Time is right for Copeland
From the day Shane Warne retired, every Australian spin bowler to follow him was destined to endure comparisons with the incomparable. Nathan Lyon is the man presently encumbered, and Michael Clarke is the latest captain to stress "he's not Shane Warne" when assessing his spinner's more moderate skills. A far more reasoned Warne parallel does exist in the Australian attack, however. It is with the medium pace of Trent Copeland. This is not because they share anything whatsoever in method, personality, physical gifts or mentality. Rather it is because Copeland stands to benefit, almost as much as Warne did, from a generation of batsmen not concerned with the subtleties of his skill.
A great deal of Warne's early success in Test cricket was achieved as much by the shock of the new as by the genius of the newbie. Save for Pakistan's Abdul Qadir, and India's Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, there had not been an international legspin bowler of sustained quality and success anywhere in the world for more than 30 years. If subcontinental batsmen had not seen much in the way of high class legspin for decades, their counterparts in England, New Zealand and South Africa had seen even less. To watch some of the early attempts by these unfortunates to play the young Warne, his spitting leg breaks and skidding flippers, was to take a mild kind of sadistic pleasure in cruel and unusual punishment.
Some years later and Copeland has entered international cricket at a similar juncture for his unfashionable style. Medium pace bowlers have a long and storied history in Test cricket, but the lineage of great ones petered out somewhere around the time that the West Indies were pounding the rest of the world into submission with speed, bounce and plenty of swagger. It is not so much that medium pace disappeared as a skill as that the methods by which they were successful became less prevalent. Covered pitches negated an avenue for cheap wickets, while improved bats and closer boundaries elevated the odds of containment.
Yet the onset of the Twenty20 age has offered a window for those bowlers prepared to play on the patience of batsmen no longer conditioned for occupation. It has also afforded a chance for bowlers of lesser velocity to play on the egos of those same batsmen. Where once a maiden was seen as an uneasy truce between batsman and bowler, now it is a conclusive points victory for the latter. The volume of training weighted towards T20 and the clearing of pickets has seeped into the techniques and outlooks of batsmen once considered dour, and those who cannot win contracts in the shortest form of the game are empirically if not technically poorer for it. The will to outlast bowlers like Copeland is likely to be superseded by the desire to collar him.
Copeland rose to prominence by stealth, helped by the lack of genuine respect there seemed to be for his skills as he began to cut swathes through Australian domestic batting. His lack of velocity was commented on when he was first chosen for New South Wales, and batsmen and selectors continued to pass the occasional snide comment about his likely speed gun readings even as the bowler himself was splintering Sheffield Shield teams on a regular basis. When he was included in Cricket Australia's Centre of Excellence intake for 2011, the selector Greg Chappell observed: "There were some in the playing ranks who thought he might struggle to back it up this year."
Back it up he did. By the time Copeland was chosen for the Sri Lanka tour, he had winkled out 87 batsmen in 17 first-class appearances at a price of scarcely 21 runs per wicket. Whatever he has lacked in pace he has compensated for with bounce, swing, seam and the most suffocating accuracy seen by an Australian bowler since his faster seam bowling cousins Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark finished up. In his first Test Copeland was instantly reliable, blocking up one end while Clarke rotated his pace bowlers and the spin of Lyon from the other.
A wicket in Copeland's first Test over, that of Tillakaratne Dilshan, summed up the risque attitude he can take advantage of against batsmen who presume to lord it over any bowler not firing deliveries down at 140kph. The first ball, eminently respectable, was driven through cover for four. The second, subtly shorter and wider, affording Dilshan less control over his shot, was slapped to the hyper-agile Ricky Ponting at short cover. Though Copeland did not take another wicket for himself in the match, his economy allowed plenty to be taken by his comrades.
Through it all Copeland demonstrated something else that will test the wits of unaware international batsmen. For a Test match tyro, his temperament is admirably even. There is a hint of the mature Jason Gillespie about the way Copeland conducts himself, amiable and reliable to friends and team-mates, insatiable and calculating to batsmen and opponents. He appears to possess a deep reservoir of thought and patience. That Copeland owns a clean enough pair of hands to immediately command a place in the Australian slips cordon says plenty for his thoroughness. The last Australian seam and swing merchant to stand there on a regular basis was another medium paceman Copeland may wish to emulate - Terry Alderman.
The world Warne entered in 1992 lacked respect and understanding for legspin, and many of the batsmen with whom Copeland has just joined battle regard medium pace almost as dimly. All those perceiving Copeland as a mere trundler of club proportions are thinking precisely what he wants a batsman to think. As he and hubris conspire to plot the downfall of another strokemaker, Copeland will hope that notion sticks around for a some time yet.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo