You have to feel for Mark Craig.
The New Zealand off-spinner has endured a rough time in Australia, taking a combined 6/438 in Brisbane and Perth and 1/271 in three tour matches.
Before the Australia tour, Craig had played 10 Tests for 38 wickets, including 7/94 against Pakistan and 8/188 on his debut against the West Indies. This is a harsh reality check.
Most of Craig’s wickets have come during “garbage time”, when the Aussie batsman chased quick runs to force a declaration. In the first innings Craig took 0/156 off 31 overs at the Gabba and 3/123 off 23 overs at the WACA, both times conceding more than five runs an over. His first wicket in Perth came in the 131st over.
Some of the best international spinners have been humbled down under.
Mulari took 800 wickets in 133 Tests compared to 12 in five Tests in Australia. It was the infamous Boxing Day Test in 1995 which sparked the no-ball furore that dogged his career, especially in Australia.
Graeme Swann took 15 wickets in the 2010/11 Ashes win. Three years later, he abruptly retired after England lost the Ashes in Perth.
Ashley Giles’ Test career was ended after the 2006 Adelaide Test, taking 2/149 and crucially dropping Ricky Ponting in the first innings.
Giles’ replacement Monty Panesar took eight wickets at the WACA, but is remembered for being Adam Gilchrist’s plaything in the second innings. Monty managed just five more wickets in four Tests and was dropped after England’s MCG loss in 2013/14.
Leg-spinner Scott Borthwick took over from Monty in Sydney, took four wickets and hasn’t been seen since.
One of the few international spinners to genuinely thrive in Australia (though India’s Ravi Ashwin has taken 21 wickets in six Tests) is Anil Kumble, with 49 wickets in 10 Tests, including 8/141 at the SCG in 2004 (12/279 for the game). Kumble was tall and bowled at near-medium pace. His lack of turn was compensated by his bounce, subtle change of pace incredible accuracy.
So why is it so hard for international spinners – many arriving with big reputations – to succeed in Australia?
Aside from Sydney and Adelaide, spin is hard to bowl in Australia. Spinners have to toil hard on flat or unsympathetic pitches and can’t get used to conditions like local spinners. Most international teams come to Australia every three to four years. The spinner plays a crucial role in Tests: they need to keep it tight in the first innings and cash in when it turns on days four and five. Spinners who can’t do this – like Craig – are mercilessly punished by Aussie batsmen. The same theory partly explains why Australia struggle with the sub-continental spinners or the swinging ball in England.
So how can visiting spinners succeed in Australia?
The obvious answer is for overseas spinners to play more Shield cricket while still active Test players.
South Africa’s Johan Botha has played with South Australia and the Adelaide Strikers since 2012, though he hasn’t played a Test since 2010. England’s Adil Rashid played for South Australia in the state-based Big Bash in 2010/11 and helped them win the title.
New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori took 37 wickets in 12 Tests in Australia and has played with the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League since 2011, graduating to head coach in 2015. Like Kumble, Vettori is tall and relies on more on bounce, accuracy and change of pace than turn.
If current overseas spinners can be lured to play Shield and Big Bash cricket, they will have time to prepare for Tests and avoid a potentially career-ruining pastings.