(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
Mason Crane’s entry into the consciousness of England supporters may not have had quite the seismic impact of Shane Warne’s ball of the century, the freak of physics that bamboozled Mike Gatting with his first delivery in Ashes cricket.
But the 20-year-old Hampshire leg-spinner’s performance on his international debut in England’s opening T20 against South Africa suggested Crane appears to share at least one of the qualities that enabled the Aussie genius to become the greatest exponent of their type of bowling in the history of cricket.
Crane was only eight years old in 2005 when the sight, sound and sheer presence of Warne, bowling in his final series against England here, glued him to his television screen.
The kid liked what he saw enough to dream that, one day, it might be him up there, but, as much as his precocious ability to explore and utilise the possibilities of the hardest craft in the game, the way Crane went about his business on and off the field showed he lacks nothing when it comes to the stuff that made his boyhood hero such an irrepressible force. Chutzpah, in a word.
It was first evident in Crane’s pre-match interview, when he was asked how he viewed the prospect of bowling against AB de Villiers, arguably the most destructive batsman on the planet, in the most unforgiving form of the game for bowlers, and with only five T20s for Hampshire to draw on for experience.
“It’s going to be a bit of a baptism of fire,” said former England skipper Nasser Hussain, more in the way of statement than a question. “The great AB de Villiers. How much are you looking forward to that?”
Mason himself saw no cause for alarm whatsoever. “I can’t wait,” he replied without hesitation. “You’ve got nothing to lose. You want to put yourself up against the best and he’s the best there is. I hope I get to bowl at him.”
Doubtless, at this point, there may have been those mouthing the words: “Be careful what you wish for” but you did sense that behind Crane’s apparent bravado might be more than mere youthful optimism and, when he did get his chance, he proved it.
Just landing the first ball at all would have been enough for some in Crane’s boots, but had this one pitched on the line of leg stump instead of just outside it, his lbw shout against Farhaan Berhardien might have been more than a release of any pent-up nervous energy.
Sending down the googly second ball was equally impressive, as was not being deterred when his third, too short and wide, was slashed off a thick-ish edge past third man for four.
And then came the moment Crane had waited for in hope, not trepidation.
For the next 20 minutes we waited for De Villiers to go to town on his young opponent, to show this callow youth that it’s a tougher game when you get here, son… don’t bowl that crap at me… back to the nets, idiot.
Yet barrage came there none.
A couple of twos, yes, and a few singles, but, as their contest progressed, Crane had no qualms at all about dipping into his bag of tricks and pulling out all sorts; from sliders to wrong-’uns and leg-breaks, at different paces, with different degrees of spin imparted on the ball, using different seam positions and with flight ranging from flat to loopy.
And as he did so, you sensed not only a growing frustration in De Villiers, but also an emerging respect that this bowler was not be to be messed with.
Granted, after England’s early breakthroughs, De Villiers felt unable to hit first and worry about wickets later, and the big outfield at the Ageas Bowl made boundaries hard to clear.
But in tandem with his county teammate Liam Dawson, Crane made sure the South African skipper knew he was in a battle and, cleverly backed by Eoin Morgan to bowl his full allocation straight through, from the second ball of his final over he so nearly claimed a deserved and what would have been a brilliant and fully deserved personal victory.
De Villiers went back to a ball that pitched fractionally short and set himself to pull it through the leg side.
At first glance it appeared simply only slightly better than a long-hop.
Viewed more charitably, and Crane is the only man who will know for certain, the way in which it then hurried onto the batsman, it might just have been the perfect top-spinner.
Either way, the ball skied off the bat back over Crane’s left shoulder to where he hoped Jason Roy would be waiting to make the mighty AB his first wicket for England, but the darn thing kept going just far enough to end up just out of reach.
Maddeningly for Crane, a full toss from his final ball allowed De Villiers to smear only the second boundary in a spell of 24 from four overs with eight dot balls, but it took nothing away from what had been a highly impressive first go.
Those who have studied Crane’s career thus far would not have been surprised he once again rose to the occasion.
After all, wasn’t his first scalp in professional cricket that of Kumar Sangakkara, admittedly from a horrible full bunger, when he made his county debut in a T20 against Surrey in 2015?
Didn’t he take five Durham wickets on his first-class debut two weeks later and then, in the next match, against Warwickshire, become the youngest Hampshire player to take a five-for?
Didn’t he bowl so well last winter for Gordon, in Sydney Grade cricket, that he became the first overseas cricketer to play for New South Wales since Imran Khan in 1984-85? Didn’t he finish his debut for them, against South Australia, with five wickets in the match?
And didn’t he produce a devastating spell of four wickets for one run in ten balls as he helped the South complete their 3-0 mauling of the North on the eve of the season in Abu Dhabi?
More surprising was that he actually began the summer stuck in Hampshire’s 2nd XI playing a 50-over match against the Unicorns, the issue of underuse by his county a thorny one with the England hierarchy who showed their hand, and their expectation of what he may become, by picking him for his international debut on Hampshire’s home ground the other evening.
Crane has given credit to the work he did in Sydney with Stuart MacGill, the former Aussie leggie who seems to have encouraged his full-on, attacking approach as much as his search for tighter control. But it was a message from another of the breed that would have puffed him up even more.
“Don’t expect too much first up from young Crane,” tweeted Warne, “but be excited and encourage the young man. The early signs look good as he gives them a rip.”
For, while his first efforts did not contain a ball of the century, they did find favour with the man who bowled it. And above all else, of course, Warne would have liked his style.