Wily old dog Steve still shining with new tricks

Adam Collins reflects on how forgotten Australian Steve Magoffin continues to strive after international exile

A quarter hour from a Baggy Green. It came that close for modern day Sussex hero Steve Magoffin to fulfil the dream of every Australian cricketer in 2009. Rushed from Sydney to Durban, The Age screamed: “Magoffin in line for Test debut” upon his arrival. After Ricky Ponting’s men conducted a smash and grab in Johannesburg, his young quicks Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus were struggling to overcome injuries.

“It certainly looked that way,” Magoffin recalls of what nearly was to The Cricket Paper. “I got myself ready and all indications were I was playing. There were a couple of fitness tests 10 or 15 minutes before the toss. But Peter and Ben passed and went on and performed well.”

After five seasons of metronomic consistence for his adopted state, Western Australia, Magoffin had a hunch circumstances wouldn’t repeat. “I was 29 and felt I needed to play that game – that it was my one chance.” He was right. An ‘A’ squad was picked shortly thereafter and he wasn’t in it. The guard had quickly changed. “But to be around that team for a week was incredible, so I have some great memories.”

The better part of a decade and 400 first-class wickets on, the 37-year-old had a similar, albeit lower-profile, experience to start the 2017 season. He tried to ready himself to play on opening morning, but he couldn’t bring himself to take the risk on a recently injured knee.

When he did belatedly begin, it was with a predictable – if bittersweet – 5-51 haul on the first morning against Nottinghamshire. The operative word being morning.

By the middle session his knee had enough. The hosts were 180-7 when he picked up his fifth – a bag that included internationals Samit Patel, Michael Lumb, Chris Read and James Pattinson – but then amassed 447 in his absence to set up an innings win.

“We’re nowhere near our best,” Magoffin says of the start, citing not only his own injury but Kolpak signing David Wiess and Vernon Philander, while Chris Jordan sits on the IPL bench. “That’s made it hard to compete across the four days and take 20 wickets.”

Relegated in 2015, it’s a long road back to the top flight from 0-2. “First, it’s getting back to winning habits,” Magoffin says. “When I arrived we competed with the top sides across a whole season. It is difficult to work up the table if not stringing wins together.”

Hitting the reset button, courtesy of the 50-over window now, works for both the club and Magoffin’s knee. Usually, the timing would frustrate him; bowlers at 194cm, who present the seam rather than bang it in, relish bowling in mid-spring. But that wasn’t his experience in 2016 either, the first season where the away toss rule was implemented to, in part, eliminate the old-fashioned division two green top.

Magoffin says it contributed to his comparatively slow start, his first nine games netting 23 wickets at a still effective 27 apiece.

Then he came home like the spearhead of old, racing through 39 victims in the final seven rounds at 16, a run including five bags of five wickets, and match figures of 10-70 against Worcestershire.

“It was probably more from a mental side,” he says of the adjustment. “I didn’t adapt. I still went out and tried to bowl like I would in April or May.” Concerned thoughts crept in. Sure, he was contracted for 2017, but did he still have it? “It’s a performance-based game, so there was that feeling,” he acknowledges. “You have those moments as an older player, wondering if you can still perform. If I don’t feel I can get the best players out, that’ll be when I consider whether I want to put myself out there.”

Mindful of that pressure, the old dog tried a new trick. Namely, a new grip. “Not being where I was in the past, I thought I’m just going to use it in games, and it was the turning point,” he says. “To come up with something new paid off, and to finish like that showed me I can still compete.”

It continues the most gratifying period of Magoffin’s career, one that started in October 2004, or nine months before YouTube was invented.

From the heat of Perth to a little village 25 miles from Hove, this is now home, contentment and perspective following.

“I came when I wasn’t worried about getting picked for Australia, which can be such a distraction,” he says. “Had I gone about a few things differently I might have got that opportunity.

“But I’m very proud of what I did. Now I’m not worried about those things, and enjoy it so much more. And funnily enough, you then perform better.”

Numbers tell this story, seasons of 57, 65, 72, 73 and 62 wickets respectively since joining Sussex. That makes 334 at a dreamy average of 20.67. In 2015 he went through the 500 first-class wicket barrier, now boasting 581 at 23.20 – not bad for a bloke who was sacked at 31 and nearly quit with Western Australia letting him go within two years of touring with Australia. The rejection hurt.

“It took me a while to work out if I wanted to keep playing cricket at all,” Magoffin admits.

But it started a chain reaction that changed his life. Darren Lehmann was building a team to win a Sheffield Shield, luring Magoffin back to his native Queensland. Sure enough, he banged the door down, taking 23 wickets at 17 as the Bulls claimed the 2011-12 title.

Magoffin’s passion for the game was renewed and stocks high. Then came a change in the ECB’s qualification rules. Since his stint at Worcestershire in 2008 non-capped internationals had been barred. Now there was a new loophole. Through the citizenship of his wife, who he met at Worcester, he could return on a spousal visa. Mark Robinson needed a quick for six weeks, and “in the space of a day” he was signed.

Six weeks became six seasons. But what about seven? Or more? “I certainly haven’t put a cap on it,” Magoffin says, reiterating he’ll go around as long as he gets the best players out. As for why his body lets him prevail, he believes an uncomplicated action serves him well. “The fact I’m not 100 kilos could also be helping,” he laughs, alluding to years where his skinny frame counted against him, his debut not coming till 24.

Statistically, for an Australian he’s progressing into rarified air for wickets. While his foray into the county circuit came too late to reach the fabled 1,000, Magoffin isn’t short of targets.

“Some cricketers say they aren’t interested in numbers but I haven’t come across one, and I’m no different,” he laughs again. “Six hundred is the next big one for me, and for Sussex I’m not far off 400. This year and next hopefully have me touching that.”

When it’s over, he’ll relish expanding a coaching role with bowlers from the juniors to the 1st XI. He won’t be lost to the game.

But it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t have quite a few overs still in those long legs yet, and this story doesn’t have another twist or two left either.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, April 28 2017

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