The Ashes - Chris Waters: Crane needs to forget about false starts as England suffer in Sydney

IT CANNOT be easy for a batsman facing Mason Crane.

England's Mason Crane bowls in Sydney.

First of all, he cannot be absolutely certain that the bowler is going to deliver the ball, for Crane has a habit of aborting his run-up.

“If something doesn’t feel quite right when I’m running in, the ball doesn’t feel quite right or one of the steps I take, I try and stop myself rather than bowl a ball I know wouldn’t be as good as I can give,” he explained.

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As England wilted on the hottest day in Sydney since 1939, with the temperature reaching 47 degrees, Crane’s Test debut continued as a baptism of fire in more ways than one.

When Australia pulled out themselves on 649-7 in the afternoon session, they held a first innings lead of 303, England ending day four on 93-4 in their second innings as they melt towards a 4-0 defeat.

Crane emerged from the towering inferno that has been England’s Ashes campaign with figures of 1-193 from 48 overs, the most conceded by an England bowler on debut.

As ever, reminders came from left, right and centre that the great Shane Warne conceded 1-150 from 45 overs on his debut against India at the same ground in 1992, as if Crane was merely following a statistical rite of passage.

It is not Warne of whom Crane puts one in mind, of course, but Warne’s former Australia team-mate Stuart MacGill.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Crane’s respect for MacGill could not be more obvious, for his action is so similar to Warne’s leg-spinning partner that it is as though our television screens have turned into time machines.

It is also MacGill, according to the former England off-spinner Graeme Swann, who has encouraged Crane in his habit of withdrawing before the point of release if something does not feel quite right as he comes into bowl.

MacGill has spent much time coaching the 20-year-old – clearly to good effect on the evidence of Crane’s largely promising performance overall – and there are similarities in the cerebral, combative approach that underpinned MacGill’s own method.

Crane’s habit of aborting his run-up, however, has certainly riled the Sydney crowd, who have howled and jeered into their ice-creams as surely as if they were watching Harold Larwood in 1933.

However, Swann, who presented Crane with his cap prior to the match, leapt to the young man’s defence, saying: “Stuart MacGill, who is a very strong character, has told him, ‘If it don’t feel right, don’t bowl it.”

Swann went on: “I’d much rather him (Crane) pull out and not bowl than bowl a beamer or a triple bouncer or something.

“That would be the end of him. Stop, and don’t care what the crowd are saying.”

Although one’s respect for all three parties could not be 
greater, for MacGill and Swann were masters of their crafts, and Crane is a fine prospect, a personal view is that bowlers should not be allowed to withdraw in this way.

For if a bowler can pull out at the last minute because something does not feel quite right to him, then why not a batsman, whose trigger movements, for example, might feel awry?

Unless a batsman is palpably not ready, or if someone is moving behind the bowler’s arm, he cannot suddenly bail out because he recognises, at the very last minute, that the stroke he is about to play is not the best one available to him.

Ergo, why should a bowler be allowed to withdraw if he suddenly realises that, to quote Crane, he is about to “bowl a ball I know wouldn’t be as good as I can give”?

Of course, there are times when a bowler might indeed legitimately pull out at the last moment, such as when he completely loses his footing, for example, or when the ball slips out of his hand like a bar of soap on his way to the crease.

But Crane’s mentality seems to be more concerned with quality than calamity, a bit like a striker running up to take a penalty in a football match only to stop suddenly and turn back because he appreciated, right at the point of impact, that he might not produce the best penalty that he could produce and therefore miss the opportunity for his team.

This, it seems to me, is one of the risks and variables of sport that goes with the territory; it is why players work so hard to hone and develop their skills in practice, away from the unforgiving spotlight of competition.

Sport is surely about the ability to perform in the moment – not just in those moments preferred by the individuals concerned, who may feel less capable in some moments than in others.

Crane, of course, is purveying what is commonly regarded as cricket’s hardest art.

If you have ever tried bowling a ball out of the back of the hand (and countless village batsmen have benefited from this correspondent’s inadequacy in that respect), you will recognise that it is a difficult, unnatural act that only heightens one’s admiration for anyone who actually does it for a living.

But that should not entitle preferential treatment, anymore than Crane’s tender age should warrant it either.

Test cricket is struggling as it is, with declining attendances in many countries, and with over-rates unacceptably poor, impacting unfairly on spectators’ enjoyment.

In the final analysis, people pay good money to watch action – not false starts.

Crane’s bowling is perfectly compelling enough without those.