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Why Crane is the envy of Australia

The young leg-spinner has become a talking point ahead of the Ashes

Gulf News

Perth: Ashes arrivals in Australia follow a familiar pattern. There are odd occasions, at least 20 years apart, when English fans rejoice at the parade of talents strutting through the airport. More commonly, though, our sense of foreboding is matched by full-on Aussie scorn.
 Yet 20-year-old leg-spinner Mason Crane bucks the trend. His inexperience and high economy rate might have prompted scepticism from the home camp, with Michael Vaughan just one of the experts calling the selection “a step too far”. But there is a different mood Down Under, where the cognoscenti are fascinated by this rare creature: a “leggie” who is prepared to give the ball some air.
 “He’s got the right attitude,” said Trevor Chappell, coach of the Gordon first-grade team who signed Crane for their 2016-17 campaign. “He is aggressive, and gives it a rip; he doesn’t just roll the ball out. He bats and fields pretty well, too, so he’s a good cricketer. It’s just a pity he’s English.”
 Crane’s connection with Gordon developed through his Hampshire teammate Will Smith. The previous season, Smith had opened the batting at Chatswood Oval - a picturesque ground where sixes still land on the commuter railway line into Sydney Central. And when Smith heard that the club were looking for a spinner, he put Crane in touch with Gordon’s chairman of selectors, Mark Carmichael.
 “We’ve seen a lot of good players from England come through this club,” Carmichael told The Daily Telegraph. “Tony Greig, Mike Gatting, Bill Athey. Then, when Mason arrived, everybody went ‘Wow, this is something a bit different’.”
 Had Crane been a seamer, his 52 wickets in 12 matches might have gone largely unnoticed. Yet the wrist-spinner — always the joker in the bowlers’ pack — has a unique magnetism. In England, we distrust the species instinctively, in the same way that we distrust proportional representation. The Aussies are much more comfortable, having spawned a long line of mystery bowlers from Clarrie Grimmett to Bill O’Reilly, from Richie Benaud to Shane Warne.
 Climate plays a role here, because Australia’s hard red soil places a premium on creativity. But there is also something temperamental at work.
 The Aussie approach — best summed up in that salty cry from the bleachers, “Have a go, ya mug!” — is naturally adventurous. It took no little chutzpah, 135 years ago, to challenge the Old Country at cricket and win.
 As with Crane, there are always exceptions to the rule. Bill Lawry, the adhesive opener who captained the 1968 Australian tourists, used to score so slowly that he was once described as “a corpse with pads on”. In general, though, it is England who have been more likely to go safety-first. These ancient rivals may now stand dead level in the series, having each won the Ashes 32 times. But if you stack up individual Test victories, the score favours the bolder Australians by a distance: 130 to 106.
 To return to Crane’s case, his willingness to entice the batsman — even at the risk of turning in expensive figures — is his X-factor. At Gordon, he would occupy one end for most of the day, once rolling out 41 straight overs. As the season drew to its close, the state selectors began to take an interest. “He flighted the ball, and bowled to get people out,” recalled Carmichael. “There were a few balls where he got hit over the fence for six, but then two balls later he probably got the same person out.
 “The match against St George, in particular, was a tremendous contest, because Mason was bowling at [New South Wales captain] Moises Henriques and [regular NSW No 4] Kurtis Patterson. It was club cricket, but we had three international-class players going at it. When NSW needed a spinner for their last home game of the season, that spell may well have influenced them.”
 Thus it was that Crane made his state debut against South Australia, so becoming the first overseas player to represent NSW since Pakistan’s then captain Imran Khan in 1984-85. “It was an unusual decision,” says Chappell.
 “Not so much that he is an English guy but that he was a one-off - it wasn’t as if they were likely to get him back again to play in the future.
 “There were a couple of other young spinners in the system who didn’t take to Mason’s selection too kindly. But I think NSW felt he was clearly the better bowler, and they were trying to get into the final.”
 One of the decision-makers was Geoff Lawson, the NSW assistant coach. “The Sydney Cricket Ground is a big arena to be playing on, so you never quite know how people will deal with it,” Lawson said. “But Mason had been coming to practice with the squad here most weeks as part of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s development programme, working away with [former Australian leg-spinner] Stuart MacGill, so we already knew him and liked his attitude.”
 If Crane was a little on the expensive side again - he finished with match figures of 27.2-0-116-5 - no one at NSW was complaining. He broke a dangerous second-innings partnership, dismissing both set batsmen in the space of 11 balls, to set up their eight-wicket victory. But he was never going to be needed for the next match, away to Western Australia on the spinner’s graveyard that is the WACA (the only Australian ground where Warne never took a Test five-for). His new team lost a thriller by six runs, and with it their shot at the title.
 Still, Crane’s stock remains far higher among the Aussies than it does on this side of the world. Lawson put it best. “The question is really whether England are brave enough to pick a wrist-spinner. At 20, Mason is still only serving his apprenticeship. But we were surprised that he wasn’t getting picked by Hampshire from the start of the county season. If you’ve got a good young leg-spinner over here you give him a go.
 “Whatever happens in this series, I’d say there’s a good case for playing two spinners at the SCG,” Lawson added. “I’m sure the Aussies would be looking to do that if he was one of ours. It’s just a pity he’s a Pom.”

- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017

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