(Picture: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
English cricket fans are used to seeing overseas players in domestic cricket but they are a rarer sight in Australia. Sure, plenty of foreign players have spent a winter or two sampling Grade Cricket but few have stepped out in the first-class game there for a State side, something Hampshire’s Mason Crane has done this week for New South Wales.
By playing against South Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Crane became the first overseas player for NSW since Imran Khan played for them 32 years ago in 1984/85. Imran, one of the established greats by then, went for the social life as much as the cricket, though it also suited him to see if he had overcome his shin splint injuries sufficiently to return to international cricket. Crane, a 20-year old wrist-spinner from Hampshire, has no such pedigree, which makes him something of an outlier in the Australian domestic game.
In the past, overseas cricketers in State cricket have tended, like Imran, to be giants of the game – Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Joel Garner, Barry Richards – or at the very least Test players like Colin Milburn, John Hampshire, Tony Locke, Tom Graveney, Richard Ellison and Vic Marks. True, Graeme Hick played for Queensland before making his England debut but before New South Wales came calling Crane had taken just 45 wickets in 16 first-class matches for his county, at the less than eye-catching average of 40.7 runs per wicket.
In the past that kind of record would have brought derision from the Aussies rather than debuts, but the refreshing thing about Australians is that they generally take as they find and in Sydney Grade this season they have found Crane to be very good indeed, taking 45 wickets in 11 matches for his club Gordon in the northern suburbs.
As Crane would have discovered, his hosts do not impress easily, so to have won them over so emphatically is a feat in itself. In some ways, what follows next in terms of his performance for NSW is irrelevant, though with two wickets in the first innings against South Australia – followed by another brace in the second that included two of the top five as The Cricket Paper went to press – he has already left a mark.
It may sound daft but just by getting there, through sheer weight of wickets in Grade cricket, is triumph enough, although it is perhaps fitting that an English leg-spinner, having been inspired to take up the art by Shane Warne, could have a reckoning in Australia’s most prestigious competition.
As Warne himself showed during his own career, leggies can improve at an exponential rate, going from cannon fodder one minute to a destructive force few batsmen can counter once they have the ball fizzing and dipping from their hand.
In that respect, Crane has obviously come on leaps and bounds since last season, a shift for which he partially credits Warne’s old rival, Stuart MacGill.
Another thing that will have helped his passage is Australian cricket’s willingness to take risks when it comes to wrist-spinners, something rare in the English game.
Crane has been on the England and Wales Cricket Board’s radar with regard to their spin development programme for a while. Indeed, Steve Harmison urged England to pick him for the Pakistan series in the UAE two and a half years ago when Crane was still 17. Had they spotted his true potential then, surely he would have been involved in this winter’s Lions tour to Sri Lanka, a haven for spinners?
The ECB will no doubt spin it in such a way to make out that his Aussie adventure will have been better for him and they will probably be right, though more by luck than judgment.
Certainly fending for himself in Sydney, and earning his stripes in Grade Cricket, will have helped him to grow up and become more self-reliant. Hopefully, his upward arc of improvement will continue despite evidence that when it comes to wrist-spinners, the English game, unlike the Aussies’, tends to look at the downside first and not the upside.
Even so, and with Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon away in India (both play for NSW), he gets his chance mainly because Australian spin stocks are at an all-time low. When I played in the Sydney Grade during the 1980s, most first team sides had two decent spinners (at Campbelltown where I played we had three). Most of them could have done a job in the State side, and would have done had the alternative then been to pick a Pom. But those times are gone and Australia’s lack of quality spinners is almost as dire as England’s, Crane’s onward development notwithstanding.
You have to rewind to 1986/87 to find the last English spinner to play State cricket in Australia. Vic Marks, who played for Western Australia, enjoyed a fine season with bat and ball, taking 30 wickets and making 370 runs at 45, as WA went on to win the Sheffield Shield.
Marks, who says he was primarily hired to “bowl in the east” for WA rather than at the WACA, feels Crane will benefit enormously from the experience.
“The time for preparation you have in State cricket means that practices are more meaningful while the matches proper are more intense than county cricket,” said Marks.
“That did not necessarily mean better, as State sides could not boast the brilliant overseas players most counties had back then, but Shield games were certainly more intense.”
One factor that Marks would have experienced anew, though not Crane, was the length of matches.
“County cricket was not yet played over four days in 1986/87 but Shield matches were with the final lasting five,” Marks recalled. “It forced you to be more patient.
“The other thing is that with weeks to recover between matches rather than days, teams in the Shield tended to be at full strength. Resting players was unheard of while the spare time between games allowed niggles to recover and not to become full blown injuries.”
Marks was 31 when he played for WA so if it made him a better bowler few benefited as he’d retired two years later.
Crane has it all before him; his brush with State Cricket hopefully a launching pad for international stardom and a return date against the Aussies with the Ashes at stake.
*This article orignally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday 10th March.