The Shadow of Shane Warne
A story on the weird stories of the spinners that tried to grow in the dark.
Brian McMillan's chest is large. Batters are not built like this normally and clearly, he was an all-rounder. But good enough to average almost 40 in Tests. He's just massive. That chest is important at one time he was batting in a tour game at the MCG in 93/94 when a wrong'un hit him in the chest.
If you are thinking wrong'un, MCG, 1993, the face you are probably thinking of is Shane Warne. He has a statue there. It's his place, and he made leg spin great again.
But it wasn't his. The bowler was Craig Howard. A completely different kind of leggie. Howard only played 16 first class games, and he averaged 40. And if that doesn't sound impressive, here are some of his wickets.
Craig Howard could bowl, and don't take my word, Warne said that Howard's fast leg spin was actually better than his. But even if that were true, Howard didn't have the body of Warne or the force of personality. And crucially he came after the blond bombshell.
While Cricket Australia did everything to keep Warne on the field, Howard slipped through the cracks of the last moments of the amateur era of Australian cricket. His body couldn't continue to bowl fast leggies, and so he faded away from the Victorian team. Years later, after playing club cricket, he would mount a comeback as an off spinner. In fact, Howard was the first - and still probably only - player to go through the Australian academy twice, for two different disciplines.
But sadly his offspin wasn't like his incredible leggies, and so he ended up playing club cricket in Bendigo.
I would love to say that Howard's story was a one-off and that the rest of the spinners after Warne had a better time. But Shane Warne's impact was so huge, that it seemed to blow away entire careers of other spinners. There was no darker place than the Shadow of Shane Warne.
Here is a fun fact: two cricketers played for Australia in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The first makes a lot of sense because Allan Border was the grumpy face of Australian cricket. But the other player was far more random. It was leg spinner Peter Sleep. And if you don't know who he is, that is fine.
He is just one of the many spinners Australia went through. He was a handy batter with a weird bowling action who struggled to take consistent wickets at Test level. But even within that, he hung around long enough to play his Tests over a 12-year period, which gives you an idea of how desperate they were for tweakers.
If you go back to the start of cricket until 1990, spin was just a normal part of Australian cricket. Richie Benaud before he was the face of cricket, was a champion leg spinner. Clarrie Grimmet was cricket's first 200 wicket taker. And he bowled with Bill O'Reilly, who was probably better but missed a few years in the war. And Hugh Trumble was the leading wicket-taker when he retired in 1904 with his off spin.
That incredible run ends after Benaud retires. And even when Australia get good spinners, they don't last that long.
Bruce Yardley is an incredibly weird player. He starts as a seam bowler who bats a little. A few years into his career he switches to bowling fast off spin. In 1978 he makes his debut at the age of 31, and he does really well. Taking 126 wickets at 31. But he is dropped by Western Australia in the middle of his international career. Then after a good few years in the Test team, he retires in his late 30s after a tour of Sri Lanka.
But six years later he made a comeback for Western Australian, where he annoyed people by leaving a club game to go commentate a Test. And then went back into retirement. Because his peak was so short during the Kerry Packer years, he is barely mentioned.
Ashley Mallet is interesting because he was really Australia's main spinner in a period when they were moving to pace. There is nothing wrong with his record, he was a clever bowler. And yet, when Kerry Packer picked his original lot of World Series cricket he didn't think Mallet was worth it. But in truth, he was a good bowler, but probably out of time.
Those are the only two with a lot of wickets, but Jim Higgs might be the most important here. His leggies were okay, but he may have done a lot more in teaching Shane Warne the flipper.
Then you get Ray Bright, who played a lot of matches with his slow left arm despite not taking many wickets. Kerry O'Keefe is next and is now more known for telling a frog joke or annoying Indians when talking about the Ranji Trophy. Greg Matthews couldn't take wickets when he bowled, but weirdly, his batting was outstanding and he made up for his 61 wickets at 48 by averaging over 40 with the bat. John Gleeson was a mystery spinner, who borrowed his method from Jack Iverson, another Aussie weird tweaker. Bob Holland made his Test debut at 38 and played his last first class season for Wellington.
That is a lot of bowlers we have mentioned there. And here is the weird thing, only one of them ever took 11 wickets in a Test. Allan Border who took 11 wickets against the West Indies. The best team in the world.
The point is to show how far Australian cricket had fallen. Imitations of mystery bowlers, off spinners unwanted in their own time, old leggies, and their best bowling haul was someone who took 11 of his career 39 wickets in a single match.
Australian spin was in all sorts of trouble coming into the 90s, and Peter Sleep was not the saviour. So it was pretty lucky at this point they found one of the greatest cricketers of all time who just happened to be a spinner. The problem is that when one player is this good, a shadow is cast.
And in that darkness, there are simply some of the weirdest stories in cricket.
Stuart MacGill was bred to be an Australian cricketer, his father and grandpa were both first-class cricketers. And when his parents gave him the initials SCG, they might as well have told him his future was as an Australian spinner. In fact, to make his career work, he left the WACA to move to Sydney as his home ground.
