Cricket: MacGill takes his turn

Whether Warne is fit or not, leg-spin looks likely to embarrass England again as a former hot-head begins to play it cool
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THERE WAS a time when the start of a cricket season in Australia, particularly an Ashes one, had an ordered tradition to it; the sharp scent of new-mown spring grass brought with it an anticipation that our heroes were soon to set upon one another in the Sheffield Shield, to sharpen their skills for the Test match battles with England.

That was yesterday. This year the start to our 1998-99 season has been a higgledy-piggledy offering, even mind-numbing. Spring has been on the nose, a mix of January heatwave and July cold snap; on field, a limited-overs contest has shouldered aside Lord Sheffield's Shield. Our only hero on show was Michael Bevan.

Unless you are a pay television subscriber the rest were out of sight in Pakistan, where the stunning First Test victory by Mark Taylor's men in Rawalpindi was mostly overshadowed by headlines about the captain and Mark Waugh having to give evidence at the Salim Malik bribery inquiry.

And, as if to magnify this blurring of the traditional, came the sobering news that Peter Philpott, a dinki-di, true-blue, veteran Aussie leg spinner, will help England's Ashes cause by advising their batsmen on how to survive a double dose of leg spin - "Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Warnie don't get ya, Magilla must" - shades of Lillee and Thomson in the mid-Seventies.

Magilla is, of course, Stuart Charles Glyndwr MacGill, Australia's latest leg-spin sparkler whose nine wickets at Rawalpindi took his haul in only two Tests to 14 at about 20 runs apiece. Damned statistics! Black can be painted white by them, but MacGill's say one thing only: he can strike like a tiger snake.

Philpott knows MacGill because in recent times he has educated him - some would say "coached" but that might be too narrow a definition. At the first-class level a lot of players have the talent to succeed, but it is unflappable temperament in tough moments that spawns success. How many have that?

There must be a leg-spin gene in the MacGill family, but Stuart benefited more than his father, Terry, who for Western Australia occasionally bowled a friendly brand of leg-spin from the opposite end to Tony Lock in the late Sixties. Terry threw them up but Stuart lands them, with challenging regularity and variable side-spin.

Sometimes he can get the ball to snake from the leg like Warne; it's no fluke, and it's the sort of delivery that can startle a batsman, make him think: "Crikey, where did that come from?" More importantly it makes him wonder: "What's next?" MacGill has also developed a tricky wrong 'un and the skidder.

The temperament question has hounded MacGill; he is 27 now and more likely to take a deep breath to soak up pressure, but a few birthdays back his preferred option was sometimes to throw a short right.

It was just such a physical confrontation, with his captain in Sydney club cricket a couple of seasons ago, that might have killed his career. But two things happened: Peter Philpott influenced MacGill and the New South Wales selectors, as enterprising as tradition demands ("when NSW are strong, Australia are strong"), offered him an extended opportunity.

He responded with an eyebrow-raising 35 Sheffield Shield wickets, which won him his Test debut against South Africa last summer. MacGill is not Warne, because Warne is - or was, depending on the success of his operation - a freak. But MacGill is good enough to offer England a challenge.

Philpott has a challenge, too: will he choose to advise England on MacGill's sleight of hand or his state of mind. If England wanted a batting coach then Ian Chappell or Viv Richards, neither of whom was bumble-footed nor liable to be dominated, would have been better options, but almost certainly unattainable. Yes, they remain committed to the game; Viv managed his fellow Antiguans in the Commonwealth games and "Chappelli" helps out at Australia's Cricket Academy. But I think both would draw the line at helping the old enemy, given the choice between money and country.

Such discussion about choice inspires a final note on the selection caper and tradition. Down Under, we have a theory often expounded by Sir Donald Bradman: the ball leaving the bat is the most difficult to play, the potential match-winner. In this Ashes series England have put their faith in two average off-spinners; naturally, we are banking on two creative leg-spinners. The Ashes look safe.