November 16, 2012

A new Astle. A new Vettori?

Canterbury's legspinning allrounder Todd Astle may be the one to fill those big shoes

The search for Daniel Vettori's spin-bowling successor takes another turn this week with the possible introduction of Todd Astle to Test cricket in Sri Lanka.

Vettori is resting out the two-Test series with an inflamed Achilles tendon. If Astle plays, he'll become just the seventh specialist spinner used by New Zealand since Vettori debuted in February 1997, and only the third specialist legspinner since one of the country's best exponents, Jack Alabaster, played his final Test in 1972. Astle's forebears are Greg Loveridge (who famously broke his finger without bowling a ball during his solitary Test against Zimbabwe in 1996) and Brooke Walker whose five Tests yielded five wickets at 79.80 from 2000-02. Wristspin is a fickle calling in New Zealand.

Such trivia hardly concerns Astle as he edges towards his childhood ambition. The 26-year-old has taken 68 Plunket Shield wickets at 33.3 over the last two seasons, including 37 at 29.08 to help secure the 2010-11 title for Canterbury. In all, he has 129 wickets at 35.39 from 56 first-class matches.

His batting could also be an asset. Astle made a first-class hundred, opening in the early part of his provincial career. He recently contributed 95 and 78 from the lower order in Canterbury's loss to Otago.

Astle opened but did not bowl a ball for New Zealand at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka. He was third on the run-scoring list, behind Indian Test No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara and England middle-order batsman Eoin Morgan.

Depending on the state of the Galle wicket on Saturday - and the prospects of play on the monsoon-ravaged tour - Astle could form a partnership with Jeetan Patel at the expense of a pace bowler in the starting XI. Coach Mike Hesson indicated as much last month.

"Todd's a good character who trains hard and has taken plenty of his wickets in the second innings of matches," Hesson said. "He's got the confidence to chuck the ball up and beat players in the air. His record's pretty good by New Zealand spinning standards. He's excellent in the field but hasn't fulfilled his potential with the bat.

"When playing two spinners, you're committed to one guy who can at least bat a bit. Todd's that man, because we can't expect too many runs from Jeetan.

"Todd's passionate and we'd be more inclined to use him on this tour as opposed to South Africa or England. Dan will more than likely be back by then and pace bowlers might also be better options."

"When playing two spinners, you're committed to one guy who can at least bat a bit. Todd's that man because we can't expect too many runs from Jeetan"
New Zealand coach Mike Hesson

The message seems clear. Astle has been preferred over Tarun Nethula, who took five wickets in five one-day internationals between February and July, but is suffering from a bowling confidence crisis - to the point where he couldn't be used recently in India on conducive wickets.

Astle says the shift to being a bowling allrounder from a batsman wasn't conscious, but there was a turning point. "I had opened for four years and didn't kick on for Canterbury, so I need to thank Chris Martin. He got called up to the New Zealand team [in March 2010] when we were playing Otago in Queenstown. I replaced him [on day three] and took my first five-wicket bag."

Canterbury won the match and Astle was their bowler of the year the following first-class season. He is in the process of completing a feat similar to that of Mark Richardson, who was a promising left-arm orthodox spinner before he got the yips and swapped to become one of New Zealand's most successful openers. Richardson eventually bowled just 11 overs and took one wicket in 38 Tests.

"A big help has been the way Peter Fulton has captained me at Canterbury," Astle says. "He's always provided a measure of confidence by backing me with a lot of overs. Sometimes you just need someone to take you under their wing, work out the best way to get into spells and find a rhythm to go about your business."

New Zealand captain Ross Taylor might take note, since Fulton credits Astle as one of the main reasons Canterbury won the title in 2010-11. "Hopefully they use him as an attacking weapon," Fulton says. "Legspin's not easy to do. Look at Shane Warne; he still had to learn his craft. There's got to be understanding that legspinners bowl the odd bad ball."

Warne is a perfect case study of someone who initially delivered too many pies and too few chainsaws. Midway through his third Test, in Sri Lanka, he had one wicket and his average was 335. Then, with Sri Lanka needing 31 runs to win, chasing 181 in Colombo, Warne took three wickets in 13 balls without conceding a run to mop up the innings and the match. His career rarely dipped again.

Fulton believes Astle could also shine with the bat. "He's never really fulfilled his potential but his last couple of knocks [95 and 78] were as good as I've seen him play. Todd's just a team man who's passionate about winning."

Astle had lost none of that enthusiasm when he spoke after his first business-class flight, travelling to Sri Lanka. "I've now played over 50 first-class matches and know most of the guys," he said. "I've dealt with Hess [Mike Hesson] when he was Otago coach, [assistant coach] Bob Carter coached me at Canterbury and I even captained [bowling coach] Shane Bond for a few games at [Astle's Christchurch club] Old Boys Collegians.

"You always dream of bowling to the best players in the world, like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. I've watched them a lot on television and completed plenty of video analysis sent through by the coaches. I've got confidence in the environment I'll be working in."

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday