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Feature

Michael Neser doesn't want to be pigeonholed as seaming-pitch specialist

The Australia quick is expanding his skillset for flatter surfaces, but says "being consistent and bowling accurately is the key on any wicket"

'The more I bowl, the better I feel. I'm a bowler who really needs to play a lot of matches to get into bowling rhythm and feel good'  •  Getty Images

'The more I bowl, the better I feel. I'm a bowler who really needs to play a lot of matches to get into bowling rhythm and feel good'  •  Getty Images

After a strong start to the Sheffield Shield season marked by menacing swing and unwavering accuracy, seamer Michael Neser could be forgiven for looking ahead to the middle of next year.
That's when, of course, Australia will tour the UK as they bid to win an away Ashes series for the first time since the middle of their golden era in 2001. It's still some time away, with Australia in the early stages of a long Test haul before then, but the Queensland quick is widely tipped to be part of Australia's touring squad if he can stay fit.
With a strong wrist action, likened to former Australia paceman Ryan Harris, and having studied closely Jimmy Anderson, Neser's expertise at conjuring movement - with the kookaburra or Dukes - makes him an irresistible option for traditionally bowler-friendly conditions in the UK.
A couple of eyecatching seasons with English county Glamorgan have added to his case.
"I'm not thinking about the Ashes," a typically unflappable Neser told ESPNcricinfo ahead of being drafted into Australia's squad for the second Test against West Indies as injury cover for Pat Cummins. "If I'm taking wickets for Glamorgan at the time then hopefully that will take care of business and I can make the squad, but it's a long way off right now."
His selection into the Test squad, having recently spearheaded a strong Prime Minister's XI attack against West Indies in Canberra, is instructive of his place in Australia's congested pecking order of quicks. Outside their trio of Test frontliners, 32-year-old Neser has been on the fringes in recent years. His sole Test match was almost exactly 12 months ago against England in Adelaide, where he claimed two wickets including a debut scalp of Haseeb Hameed off his second delivery.
With Australia's selectors contemplating managing the Test workload of the quicks amid a brutal schedule, Neser could be given an opportunity although Scott Boland, following his heroics in the Ashes last summer, has moved to next in line. "It was really tough the last couple of years when I was part of extended squads and wasn't able to play much," Neser said. "That was the way it was because of Covid and you just had to get on with it. But I'm glad that big squads aren't required right now."
After a lengthy stint as a reserve following the Adelaide Test, Neser returned to the field lacking match hardness and was promptly ruled out of the tour of Pakistan earlier in the year with a side strain sustained during a Marsh Cup 50-over game.
"It was devastating when I got the news and found out I would miss Pakistan," Neser said. "I wasn't quite bowling-fit at the time, so it was a tough setback but you just have to move on."
Emerging from the disappointment with the help of Queensland's physio team, Neser crafted a rehabilitation routine to better help his body recover from the rigours of bowling. It mostly consists of daily stretching - something similar to yoga, he says - and he's stuck by that ever since amid a gruelling return spanning the English County Championship and then the first half of the Australian domestic season.
"I've had issues with my back and had some niggles over the years, so I've just been trying to be really disciplined with my rehab," Neser said. "I feel like if I keep sticking to it then the body should hold up. I feel really fit and strong right now."
Burly and rugged, Neser looks like someone who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty and he's certainly capable of producing indefatigable spells. Much like Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh, Neser is a bowler who prefers being wound up and let go.
"The more I bowl, the better I feel," he said. "I'm a bowler who really needs to play a lot of matches to get into bowling rhythm and feel good."
But Neser hasn't generally needed to bowl for the long haul during this Sheffield Shield season, where he's claimed 24 wickets at 14.50 in five matches - figures slightly tarnished by going wicketless in the rain-affected draw last start against Western Australia at the Gabba.
He's formed a deadly tandem with fellow quick Mark Steketee, who replaced him on the Pakistan tour and has been on the Test fringes himself for some time. They could be viewed as something like friendly rivals, both vying for higher honours, although Neser said the pair don't discuss their Test pursuits.
"We're focused on winning matches for Queensland. We complement each other really well and just really love bowling together, " Neser said of Steketee, who has taken 25 Shield wickets at 15.52. "He's been really excellent for a while. We learn from each other."
Neser has undoubtedly benefited from spicy pitches at Brisbane's Allan Border Field and the WACA; he has taken 19 wickets in three matches at the two venues, at the remarkable average of 10.37.
But if he's to emerge from Australia's reservoir of talented quicks - with WA tearaway Lance Morris becoming the new sensation and joining Neser in Australia's second-Test squad - Neser will have to add tricks to counter more benign surfaces. He's been working hard with Queensland bowling coach Andy Bichel on finding ways to stay in the contest when conditions aren't conducive to his strengths.
"Working out when the right time to effectively use bouncers is important, especially on flatter wickets," Neser said. "Reverse swing is also a weapon for me and means I can be dangerous with the old ball. It is something I'm trying to always get better at.
"Ultimately, I think being consistent and bowling accurately is the key on any wicket. I don't think I'm someone who should be pigeonholed as an English [conditions] specialist just because I have certain strengths."
Reinforced by a brilliant century against New South Wales, combining with opener Matthew Renshaw in a 257-run sixth-wicket partnership, Neser's improved batting has earned him a promotion to No.7 in Queensland's batting order. "You've just got to keep improving in all aspects of the game and I've put in a fair bit of work with my batting," said South Africa-born Neser, who was a gifted batter through junior ranks before focusing on fast bowling. "The more strengths you have, the better."
But, ultimately, his intoxicating skillset with the ball will determine whether he can crack Australia's powerful attack. "I had a taste of Test cricket 12 months ago and it was an amazing experience," he said. "Hopefully the work I've put in will help me add another."

Tristan Lavalette is a journalist based in Perth