JLT Sheffield Shield 2018-19
Mature Mennie still looking for tweaks
As he is about to embark on another Sheffield Shield season, the South Australia veteran is still looking to improve his game
On raw facts, there would seem to be little that Joe Mennie needs to change in his cricket – indeed, in his life – to maintain the levels of success he's enjoyed over the past few years.
On the field, his 108 wickets at 24.60 each have been bettered only by Victoria's Chris Tremain (129 at 20.39) and his South Australia teammate Chadd Sayers (111 at 23.65) in the previous three Sheffield Shield summers.
During that time, he's earned a maiden ODI tour (to South Africa in September, 2016), a Baggy Green Cap (in Hobart, two months later) and twice been recognised by his Redbacks' peers with the Neil Dansie Medal as SA cricket's outstanding male player across all forms of the game.
And off the field, he and wife Rachel welcomed their first child – a daughter, Penelope – a year ago.
Yet it was the burning need to add an extra edge to his already well-honed skills set that saw Mennie pack up his new family and head to Manchester during the northern summer, in restless pursuit of another crack at an international career cut short by bitter circumstance and wretched timing.
By dint of Rachel's birth right – she was born and raised at Formby, an idyllic seaside town north of Liverpool on the Costa del Blackpool – he was able to sign with Lancashire and play a season at Old Trafford, alongside Test cricket's most successful fast bowler.
Mennie acknowledges that comparisons to James Anderson's immaculate swing bowling and his own bustling seamers are about as redundant as likening the coastal aesthetics of the Mersey Estuary to the golden sands of his home town at Coffs Harbour.
However, in his interactions with Anderson, which were limited by the England spearhead's Test commitments, Mennie took every opportunity to "pick his brain" and append some of the Englishman's insights gleaned across 850 international wickets to his own knowledge base.
"It was mainly just reinforcing stuff that I was already doing," Mennie told cricket,com.au of the major learnings from his stint in the UK's county and domestic one-day competitions.
"But just to have the chance to be on the field with him (Anderson), see how he goes about different aspects, hear how he picks apart a batter, stuff like that.
"There's so much you can learn from a bloke of his calibre who's taken so many wickets in Test cricket and keeps on doing it.
"I made a few changes over there - tweaked my action a little bit and tried various different things; some worked out and some didn't.
"It's a bit of trial and error, and if they don't add anything you just put them aside."
One change the 29-year-old has been tinkering with was born purely from self-preservation.
Mennie's playing stint in the UK was interrupted when he sustained a heavy blow to the side of his head when bowling during a domestic one-day game in Worcester.
The brutal reality of the ball being clubbed back at him by New Zealand opener Martin Guptill, one of world cricket's heaviest hitters, was compounded by the almost identical nature of the injury to one he sustained 18 months earlier, during the KFC Big Bash League in Australia.
On that occasion it was his Sydney Sixers teammate, Englishman Michael Lumb, who smashed a drive at the hapless bowler who had no time to get his hands to the scorching return catch, and only just managed to turn his head so it struck him near the temple rather than full in the face.
"It's something you always think about, it was pretty close and a dicey situation," said Mennie, who moved to Adelaide a year before his fellow northern New South Welshman Phillip Hughes, and was in the SCG dressing room when his friend was fatally struck in the neck during a Sheffield Shield game in 2014.
"I got the hit and missed most of the back end of the season, so it was a bit of wake-up call."
While Mennie claims he felt surprisingly few ill-effects after the initial impact and subsequent shock, he was diagnosed with a small skull fracture and associated minor brain bleed that required him to spend a month resting, during which he was not able to engage in overtly physical activity.
As a consequence, when he sustained another blow earlier this year, he was sidelined for several weeks as a precautionary measure even though he had managed to marginally slow the oncoming ball with his fingertips, and not incurred any assessable damage.
He is, however, examining whether his low release-point as part of his front-on action is somehow rendering him less able to protect himself from balls being struck back down the pitch.
A threat that comes with increasing risk given the power generated by modern-day bats, and ‘360-degree' batters looking to open up the entire playing field as a hitting zone.
"I think I do get a bit lower than most on follow-through," Mennie told cricket.com.au.
"That's something I've looked at, especially in the shorter form trying to limit the time that I'm in that exposed area.
"You don't want to be too low where you can't get your hands up when the ball's flying back, especially nowadays when everyone's hitting them very hard.
"There's probably some slight tweaks that I'll need to make and continue to look at."
One of the potential remedies to that risk is the use of protective helmets by bowlers as well as umpires, who routinely find themselves in similar danger.
While Australia's on-field official Bruce Oxenford has taken to wearing a protective shield on his left arm with which to deflect any incoming missiles, Mennie noted that no practical headgear has been suggested for the bowling fraternity, as far as he's aware.
"There's been a lot of talk on that, but I haven't tried anything and haven't really seen too much of what's available," he said.
"But unfortunately, somebody is going to get hit very bad and it's probably not going to end well.
"So as we progress, in the same way as we have with the batting helmets and the way they've changed over time, there's probably going to be something for bowlers and umpires as well.
"Whether that's in the next couple of years, or in ten years from now we'll just have to wait and see."
The initial head injury capped a difficult time for the fast bowler who had topped the Sheffield Shield bowling aggregate with 51 wickets at 21.22 in 2015-16, and then was rewarded with selection in the Australia A, national ODI and Test teams within the span of six months.
It would prove a bittersweet experience, however, and one that the former New South Wales Country Colts representative admits he took some time to come to terms with.
In the first instance, his role as part of an untried pace attack in an ODI series in South Africa against the batting might of the Proteas, that saw Australia hammered 0-5 and Mennie go wicketless while conceding 82 runs from 10 overs in a forgettable debut.
The fact that his fellow quicks on that tour included greenhorns Tremain, Daniel Worrall and Scott Boland, coupled with a maiden ODI outing at Johannesburg's Wanderers Stadium where South Africa had previously chased 434 against a far-better credentialled Australia attack, offered some mitigation.
But just months later, Mennie's Test call-up (after incumbent quick Peter Siddle succumbed to a back injury) against South Africa in Hobart proved an even greater trial.
Not so much from a personal perspective – Mennie took a wicket in Australia's only bowling innings, and posted second-top score in the team's first effort with the bat – but through the fall-out from the host nation's defeat by an innings an 80 runs, which handed the Proteas a series win.
The reaction was as swift and brutal as the blow to the head Mennie would cop several weeks later.
Cricket Australia's Chief Executive Officer James Sutherland noted the Test team had suffered a "very significant fall from grace", selection chair Rod Marsh tendered his resignation, and then-captain Steve Smith took the opportunity to radically revamp the team that he led.
Mennie was among those who didn't make the cut for the next Test in Adelaide, and the dream he had been eyeing since he began his cricket journey as a specialist batter and occasional bowler in Coffs Harbour looked to have been ended before it had fully found its feet.
"At the time it wasn't ideal, and as you look back you probably think it was a little bit stiff," Mennie acknowledged.
"But it's elite sport, and things like that happen.
"You can't get too angry with it, because otherwise it's going eat away at you and affect your future performances.
"For me, it was a dream come true to get there and to see it not last long probably hurt a little bit.
"And looking back, it did anger me for a while, but I tried to brush it off as quickly as I could and apply myself by focusing on the Shield competition, and trying to dominate again.
"Playing for your country is always the end goal.
"I was lucky enough to get there, and I want to get back there, but the currency is wickets.
"You have to come back in Shield cricket, and take a lot of wickets again.
"That's where I have to look, and I can't let myself look much further than that.
That quest for 2018-19 begins at Adelaide Oval on Tuesday, against the state that he turned his back on to chase opportunities, despite gaining a BBM scholarship to play in England as a junior in 2008 (a prize previously won by Adam Gilchrist) and a rookie contract with the Blues in 2010.
With the likes of Brett Lee, Doug Bollinger, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Stuart Clark and Trent Copeland all part of the NSW set-up at the time, it's easy to understand why he felt even the notoriously unhelpful Adelaide Oval pitch offered a better option.
Since then, the redeveloped stadium and its drop-in pitches have emerged as among the most seamer-friendly in the country, and Mennie is hopeful they will continue to aid his push for a return to national colours.
An ambition he feels would be closer still if the English-made Dukes ball that he has come to enjoy during the second-half of Australia's summer, and appreciated even more throughout his stint in the UK, became a staple tool of his trade.
"It was great to experience the Dukes in England, to use it in English conditions and see how they go about their cricket over there," said Mennie whose experience with Lancashire, and alongside Anderson, may yet prove a useful weapon in next year's Ashes campaign.
"I really enjoy the Dukes, it seems to offer something all the time, and as a bowler, it's good to know there's something on offer if you bend your back
"But I'll have to wait and see what the Kookaburra (brand ball) offers this year.
"I guess we'll know a bit more after this week."