And while Warne played, he might be the greatest understudy in cricket. 200 wickets at better than 30 was more than Australia could have ever asked for. In some ways, he was too similar to play with Warne, but a bit like Axar Patel and Ravi Jadeja, it worked because they were just different enough, and they were both that good. MacGill's main talent was taking the tail, pairing that with Australia's new ball bowlers and Warne was perfect.
A lot of MacGill's record came from the fact he bowled with Warne on wickets that spun. This means he probably looked better than he was at times. But in that role, he was as good as any of the great Indian quartet when they were brought into the side as the extra tweaker.
MacGill waited so long to be the main man, that Warne's exit should have meant he strode onto the scene with his jolly swagger and angry face. Instead, his knee was dodgy and his TV career gained momentum. At one stage it seemed Cricket Australia didn't even know where MacGill was. When they did, it was because they'd followed the trail of long hops. His knee forced him out of the team.
MacGill was brought straight back for a tour of the West Indies. There he played like a member of the Fanatics had been pulled out of the crowd after a few drinks. He ran like a man with cardboard knees. And then he retired mid-series. He only played four Tests after Warne, and his average was 65.
So, less than 18 months after Warne, the replacement was already done. MacGill was never going to be able to replicate Warne. But he was the best facsimile anyone had ever seen. And all they got was four broken Tests and a mid-series retirement.
Sadly, things have not gone brilliantly for him since either.
But MacGill wasn't the only experienced wrist spinner to replace Warne, because Brad Hogg was around then as well.
The ODI specialist had been with the Aussies since his surprise call-up in 2003, which was again because of Warne. Hogg would win two World Cups because of Warne's suspension and retirement from white-ball cricket.
But his Test history was far more spotty. He debuted in 1996, not long after he started left arm wrist spin. But he then played his second, third and fourth Tests seven years later when Warne was suspended.
Then he disappeared and was only used again in 2008 when India toured after Warne's retirement. He struggled a lot in that series and retired from all international cricket.
Being that Warne had quit, and Hogg still seemed very fit, especially compared to MacGill, it was odd that he left the game at that point. Quitting Tests would have made more sense.
But Hogg was going through a divorce and struggling with his mental health, so he decided to walk away from top cricket. At the time it didn't feel like Australia had lost that much. His batting wasn't what it once was, and no one really expected him to dominate Tests.
But three years, nine months and 16 days after his last professional game, he came back to the Big Bash. He was so good he was recalled to the Australian team and also played in the IPL. T20 was his best format by far, as players couldn't pick his wrong'un, and had no time to sit around and milk him.
His late career T20 comeback lasted six years. He would retire slightly before his 47th birthday.
Nothing about Hogg's career was normal. He started as a top six batter who bowled a bit of medium pace when he wasn't delivering mail. He ended up as the oldest player in professional cricket with a delivery no one could handle.
It should be impossible to find one Shane Warne. Our sport has had only one, and here we are still talking about him. But then to find a replacement like Stuart MacGill, who is a better leg spinner than most non-Asian teams have ever had, is incredible. And they threw in a third, who was at the period when most people are wondering if you get out of bed without doing your back in was still in the IPL is incredible.
Australia had Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly overlap. So they had already done it once. But to think that Australia found three wrist spinners of this talent simultaneously blows my mind. It has to be one of the most incredible overlaps of talent in one position any team has ever had.
18 months after Warne Australia's era of great wrist spin was gone. MacGill left mid-series, And Australia was left with a work-experience kid. Not even their fourth choice, just really a project player that one day might be something. It shouldn't have worked, but he took three wickets and won Australia a Test.
And then Beau Casson never played again.
Before that, Casson was another West Australian spinner who realised that he'd have to travel to the SCG to get any wickets. His left-arm wrist spin was not as refined as Hogg's. But after a really decent Shield Final where he also made 89, he went to the West Indies as a backup.
The hosts only made 216 in their first innings, but they still scored 43 in only seven overs from Casson. In the second they had to chase 475, and so it was a perfect situation for a young spinner. He took 3/86, but he never looked that comfortable. But it was only one game, and he had some batting talent, there would be years for him to grow as he was only 25.
Yet, he would play 12 more times. Not for Australia, but in first-class cricket. In one match he got the yips and kept bowling full tosses. He went to Darwin to play winter cricket to build himself back up and struggled even more. But eventually, it was his heart that got him. He had Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital defect.
And just like that, Australia lost another potential spinner.
Ofcourse, they played their own part. Many people in New South Wales thought Casson just needed his hand held a little longer. But Australia cricket just turned its back, and he has thankfully ended up doing some cricket coaching to stay in the game. But it is worth saying that Casson loved that he played one Test and that he took wickets in the chase to win the game for the team he always wanted to play for.
But Casson shouldn't have played in that first game. He clearly wasn't ready. But he also had talent, on both sides of the ball, and you can't help thinking a more emphatic cricket culture would have got the most out of him. Instead, he was mistreated twice, once to be another Warne sub, and then when he added some help allowed to disappear.
Perhaps in another era, his treatment might have been different, but Casson was really the start of what was a monumental panic when Australia would try everyone in their nation who once spun a ball.
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