Cricket: Qualified success for aggressive approach - Barrie Fairall on a dilemma in the making for Kent's imposing pace man Martin McCague

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The Independent Online
AT SIX foot five inches and weighing in at around 16 stone, it is not just the earth that moves when Martin McCague thunders up to the crease. Batsmen across the country have been shaken up by the 23-year-old Irish-born Australian, the trail of wreckage helping stir Kent in the jostle for position at the top end of the Championship table.

If Kent come away with one of the five-figure prizes, then their big fast bowler will have had a considerable say in the matter. 'They are a well-balanced side,' Nigel Briers, the Leicestershire captain, observed last week. Tipping the scales, though, at Grace Road came McCague as Kent moved up into second place behind Essex with a victory by an innings and 138 runs.

Given 500 runs to bowl at, McCague ripped Leicestershire apart with a 7 for 52 return. Hostile stuff, but 10 days earlier he had gone one better against Hampshire at Canterbury with a career- best 8 for 26. In 12.2 overs of McCague mayhem, Hampshire were shot out for 70 - the lowest score by any county this summer.

'I just put it on a spot and bowled straight,' McCague, who had just been capped by Kent, said. That eight-wicket haul set in motion a discussion on which country he would likely represent in the future - and not too distant based on recent efforts.

McCague was born at Larne in Northern Ireland - not that he saw much of the place before his parents emigrated a couple of years later. Hence the Oz accent, the dual qualification, and why, at some stage, selectors here and Down Under may be scrapping over his services. The problem, presumably, grows with each wicket McCague takes and from England's point of view you would hate them to miss the boat.

It may be pushing things, but the A team cast off for Australia this winter and, with up-and-coming fast bowlers in short supply both sides of the water, the smart thing might be for England to stake a quick claim. As for McCague, he sensibly has an open mind. 'I have always set my goals one at a time,' he said, 'and I've never really set any to play international cricket so early.'

Recent developments, though, are beginning to have an effect. By the third week in June, McCague had sent down 136 overs for only five wickets. Depressing stuff, but he made his mark at Gateshead Fell when he felled Dean Jones, Durham's Australian Test batsmen finishing up in hospital, and the tide really turned when Somerset visited Canterbury towards the end of July. Here, Kent's fifth win was built on the back of McCague's first-innings 5 for 23.

A hat-trick in the Sunday League against Glamorgan at Swansea started August beautifully and just over a week later Hampshire were left in a state of shock. 'Now international cricket is starting to come to mind,' McCague said. But, who with?

Down Under, McCague half thought of pursuing a career in Australian Rules. 'There was an opportunity there, but I felt there was more of a chance playing cricket.' Names like Bob Massie and Keith Stackpole now enter the conversation as influences. Dennis Lillee, too. 'I listen to everyone who has something to say,' he said. That, naturally, includes Daryl Foster, who first coached McCague for Western Australia and performs the same role now for Kent. 'I joined the county the same time as Daryl last year and it's worked out fine,' McCague said. So, too, did the year he spent at the Adelaide Cricket Academy. 'It was intense cricket. . . training six days a week and one day off to play grade matches.'

The hard work is paying off. 'I feel I've bowled the same. But if success lately has been due to anything it's because I'm bowling a bit quicker and straighter. I'm hitting the stumps and the guys are taking the catches. It's all been coming together and it's a great feeling when you walk off knowing you've bowled them out and that you are in with a big chance of winning.'

Mark Benson, the Kent captain, has also provided motivation. 'Benny has asked me to give it everything for three or four overs and I've done that and picked up three or four wickets. He then asked me to keep going and I picked up a few more.' In addition, Benson has had a quiet word on the subject of sledging.

'There's a lot of it about,' McCague said. 'And I'm a culprit myself. I try to be as aggressive as I can as a fast bowler and sometimes it does get a bit out of hand.' An Australian trait, perhaps, so back to the crunch question. 'Well, I've been putting in my best performances here and I have to consider England at the moment. It's a dream and obviously it's up to the selectors.'

We will have to wait and see. McCague returns to Perth at the end of the season and faces a struggle to get back in the Western Australia side. 'My performances over here won't count at all,' he said. Try telling that to Hampshire and Leicestershire.

(Photograph omitted)

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