It’s so often the case that when a team features a champion performer in its ranks, the next in line of the same genre are usually handed a raw deal. Pick any team that has been a force to reckon with for a sustained length of time — thanks to the presence of first-rate performers — and you’re most likely to notice a few players who could have been an easy pick in most other teams, yet fail to make a successful cut on the big stage for their own country. In an era that was dominated by Shane Warne, very few could thrive in his shadows, and the prospect of another leg-spinner working with him in tandem seemed somewhat unrealistic.
Stuart MacGill, born on February 25, 1971, certainly fell in that bracket. In 1994, at the age of 23, he made his debut for Western Australia against New South Wales (NSW) in the Sheffield Shield. This was to be his first brush with cricket at the higher level, but by then, Warne, aged 25, was already a frontline spinner in the Australian side. MacGill ensured that his name didn’t slip off the radar by consistently delivering in First-Class matches. In 1997, he announced his arrival with a brief, but good, stint for Somerset, and later that year, after moving to NSW, he picked up his first five-wicket haul to get noticed.
In January 1998, he finally received a call-up to the national side, for the third Test against South Africa at Adelaide. He trumped Warne in the wickets column, picking five under trying circumstances. However, the tour to Pakistan later that year in October could have been a watershed moment in MacGill’s career. In the absence of Warne, he registered his maiden five-wicket haul in international cricket in the first innings of the Rawalpindi Test, and later scalped four in the second innings to finish with figures of nine for 113. He was the highest wicket-taker in the three-match series, ahead even of his Pakistani counterpart Mushtaq Ahmed. In Warne’s absence, MacGill had delivered.
Despite similar styles, Warne and MacGill were contrasting personalities. “One was subtle, the other a sledgehammer,” writes Steve Waugh in his autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone. “Shane loved a chat about field settings and potential ideas, while Stuart didn’t concern himself with placements and tactics; he just wanted to bowl. Warnie worked over a batsman, sniffing out a weakness and always on the lookout for negative body language or a sign that the player was hesitant. Stuey just went for it, turning and bouncing the ball as hard as he could muster.”
The duo’s best performance in partnership came during the Super Series Test against the ICC World XI in 2006, but it was MacGill who outbowled every other spinner in the competition, including Warne. He grabbed nine wickets, whereas Warne finished with six, Muttiah Muralitharan with five and Daniel Vettori with one.
In 2000, two years after tormenting the Pakistani batsmen at home, he wore the Australian colours for the first time in limited-overs cricket. He proved to be a handful in this format too, taking four for 19 to derail Pakistan in their chase of 287 at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Little did he know then that he’d be a part of just two more One-Day Internationals (ODI).
“I think I would have been a good ODI player for Australia. But once again if I look at my ODI career, I only played three games but I got six wickets,” MacGill said in an interview to ESPNcricinfo in 2012. “I'm very disappointed at not playing many ODIs. Until recently I was the leading wicket-taker of all time in domestic one-day cricket in Australia. I did very, very well for New South Wales. I got lots of four- and five-wickets hauls. New South Wales won a lot of one-day tournaments; they may have even won five during my career,” he further added.
In 2002-03, when Warne injured his shoulder during the Ashes, MacGill was drafted back into the Australian Test side. In two Tests, he took 12 wickets, but thereafter, he went on to become the second highest wicket-taker in 2003, with 57 wickets under his belt. In the process, he took his 100th Test wicket during the second match of the West Indies tour, at Trinidad, and established himself as Australia’s best leg-spinner after Warne. Of course, MacGill would have wanted to topple Warne, but that understandably never materialised. “He (MacGill) desperately wants to establish himself as Australia’s top spin bowler, just as I intend to make him wait,” wrote Warne in Shane Warne – My autobiography, in 2001. Such was the professional rivalry between the two.
Owing to various reasons, MacGill played fewer Tests than Warne, but the rate at which he accumulated wickets is noteworthy. His best outing came against Bangladesh in Fatullah, where he registered first-innings figures of eight for 108. “I didn't come on to bowl until they were almost 200. People say it was against Bangladesh and it doesn't really matter, but they were none-for when I came on to bowl, so it was quite a satisfying haul of wickets,” he said in the same interview to ESPNcricinfo. He played 44 Tests, struck 208 times at an average of 29, before instinctively calling it a day in 2008 during Australia’s tour of the West Indies.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)
First Published: February 25, 2013, 12:19 pm