The leggie who was one of us
I grew up in the People's Democratic Republic of Victoria. I was indoctrinated early. Dean Jones was better than Viv Richards in Victoria, and had a bigger ego as well. Darren Berry kept wicket with the softest hands and hardest mouth of any keeper I have ever seen. Ian Harvey had alien cricket. Matthew Elliott could score runs with his eyes shut. The first time I saw Dirk Nannes bowl, I felt like Victoria had thawed a smiley caveman. And even though I never saw Slug Jordan play, I enjoyed his sledging for years on the radio.
So my favourite player has to be a Victorian. But my other love is cricket's dark art, legspin. I wish I knew whether it was being a legspinner that made me love legspin, or seeing a legspinner that made me want to bowl it. Everything in cricket seemed easy to understand when I was a kid, but not legspin. And that's where I ended up. I'm not a good legspinner, far from it, but I think that any legspinner, even the useless club ones that bowl moon balls, have something special about them.
The first legspinner I ever fell for was Abdul Qadir. I'm not sure how I saw him, or what tour it was, but even before I understood actual legspin, I could see something special about him. His action was theatrical madness and I loved it.
Then the 1992 World Cup came. I was 12, it was in Melbourne (read Australia), and this little pudgy-faced kid was embarrassing the world's best. I was already a legspinner by then, but Mushie made it cool. This was the age where we were told spinners had no place; it was pace or nothing. Limited-overs cricket was going to take over from Tests, and spinners had no role in it. Mushie made that all look ridiculous as he did his double-arm twirl to propel his killer wrong'uns at groping moustached legends.
By worshipping Mushie I was ahead of the curve, because from then on, in Melbourne, Australia, and eventually England, Shane Warne changed the world. Mushie and Qadir had made legspinning look like it was beyond the realms of understanding, but Warne made it look like something humans could do, even if he wasn't human himself.
It was through Warne I got to Anil Kumble. He bowled legspin in such an understated way. It was completely different to Warne. His wrist wasn't his weapon, so he had to use everything else he had. Warne was the Batmobile, Kumble an Audi A4. Anyone could love Warne, his appeal was obvious. But to love Kumble you needed to really get legspin. The legspinner's leggie.
When I was young, my second favourite was a guy called Craig Howard, who virtually doesn't exist. Howard was the Victorian legspinner who Warne thought was better than him. To my 13- and 14-year-old eyes, Howard was a demon. His legspin was fast and vicious, but it was his wrong'un that was something special. Mushie and Qadir had obvious wrong'uns, subtle wrong'uns, and invisible wrong'uns. Howard had a throat-punching wrong'un. It didn't just beat you or make you look silly; it attacked you off a length and flew up at you violently. I've never seen another leggie who can do that, but neither could Howard. Through bad management and injury he ended up as an office-working offspinner in Bendigo.
But good things can come from office work. It gave me my favourite cricketer of all time. A person who for much of his 20s was a struggling club cricketer no one believed in. But he believed. Even as he played 2nds cricket, moved clubs, worked in IT for a bank, something about this man made him continue. A broken marriage and shared custody of his son. His day job had him moving his way up the chain. The fact that no one wanted him for higher honours. His age. Cameron White's legspin flirtation. And eventually the Victorian selectors, who didn't believe that picking a man over 30 was a good policy.
Through all that, Bryce McGain continued to believe he was good enough. Through most of it, he probably wasn't. He was a club spinner.
Bryce refused to believe that, and using the TV slow-mo and super-long-lens close-ups for teachers, he stayed sober, learnt from every spinner he could and forced himself to be better. He refused to just be mediocre, because Bryce had a dream. It's a dream that every one one of us has had. The difference is, we don't believe, we don't hang in, we don't improve, and we end up just moving on.
At 32 he was given a brief chance before Victoria put him back in club cricket. Surely that was his last chance. But Bryce refused to believe that. And at the age of 35 he began his first full season as Victoria's spinner. It was an amazing year for Australian spin. It was the first summer without Warne.
Almost as a joke, and because I loved his story, I started writing on my newly formed blog that McGain should be playing for Australia. He made it easy by continually getting wickets, and then even Terry Jenner paid attention. To us legspinners, Jenner is Angelo Dundee, and his word, McGain's form and the circumstances meant that Bryce suddenly became the person most likely.
Stuart MacGill was finished, Brad Hogg wanted out, and Beau Casson was too gentle. Bryce was ready at the age of 36 to be his country's first-choice spinner. Then something happened. It was reported in the least possibly dramatic way ever. McGain had a bad shoulder, the reports said. He may miss a warm-up game.
No, he missed more than that. He missed months. As White, Jason Krezja, Nathan Hauritz and even Marcus North played before him as Australia's spinners. This shoulder problem wouldn't go away. And although Bryce's body hadn't had the workload of the professional spinners, bowling so much at his advanced age had perhaps been too much for him. He had only one match to prove he was fit enough for a tour to South Africa. He took a messy five-for against South Australia and was picked for South Africa. He didn't fly with the rest of the players, though, as he missed his flight. Nothing was ever easy for Bryce.
His second first-class match in six months was a tour match where the South African A team attacked Bryce mercilessly. Perhaps it was a plan sent down by the main management, or perhaps they just sensed he wasn't right, but it wasn't pretty. North played as the spinner in the first two Tests. For the third Test, North got sick, and it would have seemed like the first bit of good fortune to come to Bryce since he hurt his shoulder.
At the age of 36, Bryce made his debut for Australia. It was a dream come true for a man who never stopped believing. It was one of us playing Test cricket for his country. It was seen as a joke by many, but even the cynics had to marvel at how this office worker made it to the baggy green.
I missed the Test live as I was on holidays and proposing to my now-wife. I'm glad I missed it. Sure, I'd wanted Bryce to fulfill his dream as much as I'd wanted to fulfill most of mine, but I wouldn't have liked to see what happened to him live. South Africa clearly saw a damaged player thrown their way and feasted on him. His figures were heartbreaking: 0 for 149. Some called it the worst debut in history.
I contacted him after it, and Bryce was amazingly upbeat. He'd make it back, according to him. He was talking nonsense. There was no way back for him. Australia wouldn't care that his shoulder wasn't right; he couldn't handle the pressure. His body, mind and confidence had cracked under pressure. He was roadkill.
But Bryce wouldn't see it that way, and that's why he's my favourite cricketer. I wasn't there for all the times no one believed in him, for all those times his dream was so far away and life was in his way. But I was there now, at what was obviously the end. Bryce McGain saw the darkness but refused to enter it. That's special. That is how you achieve your dreams when everything is against you.
Before I moved to London to embark on my cricket-writing career, I met Bryce for a lunch interview. It was my first interview with a cricketer. We were just two former office workers who had escaped. At this stage Casson had been preferred over him for the tour to the West Indies. In the Shield final, Bryce's spinning finger had opened up after a swim in the ocean. He was outbowled by Casson and the selectors didn't take him. Surely this was it. Why would anyone pick a 36-year-old who had been below his best in his most important game?
Bryce knew he may have blown it. But he still believed, of course. We were just two former office workers with dreams. Two guys talking about legspin. Two guys just talking shit and hoping things would work out.
At the time it was just cool to have lunch with this guy I admired, but now I look back and know I had lunch with the player who would become my favourite cricketer of all time.
The world would be a better place if more people saw McGain as a hero and not a failure. Shane Warne was dropped on this planet to be a god. Bryce McGain just wanted to fulfil his dream, and that he did against all odds is perhaps one of the great cricket stories of all time.
Bryce is one of us, the one who couldn't give up.