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March 20, 2009
Bryce McGain said last week that there are worse things than being 12th man for Australia. He might have just discovered what one of those things is. At the end of his second day of Test cricket, McGain had already taken an unwanted record: the 102 that his 11 overs had cost left him with the worst economy rate of any bowler in a Test innings.
It's a fluid figure and he could slip down the list on the third day but what won't disappear is the pain of being mercilessly slapped around the Newlands stadium by the centurions Ashwell Prince and Jacques Kallis. There were a couple of overs that went for 13 each, two that cost 14 and one particularly nasty one that earned the South Africans 18 runs.
The South African spinner Paul Harris is famous for thrusting his hands up after nearly every ball, even if it has been defended off the middle of the bat, seemingly trying to convince the batsman that he escaped a thunderbolt. McGain appeared unable even to persuade himself that he was a threat.
After waiting three hours to be handed the ball on the third day, McGain was driven edgily over gully by Prince first ball. Had it flown to hand things could have been so much different. Instead, the batsmen kept attacking and McGain lost confidence, alternating between dropping short and pitching too full.
It was a most uncharacteristic display from a man whose greatest strength at domestic level is his control. Not usually an enormous turner of the ball, McGain strangles batsmen through constant pressure and, though it's hard to believe from his figures in Cape Town, is a tough and restrictive one-day bowler for Victoria.
"He was under pressure that whole time," Australia's coach Tim Nielsen said. "The scoreboard's ticking over, he can see the runs up against his name and I think the pressure just got a bit much today, it was a pretty hard initiation to Test match cricket.
"He didn't bowl anywhere near as consistently as he would like, he bowled both full and short. I think a pretty good indication was when he bowled a couple of overs to Kallis and all of a sudden he had a deep midwicket and he took out one of the attacking players on the off side, which to a legspinner would be normally where you would like to be getting them to hit. He was probably trying to defend his bad ball."
Were it a young legspinner trying to make his mark on Tests, it could have been devastating. McGain clearly was not jumping for joy but at 37, he has learnt to stay calm and for the most part his body language didn't give away the angst that must have been running through his mind.
But as the camera zoomed in on his red face following another expensive over, and he deliberately avoided looking up at the big screen, he must have been wondering if this was it. After nearly two decades of club cricket, was he to become a one-cap wonder? Was an Ashes tour slipping from his grasp?
Nothing has gone right for McGain on this trip, from missing the plane back home and arriving in South Africa after his team-mates, to being belted on a flat pitch in the warm-up game in Potchefstroom, to going down with gastro on the eve of the first Test in Johannesburg. Nielsen said McGain would not necessarily have played in Cape Town had Marcus North not fallen ill on the day before the match.
The challenge is for him to put the disastrous day behind him and prove on the third day that he can be a Test-class bowler. He is good enough to do that but only if his confidence hasn't taken a fatal dive. Seven South African wickets remain and with the strong possibility that they may not bat again during the match, it could be the most important day of McGain's career.
"He's got a bit of learning to do," Nielsen said. "He's had a tough day today. The real test will be to turn up tomorrow morning and try and learn from today and not run away from the challenge. He needs to really present himself and bowl those overs in the first session so we can thump away with our quicks and hopefully get a couple of early wickets."
Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper