Back in the day, when Shaun Tait was the most dangerous and compelling fast bowler Australian cricket grounds had hosted since Jeff Thomson, his state skipper would exhort the ‘Wild Thing’ to summon extra effort as sessions dragged on and his pace waned from ‘scary’ to simply ‘fast’.
Graham Manou, the one-time Test wicketkeeper who as South Australia’s skipper and gloveman was tasked with both conjuring and stopping Tait’s thunderbolts, would appeal to his spearhead’s passion for performing on the big stage.
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Invariably the international arena, before a crowd infinitely larger than the few dozen spectators who would regularly turn out for Sheffield Shield fixtures at Adelaide Oval.
“What ‘Choco’ Manou used to say to me as captain was ‘to bowl a bit faster for South Australia, maybe we should put an Australian shirt underneath your Redbacks one’,” Tait told cricket.com.au today as he reflected on his unforeseen return to national colours.
“But I suppose when you put on the green and gold jersey, you get a bit of an extra kick and find another yard or two – it’s only natural, isn’t it?”
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Which means, should the 32-year-old who last represented Australia at the 2011 ICC World Cup make a re-appearance in the upcoming KFC T20 International Series, the Indian batsmen can expect him to “find another yard or two” above the 150kph he’s pushed lately in BBL|05.
Tait confessed to being “over the moon” when he was named in Australia’s 17-man squad for that series, even if his name’s been so long absent from national selection meetings that panel chair Rod Marsh referred to him as ‘Shane’ Tait at today’s announcement before correcting himself some time later.
While Tait had effectively ended his three-game Test career in 2008 when a physically and mentally disastrous outing at the WACA led him to take a lengthy break from cricket, and quit 50-over and state cricket five years ago, he had never formally announced his unavailability for the T20 format.
Watch: Tait turns back the clock
But even though he occasionally mused he would be chuffed to squeeze another T20 international match for Australia out of his combat-weary body, he didn’t seriously believe anyone involved in national selection shared that romantic notion.
The turning point came when he was signed to a two-year deal by the Hobart Hurricanes last year and, rested and rejuvenated having enjoyed a few cricket-free months after a stint for Essex in the UK domestic T20 competition, he rediscovered his pace and passion in the KFC Big Bash League.
Tait played all eight matches for his new franchise this summer and not only emerged as the fastest bowler in the competition, but his 10 wickets at a strike-rate of a wicket every three overs (and a creditable cost of less than eight runs per over) had some touting a possible national recall.
A case made more compelling with long-term injuries to other genuinely fast bowlers with a strong white-ball pedigree – Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jason Behrendorff – and the need to safeguard Test quicks Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson for the upcoming tour to New Zealand.
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“I never thought I’d play for Australia again – or be in the squad for Australia. I haven’t played yet,” Tait said today in his unassuming Adelaide Hills manner even though Marsh foreshadowed that all 17 players in the T20 squad were likely to get a run against India.
“Obviously there’s a few injuries with the faster bowlers, those who bowl up towards 150kph, so it’s good timing for me I suppose.
“But I feel like I’m bowling OK and they wanted someone with a bit of pace and I’ve been bowling around 150kph consistently enough to be picked.
“It could be a very short-lived episode, but it might not be.
“I’ve felt my control has got better over the last couple of years but I’m there to try and bowl fast and as soon as I’m starting to bowl in the 130s there’s not much point in me playing.”
After being overlooked in the IPL player auction for the past two seasons, Tait’s chances of making the 15-man squad that Australia will take to the ICC World T20 tournament in India next March seemed about as remote as him playing out his days as a mid-130kph trundler.
But with the upcoming T20 matches in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney being the only 20-over internationals that Australia will play before the squad for the World T20 is announced, Tait admits any fairy-tale end to his career in green and gold will now be penned by his own hand.
“I would consider it,” Tait said when asked if he dares to dream about earning a berth for the biennial T20 showpiece event five years after he walked away from international cricket.
“But whether they (the national selectors) would, I don’t know.
“I would definitely like to play but it’s up to me I guess.
“If I get a chance in Australia and bowl well for Australia then I’m a realistic chance, but if it doesn’t come out well and it doesn’t go well for me then I’m probably not.
“It’s going to be a pretty simple equation, and it depends on who’s going to be fit for the World Cup.”
Anyone who witnessed Tait’s electrifying first over in a T20 International against Pakistan at the MCG in 2009 – when he averaged around 155kph and topped 160 which had ‘keeper Brad Haddin warning the television audience that more heat was to come – knows what Manou was on about.
And anybody who witnessed Tait’s return to Adelaide Oval as a pantomime villain clad in Hurricanes’ colours last week will attest to his effectiveness when the ball gets older.
Watch: Tait knocks over Hodge
It was Tait who rattled the stumps of Adelaide Strikers’ skipper Brad Hodge in the penultimate over as the Hurricanes strained to keep their season alive and the BBL leaders looked set to stumble in sight of a modest victory total, until Jake Lehmann lifted them over the line.
It’s that combination of ferocious speed for an over or two at the outset complemented by his capacity to have the ball reverse swing at pace in the ‘death’ overs – as Hodge discovered 24 balls into his innings – that heightens Tait’s appeal for the T20 World Cup.
A tournament that Australia has never won.
“He’s certainly the quickest bowler we’ve seen in the Big Bash this year,” Hurricanes coach Damien Wright told cricket.com.au today.
“You’ve either got to have that sheer pace factor or be very, very skilful as a more defensive bowler by taking pace off the ball and regularly hitting yorkers to succeed as a quick in 20-over cricket.
“The raw speed makes opening batters really watchful when they’re out there to get off to a great start and be ultra-aggressive, so if you’ve got someone being just as aggressive with the ball it makes it pretty daunting to try and stand there and hit it for four or six.
“But you can also give Taity some overs in the middle if you need to break a partnership, and he’s got a great skill to bowl at the death as well.
“He definitely showed that in Adelaide when Hodge was the guy we were really worried about, and for Taity to knock him over when he was well and truly in just shows that he’s capable of knocking over the very best.
“You’ve got to have air speed (as a pace bowler) in India, there’s no doubt about that.
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“He could do a great job over there having so much experience in their conditions through his involvement in the IPL.
“The ball can also reverse a bit there to when it’s older, so being able to execute that skill near the end of the 20 overs, which he can do, will be critical,”
Tait admits that the fact he’s been able to string together a full BBL season for the Hurricanes – something his body refused to let him achieve when he was with the Strikers the previous summer – has led him to wonder if he might be able to extend his career beyond his current Hobart deal.
Although, to use the revised cliché spawned by the franchise model that continues to re-shape the role of a professional cricketer, he approaches his playing future “one tournament at a time”.
And while he concedes that his fondness for hard-slog training and his stomach for the endless cycle of rehabilitation and re-injury that is the lot of the fast bowler meant he was never destined for a lengthy first-class career, there is evidence that he was a player ahead of his time.
Given that his undisputed peak as a bowler – the Sheffield Shield season of 2004-05 when he collected a remarkable 65 wickets at 20.17 for an SA team that finished second-to-bottom – coincided with the very first T20 International between Australia and NZ in Auckland.
“I reckon I’m built for Twenty20 cricket,” Tait said.
“I’ve never been great on fitness and all that sort of stuff so the longer form of the game I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much.
“I did enjoy a good part of my four-day career but there were a lot of parts of it that I didn’t enjoy as well.
“I suppose the body hasn’t really helped me out too much either, but I’ve just been lucky that T20 has come along.
“A lot of people don’t want to hear you say that you’re built for T20 cricket, but the reality is I probably am.
“And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“The Big Bash League has shown just how good a format it is, and you can’t hide in T20.
“Your skills are on show and if your skills aren’t up to it you get found out pretty quickly.”
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In an ideal world, Tait will be given a chance to unfurl those skills in a triumphant return to Adelaide Oval on Australia Day, when the first KFC T20 is played on an occasion that also marks India’s day of national celebration, Republic Day.
Given Tait’s recent marriage to Indian model Mashoom Singha and that the couple are now based in Adelaide when their travel schedules allow, it would fulfil a scenario that the fast bowler did not dream possible until he received a phone call from Marsh yesterday.
And it would see him return in a vastly different role to that which he performed as the spurned home-town-hero-turned-bad-guy in the BBL last week.
“They gave me a bit of stick, that was to be expected,” Tait said of the Adelaide Oval crowd that booed his every move last Wednesday but would doubtless get behind him if it helped him find that “extra yard or two” come Australia Day.
“It’s funny how the game works.
“You play one game and you get booed by 50,000, but I’m hoping that if I play on Australia Day it’s going to be different.
“I might even get cheered by 50,000.”