Corey Rocchiccioli's perseverance and self-belief has paved the way for an unconventional rise through the ranks
Roc on the rise from clubbie reject to Shield pace setter
He might stand among the leading wicket-takers for the current Marsh Sheffield Shield season and lay claim to Western Australia's best home-grown off-spinner in two generations, but it's not so long since Corey Rocchiccioli was told he wouldn't make it in Perth's first-grade competition.
Despite WA playing the first two matches of their Shield defence at their seamer-friendly WACA fortress, Rocchiccioli has claimed 15 wickets at 23 runs apiece to be the second-most successful bowler (behind New South Wales' Chris Tremain) after three rounds.
It followed the now 26-year-old's 25 scalps at 32.20 last summer (his second Shield season) which made him 2022-23's most potent spinner at domestic first-class level with the most successful return by a WA-born offie since ex-Test tweaker Bruce Yardley who captured 39 at 24.3 four decades earlier.
But Rocchiccioli's path to the peak of his craft has not proved as smooth as his highly repeatable bowling action.
As would be expected of a tall, sports obsessed adolescent growing up in Perth, he tried his hand at Australian rules football before deciding that cricket – and more specifically, pace bowling – might offer his best chance of an athletic career.
"I wasn't good enough to play WAFL (Western Australian Football League) development stuff, so footy was out of the question and I just love sport so much that cricket naturally became that thing I really wanted to pursue," said Rocchiccioli, whose father (Eric) played first-grade soccer in Perth.
"But I tried the quick stuff and I was no good, then I tried the batting stuff and I was also no good, so I realised my pathway was bowling off-spin."
As history suggests, bowling spin in Perth is not a regular route to first-class ranks and the two who have previously filled that role regularly for WA – left-arm orthodox pair Ashton Agar and Michael Beer – both relocated west from Melbourne.
Upon finishing secondary school, Rocchiccioli went "all-in" pursuing a cricket career and juggled his training commitments between work with a major hardware retailer and as a landscape gardening labourer.
But by the time he reached 21, Rocchiccioli was brutally aware of the challenge he'd taken on.
"I'm from outside the system, so to speak," Rocchiccioli told cricket.com.au recently.
"I wasn't even looking at any talent carnivals, didn't play any representative under-age stuff.
"At times, when you don't get picked for state squads at age 17 you think the world's done, then you don't get picked for under-19s and you think the world has definitely ended, but I just kept going and kept persevering because I loved it so much.
"Then I got told basically that I wasn't going to play first-grade cricket because they (his initial Perth Premier Cricket club, Wanneroo) were going a different way, and at age 21 they didn't see me as a player of note.
"And I don't really blame them - looking back now, I was a bits and pieces second-grade player who bowled a bit and batted a bit."
Rocchiccioli's ambition and evolution changed markedly when he fielded an invitation to switch Premier Cricket clubs to University in 2017.
The fact he was studying a sports science degree at the time helped seal that decision, but Rocchiccioli admits he was "a bit naïve" to think he might achieve his ambition to play first-grade given his new club boasted "about seven spinners ahead of me" including WA-capped pair Agar and Will Bosisto.
"I think my first 15 A-grade game were half games for either Will or Ash coming in and out of the first-grade squad from WA duties," he said.
"But there was such a spin culture there with Ash, (ex-Australia left-armer) Tom Hogan as the spin coach and (current head coach) Will Stibbs who really encouraged spinners and pushed spinners to grow and be a healthy asset to the team.
"That's something I really thrived on, and realised that was how I was going to play first-grade cricket.
"I spent a lot of time trying to work on the amount of revs on the ball, and fortunately I have decent-sized hands so that allows me to spin it.
"From there, it was just understanding the art of spin bowling.
"Then, once I started performing at first-grade cricket, I saw it was my way into being a professional cricketer."
It was a further three seasons before Rocchiccioli won selection for WA's Toyota Second XI outfit, capturing 14 wickets at 38 in his maiden season at that level.
But more crucially, he forged a close friendship with Agar that began when the Australia spinner asked his University understudy to join him for a nets session during a Perth winter.
Rocchiccioli can't heap enough praise on Agar and the selfless help he's provided over the past few years, even though they would technically compete for the same berth in the WA Shield line-up on those rare occasions the national white-ball regular is available for first-class selection.
They work together when their respective schedules overlap, but more often share text messages and phone calls even after play during Shield matches to talk through bowling plans and strategies.
And Rocchiccioli gives thanks for Agar's absence at the end of the past two domestic summers, claiming he would likely not have been part of WA's back-to-back Shield title wins if the more senior spinner was in the selection mix.
"His selfless nature to help me get better is something that no-one sees beside me and Ash, but it's something that's really helped me become the cricketer I am," Rocchiccioli said.
"There's a running joke between me and 'Ags' that we still haven't been able to play a first-class game together – that's something we really want to do.
"We get along so well and have such a good connection, we always bant about how good it's going to be on the day we get to do that."
It was Agar's involvement in the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE that opened the door for Rocchiccioli's Shield debut against South Australia, on what was regarded as a bowlers' graveyard pitch at Karen Rolton Oval.
The then 23-year-old concedes he was so nervous going into that game, when his skipper Shaun Marsh summoned him to the bowling crease early in SA's reply to WA's hefty first innings of 9(dec)-465, one of his first deliveries was a ball to Redbacks captain Travis Head that nearly bounced twice.
He finished his inaugural outing as a Shield bowler with 1-145 from a gruelling 39 overs, his sole success coming when he dismissed SA's last batter Lloyd Pope to ensure his inaugural effort wasn't entirely fruitless.
