@willis_macp 7 minute read
Mason Crane, Hampshire’s 20-year-old leg-spinner, is set for a Test debut in the fifth Test in Sydney. Towards the end of the 2017 summer he spoke to Will Macpherson about making history in Australia, taking down AB de Villiers and relishing that moment when all eyes are on him.
It’s Monday evening and Mason Crane is in Nando’s following a day in the dirt. He’s describing an increasingly familiar feeling.
“There’s this moment,” he says, “when you’re playing a big game with a packed house, and the place is buzzing. From the boundary, or even the ring, you can feel it. But then it’s your turn to bowl, and you’re at the top of your mark, and suddenly you can feel a quiet, an anticipation. A calmness comes over me at this point, because I feel in control. I can wait on this spot for as long as I need. Nothing happens until I start my run. The game is in my hands. All these people having their party, their night out, and they’re waiting on me.”
Crane reckons this is magnified by his role. But he does not see himself as simply a leg-spinner; he identifies as an attacking leg-spinner who wants to toss it up, give it some rag, and watch it dip, rip and befuddle batsmen. He can’t imagine anything worse than being a finger-spinner. Wickets, and wickets alone, are his currency.
“What I bowl, the way I try to bowl it…” he says, pausing for thought. “You can feel the crowd wondering: ‘What’s he going to do? Which ball is he going to bowl? He could get whacked out the park, or he could totally fool the batter’.”
This much is clear: Crane is a showman. Perhaps it comes with the gig; being a leggie with the name Mason Sidney Crane. “I like being in control. Whenever I am playing I want to be bowling every ball. I want to be that guy in the middle. I am there to entertain.”
In keeping with this phlegm and determination, Crane seems utterly at ease with the idea of becoming a Test cricketer and, lo and behold, by Thursday afternoon he has been named in the squad to face West Indies. He’s not picked for the first Test at Edgbaston, but the sense is that he won’t have to wait long. The selectors are evidently keen to gauge his readiness for this winter’s Ashes tour.
He’s already an international, having played two T20Is against South Africa in June – his debut was his sixth professional match in the format, as he cheerily noted to Sam Billings when walking out to field – and he rates them as “two of the funnest days of my life”. On home turf at the Ageas Bowl he returned tidy figures of 0-24 from four overs, with eight dots and two boundaries, but it is his next match, in Cardiff, that causes Crane’s eyes to light up.
He had conceded nine from each of his first two overs when AB de Villiers decided to launch. First, he swept four. Then, with the ball flighted again, he walloped six over cow. Six more followed over square-leg, before two singles. Crane didn’t feel he’d bowled a bad ball but five deliveries had brought 18 runs. For the final delivery of the over many spinners – most, in fact – would have fired it in and settled for a single. But Crane is wired differently and, after communication with Jos Buttler, England’s stand-in skipper, he went for broke.
“If he keeps doing that, he wins the game, and fast,” he says. “We need the wicket. He has taken me down, he’s on top of me: this is probably my last ball in the game – I might as well try to get him out! So I tossed it up, gave it plenty of revs so it had a chance of dipping hard and doing a bit, and hoped he’d go after it.”
De Villiers obliged, and was caught at deep square-leg. Crane went gorillas. “It was a release of everything,” he says. “The state of the game, the actual bloke I’d got out. A wicket for England! It was an amazing few seconds.”
Buttler gave him another over, and it cost just two. He toyed with Farhaan Behardien, showing off his variations and beating the bat with four successive deliveries. His figures of 2.5-36-0 had become 4-38-1 and the game was as good as won.
“The confidence brought by that wicket was huge,” he says. “By the next over I was just loving it, and knew that every ball would land beautifully. Watching a quality player grope around like that might even have been more pleasing than the wicket. The higher the level you play at, the more fun all of this gets. If you do nick a guy off or fool him, it’s an awesome feeling.”
The making of Mason Crane was unconventional. He had to find the game, because it didn’t find him. Growing up in Worthing, Dad worked as a hairdresser, Mum a credit controller, and “no one played cricket”. He saw cricket on TV and started bowling in the garden. Out popped leggies. “Then there’s an Ashes series on,” he says. “And some bloke called Shane Warne is taking 40 wickets…”
Soon there were variations. “All I ever wanted to do was bowl. Soon enough I’d accidentally bowled a googly, and it goes from there, learning how to disguise it. Leg-spin is like that, it’s addictive. When you can turn it both ways, there’s always something new to try.”
By 12 or 13, there were whispers about Crane across the south coast, although Sussex would spurn the chance to sign him as an early teen. Raj Maru, his coach at Lancing College, where he was on a sports scholarship, whisked him off to Hampshire, his former county. They worked closely for years, and still chat.
