"I trained just as hard and probably harder than I ever did after that. I've always been someone who's put high expectations on myself," Casson said. "But that's just the nature of our game. You can be doing the same things and they don't quite go exactly the way you'd have liked. It was definitely my plan to go back to NSW and get lots of wickets and make lots of runs, but it didn't turn out to be.
"Since Shane Warne and Stuey MacGill have retired, I think the Australian public have now realised how good they were and how difficult an art it is. It has huge highs and has some lows, but that's being a legspinner, and that's part of the game and what we do. The good players when they do have bad days have always been able to minimise the damage they're taken for, and they cut down the difference between their really good days and bad days. Until I stopped playing, that was something I was continually trying to work on... and as spinners we're supposed to have an older age at which we're meant to peak. We get to play the game a lot longer, and the reason why is that it's not as taxing on our bodies as a fast bowler, but it's also a very difficult art to master, and that's why we play on and it takes us time to perfect it."
Unbeknown to him in 2008, Casson's time was running short. The heart condition he had managed successfully since its diagnosis in his teenage years began to gain in seriousness, and may not have been helped by the anxiety of his struggle to return to the heights glimpsed in Bridgetown. In late 2010, Casson collapsed while fielding in a grade match, and he spent much of the rest of the season trying to regain the confidence and form to be considered for the Blues again.
He did enough to earn a recall for the match against the Redbacks in Adelaide at the outset of 2011-12, only to suffer a relapse. Casson had not even bowled when he felt distressed on the field, leaving it only to black out in the dressing room. After being tended to by the NSW physio, Murray Ryan, and driven to hospital by the chairman of selectors, David Freedman, Casson flew home early, and within days had been advised against playing again.
"When it first happened it was incredibly frightening, quite a traumatic event," Casson said. "Personally I found it really hard, because naturally I hadn't played my part in the game and the boys were one down, so that's what I struggled a fair bit with, and I was pretty keen to get out there and try to participate in the game, but I left it to the people a lot brighter than myself to decide that.
"It wasn't an ideal time and I'm incredibly happy with the way I've got through it. It was incredibly frustrating, frightening, things were pretty chaotic around that sort of event, but NSW… I much appreciate their support through it all, and for them to make sure I looked after myself. It wasn't easy, that's for sure.
"As soon as I was given the advice from my specialist I wanted to let Cricket NSW know and the players as soon as possible, because I didn't want to be hanging around… well, I wanted to hang around but I thought it was best to be upfront and let them know exactly where I was at. It's not an easy time to let your team-mates know you won't be playing anymore, but everyone has to do it at some time."
That game would be the last time Casson played cricket. He has since reverted to full-time study - he aims to teach physical education - a spot of coaching and an ambassadorial role for Heart Kids NSW, shedding light on an issue that was given another public viewing by the traumatic case of the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba. A benefit of no longer playing cricket is that he and Sally now have much more time to spend together on weekends, but Casson said he was still missing the game "incredibly a lot".
"I'd like to [bowl again]," he said. "It's just a matter of making sure I'm okay. When coaching, I've bowled the odd ball here and there, but I certainly won't be doing anything too full-on. I've got my guidelines and I've got to follow that, and that's the most important thing.
"I must admit, when I do have a cricket ball in my hand it does bring great memories back to me and I wish I was out there doing my stuff. But I can't see myself doing too much."
There were a few dark days after Casson retired, but since then he has gained in appreciation of his time in the game, and perspective on how his life must now be lived. It was helped by the presentation from NSW Cricket, which took place with him alongside Stuart Clark and Phil Jaques as fellow retirees. In a reminder that the game does not stand still for anyone, both were also part of Casson's one Test match, Jaques even taking catches for two of his three wickets.
"Stuey probably summed it up beautifully the other night when he said cricket doesn't owe anyone anything," Casson said. "I think all three of us and particularly myself have been very fortunate to do what I've done in the time I had. The game's taken me to places I never dreamed of going. Every boy dreams of playing for their country when they first start playing, but until it comes to fruition it's always just a dream, so I've been incredibly blessed."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here