"I think some of my right lat (latissimus dorsi muscle) is still there somewhere on Karen Rolton," Rocchiccioli recalls with an instinctive grimace.
"But what I took away from that game was an understanding of how good you have to be for so long to be a spinner in Shield cricket, over a spell and over an innings.
"I think historically the best spinners strike at 60 (balls per wicket), which means you have to bowl 10 overs to get a wicket.
"So you have to be really good for 10 overs, and then to get a five-for you've got to do that for a really long period of time.
"So I learned about the intensity required to bowl long periods and keep honing my craft.
"At times as young spinner, I got caught a bit thinking I needed to have all the tricks with a slider and a quicker ball.
"But then when I got to Shield cricket, it opened my eyes that the reason why Nathan Lyon is the GOAT (greatest of all time) is that he does the same thing over and over and over again, for 700 or however many first-class wickets he's got."
It's the search for the level of consistency Lyon repeatedly delivers – or 'repeatability of action' as it's defined in the spin-bowling fraternity – that has become the focus of Rocchiccioli's latest learning (along with the MBA he's midway through, with an aim of completing in a couple of years).
His winter work program was stymied by the surgery he underwent to repair the finger injury – a dislocation and lacerated tendon in the little finger on his right hand – he picked up while playing for Melbourne Renegades during last year's KFC BBL, though he's still unsure how the mishap occurred.
But once that healed, Rocchiccioli was part of the eight-person men's youth squad that travelled to the MRF Academy in India last August for a 10-day training camp led by WA's spin-bowling coach (and another of Rocchiccioli's valued mentors), Beau Casson.
It was his first cricket-playing sojourn overseas, and the opportunity he gained to try out a range of release points and crease positions that hadn't previously made their way into his Australia bowling repertoire further boosted his slowly growing confidence.
Indeed, Rocchiccioli regards the 43.2 overs he sent down for a return of 6-53 in WA's innings win over last season's Shield runners-up in the opening round of the current summer as the high watermark of his first-class tenure to date.
"I was able to help the side win against Victoria on a really flat wicket, and was able to be as consistent as I've ever been," he said.
"I'm still the new kid on the block and I've got to keep proving myself.
"There's still going to be times when I feel out of my depth, and times when I feel like I belong, but at the moment I'm really happy that what I've been working is starting to really showcase at this level."
Despite his belated rise to first-class cricket which he describes as "a late blooming", and the presence of highly credentialled rivals such as Lyon, Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann ahead of him, Rocchiccioli doesn't hide his aspiration to represent Australia.
He has eschewed previous opportunities to spend his winters learning about bowling spin in other locations, citing a preference to hone his skills in Perth's practice nets as well as the prohibitive cost factor for a "battling uni student" as reasons why he hasn't pursued league cricket experience in the UK.
But he also understands if he allows himself the luxury of pondering higher honours on the strength of recent returns, he runs the risk of losing the laser-like focus that has helped take him to the top rungs of the Shield wicket-taking table.
"I'd love to wear the Baggy Green, but at the moment I'm trying to keep my feet on the ground and I want to play cricket for Western Australia for the next 10 years," he said.
"I feel like if I sit and dwell on the future and think about where I could be – 15 wickets is a nice start to the summer, but if I lose my mentality of what's got me to 15 wickets I might end up with only 15 wickets for the season and end up averaging 100 with the ball.
"As my history suggests, it's not something I have done before or that I was earmarked to do.
"I wasn't given the ball at age 15 and told I was going to be a prodigious talent so, for me, it's about cherishing every moment I get to play cricket for WA.
"I've played 17 Shield games, and it feels like my first every time I get to wear the cap."
Besides, Rocchiccioli harbours a more immediate ambition which is to further his white-ball bowling credentials.
Having played four games for Melbourne Renegades in last year's BBL, he was overlooked for the coming season when they recruited Australia spin pair Adam Zampa and Lyon.
He hasn't given up hope of being drafted into a BBL set-up as the tournament draws closer, and concedes that offers a more realistic prospect of gaining limited-overs experience than forcing his way into WA's reigning Marsh One Day Cup champion team.
"I haven't played a list-A (50-over) game, but I equate that to trying to crack the Harlem Globetrotters," he laughed.
"We've got a superstar team at most times when we're playing one-day cricket, so you just have to take what you can take and if it's red-ball cricket, I'm happy to take that.
"I loved my opportunity with the 'Gades last year, and had to bowl a few hard (Power) Surge overs and I learned so much doing that.
"Hopefully I can land somewhere on a list.
"I want to play, and if anyone wants to give me a T20 contract they can feel free."
If that opportunity doesn't arise, don't expect to find Rocchiccioli putting his feet up during the BBL season when Shield cricket is in hiatus.
When he was free of playing commitments last weekend, he was an avid spectator and willing helper at University's Premier Cricket match in Perth and that looms as one of his planned activities at the height of summer, along with solo training sessions to further hone his game.
"You won't be seeing me take a break," Rocchiccioli said.
"I feel like the marker of a professional athlete is what you do when no-one's watching, so it's that stuff that I thrive on.
"It's what got me to where I am, the countless running of laps around McGilvray Oval in Perth without anyone watching, the countless hours I've been bowling down at University without anyone watching.
"So if I've got a summer in Perth by myself, I'll be riding my bike, bowling lots of cricket balls and working really hard on my batting and fielding.
"But I'll also be down at grade cricket, I'll be down with Tom Hogan because I really enjoy those opportunities to train away from the main WA group – it gives me an opportunity to come back in better condition.
"I love what I do now, it's the best job in the world.
"But if I wasn't playing cricket professionally I'd still be playing grade cricket … even it was fourth grade."