How a Sydney suburb helped nurture England's brightest spin prospect

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Mason Crane removed Usman Khawaja for 171 for his first Test wicket

Few cricketers can have been so at home making a Test debut in a foreign country than England’s Mason Crane at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Less than a year ago, the 20-year-old performed so well in his time with Sydney club Gordon that he was called up to play for New South Wales in the last first-class match to be held at the SCG.

And if there are some comforts for a young leg-spinner who has so far conceded 1-135 bowling for the first time in Test cricket on this ground – such as Shane Warne returning 1-150 on debut in Sydney – then there are others he should ignore. England handed a cap to Scott Borthwick in the final Ashes Test here four years ago – and he has not been picked since.

The Hampshire man’s first few days of Test cricket have been nothing if not eventful.

He was padded up to be nightwatchman on the first evening, only for Jonny Bairstow to go to the middle and be out by the time the day was done. He was then run out in a mix-up with James Anderson on the second morning, all before getting the ball in hand for the first time.

If that opening day of bowling was impressive, full of near-misses rather than clear chances, then the next was despair to delight.

The chance to have Usman Khawaja caught and bowled was missed by a blade or two of grass. Later in the same over, an lbw decision and a maiden wicket was denied because there was no shoe leather behind the popping crease.

When Crane returned later, the advancing Khawaja was beaten by a leg-break that turned between bat and pad. When Bairstow removed the bails, Crane wheeled away in a fist-pumping celebration.

England’s leading Test leg-spinners
Years active Tests Wickets Average
Doug Wright 1938-1951 34 108 39.11
Tich Freeman 1924-1929 12 66 25.86
Walter Robins 1929-1937 19 64 27.46
Len Braund 1901-1908 23 47 38.51
Ian Peebles 1927-1931 13 45 30.91
Eric Hollies 1935-1950 13 44 30.27
Bob Barber 1960-1968 28 42 43.00
Adil Rashid 2015-2016 10 38 42.78

For Crane, that maiden Test wicket came on the ground where he spent hours in the nets with former Australia leg-spinner Stuart MacGill last winter.

In those twice-weekly sessions, arranged by the England and Wales Cricket Board’s spin-bowling scholarship, Crane may have unwittingly picked up his mentor’s mannerisms – the long, bounding run-up, or the towel tucked into the waistband of the trousers on the left hip.

“I know that MacGill drums into bowlers to approach every ball in exactly the same way,” said Andrew Falk, the Gordon scorer with whom Crane lived during his time in Sydney. “You get into a routine. Stop, turn around, think about what you’re doing.

“The philosophy is that if you keep doing the same things, you might lower the chance of a bad delivery when you spot that you are not about to land in the right place, or get your arm up, or whatever it might be.”

Sure enough, MacGill’s teachings were revealed throughout Crane’s first bowl in Test cricket. Time and again he would pull out of his action, even if that meant drawing boos from the crowd.

“If something doesn’t feel quite right when I’m running in, I stop myself rather than bowling a ball that wouldn’t be as good as I can give,” he explained.

Stuart MacGill, left, took 208 Test wickets for Australia between 1998 and 2008

For Crane, time with MacGill in Sydney was the continuation of a cricketing education that could have ended when he was not chosen for the under-14 side of Sussex, the county of his birth, because of his batting and fielding.

He was put back on the right track at Lancing College by Raj Maru, the former Hampshire and Middlesex spinner, who alerted Hampshire to Crane’s talents.

Crane made his debut for the county in 2015, claiming Sri Lanka great Kumar Sangakkara as his first wicket. It was former Hampshire team-mate Will Smith, once of Gordon, that recommended Crane to the Sydney side.

“We made him a better player, but we haven’t created the cricketer,” said Gordon wicketkeeper Ash Doolan. “We helped him out as a person.

“He’s a good kid. He arrived prim and proper, but an only child that was fresh from home.”

And so, while Crane was learning in the nets from MacGill, he got a different kind of education in the suburb that is a half-hour drive to the north of Sydney city centre.

“His dad is a hairdresser and no-one else had ever given him a haircut,” said Doolan. “It took him two and a half months to go to get one while he was here.

“I took him to the local barber and he just wanted a short back and sides, but it took him about an hour and a half to work out what he needed. He had to phone his dad in England to find out.”

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From the barber’s, to the beach.

“He wanted to go to the beach, but his body didn’t allow it,” added Doolan. “He was probably the palest of the English players we’ve had here in the past 10 years.

“He used a whole bottle of sunscreen, then sat in the sand with no towel. His whole body was covered in sand.

“When it came to going into the water, he thought he was made of sugar and that if you jump into a bath over here you’ll get eaten by a shark.”

Mason Crane helped Gordon District Cricket Club top the table

There were domestic teething problems, too.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to change the toilet roll,” said Falk. “I just don’t think he’d ever had to do it before.

“His room looked like a bomb site. He had a big, double-sided suitcase. He opened that up when he arrived and I don’t think it ever moved until the day he left.

“I loved having him in the house, though. He was well-mannered and appreciative of anything that we did for him.”

As the Gordon players educated Crane off the field, he helped them on it. They ended the season as the joint-premiers, the table-toppers. When they went through to play in the semi-finals, they were beaten in Crane’s absence.

At one stage, Crane returned three consecutive seven-wicket hauls, a run of form that prompted the call-up to the New South Wales side for their final home game of the season. He became the first overseas player to represent the state in the Sheffield Shield since Pakistan great Imran Khan.

“By the end of the season, we knew we’d see him again,” said club captain Tym Crawford. “It was just a matter of if he’d be playing for us or touring with England.”

A call-up to the Ashes squad settled that, but Crane remained in touch with Gordon. He is still part of the club’s Facebook group, commenting on results and performances each week, and he met up with Falk and his team-mates in the run-up to the Sydney Test.

“We all take on adventures in life,” said Doolan. “Coming to play for us was Mason’s first big one.

“It’s a credit to him how he treats the friends that he made here. He’ll be connected to us for the rest of his life.”

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