Crane believes a vital stage of his development – and the foundation of his even temper – came even earlier, as an 11- or 12-year-old, “getting pummelled by adults”. “I still think being hit for six early, guys taking me down, is the most important thing I’ve learned. Get used to it, don’t beat yourself up, stay calm. It happens.”
The other crucial spell was more recent: his 2016/17 winter in Sydney playing grade cricket for Gordon CC, which ended with Crane making his debut for New South Wales, in the process becoming the first overseas player to represent the state since Imran Khan in 1985. After being presented with his cap by Stuart MacGill, his new mentor, he ended with match figures of 5-116, wheeling away impressively from the Paddington End in an eight-wicket win. Did he understand how seismic this achievement was?
“I did get it, because Stuey kept telling me! We sat down over a coffee and he tried to explain about NSW, how on paper they are the best first-class team in the world because they have won so many titles. I wasn’t nervous beforehand. I felt like I was just back at Hampshire doing my job, turning up for a first-class game, but when Moises [Henriques] chucked me the ball for an over before drinks, I was bricking it. Then someone tweeted me during the game saying I was the first Englishman to play for them since 1860-odd. How is this me? I’ve come for a winter of grade cricket and some sitting on the beach and here I am playing Shield cricket at the SCG!”
As he pulled up trees in the infamously tough world of the Sydney grades, taking three seven-wicket hauls, it was a voyage of discovery as well. “I feel I improved massively as a player,” he says. “But as a person I feel like I grew up a lot too. I’d never done anything like that before, and didn’t know a soul. I’m an only child and that was the first time I’d been away for any length of time.”
Crane has since moved away from home, into a house on-site at the Ageas Bowl with fellow Hampshire striplings Brad Wheal and Chris Sole. He sees that Australia trip as a “catalyst” for the accelerated development that has taken place since. “I couldn’t have been more confident coming back going to the North-South series and then that spread into the summer, especially in white-ball cricket,” he says.
It was during that three-match series in Abu Dhabi – as well as his poise bowling to South Africa – that convinced the national selectors that Crane is better cricketer than his fledging numbers suggest. After all, an average of 42 after 25 first-class matches might suggest a Test batsman in waiting, not a bowler.
In Abu Dhabi, Crane was in the groove. With the North 146-2 and cruising to their target of 229, he took four wickets for one run in 10 balls – three bowled, one stumped – to turn the game on its head and seal a 20-run victory for the South. As with the spell against South Africa, he describes a trance-like state. “I felt in total control,” he says, “like I could toss anything up and it would land, and rag. That might be the best spell I’ve ever bowled.”
The best of Crane, so far, has been with a white ball, which makes his ascension to the Test squad, and Ashes talk, appear premature. While he relishes nothing more than a long spell – when he bowled 51 overs against Surrey in 2016, Gareth Batty said he had been “thrown under the bus”, but his skipper Will Smith said he couldn’t get the ball out of his hands – he accepts that finding consistency in Championship cricket is his greatest challenge.
“There are a lot of balls you bowl in the day that don’t necessarily feel like they mean a lot. The overs and times I bowl in 50- and 20-over cricket, you feel like there is huge pressure on each ball and that something is happening. I have to learn to keep that focus, energy and intensity, and make every ball an event.”
There’s time to work all this out. Crane and those who know him best expect his peak to be more than a decade away. He might find himself learning on the job, though. England have pressed fast forward. The raw materials – from his stock ball to his variations to his temperament, which he sees as a young leggie’s greatest asset – are clearly there.
He is already inured to the hype and attention that comes with being an English leggie. “You do notice people talking about you, and it is bizarre,” he says, “but what I bowl, the way I try to bowl it, it comes with the territory. I’m already used to it.” For instance, when he was left out of Hampshire’s Championship side in April, many – including national selector James Whitaker – howled in protest, but Crane believed the decision correct, given Liam Dawson’s presence and the conditions.
He has been talking to other cricketers about debuts. When his does come – and surely it is when, not if – Test cricket is not going to faze him, disturb his fearless disposition or prevent him giving it some rag.
“Everything you’ve ever worked for, the moment you pick up a ball in your back garden, you imagine yourself playing for England, that’s what you work for. So if you get there, whether you’re 20 or 30, it doesn’t matter – you never know, you could only get one game. Enjoy it! You see guys looking like they are having the worst time ever. All that graft, and then to get there and fret about things and what people are thinking? Surely that’s doing yourself a massive disservice.
“Cricket is a funny game. We worry about numbers so much, and they are important. But if my international career was to end after those two T20s, I’d average 62, and have just one wicket. And that doesn’t sound great, does it? But who cares? I played for England and I had a ball!”