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Interview with Stuart MacGill: 'I never cared about the bad balls, how far I turned them, or what I looked like'

Stuart M
Stuart MacGill
Aadya Sharma
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 23 May 2019, 03:06 IST
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"I am busier than I have ever been."

It won't be surprising if he had one hand on the phone through the entirety of this interview.

For Stuart MacGill, in 'complete recollection mode', was interrupted more than once by the sound of the telephone next to him. Managing business at the Aristotle's in Sydney, a Greek restaurant owned by his girlfriend, the now 48-year-old somehow squeezed out time between lunch and dinner shifts to revisit a cricketing career gone by.

It wasn't smooth ride - form, injuries, and an everlasting contest with a gargantuan spin figure in his own team, all combined to give him several turns and dips in his career, much like his own deliveries. But MacGill soldiered along, never shying from giving the ball a mighty turn, throughout his 17 years of playing top-grade cricket.

In an interview with Sportskeeda, MacGill proudly narrates his tale, touching several facets from a riveting journey that made him one of the most fascinating spinners of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Excerpts:

It's been a while since you retired from competitive cricket. How has life treated you post retirement?

Cricket is a hard game to stop playing, because you've spent a lot of time in it. When I was playing, it was not a job, it was something I enjoyed doing, and because I was good at it, I enjoyed it even more.

Because you spend so much time doing it, when you finish, you don't know what you have to do with yourself. I was just a little bit surprised at how much time I had. It kind of was a little bit difficult.

I enjoy food and I enjoy wine, and this (restaurant), and I am busier than I have ever been!

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You do speak about how difficult it was, staying away from the game. At the age of 40, something compelled you to make a sudden comeback, and you were back in the BBL. Was there an intention to play serious cricket?

In my era, we were lucky to be paid for something we loved. I loved the competitive aspect of cricket - the batsman-bowler duel is hard and unforgiving.

The reason why I stopped playing Tests was, because physically I was unable to continue due to my knee and hands (he battled carpel-tunnel syndrome in the late 2000s). I didn't want to play because I knew I won't be able to do the job. 

Before the BBL season (in 2011), I had been coaching a lot. I had been watching T20 as well. I looked at the game and wondered "Hey, I can bowl four overs."

A grey-haired MacGill is hugged by Dominic Thornely after the BBL win
A grey-haired MacGill is hugged by Dominic Thornely after the BBL win

I wanted to make sure that I was right. It was an ego component. I wanted to prove to myself, not so much to others, that I was good enough. I had young children at that time who didn't remember me playing really. I thought it will be nice to play BBL, a format that kids liked.

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Fortunately, it worked great - the Sydney Sixers won. It was a great year for me. Additionally, I got to play club and we won the premiership. It was a good experience all around.

In the middle of your international career, you were in great nick, especially in 2003 (54 wickets in 11 Tests). What clicks for a spinner when everything is going right?

I was lucky I had the opportunity to play county for Nottinghamshire. When you play county, you play competitive cricket day in day out. Once, in a single month, we played 15 days in a row, and I played 20 out of the 30 days. That really helped me settle down a lot. It stopped being about variations for me, it became more and more about bowling my stock ball.

At one point, I was just comfortable bowling the ball, turning back to my mark, and doing it again and again. The process became better and I became a lot calmer and comfortable doing the same thing over and over. As a consequence, I bowled a few bad balls.

When you try to turn it as much as you possibly can, it creates a big margin for error.

I came back to Australia and had a good run. It helped that Shane Warne was out of the game for a year helped as well.

Given the nature of both bowling styles and the crisscrossing careers, there were obvious comparisons with Shane Warne. What was your take on the competition with, perhaps, the greatest leg-spinner in the world?

I don't think you should ever compete with someone in your team, even for selection.

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I didn't actually ever compete with him in my head. I believed that certainly in the Australian context, he is the greatest spin bowler of all time. The great thing about cricket is all you have to do to win is to get 20 wickets.

It is not necessarily about how good you are, it is about your team having the ability to take 20 wickets. That's what I was focussed on 100% of the time. 

"I didn't actually ever compete with Warne"

I didn't really care about the bad deliveries, or how far I turned the ball. I didn't care about what I looked like, or any other players. The only thing I cared about was the team I was playing for, and if we were able to take those 20 wickets, as quickly as it could.

I just tried to really make sure I contributed all the time. There were only one maybe two Tests where I didn't get wickets.

For Indians, the Australian tour of 2003-04 holds a special place, especially for the historic Adelaide win. Do you remember something from that series that particularly stands out?

A lot of things did. Unfortunately, I never played a Test in India. Indian batsmen are well known for their mastery over spin bowling. I felt as though it would be fun. I did tour India in '98. Rahul (Dravid) was a young guy in the Indian team, I had spent a lot of time with him socially and I also met (VVS) Laxman, we played club cricket, and I had the opportunity to hang out with him a little bit.

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People talk about friendships, not sure now if it is the same today (I hope it is), but there were both really good guys and I just loved the way they went about their game.

(Recalling an incident) I think it was in Adelaide, I was bowling, and Laxman hit the ball hard back at me, and I picked it up and threw it back. He looked at me and said - "Stuey, you don't need to do that. I know you're a nice man."

I was like "C' mon man, I am trying to be grumpy here."

I was trying to be all macho man. He said I didn't need to do that because he knew I am a nice guy. Later, I grew fond of him.

He is an excellent guy. When you play against people you are friendly with, you want to do well. I also felt as though I would prove to them I was good.

"Spent a lot of time working out how to bowl to Ganguly"

On that particular tour, I couldn't get Dravid out, but a couple of my favourite deliveries were to Laxman. I picked him up at least once in Melbourne, and I was really proud of it.

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The guy I was most looking forward to bowling, was Sourav (Ganguly) because at the time he was widely regarded as one of the best batsmen of spin in the world. I spent a lot of time working out on how I should bowl to him.

I didn't have a great tour. But, Australian bowlers did not take a lot of wickets in total. Compared to others, I am actually very comfortable with the job I did. I didn't achieve my career highlights, but when I was bowling to Sourav it was great competition.

Ganguly was trying to get on top of me, and I was making sure I didn't respond. He treated me very well when I was in India. A lot of Australians talk about him being a thorn in the side, but I really liked him.

You did get him out after his century in Brisbane...

(Getting him out) was certainly a highlight. In fact, that game was rain affected, but I was really proud of myself. I never really have plans, I just try to bowl my best delivery, but some things worked for me against him.

Recently, India bettered the Adelaide feat and recorded a Test series win in Australia. How do you see the evolution of the Indian team as tourists over the years?

The tour that we were talking about had a great batting attack, it was an outstanding team. Our bowling wasn't as strong as it had been as we had a lot of injuries. Our new-ball bowlers were different in every Test, which did cause us problems.

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The team this year that beat Australia, and the 2003-04 one - the similarity is that both teams were very professional and wanted to beat Australia.

"Kohli should be applauded for his commitment to competition"

In between 2003-04 and 2018-19, there were a couple of tours where the Indian team didn't perform the way they wanted to. I wasn't involved in those tours, but I feel that they were tired once they were beaten in a series; they got a little bit jaded and lost interest.

This series, every single time the Indian walked out on the field, they meant business.

I haven't met Virat Kohli, but this attitude has a lot to do with him. He seems to remind the guys that every single time the ball is in hand, or when you look at the bowler, it is competition. It doesn't matter what the state of the game or series is, it is competition, and it matters. It was the same when Ganguly was playing. He just came up against very good Australian teams.

But, Kohli should be applauded for his commitment to competition.

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And we see that in Kohli's batting too - he is regarded as a modern-day great. When you were playing, which batsman was the most challenging to bowl to?

I know that in India I get criticised for saying this because everyone talks about Sachin. I found Sachin to be technically very gifted and certainly devastating. He knew his game, and he was very confident in what he was doing.

But, the most difficult batsman for a spinner to bowl to, for me, was Brian Lara. I think it was probably because he didn't have anything to lose. That was the difference between Sachin and Brian. Sachin had a good team around him as well - if Sachin built an innings, the side could build a win around him.

"Lara had nothing to lose. It was very difficult to bowl to him"

If Lara made a hundred, it wouldn't necessarily mean that the side would win. That must have been difficult for him. My leg break turned a lot, and if I bowled one which hit the top of the off stump, he could hit it in 6-7 different places. It was very difficult to bowl to him.

Muralitharan, Shane, myself, and spin bowlers from every country had a problem with Lara. For me, he was the one who made me nervous because he was able to smash the living daylights out of you.

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But I always felt you could maybe get him out.

When they were at the top of their game, I wasn't sure if I could get Sachin and Rahul out. The scariest one was definitely Brian Lara. But then, your primary job is not to stem the flow of runs, it is to get wickets.

And, I ended up getting Brian out five-six times, perhaps the most I have dismissed anyone. I always thought I would somehow get him out, but in the middle of it all, he would beat the living daylights.

Sachin, Dravid and Laxman did it to a lesser degree. They made you wonder how you will get them out. It was difficult, but it wasn't damaging and it wasn't embarrassing.

Interestingly, when we were playing, Brian and I didn't get along. It was the time spent after that we bonded. After you retire, you can tell the truth. We actually get along well now. 

I told him how I felt when I bowled to him. I told him it was difficult bowling to him, what I respected about him and how good he was. Sometimes, people judge cricketers based on how they carry themselves on the cricketing field.

You can imagine being Lara and how he was gifted in a team that was not particularly good. I am sure he wished he was in a different team and made the headlines like others.

In a 44-Test career that spanned from 1998-2008, MacGill ended with 208 wickets and was particularly remembered for the tremendous spin he imparted on his deliveries.

In part 2 of this interview, MacGill speaks about his views on contemporary cricket and the renaissance of wrist spinners in world cricket.

Published 22 May 2019, 10:00 IST
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