Australia’s low temperature spin cycle

Posted on January 15, 2011 by

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Jump in your time machine and take yourself back to 1992. A young man from Melbourne has been in and out of the Australian test side – sometimes making a difference with his quirky slow spin, sometimes not. In fact, he was dropped by Accrington in the Lancashire leagues for simply not being good enough and took an underwhelming 1/150 on his test debut. Shane Warne, however, would survive all this and more to become arguably the greatest ever spin bowler – certainly the greatest Australia has ever seen – and to make spin fashionable again in a game that had been dominated by quick bowling for several years.

Come forward now to 2007. Shane Warne has just helped Australia regain the Ashes in style – it was the 5-0 defeat they’d been fighting for during the dominance years. With this achievement reached, having bowled over 40,000 balls in test cricket and with 708 test wickets under his belt, Shane Warne retired from test cricket. He left some mighty big shoes to fill and Cricket Australia have been struggling to fill them ever since.

A long trail of spin hopefuls has been paraded through the Australian test side in the last four years. Most have walked away disappointed and feeling badly used.

In the early days, before Warne was gone, there was Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg. Hogg got his chance in 1996 when Warne had a finger injury, but if he made an impact at all on that tour to India it was a negative one. Hogg did become a one day regular, but his test appearances were disappointing. MacGill, on the other hand, was a spinner whose name may have become a household one if only he weren’t just a couple of years younger than Warne. In the time he did play, he took over 200 test wickets and certainly held his own when the two spinners played alongside one another.

MacGill’s chance seemed to finally arrive when Warne retired in 2007, but his age told against him and he retired mid-tour in 2008. A young West Australian, Beau Casson, was called in to replace him. He took three wickets in his first test, but since then his poor form at state level and ongoing health problems have seen him overlooked by national selectors.

That same year, 2008, saw the appearance of Jason Krejza who took 12 wickets in his debut match against India in India. Since then, though, he has gone barely noticed by the national selectors and has in fact proven quite expensive for his state side, Tasmania. It pains me to say it, but the selectors may have been right on this one.

Cameron White was seen, for a short period, as a possible replacement for Warne – mostly because he is blonde and Victorian. Making very little impact as a bowler in four tests, he has since cemented his place as a batsman in the limited overs game. He has recently replaced Michael Clarke as Australia’s T20 captain, but rarely makes use of his bowling abilities.

In India in 2004, Warne broke his finger the day before a test. The surprise replacement was a young man from Queensland, Nathan Hauritz. He was unimpressive and, despite being the pizza boy on one or two more tours, drifted out of both the national and his state side. He moved himself to Sydney and waited for NSW to notice him and take a chance. When they finally did, it brought him back to the attention of Cricket Australia and he was recalled to the national side in 2008.

In the meantime, there was also Bryce McGain. Having come late to cricket and been set back by injuries, McGain was finally called up the test squad in 2009. He was 36 years old. He debuted in Cape Town and let a painful 149 runs go through him, helping Australia to lose by an innings. His career ended as quickly as it had begun and Australia turned their eyes back to Hauritz.

Hauritz was mocked by both media and fans as his name was listed in the Ashes squad to tour England in 2009. Facebook pages were created with crude titles, calling him useless and a waste of space. The English media took delight in writing about his non-existent doosra, The Sun called him a “no-hoper” and, after a tour match he gave his autograph to a little boy who then turned to his dad and said “I don’t know who that was”.

By the end of the first test at Cardiff, he was the highest wicket taker in the series, he had swept away Kevin Pietersen with ease and had outplayed Graeme Swann in his own backyard. Although still not stunning in a Shane Warne way, his personal strength during a finger dislocation at Lord’s and his generally solid performances during the Ashes surprised a lot of critics. When he was left out of the squad for the fifth and deciding test at the Oval, the selectors were criticised. They opted to make use of Marcus North’s part time spin ability instead of using Hauritz, the specialist. It was a decision they would come to regret as they watched Graeme Swann tear through the Aussie line up. Australia lost the test and, therefore, the Ashes. Although North had taken 4 wickets in one of the innings, the media slammed Ponting and the selectors for having ignored the potential for spin. It looked like Hauritz was here to stay.

And things only got better for the Queenslander. He was involved in Australia’s one day mauling of England following the Ashes; he went to South Africa and helped Australia win the Champions’ trophy; played in the unlikely ODI series victory in India and then joined NSW on their T20 Champion’s league campaign. He was integral in the Blues’ series win with only one defeat along the way.

When it came time to select the team for the double header home series’ against Pakistan and the West Indies at the end of 2009, Hauritz was a staple in the Australian side. During that summer he took two five-fors, including 5-53 at Sydney to help defeat Pakistan in a match that seemed already lost to the hosts. He also proved himself a sturdy lower order batsman and a reliable night watchman, abilities that the NSW would come to appreciate if Australia didn’t.

