Saturday, 23 January 2016

Farewell Nathan Hauritz

Amidst last year's retirements of numerous high-profile Australian cricketers, not to mention today's announcement from West Indies great Shivnarine Chanderpaul, it would be easy to miss Nathan Hauritz's retirement anouncement.

Hauritz could well have a productive second career as part of the answer to one of Australia's most difficult sports trivia questions: name the spin bowlers who have played Test cricket for Australia since Shane Warne's 2007 retirement.

Any casual cricket watcher would get Nathan Lyon, who recently became Australia's most prolific Test offspinner.  Most would also get Stuart MacGill, the world class leg-spinner who spent his whole career in Warne's shadow.  How would you go with the rest?  Brad Hogg, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krezja, Bryce McGain, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Ashton Agar, Steven O'Keeffe.  And Nathan Hauritz.

It is hardly a roll-call of glory.  Why is that a country which had such spin-bowling riches in Warne's era lurched straight into a period of such lack of distinction?  I think it can be explained in three letters.  A-F-L.

Australian Football and cricket would seem to be ideal partners in stadium management.  Both are played on oval grounds, cricket in summer and football in winter.  If the seasons overlap it is only likely to be by a few weeks.  The stadium can be used all year round, making it financially worthwhile to provide decent facilities.  As the AFL has become national in the last couple of decades it is increasingly the footballers who pay the bills, packing out grounds every second weekend while cricket is mostly played with the stands empty.

There is only one fly in the ointment - the pitch.  Cricket is played on a carefully-prepared strip of hard-packed dirt and grass.  On a major cricket ground, there will be a number of these in various stages of preparation, meaning the ground has a central square of hard dirt.  Each of these squares used to have its own characteristics.  Perth and Brisbane had hard, bouncy pitches which favoured fast bowlers.  Sydney and Adelaide had slower pitches on which the ball would grip and spin, favouring spin bowlers.  Melbourne varied between the two.  The result was that both pace bowlers and spinners got opportunities to develop their craft in favourable conditions.

Footballers hate cricket pitches.  Every time they get tackled in the centre of the ground they get battered and grazed.  Cricketers hate footballers trampling all over their pitches and chewing them up with their studded boots.  Pitch management is one of the biggest tensions in ground sharing arrangements.

It is hard for cricket authorities to win.  If they leave the pitch in place not only do they have to deal with pressure from cashed up football clubs, they also have little time to prepare their pitches between seasons.  The result is under-prepared surfaces on which pace bowlers terrorise batsmen with unpredictable bounce.  The other alternative is to grow their pitches in green-houses over the winter, then drop them into the centre of the ground at the start of summer.  These wickets all end up the same - flat even surfaces that break bowlers' hearts.

Spin bowlers suffer the most from this.  Throughout the first decade of this century interstate cricket was played on crumbling pitches, innings were short and spinners, if they played at all, were limited to cameos in which their main job was to restrict the scoring while the fast men took wickets at the other end.  More recently, as more grounds have switched to drop-in pitches, pacemen and spinners alike have to toil long and hard while batsmen have all the fun.

Once injury forced Stuart MacGill into retirement in 2008 the Australian selectors had no idea what to do next.  Each State team had at least one spinner but none had the kind of record that said "pick me".  The selectors flailed about all over the place.  Brad Hogg stepped up from the one day team without success.  Beau Casson played a single Test in which he did OK but was never seen again.  Bryce McGain was contemptuously smashed to all parts of the ground in his single Test against South Africa.

In this environment if you had a choice you would do something else.  Cameron White was already focusing on his batting when he was called up to bowl his leg-spinners in India in 2008, his meagre returns there confirming his decision.  Steven Smith did the same a couple of years later.  Ashton Agar, whose surprise cameo in the 2013 Ashes featured the highest ever score by a Number 11 and some very ordinary bowling, looks set to follow suit.

Jason Krezja announced himself with the most expensive 13-wicket haul in history on his 2008 debut in India, and played two more expensive and mostly wicketless Tests in Australia before being sent back to State cricket.  Nathan Hauritz was the man who took Krezja's place and to everyone's surprise - including his own - he bucked the trend and held his spot for the best part of two years,

The omens were not good.  He learnt his trade in the toughest spin bowling school of all, the pacy pitches of Brisbane.  The Australian selectors thought he had promise and picked him in a number of one-day matches, then sent him to India as a back-up spinner in 2004 where he made his Test debut.  He took five wickets over the two innings, which seems OK until you realise that Michael Clarke took 6 for 9 in the second innings.  He managed a few more one day internationals before being banished back to Queensland and by the end of the 2004-05 season he had lost his place in the State team too.  He moved to Sydney in 2006 hoping to revive his career in more favourable conditions, but he struggled there too.

