Desire still burning for spinner Muirhead

28 June 2016

The rosy-cheeked kid they call 'Vegemite' // Getty

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The former World T20 shock selection still harbours dreams of returning to the big time as he plies his trade in English village cricket

About the Writer:

Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.

Provided with both increased opportunities and vicious scrutiny in the post-Shane Warne era, Australian spin bowlers have found their craft to be perhaps the most volatile in the game. 

Jason Krejza took 12 wickets on Test debut but donned the Baggy Green just once more. And Ashton Agar was plucked from outside Australia's 2013 Ashes squad to make a famous debut before he also was dropped one match later; examples of the procession of spinners Australia has picked since Warne retired in 2007.

Muirhead receives his T20 cap from Rod Marsh // Getty
Muirhead receives his T20 cap from Rod Marsh // Getty

But of those tweakers, none have experienced such a swift rise and as abrupt descent in such a short space of time – at such a young age – as James Muirhead.

In 2014, the leg-spinner shot to prominence when picked in Australia's squad for the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh at just 20-years-old.

At the beginning of that summer, Muirhead was a highly-rated but raw prospect with the Victorian Bushrangers, with a single Sheffield Shield match to his name and no KFC Big Bash League contract. But after replacing an injured James Faulkner at the Melbourne Stars, the fizzing side-spin and impressive control he demonstrated shifted his career from first to top gear in the blink of an eye.

Muirhead picks up his first

He was quickly whisked into Australia's side for three T20 Internationals against England, where he convinced national selectors he was ready to deliver under the harsh spotlight of an international tournament.

And they were right. While veteran Brad Hogg, his senior by 23 years, was preferred for Australia's tournament opener against Pakistan, Muirhead played in their next two matches and claimed the scalps of Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli.

Muirhead celebrates Gayle's wicket // Getty
Muirhead celebrates Gayle's wicket // Getty

He was a small bright spot in an otherwise disappointing campaign for George Bailey's men. The cricketing world seemed to be at Muirhead's feet.

Yet, a little more than 24 months after impressing under the bright lights and sapping humidity of Dhaka, he found himself bowling his leg-breaks in April snow for Greenfield Cricket Club in the Pennine Cricket League.

Plenty of green at Greenfield Cricket Club ground // James Muirhead
Plenty of green at Greenfield Cricket Club ground // James Muirhead

Quick Single: Muirhead praised by Boof 

"People say where did I come from? Was I good enough? Was it (the WT20) good for my development? Everyone's got their say," the now 22-year-old told from Greenfield, a small English village about 20 kilometres east of Manchester.

"All I'll say is that I was in the best headspace I'd ever been in. I was in really good form at that time.

"There wasn't really a game where I didn't (feel I would) do well. I felt it was a perfect time when I got picked.

Muirhead held his own in the 2014 WT20 // Getty
Muirhead held his own in the 2014 WT20 // Getty

"I was in form and you want (national selectors) to pick your best team, so I can't see why it wouldn't be a benefit to my cricket.

"I've had a taste of the highest level, I know what it feels like now. Right now I'm playing club cricket in England but slowly I'm working my way back.

"I'm not in a rush – it might take me another three or four years, maybe even longer."

It's a testament to Muirhead's character, with a brash confidence belying the rosy cheeks that earned him the nickname 'Vegemite', remains intact after a difficult couple of years.

After returning from the 2014 WT20, he was unable to break into Victoria's four-day side, with fellow wrist-spinner Fawad Ahmed and Jon Holland spinning the Bushrangers to back-to-back Sheffield Shield titles.

As would be the case for any young player learning cricket's most difficult craft, selectors and coaches have been sympathetic to Muirhead's struggles to rediscover the form that vaulted him into Australian colours.

Quick Single: 'Mature head on young shoulders'

It's a process that's tested Muirhead's resilience far more than most players his age, but one that his Bushrangers teammate and St Kilda club captain, Rob Quiney, believes will hold him in good stead.

"Bobby Quiney said to me, 'Jimmy, you've had these highs and lows at the age of 21, 22'" Muirhead recalled of a conversation with the two-Test opener.

"'You're lucky you're having them now and not at 29, 30.'

