The Wine GuyDan McGrath |
The late Tony Greig was not wrong – legspinners around the world loved watching Stuart MacGill bowl, and they witnessed that trademark roar on a further 207 occasions. That first wicket – Jacques Kallis leg before wicket for 15, attempting a sweep about half an hour prior to the tea interval – was the start of a lengthy, albeit inconsistent and interrupted, Test career. It turned a new page, out with the MacGill of old, and in with the MacGill of new.
When I say MacGill’s career was inconsistent and interrupted, it is not a comment on his bowling. He played only 44 Tests, when for any other side he would have played a significant amount more. While it is getting to the point of cliche to call MacGill unlucky, it is decidedly accurate that he had the misfortune of bowling legspin in Australia at the same time as a certain Shane Warne. When your main competition is a superstar blonde legspinner with legions of international fans, who arguably bowled the greatest single delivery of all time, it would be easy to give up hope. MacGill never did.
He grew up in Western Australia; his father and grandfather were both First Class cricketers. Cricket, some might say, was in his blood. But it was not in Western Australia that he would make his mark; Australia is a tough place to bowl spin to begin with, let alone when your home ground is the WACA. He debuted for WA in 1993/94, a second spinner brought into the side for an away game against New South Wales. Incidentally, he received his first cap alongside Brad Hogg, who was playing as a specialist batsman.
He re-emerged in 1996/97, lining up for the Blues against Victoria. He took six wickets for the match, making Darren Berry his first scalp at State level. Within 18 months, he was lining up for Australia.
Speak to MacGill today, however, and you would be hard-pressed to identify him as an ex-Test cricketer if you didn’t know already. He’s hosted his own television show, and his love of wine is legendary. He’s currently in the process of helping a group of mates get their organic vodka company off the ground, utilising his social media presence to crowdsource the funds. He’s intelligent, erudite and well spoken. He exudes a calm, confident rationality, and is politically and morally astute, evidenced by his decision to boycott a Test tour to Zimbabwe. In other words, he was the antithesis of the playboy that was Shane Keith Warne.
But he could bowl. His leg breaks turned dramatically – sharper than the turn Warne would usually extract (though by no means was Warne bowling Kerry O?Keeffe-style straight-breaks) coming from a slightly lower arm, which also allowed him to bowl a touch flatter. He got drift, and his googly was far superior to Warne’s. I don’t think I ever saw MacGill fail to turn a delivery. He was arguably a more complete bowler, however Warne was something special – he was freakishly accurate.
It’s an incredibly high benchmark that plagued MacGill’s career. He was often described as bowling one bad ball per over, as if it were a fatal flaw. But this slight shortcoming in accuracy never held him back – he still struck with stunning regularity – every 9 overs in Test cricket, and half that when representing New South Wales in the coloured clothing. He paid under 23 runs per wicket in the domestic limited overs format, and averaged 4.2 wickets per FC game. He was an incredibly effective strike weapon. Despite his obvious ability in the pyjamas, however, he played only three ODI games – his batting, fielding and, again, the presence of Warne combined to hold him back.
He had two extended runs in the Test side with Warne in absentia. The 1998/99 season brought 54 wickets in 11 matches, paying 23 runs apiece (which forced Steve Waugh into dropping Warne on the tour to the West Indies). The 2003 calendar year brought MacGill 57 scalps from 11 matches at a touch below thirty, with Warne out of the game for twelve months on a drug-related ban. It forces the question to be asked – what was he capable of, if Warne wasn’t in his way?
Warne’s retirement in 2006/07 paved the way for MacGill to answer that very question, however he was past his best – injury and age had caught up with him, and his final four Tests brought only 10 wickets, at over 65 apiece. When he retired mid-way through a Test match in the West Indies, MacGill no longer held the passion to bowl ball after ball, nor had the body to sustain such a tiring habit. It wasn’t dissimilar to the end of Graeme Swann’s career – a big turning, cult hero of a spinner whose body was no longer able to continue after years of abuse.
A comeback came, as always seems to happen with retiree spinners. For six short weeks over the Christmas holidays of 2011/12, MacGill was back. The hair was distinctly greyer, the run-up a touch less fluent. But it was still there. Seven wickets at 23, an economy rate just above six and a half. Brad Hogg, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan were also playing, winding back the clock themselves. None had lost it. The senior citizens would make a serious mark, outshining their younger counterparts in a game tailor-made for the youth.
MacGill would not return the following year; returning to his off-field endeavours. Warne, however, did – and failed. MacGill knew his limitations and bowed out once more, this time for good. But the comeback, with Australia still searching desperately for another Warne, reminded everyone of what could have been. The cliche, as overused as it is, holds true; if only Stuart MacGill were born five years later.
And I can assure you, the sight of SCG MacGill dressed in bright magenta, under lights on the ground sharing his initials, roaring at the top of his lungs after claiming yet another scalp, is one that has imprinted itself on my brain forever.