Sport Cricket In the footsteps of a giant, James Muirhead emerges
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In the footsteps of a giant, James Muirhead emerges

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A month ago, few people had ever heard of James Muirhead. He had played just one first class game for Victoria, one for a Cricket Australia Invitational XI against England, and he had rolled his arm over a couple of times in the Big Bash.

Now, the young leggie is the talk of the town, he’s preparing for a Big Bash semi-final and, best of all, he’s an Australian international with a good chance of heading to the World T20 in Bangladesh in six weeks time.

Part of an experimental Australian T20 side that on Sunday completed an unexpected whitewash of a near full-strength England team, Muirhead’s success has been a shining light amid countless positives. In all three games, he bowled with poise, maturity and a good deal of bravery too, while conducting himself with vim, vigour and with a smile never far from his cherubic face.

Being a leg-spinner isn’t easy. When it goes wrong – think Imran Tahir’s 37 overs for 260 against Australia at the Adelaide Oval in 2012 – all control is lost, the lengths go awry and the boundaries flow. When it comes off, though, it is cricket’s most magical art – all flight, dip, fizz and pep – and even the world’s finest batsmen are left befuddled. It takes a certain type of character to succeed at this craft, which is why quality leggies are so few and far between.

“James is a pretty confident guy”, says Rob Quiney, Muirhead’s club captain at St Kilda and teammate with the Melbourne Stars and Victorian Bushrangers. “When he first turned up at St Kilda he was pretty shy and easily embarrassed. Some of the boys used to call him “Vegemite”, after the red-faced kid from their ads years ago.

“He’s really come out of his shell, though, and loves a challenge”, continues Quiney. “For a guy who is still learning his craft, I thought he bowled at good times in the T20s this week. He’s definitely not afraid to give it some flight or get hit, as he showed when he had (Tim) Bresnan stumped on Sunday.”

The dismissal of Bresnan required some pluck, that’s for sure. With the game already beyond England, the Yorkshireman was looking to have some fun and deposited a floaty Muirhead delivery into the stands beyond Stadium Australia’s short straight boundary.

Muirhead’s response? An even floatier, turning delivery that flummoxed the advancing Bresnan in the flight, beating him all ends up. With the batsman floundering halfway down the track, Matthew Wade did the rest.

This dismissal, along with the way he snaffled Stuart Broad, whose middle stump was castled by a ball that turned square having pitched outside off, showed why Muirhead is such a breath of fresh air. In an age when pitches rarely support their craft, and those in the stands duck for cover upon their introduction, spinners have been forced to bowl low darts to tie up an end. Muirhead is quite the opposite: he tosses the ball up, he’s gives it some zip and he’s not afraid to get hit.

“He’s certainly not afraid to put it in the hitting zone”, says Adrian Jones, Muirhead’s coach at St Kilda, “and he really thinks about his cricket and he understands the role of a leg-spinner.

“James arrived here four or five years ago on a recommendation from Altona CC”, Jones continues. “He started out in our third team, earned a promotion to the twos, even though he became their third spinner and made for a slightly lop-sided team!

“From there, he was promoted again to the firsts and has gone on to play for the Bushrangers and the Stars. There’s been no fast-tracking with James at all; he’s just bided his time and earned each promotion.

“We’re talking about a kid who loves the game so much he’d eat a cricket ball. I remember a twos games when there was a rain delay and James was outside bowling against a wall getting absolutely soaked – that’s how much he loves the game!”

Quiney admits to being “bloody nervous for him” but isn’t surprised at how comfortable Muirhead has looked in an Australia shirt. “Let’s just hope he’s not rushed too much and that he keeps progressing. He’ll come back to the Stars now, then hopefully he’ll play a bit of Shield cricket at the back end of the season and then who knows from there”, said the twice-capped batsman.

With Australia’s famine of quality leg spin since the halcyon days of Warne and MacGill, it’s hard not to be excited about Muirhead. Indeed, it’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons with another attacking leggie who counts St Kilda, Victoria, Melbourne Stars and Australia among his former teams. If only the 2014 version was blond on top and carried a touch too much timber….

At this, Jones laughs. “Shane’s not had anything to do with James at St Kilda yet, but they worked together at the Stars last season and I’m sure they’ll do so again in future.”

Such comparisons are, of course, absurdly premature, but forgive us for dreaming…