Australian cricket was blessed with two world-class spin bowlers at the turn of the millennium. Leggies Shane Warne and Stuart McGill combined for 916 Test wickets, and regularly bowled in tandem for Australia, especially at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Nathan Lyon is today’s undisputed first-choice tweaker, but the search for an understudy has been arduous for selectors.
Since Warne’s retirement in 2007, Australia has trialled 14 spin bowlers in the Test arena, Lyon and fellow off-spinner Nathan Hauritz the only two capable of retaining their spot in the side for more than 12 months.
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Featured in that list are one-Test wonders Beau Casson and Bryce McGain, along with current state representatives Ashton Agar, Jon Holland and Steve O’Keefe.
Even Cameron White and Steve Smith were tested as Australia’s primary spin bowler in five-day cricket.
This summer, Australian selectors are eager to uncover Lyon’s latest deputy as the SCG New Year’s Test approaches. However, chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns concedes the search has been a difficult one.
“It is a bit of an issue for us, we’re really focusing on our spin bowling department at the moment,” Hohns said on Thursday.
“We will be putting a couple of spinners on notice to make sure they are doing extra work as required.”
Cricket legend Shane Warne echoed Hohns’ concerns at the start of the summer.
“If something happened to Lyon, it would be a real issue,” Warne said in October.
“It’s important for this summer for Australia now … if something does happen to Nathan that someone can step up. I’m not sure who that person can be.”
Recent Sheffield Shield performances would suggest that very person is leg spinner Mitch Swepson. The Queenslander has taken the most wickets of spinners in the Shield this season, equal to O’Keefe with ten dismissals apiece.
Swepson was selected in Australia’s Test squad for tours to India and Bangladesh in 2017 but remains uncapped. The 26-year-old made headlines last month after claiming a hat trick in a four-day match against Victoria at the MCG.
Swepson’s leg spin fittingly contrasts Lyon’s off-spin, the duo posing a considerable threat to New Zealand’s batsmen at the SCG next month.
The young Queenslander would mainly be beneficial for targeting right-handed batsmen — Lyon averages 37.23 when bowling to the right-handed, compared to 24.51 against lefties, when he can spin the ball away from the outside edge.
32-year-old Lyon has particularly struggled against New Zealand’s right-handed batsman. In seven Test matches, he was never able to dismiss Brendon McCullum. Fellow right-handed batsman Ross Taylor averages 290 against Lyon’s bowling in Test cricket, thanks primarily to one exceptional innings at the WACA in 2015.
If Swepson can muster a few wickets in this weekend’s Sheffield Shield match against New South Wales, a potential Test debut at the SCG beckons for the young leg spinner.
“It has been communicated before that (the selectors) are looking for someone to step up into that role … there is a bit of a gap between Nathan Lyon and the rest of the guys coming through,” Swepson told SEN radio on Thursday.
“They are probably a little bit worried about our spin bowling stocks in the country at the moment. It gives a bit of hope, I guess, to the guys that are playing Shield cricket at the moment for their state.
“If you put a couple of good performances together, you never know what might happen because there is that opportunity there. For me, that is how I see it, as an opportunity to put your name up there.”
Warne has endorsed the Queensland leg spinner in the past — he called for Swepson to make his test debut against Pakistan in 2017 SCG Test.
“I would love to see young Swepson in the playing XI as the second spinner at the SCG,”
Warne posted to Twitter.
“I wasn’t ready at the time the selectors threw me into the playing XI vs India, but the experience helped me for the rest of my career.”
Although Hohns and Langer are yet to unearth a second world-class spin bowler, Australian pitches by no means help the cause.
The famously flat tracks around Australia undeniably cater towards pace bowlers — the top 18 wicket-takers in the Sheffield Shield this season are all pacemen.
Australian pitches pose an even more significant threat to finger spinners, who have averaged 47.81 Down Under since 1990, a stark comparison to 32.28 for wrist spinners.
Swepson wasn’t selected for Queensland’s first two Shield matches this season, selectors opting for a four-man pace attack instead.
“It has been tough at the moment for spinners in Sheffield Shield. The conditions don’t really suit at all grounds for spinners to play,” Swepson told SEN radio.
“I obviously didn’t play the first two games at the Gabba there in seaming conditions. I know a few states don’t play spinners at their home grounds either; it has been quite tough for spin bowlers in the country.”
Despite the home disadvantage, Swepson averages a respectable 34.98 with the ball in first-class cricket. While that figure doesn’t seem overly impressive, it’s important to note Lyon’s corresponding average is 34.56.
More importantly, Swepson is in career-best form, averaging 21.20 with the ball this season.
Although Swepson may be favoured for a Test call-up ahead of rivals O’Keefe, Agar and Holland, he may yet miss the starting XI due to Marnus Labuschagne and his part-time wrist spin, which earnt him a shock selection in last year’s New Year’s Test.
Regardless, with proper training and guidance, Swepson may become not only Lyon’s deputy, but rightful predecessor.