A leggie with nerve and verve
Mason Crane is only just 20, yet it is 18 months since he was first touted for a Test call. Ten wickets in his first two Championship games for Hampshire left usually sage pundits weak-kneed and predicting an autumn with England. Crane found it funny, knowing that this was the lot of the legspinner, that rare cricketing fetish item.
"It was peculiar," he laughs. "Legspin is weird like that. A young bloke comes on to the scene and you just instantly get people shouting their name about. It's nice to hear, but you know stuff like that is a fair way down the line."
Well, it is happening again. "At this rate we will be seeing Mason Crane on the next Ashes tour," chirped Gordon CC, Crane's Sydney grade club, on Twitter at the start of February. This followed his third consecutive seven-wicket haul - putting him top of the Sydney first-grade wicket-taking charts in what is proving a very productive first winter down under.
The county cricket stripling's stint in the grades is, of course, a well-worn path. Crane is making the most of it, but he arguably needed it more than most, too. He still lives with his parents in Worthing (although he is quick to say he's trying to move out) and this is the first time he has spent more than a tour's length away. "I've been doing stuff for myself for the first time," he says. "You go on tour and it's great, but that's with 15 other guys you know and a load of coaches. This has been five times that length, and I didn't know anyone. It's been great socially and it's proved a really good match."
It was Will Smith, his Hampshire team-mate, who set the move up, having played for Gordon himself. Peter Such, the ECB's lead spin coach (in regular contact via email), put him in touch with Stuart MacGill, with whom Crane has worked plenty. While there have been minor technical tweaks, their work has largely been tactical. MacGill knows Crane - a wicket-taker who gives it a rip, with a very fine googly and solid topspinner - can bowl legspin; what he needs is to understand how to bowl legspin. "There can't be many better blokes to talk about that with," Crane says.
Crane has enjoyed the bounce in the pitches and the time afforded to work on his game, bowling and batting. He sounds utterly thrilled that, having started the season batting at No. 9 or 10, Gordon now trust him to bat at No. 7. "That's a big thing for me and I'm pleased my hard work has paid off," he says. Having been an allrounder growing up, he feels he has not pulled his weight with the bat at professional level.
Two summers ago Ollie Rayner memorably wrote for ESPNcricinfo that if he had tips for a young spinner, the first would be "learn to bat", and while Crane would like to end up as a No. 8, he will not allow that to happen at the expense of his bowling. "Bowling is my main thing, I have to remember that," he says. "I don't want to become a bits-and-pieces player. What's important is that with the bat I can serve the team the way it needs - the kind of guy who can score quickly from the lower order to set up a declaration or dig in to save a draw." As a result he has worked on his batting with Trevor Chappell, Gordon's head coach, and the first-grade batsmen at the club. Two fifties in eight two-day games, and an average over 30 suggests it is working.
There have been eight hauls of seven wickets or better in first-grade cricket in Sydney this season, and three are Crane's. No bowler has more than his 37 wickets in two-day games. What he has relished most, though, is the opportunity to plough through overs. "I've bowled nearly 500 match overs out here, and there's really no substitute for that," he says. "I'll leave here very cricket-fit, and in great rhythm."
In the second of his seven-fors, he bowled 43 overs straight: "The skipper tried to take me off a few times, but I just kept wanting another. I had all the wickets after 25 overs, but their last pair blocked out as it got slower and flatter, and it was a great challenge in stinking heat."
Last July, after Smith bowled Crane for 51 overs as Surrey racked up 637, England veteran Gareth Batty said the young spinner had been "thrown under the car". But this, it seems, is just how Crane likes it. "I now know I can get through 30 overs, still getting loads on the ball, with ease. I always want the ball in my hand."
Crane was brought over to Southampton by his coach at Lancing College (which he captained for almost three seasons), former Hampshire spinner Raj Maru, after his native Sussex turned him down at Under-14 level, and he was soon a name on the lips of members. His ascent was inevitable, but as that innings against Surrey showed (he ended up with 3 for 210), first-class cricket hasn't come entirely easily to Crane since he took the first five Warwickshire wickets in his second game. "It's a seriously tough competition," Crane says. "Four-day cricket is brutal, especially if you have one long stint in the field. A couple of days' rest, a bit of travel, and you're doing it all again."
With 31 wickets at 45 in 12 games in 2016 (only three Hampshire players played more and only Ryan McLaren, with 32, took more wickets), Crane does not immediately look to have been a beneficiary of the adjusted toss regulations that saw the rejuvenation of Rayner and emergence of Jack Leach in a minor spin revival. "I definitely played more games because of the changes," he says. "But I'm not sure it was actually easier to bowl spin. Apart from at Taunton, where it spun and bounced beautifully, pitches were generally slow and pretty flat."
An interesting season looms for Crane. In the wake of their survival-by-default after the demotion of Durham (the team that had originally relegated them in the final round) and subsequent exploitation of the Kolpak market, it will be easy to cast Hampshire as the Championship's villains this summer. Despite some brash comments from chairman, Rod Bransgrove, in the wake of the Durham brouhaha, Hampshire are under no illusions as to how fortunate they are. "For a guy my age, it's enormous, and we are very lucky," Crane says. "It means I carry on bowling against the best in the country."
For all their notable imports, Crane is one of a number of talented homegrown youngsters at Hampshire. They include Tom Alsop (21), a favourite of England Lions, who scored a superb hundred at The Oval in September; Joe Weatherley (20), who has been pulling up trees in Adelaide this off season; and Brad Taylor (19) - looking to follow Liam Dawson and James Vince into the national set-up. The arrivals of Rilee Rossouw and Kyle Abbott will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect but neither is a spin-bowling alternative to Crane, and he will hope pitches continue to be helpful, so that he and Dawson - who bats in the top five and serviceably holds up an end with the ball - can play together.
"It's a difficult one," he says. "You can look at it two ways. There might be guys around the country who don't get a game. But on the other hand, guys like Kyle and Rilee will improve the standard massively, so when you do play, facing and playing with guys like that is huge. We will learn loads from them. Mainly it's just a massive shame they can't play for South Africa. I don't fully understand the politics there, but they are here and it'll be great to play with them."
That can wait, though. From Australia, Crane heads to the UAE, where he has been selected to play in the North v South and Champion County pre-season curtain raisers. There will be opportunities to firm up his county spot but also, perhaps, join Sam Curran, Joe Clarke and Tom Helm as candidates for England's Ashes bolter, just as Gordon's Twitter account predicted. Either way, he's a leggie with nerve and verve - and definitely a name to remember.
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp