Shield Classics, No.5 | Shaun Tait: Pace and pain
Our countdown of the best 30 individual Sheffield Shield seasons continues, with the remarkable 65-wicket campaign from the 'Wild Thing' coming in at No.5
5) Shaun Tait (South Australia), 2004-05
Matches: 10 | Wickets: 65 | Ave: 20.16 | 5wi: 3 | BBM: 9-73
Around seven months on from producing one of the most devastating individual Sheffield Shield seasons of all time, Shaun Tait was alone in a Melbourne hotel room, crying his eyes out in the shower as the prospect of a career cut short settled upon him like a heavy fog.
Tait was done for the foreseeable future. Errol Alcott, Australia's physiotherapist at the time, had confirmed as much in the preceding hours when they had met ahead of the 2005 Rest of the World Series to discuss the results of a shoulder scan.
The 22-year-old quick had severely torn the cartilage in his right shoulder. The origins of the injury could be traced back to that winter's epic Ashes series in the UK, when he had made his Test debut.
"I remember when I got the results back, and I thought I would be OK," Tait tells cricket.com.au. "I said, 'What does this mean?'
"Errol Alcott was like, 'Nah, you're buggered mate – you're going to have a long time out of the game'.
"You get an injury like that and it can be shattering. I was absolutely devastated. Devastated."
Just a week or two earlier, there had been only cause for optimism when Tait had spoken with national selectors about his place in the make-up of Australia's fast-bowling group.
"I was a bit funny about my performance in the Ashes, and I was really worried I was going to get dropped," he says. "But the selectors said, 'Nah, this is long-term mate. You're the young gun and you bowl fast, and we want you to be a big part of the Australian cricket team'.
"I was like, Wow, this is great. And then I went and got that scan in Melbourne…"
Tait didn't grasp the magnitude of the physical and mental challenges in front of him. He was young, and until that point his career had been tracking only on an upward trajectory.
The months that followed were filled by long, lonely days of rehab, his thoughts preoccupied by a genuine fear his bowling shoulder might never be quite the same.
Greg Blewett has painful memories of a teenaged Tait appearing at the end of a long run-up in the Adelaide Oval practice nets.
"He was doing work experience with the SACA – putting letters in envelopes and sending them out – and then he'd come and bowl to us," Blewett says.
"I remember him bowling this inswinging yorker that smashed me on the toe the day before a Shield game.
"I was like, 'Who is this bloke? Get him out of my net!'"
Tait's action had gradually changed through his junior years as he sought extra pace, and as a 17-year-old with grade club Sturt he was already bowling in excess of 140kph (in a fast-bowling competition during a Test match in Adelaide, he was famously clocked at 142kph).
"When I was younger, I was a bit more upright and had a bit more accuracy," he says. "But as I got older, I just wanted to bowl fast, and I was willing to do whatever my body had to do to get the ball down there fast. Then over time I just got used to it."
He was 21 when the 2004-05 Sheffield Shield summer began, by which point he had played 13 first-class matches, collecting 53 wickets at 26.57 as he used that slingy action to generate incredible pace. It was impressive going, but Tait was about to explode onto another level.
To complement an increase in strength in his still-developing body, he had improved his fitness by going on regular pre-season runs through the Adelaide Hills. It was a potent combination made even more so by a better understanding of his game, which had come about quite naturally with time spent in the professional set-up. With advisors such as Blewett, Darren Lehmann and captain Graham Manou, Tait was given absolute clarity as to his role in the side.
"I was certainly used as a pure strike bowler," he says, adding that his action – though horribly unkind on his body – allowed him to maintain extreme pace for long periods in his formative years.
"The criticism that came back about my career was I'd spray it around and I couldn't bowl long spells, but there were times through that season where I did bowl 10-over spells.
"Back then I had the ability to do that, and bowl pretty good areas to be honest.
"There were times where I was knackered, because bowling like that did take it out of me. As the day would wear on, I'd be running in slower, but I'd be bowling the same pace because my action would just get me there."
Tait averaged 22 overs per innings that Shield summer, playing in all 10 matches for the Redbacks for the only time in his career. He looks back now and knows only too well just how significant a part his injury-free run played in his most successful first-class season.
And it was from his very first outing – against Victoria in Adelaide – that he put the competition on notice. Across 35 overs, he claimed match figures of 9-73 in what became one of just three wins for the Redbacks that summer, and in a sign of things to come, seven of those victims were dismissed bowled or lbw.
"He just had that unbelievable pace," recalls Blewett. "When he got it right, he'd swing the ball away from the right-hander, but if he didn't quite get it right, the new ball would almost carve through the air and tail back in. That caused batters a lot of problems.
"Then later in the innings he'd reverse it as well, getting the ball coming back in (to the right-hander), so he would hit the stumps a lot.
"He had a really good bouncer, too, and that real competitive edge to him. All of it just made him a real handful."
Tait says for a bowler of his ilk, targeting the stumps was "the whole point", and by season's end he had 35 wickets either bowled or lbw (from 65 overall – with 12 caught behind by Manou). Established first-class stars such as Chris Rogers, Marcus North and Matthew Elliott all had their stumps hit.
And the wickets came with remarkable regularity. In 18 bowling innings, he captured hauls of four or more on 12 occasions. The Shield competition had never experienced such scintillating fast bowling across the breadth of an entire season, and it hasn't since.
Tait's memories of that summer bounce in and out of his mind, flashing through like sepia-toned film from some long-forgotten family movie. Bowling rockets at the Gabba with a swinging ball in the dying afternoon light. Listening to Lehmann from the slips telling opposition tail-enders they'd be wise to start having a crack against the spinners, lest the young tearaway be unleashed with the instruction to bowl short.
He says those days feel distant now, though he remembers more vividly the exhilaration that came with bowling in rapid bursts under lights and in front of packed houses as his ailing body forced him to switch his focus to Twenty20 cricket. By that point in his career however, there was also a constant expectation he would do what few others in the world could do.
"When you're playing Shield cricket, you're not on television, so no-one knows how fast you're bowling," Tait reflects. "You're bowling fast anyway, but the pressure to bowl fast isn't there.
"When I was a bit older, every game I played was on telly with the speed gun, so I felt a different pressure to bowl fast all the time.
"If I was bowling in the low 140s, whether it was even coaches in the team or the press, there'd be that question asked: 'What's wrong with him?'
"People make it out to be quite an easy thing – you just run in and bowl. But all fast bowlers will tell you, it's bloody hard work."
His point is only magnified when considering the truly express fast bowlers, and Tait's own career is part cautionary tale for any burgeoning young tearaway; following that 2004-05 summer and those two Ashes Tests, he wore the Baggy Green just once more and played only another 17 Shield matches.
"I didn't ever really come back one hundred per cent from that shoulder injury," he says, adding that it also played a role in the mental health issues he would later be forced to reckon with.
"Then my elbow went in 2007, and that was worse.
"You look back and go, 'Yeah, my prime years probably got bitten in half, but it is what it is.
"A lot of (fast bowlers) talk about being at their peak in their late twenties, but I peaked early, simply because of the physicality of my action.
"People kept saying to me through my career, 'It gets easier – your body gets used to it'. And it does to an extent, but the physicality of it never got easier for me.
"I think 21, 22 was when I was at my peak."
Shield Countdown so far
Make sure to return to cricket.com.au and the CA Live app all this week as we continue our countdown of the best Shield performances of the past 30 years