"I've learned from these lows that I've had and pushed through it. That's the way I've looked at this last 12 to 24 months.

"I know I'll get back there. I've always been a positive person and I've always had that inner self-belief.

"The people who have succeeded in professional sport have always had that confidence. I thrive on that and when I'm going well, I feel like I'm unstoppable."

Helping to chart his course back to the national side is Hogg, the man he replaced during that 2014 WT20.

Quick Single: Hogg pleads patience with spinners 

The pair had struck up a strong bond a year earlier on another trip to the subcontinent, a National Performance Squad spin camp in Colombo, where Hogg, who played seven Tests and 123 ODIs for Australia, travelled as a spin coach.

Just as Warne had worked exclusively with Terry Jenner, Muirhead too is adamant having only one mentor is vital to keep the feedback he receives uncomplicated.

Quick Single: Murali, smoke and mirrors

"I purely and solely work with Brad Hogg at the moment," he said. "He's the person I talk to whenever I need some help. We stay in touch quite regularly.

"He's someone that I trust with anything to do with my career, on-field or off-field, he's the guy I talk to.

"I've had a lot of coaches over the years and I'm not saying they're bad, but Hoggy's the man.

Warne imparts some wisdom // Getty
Warne imparts some wisdom // Getty

"Without me even asking he gives me a phone-call, just checking in. That has got a lot of respect from me and now I've got that trust (in him). Hopefully I'll have a long career working with him.

"He doesn't tell you a lot about technique. He knows how I think and he knows exactly what I need to do to perform well and he's done it before.

"He's played in World Cups for Australia and played in all formats for Australia, which is something I want to do."

Having observed Muirhead up-close from that first trip to Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh at the WT20 and then in ensuing BBL seasons with the Perth Scorchers (where he was traded to from the Melbourne Stars in 2014), Hogg is well-placed to comment on his young pupil's development.

"He's a fantastic talent, I just think he needs to get his mind right and switch on," the evergreen Western Australian said in December.

"I think it's pretty tough for him, he played a couple of games for Australia in the T20s. He was rushed into that level and I don't think it did him any justice.

"He needs a little bit more maturity. He's got as many revs on it as Shane Warne had on it.

"He's got a great wrist, it's just a matter of him getting the confidence and getting back into the longer form of the game and getting the ball (to land) on a penny."

Comparisons with Warne are inevitable for any promising Australian (not to mention Victorian) leg-spinner and Muirhead is following in his footsteps by embarking on a season in England.

A year before beginning a legendary international career, Warne took 73 wickets at 15.4 for Accrington CC in the Lancashire League. The pressures of being the overseas professional at a small club undoubtedly prepared Warne for shouldering the responsibility of being Australia's go-to bowler in the years to come.

A tour match against South Africa in November 2014 // Getty
A tour match against South Africa in November 2014 // Getty

And perhaps counter-intuitively, Muirhead, who's already had a small taste of the demands of international cricket, feels the pressure more acutely in English club cricket than he did playing for Australia.

"Playing with Greenfield as the overseas pro – you have to do well," he explains.

"When you're playing for Australia, if you don't perform, you know someone else probably will. When we (Greenfield) do well and I perform well, the mood in the team's really good and the club feels like a good environment.

"But if I don't do well, you can see there's a bit of, not anger, but they just expect you to do well.

"When I was playing for Australia, I just knew I was going to do well. That was my belief at the time, I just knew I was going to perform no matter what.

"Right now, I'm still ready to perform, (but) there's just that added little bit of pressure that if I don't perform, we might not win."

Muirhead's season abroad, which has so far yielded 19 wickets at 18.68, has been full of lessons not often learnt at higher levels of cricket.

His first match, away to Austerlands whose ground is believed to be the highest above sea-level in England, was interrupted by a snowstorm.

At Greenfield's home ground, Muirhead estimates it's a 40 metre leg-side hit to the Chew Brook, a shallow stream running adjacent to the ground. With league regulations dictating the ball simply has to be picked up and returned soaking wet to the bowler, he's has had an extra incentive not to deliver any long-hops.

Having already experienced so many of the ups and downs that define his difficult craft, it's a different kind of splay the young leggie still hopes to make.

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