An apologia for mateship

The MacGill-Warne saga has everything in it — two men who ply the same `exotic' trade for the same side, the mutual respect and affection each has for the other and their partnership, an amazingly talented "smaller" fish overshadowed by the "bigger" genius, and, most tragically, the tunnel vision of those in charge of a world-beating side that has consigned a rare leg-spin mateship to the peripheries of national success, writes N. U. ABILASH.

THE other day, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, two Australian leg-spinners — one true-blue Victorian and the other a Western Australian born Sydneysider — wreaked havoc in the ranks of a motley bunch of great individual cricketers assembled from all parts of the world and thereby gave their countrymen a human element to relate to the recent cultural debate that centred around mateship.

The debate had started with an edict from a senior civil servant in the Federal parliament in Canberra proscribing the security guards from using the ubiquitous greeting, "G'day mate", when admitting visitors and politicians in case `mate' caused offence. Almost everybody in the country was outraged — the media, the opposition Labour Party and Prime Minister John Howard, who drafted in the word in the Draft Constitutional Preamble in 1999. Etymologists and historians were kept busy and it was pronounced that the word, in the colonial period, meant a work partner before it assumed its modern cultural derivative of denoting affection between equals. Opposition leader Kim Beazley proclaimed that the controversial edict marked the death of egalitarian Australia. "Now it's all about being bigger and the smaller," he said.

The MacGill-Warne saga has everything in it — two men who ply the same `exotic' trade for the same side, the mutual respect and affection each has for the other and their partnership despite being poles apart off the field (one a consummate showman and beer guzzler who courts controversies and the other a voracious reader who read 24 novels during a tour to Pakistan, a wine connoisseur and an intellectual who refused to tour Zimbabwe in May 2004 on political and moral grounds), an amazingly talented "smaller" fish overshadowed by the "bigger" genius, and most importantly and tragically the tunnel vision of those in charge of a world-beating side that has always consigned a rare leg-spin mateship to the peripheries of national success.

Before the Sydney Test against the ICC World XI, the MacGill-Warne partnership was last seen in action in January in the same ground against Pakistan authoring another mammoth Australian win. In the intervening period, there was the small matter of Australia losing the Ashes despite Warne capturing 40 wickets in five Tests. Considering that Glenn McGrath was forced to miss most of the thrilling action in the Old Blighty after the first Test at Lord's, and taking into account the terrible form of Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the series, from an Australian point of view, would be remembered not for England's use of substitutes (as the captain might want it to be retained in public memory) but for giving birth to yet another vexatious question in Ashes history — Why on earth was MacGill, who has captured more wickets than Warne in the 10 Tests the two have played together at a lower average and strike rate, allowed to be a tour passenger?

There is no trace of Pinteresque rage in MacGill's responses towards his omissions, which are marked only the cold voice of reason. "Somebody needs to look at the numbers and realise this is not the first time Shane and me have worked well together," he said after sending the band of world greats into a tailspin along with Warne — a rich harvest of 15 wickets together. "After a certain number of wickets we have made a strong case to be a regular feature. It is disappointing that other bowlers can bowl in partnership and Shane and I can't. Shane took 40 wickets on the Ashes tour and as far as an advertisement for a second spinner that is as good as you are going to get."

After capturing 13 wickets between them against Pakistan, both MacGill and Warne had openly pleaded with the powers-that-be to give up the one spinner strategy. "I would prefer it to be more flexible, and so would he (MacGill)," Warne had said. "You only have to look at how effective Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett were together," MacGill, who bagged 53 wickets in 11 Tests as Australia's lone spinner during Warne's 2003-04 drugs ban, had given the intellectual back-up to his illustrious mate.

Reading between the lines would not be a meaningless exercise here. Ashes 2005 was the next major assignment for Australia, and 51 English summers ago two great leg-spinners, `Tiger' Bill O'Reilly and `Fox' Clarrie Grimmett, also nicknamed `Grum', had bagged 53 English wickets between them and regained the Ashes for Australia after they lost it during the `Bodyline' series of 1932-33. In the process, the duo had exploded the myth that playing with two spinners is a luxury on English pitches.

There are elements of Grimmett in the second phase of Warne's career, which began in 2001 following recovery from shoulder injury. However, O'Reilly, whom Bradman called the best bowler he has seen or faced, was different from both Warne and MacGill — he was a better version of Anil Kumble in that he married his pinpoint accuracy at great pace (which gave him deadly bounce) with slow but late turn. MacGill resembles another wonderful Australian leg-spinner Arthur `Millionaire' Mailey, the end of whose career overlapped with the beginning of Grimmett's. However, as a leg-spinning partnership, MacGill and Warne, though sparingly used, have been as effective as the Grimmett-O'Reilly duo. "Unlike Arthur Mailey, the first of the Australian spin trilogy of the inter-wars era, Grimmett never insisted on spin as his chief means of deception," wrote the third part of the trilogy, O'Reilly, about his mate. "To him it was no more than an important adjunct to unerring length and tantalising direction. Grimmett seldom beat a batsman by spin alone. Mailey often did. I cannot remember Grimmett bowling a long-hop, whereas Mailey averaged one an over."

It is often alleged that a MacGill over contains one four-ball. This trait, in any case, is pretty normal even for good wrist spinners though Warne crosses the boundary between good and great on this count. It is also the `four-ball factor', which has led to MacGill's lack of success against Brian Lara during the 2003-04 tour to the Caribbean in the absence of Warne (out of his 20 wickets in the four-Test series, nine came in the Barbados Test alone where he was the match winner) and against the Indian batsmen led by Virender Sehwag on the slow, batsmen-friendly tracks of the 2003-04 season Down Under.

However, this apparent weakness has been camouflaged when operating in tandem with Warne. Nay, it might even have given MacGill a few wickets given the psychological urge of rival batsmen — overawed by the Warne aura and nipped back by his accuracy and subtle variations — to break free at the other end. And, `the other end', where a person was bowling over the wicket and turning the leg-spinner and the googly square, was not easy to put it mildly.

"Grum's diagnostic type of probing spin buttressed my own methods," wrote O'Reilly, shedding light on what made the greatest leg-spinning partnership ever work. Warne and MacGill are nearly there and would be hoping that they get together in the eleven more often in the future to be rated as high as their predecessors.

Creative competition was the other ingredient of the Grimmett-O'Reilly partnership. "It was lucky for me that I preferred to bowl downwind, an unusual trait in a spinner's character," wrote O'Reilly. "It allowed our partnership to develop and prosper. We competed strongly with each other and kept a critical eye on one another's performances."

But, what stands out in the case of Warne-MacGill, as with Grimmett-O'Reilly, is the iconoclastic extent to which they backed the other. O'Reilly wrote that the only fight he ever had with Sir Don Bradman was when the skipper decided to drop Grimmett for the tour of England in 1938. "It was illogical to assume that age was the reason for his (Grimmett's) discard," wrote O'Reilly. "He was 47, it is true, when the touring side was chosen, yet two years later, at the age of 49, he established an Australian record of 73 wickets for a domestic season. Which raises, rather pointedly, the question of why the hell was he dropped?" Without doubt, the greatest apologia for mateship.

Are Ricky Ponting and John Buchanan listening?