Then in 2008 he was the beneficiary of several strokes of luck.  An injury to one of his rivals allowed him a rare early season Sheffield Shield outing for NSW, where he claimed a four-wicket haul.  When Krezja got injured after the first Test of the summer those four wickets were still the best performance by a spinner that season and the selectors dragged him out of the NSW Second XI to bowl against New Zealand in Adelaide.

At this point he was averaging over 40 per wicket in first class cricket and had yet to take a five-wicket haul.  He was clearly nervous and the New Zealand batsmen showed little respect.  Opening batsman Aaron Redmond particularly liked the look of him, smashing him for two sixes over mid-on.  Yet Hauritz showed enough guile and courage to make you think he could succeed.  After Redmond's second six he persuaded the captain the put a fielder there and kept tossing it up, daring the batsman to try it again.  Redmond took the bait, and Hauritz had the last laugh.

When Krezja failed dismally on his return from injury the selectors had good enough memories, and few enough alternatives, that they recalled Hauritz for the Boxing Day Test.  From there he was an unlikely fixture in Australian Test and one-day teams for almost two years, playing a further 15 Tests and a total of more than 50 ODIs in his career.  Along the way he managed more than 60 Test wickets at a respectable average, including his first ever five wicket haul - two of them, in fact, against Pakistan in a series in 2009-10 during which he was Australia's leading wicket-taker.

It went downhill after that, and he was dropped for the beginning of the 2010-11 Ashes.  The selectors instead opted to try and neutralise Kevin Pietersen by exploiting a supposed weakness against left-arm finger-spin.  They picked first Xavier Doherty and then Michael Beer, proving along the way that Pietersen is only vulnerable to left-arm spinners if they are any good.  England retained the Ashes in emphatic style.

After that the selectors changed tack and decided that instead of trying to pick the best of a bad lot from the Sheffield Shield they would create their own Test spinner from scratch.  They picked Nathan Lyon on the strength of some promising T20 performances and stuck with him (barring the occasional failure of nerve) to the point where he now enjoys the ironic nickname of the Greatest of All Time, conveniently abbreviated to GOAT.

That was pretty much it for Hauritz.  Before long he was back in the NSW seconds.  In 2012 he moved home to Queensland, but it didn't help.  His announcement this week simply confirmed the inevitable - he lost his Queensland contract at the end of the 2014-15 season and this year he bowled just two overs for 29 runs for the Melbourne Renegades in the BBL.

Hauritz never had any illusions about himself.  I remember a reporter once asked him about his first class record at the venue of the upcoming Test.  "Terrible," he said, "just like everywhere else."  The season his Test career was terminated he managed his one and only five-wicket haul in the Sheffield Shield,  but he couldn't sustain it.  While he averaged just under 35 runs per wicket in Test cricket, his first class average remained stubbornly in the 40s.  He did better in one day cricket but as he played more and more in the Second XI he lost his edge and his performances in the short game declined too.  At 34, an age where many spinners are just reaching their peak, it is all over for him.

You wonder what might have happened if he had been able to learn his craft in helpful conditions, or if the selectors had chosen him as their project instead of Nathan Lyon.  You also wonder, given he has two first class centuries to his name, whether he would have been wiser to follow White and Smith and concentrate on his batting.  The man himself would probably tell you, with a resigned shake of the head, that he wasn't much of a batsman either.

With the same modesty he would probably tell you that if, at the start of his career, you had told him he would play 17 Tests and 50-odd one-dayers, travel the world with the Australian cricket team and bowl his country to victory in a Boxing Day Test, he would have been more than happy to take it.  His own summing up is characteristically understated. "I have a lot of good memories, obviously a few bad ones mixed among them, but I'll definitely look back at my career very proud and very happy with what I achieved."

I'm not sure what his plans are, although he has a gig coming up in the Masters Champions League in UAE where he will get to play some low-key games alongside retired greats like Adam Gilchrist, Dan Vettori, Mahela Jayawardena and the equally modest Shiv Chanderpaul.  I suppose one day he will have to get a real job, but in the meantime I hope he gets to live the dream a little bit longer.

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