A foot injury saw Hauritz spend the tour against Pakistan in England in moon boots and this gave young Steve Smith his chance to shine. He didn’t really shine, either against Pakistan or against England in the 2010 Ashes, but he is only in his early twenties and his potential with the bat as well as the ball should see him get yet more chances.

The one-day tour of India in late 2009 was rent with Australian injuries. Exhausted players who had been on the move since March started dropping like flies. Jon Holland, the young spinner from Victoria, was one of the many new names called up on that tour, but he had to fight Hauritz for a place and he lost. Hauritz played every match; Holland played none. He is yet to be called up to the national side at any level.

Hauritz was fit again for the 2010 test series in India but, like some of his spinning forbears, he struggled on the Indian pitches. Shane Warne, always a vocal supporter of Hauritz, blamed Ponting. He stated very publicly, on Twitter, that Ponting’s field placements for Hauritz were all wrong. Ponting later claimed Hauritz had asked for those very field placings. This spurred the media to claim Ponting, as captain, didn’t know how to deal with spin and Warne even offered to step in and personally coach Hauritz.

The short memory media started to criticise the spinner again and Ponting was quick to stand up and claim that Hauritz was his man for the Ashes. Back home in Australia, the Ashes test potentials were sent back to their respective states to prepare. Hauritz, his confidence in the toilet, didn’t improve in form on returning to the SCG and the fans started to contemplate other options. This time, it was the turn of Australian coach Tim Nielsen to stand up and publicly support Hauritz for the Ashes. When it was time for the pre Ashes selection press conference at the Sydney Opera House, Hauritz was invited along with other test team staples like Katich, Clarke and Watson.

And then the final Ashes team was announced.

It included Steve Smith and, virtual unknown, Xavier Doherty. It did not include Hauritz. After delivering solidly for Australia for more nearly three years, commanding the constant support of Shane Warne and the recent public assurances of his captain and coach, Hauritz was thrown on the trash heap with MacGill, Casson, Krejza and others. Shane Warne was livid and, as usual, he didn’t hide it.

Initially Hauritz went into hiding and refused to speak to the media. One idiot journalist wrote, incorrectly, that he had seen him selling his test gear at a garage sale. Eventually, however, Hauritz took the mature decision to show Cricket Australia just what they were missing.

Back with NSW for the summer, Hauritz was commanding with both bat and ball in the Sheffield Shield. When Doherty proved he was a bad choice of spinner, the fans looked to Smith. Underwhelming against a dominant England, Smith also fell from favour with the public. Clearly desperate, the selectors plucked a spinner out of thin air. Michael Beer had played a total of five first class matches and hadn’t exactly excelled himself then. Stuart MacGill stepped up and criticized Cricket Australia both for grabbing at an unknown and for not returning to the tried and tested Hauritz. Beer was not used at either Perth or Melbourne, but fans were as unimpressed by his selection as MacGill. They started to speculate about the return of Hauritz for the fifth Ashes test at spin friendly Sydney.

It was not to be. Beer got his chance and he took a wicket, but for an awful 112 runs. Were he the only card on the table, you might forgive him this after Warne’s inauspicious beginnings, but when there was a much better spinner just down the road there was no reason for Beer to have played at the SCG.

And so Hauritz continued with NSW and, no doubt, continued to hope for another chance with the baggy green. At the point of writing this, he has been called up for the ODI series against England, but Doherty and Smith have also been selected so there is no guarantee he will play. As for Hauritz’s future in the test side, that remains to be seen.

Smith seems to be the current favourite and deserves time to grow into his role, but in the meantime surely Hauritz, with 17 tests and 63 wickets to his name, is the obvious first choice. Instead, the selectors seem determined to continue with Doherty who, only a year younger than Hauritz, is easily the inferior of the two in experience and performance.

With Hauritz gone from the test scene, Cricket Australia has torn through nine spinners since Shane Warne retired. So, what exactly is Australia’s problem with spin? Well, they no longer have Shane Warne. Warne needed no input from Ponting on his field placements, very little need for coaching and his presence alone meant that whatever he had to say would be taken on board. Very few young men, new into the test side, would have that same level of self assurance. In fact, Hauritz is known to have told Ponting, post the India tour, that he would not be changing his style of bowling. Some would argue he was punished for it.

In the wake of a humiliating Ashes defeat on home turf, at least partly blamed on lack of adequate spin, Australia continue their hunt for the next Shane Warne. Perhaps when they finally realise such a person does not exist, that Warne was unique and quite extraordinary, the Australian selectors will settle on a choice for the future.

And maybe they will treat him with a modicum of respect.

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Article by Kirby Meehan

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