Mason Crane has dreamed of this moment all his life. The moment when he stops being a spectator and takes on the role of participant in the gladiatorial world of test match cricket. As he stands at his mark and prepares to bowl his first delivery, an expectant hush descends over the S.C.G.
Crane is the tenth genuine spin bowler to play test cricket for England in the 21st century. Of those, three could be deemed a success (Swann, Panesar and Moeen Ali). Of the other seven, none of them played more than Adil Rashid’s 10 tests, and none even get close to Rashid’s 38 wickets. In fact, Tredwell, Dawson, Patel, Ansari, Batty, Borthwick and Crane have a total of 39 between them.
England aren’t alone in this with Australia ‘experimenting’ with the likes of O’Keefe, Krejza, Agar, Maxwell, Doherty, Holland, White, Beer, Casson, Hogg and McGain in trying to fill the post-Warne vacuum. It’s taken four years for Ashton Agar to even return to the Australia squad after his test debut in an away Ashes series at almost the exact same age as Crane is now.
So spin bowling is a difficult craft and establishing yourself as a spinner in test cricket takes resilience from the players and wisdom from selectors and team captains. And spinners tend to continue to improve with experience. The blossoming of Graeme Swann for England and Nathan Lyon for Australia in their later twenties have demonstrated the value of patience for test spinners.
Famously, Shane Warne’s first match figures were 1/150 against India at this same venue. After just half an innings of test cricket, Crane has figures of 1/135 after 39 overs. His captain has shown faith in continuing to bowl him, but his pitch map looks like a sheet of paper after my 3-year old has been let loose with a fresh set of stickers, and he’s been unable to stem the flow of runs from the Aussie batsman. However, the Australian selectors stuck with Warne and he bowled a spell of 5.1 overs, 3/11 in his third test against Sri Lanka before bowling Australia to a win in front of his home crowd at the MCG with 7/52 in the fourth innings against the West Indies in his fifth.
Edit: Since writing, Crane finished the 1st innings with 1/193, the most expensive England debut ever and 5th from all nations.
Hopefully, the selectors will show the same faith in Mason Crane.
I like to take my son swimming some weekends. We live right near a couple of pools, but I drive 20 minutes in the car to take him to a pool that has a kids’ pool next to the adult version. The deepest it gets is about a metre and the water’s a lot warmer (hopefully intentionally rather than due to the undoubted urine content). I want him to build confidence, develop his skills and have positive experiences to fall back on when we make the step up to swimming out of his depth.
In the Premier League, young players struggle to get appearances, but there is a widespread acknowledgement of the need to ease players in gradually. A promising player will almost invariably debut in a home game, often against inferior opposition and in a lesser competition than the all-important league matches. If they do well, they’ll get gradually more challenging assignments.
The Ashes is the ultimate competition in cricket. Australia are almost always a powerful side at home and playing a debutant spinner in that environment against the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner isn’t like throwing them in at the deep end so much as dropping them from a helicopter into the shark-infested surf of Jefferies Bay.
Whilst talking about the struggling Moeen Ali last week, Graeme Swann recalled his strategy for rebuilding confidence by watching old footage of his best bowling spells. Having those previous experiences can help a player who is finding it tough, as long as they have plenty of past successes already to draw on.
Mason Crane may take more wickets this match. He is undoubtedly a talented cricketer and good ‘leggies’ are hard to find. He may even end up improving his figures to the point of respectability. But Mason Crane is 20 years old. Mason Crane has played in 29 First Class matches in his lifetime. He should have been given the opportunity to develop his game, grow in experience, make his test debut in familiar conditions and against opponents less likely to crush his confidence as they crush his long-hops into the boundary ropes.
Mason Crane may in future be England’s greatest spinner. But right now, he’s just been thrown in at the deep end.