Through the late 1990s and for a majority of the 2000s, Australia’s reign at the top of world cricket was undisputed as they conquered opponents both at home and away. In a team that boasted individuals capable of turning the game on its head instantly, it was a tough task for someone slightly less gifted to cement his place.
Michael Kasprowicz, the right-arm medium fast bowler, did not always get a chance to showcase his skills at the highest level despite his abundance of talent. He made his first-class debut as a 17-year-old for Queensland in 1989-90, and was a part of the setup for 19 years before hanging up his boots in 2008. For ten years, he was in and out of the Australian side, trying to make himself relevant in a bowling unit which consisted of stalwarts such as Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne. He did, however, carve a niche for himself, as a subcontinent warhorse. Bowling his off-cutters and reversing the ball at pace, he was the chief architect of Australia’s 2-1 series victory in India in 2004, ending a 35-year drought.
In his 38 Tests, Kasprowicz he picked up 113 wickets at 32.88, his best of 7 for 36 coming against England at The Oval in 1997. He also played 43 One-Day Internationals for 63 wickets at 24.98. Post retirement, Kasprowicz earned a degree in Master of Business and Administration from the University of Queensland and is also a Board member at Cricket Australia. Recently in India, Kasprowicz took some time out to speak with Wisden India about his career, bowling alongside McGrath, Gillespie and Lee, and what to expect at the Ashes. Excerpts:
You were a part of probably one of the best Australian sides of all time, bowling alongside some of the greats of the game. How would you sum up your career?
It was a wonderful team and being a part of that Australian side over a ten-year period, I was in and out, but always there when it came to the subcontinent. It was just a true honour to be part of the team during that successful period of Australian cricket. There was so much talent and when you have got one of the best fast bowlers the world has ever seen in Glenn McGrath, also through that stage there was Jason Gillespie, then there was Brett Lee who was coming up from behind, so there was so much talent that for me to stay relevant in some ways, have the opportunity to keep coming back into the Australian side, finding a way to develop new skills, improve the approach, just develop myself to be in that side… it was a great lesson.
For a fast bowler to play for 19 years of first-class cricket is rare. What was your fitness regimen like?
I was a bit fortunate I did not have injuries issues. To get that opportunity when still in high school to play for Queensland, it was extraordinary. It is quite remarkable, the longevity, with the amount of deliveries I have bowled and the amount of time that I spent playing first-class cricket. I can’t sort of put it put down to one specific regimen, but the one important thing that I learnt early was to make sure you keep having fun. That was the way I seemed to do it, it is funny how pressure can release in many ways when you are having fun. It will not let it consume you. At the same time, I think I have been quite fortunate to have a good, strong bone-line and perhaps that has helped me.
“It (fast bowling) kind of chooses you, to be honest, in a lot of ways because you can naturally bowl a ball faster than the next guy and that’s how it works.”
What made you choose bowling fast as a career option? Growing up in Queensland, who were the players that inspired you the most?
It kind of chooses you, to be honest, in a lot of ways because you can naturally bowl a ball faster than the next guy and that’s how it works, really. I am sure every batsman will tell you…. they all frustrated fast bowlers all their lives, but deep down they would love to be able to bowl fast. It gives you the ability to legitimately be a bully in some ways. All batsmen, I am sure, would love to do that. I was very fortunate because I grew up in the late 70s, when World Series Cricket was just happening and we had Dennis Lillee… Jeff Thompson was just finishing up about that stage, but you sort of had that inspiration with these fast bowlers. There was aggression, there was skill, but also back in those days right through the 1980s, West Indies just kept coming after Australia. They were there every second year, and when you are watching Holding and Garner and Marshall and Roberts.. oh everyone, then Walsh and Ambrose coming on the scene as well, for a young aspiring fast bowler it was just a heyday for inspiration.
How does a player good enough to represent several other teams deal with being born in an era of great talent in his own team? How did you balance the joy of bowling alongside McGrath, Gillespie and Lee knowing that it was because of them that you couldn’t play a lot more games?
Ah, look, I really enjoyed it and I am still very good mates with all these people. In many ways, when you are playing in a great team, you are challenged constantly, so it actually helps you out because you are competing for the spots and you are improving yourself all the time. It was difficult, but what I loved about it was that because it was hard, there was always this extra challenge to get into the side. I personally benefited a lot from those situations.
You and Jason Gillespie have been credited hugely for Australia breaking their duck in India in 2004. How did this partnership come about?
We were sitting on the plane, and the way I remember it was that I suggested to Jason that after playing for Glamorgan, which was a low and slow wicket in English county cricket, for three years, what we should do is bowl straighter (in India), set fields a little bit differently and put pressure on the players. That was part of the adjusting to the conditions and situations, so that’s what we did and it worked for us. There was obviously plenty of discussion, looking at ways to become better.
“When you are playing in a great team, you are challenged constantly, so it actually helps you out because you are competing for the spots and you are improving yourself all the time.”
You bowled a lot of cutters, slower deliveries, and showed your prowess at reversing the ball at pace. How did you learn the art of reverse-swing?
The 1998 series, that is when I learnt it by asking questions, asking about how reverse-swing works to people who had knowledge about it here, finding out the science of reverse swing and then taking care of the ball. Keeping the rough side bone dry was a big part of that, and I think just adjusting to that, finding its worth there, was incredible. It was the last Test at the Chinnaswamy Stadium where it worked. It did swing and we had an immediate impact, and we were able to win the Test match (by eight wickets) from it. From a personal point of view, that was the most satisfying individual performance. I think I took 5 for 28 in that second innings. It was so hard the previous 3-4 weeks of the tour, having lost eight-and-a-half kilos of body weight and with the heat and humidity, that was the most challenging thing that I have ever done. But to actually adjust my skills, to learn how to do that was most rewarding from a personal point of view.
As someone who has tasted success on Indian soil, why do non-Asian teams falter in the subcontinent?
I think it is all about adjusting your skills to suit the conditions and the situation of the game as well. That is sort of what great players were always able to do on every surface. If we bracket down to when you are playing cricket in India, you have to be so different from the surfaces and the conditions that we face in Australia. It is just a matter of finding your way and adjusting your skills and adopting different game plans to suit these conditions. Sometimes, it can be very different from your game plan or it could be quite different from something as far as the skill that you don’t normally do. I could give my example… I was generally an outswing bowler, but coming to Indian conditions, learning to reverse-swing the ball, bowl cutters on these lower, slower wickets was in some ways essential. That was not a requirement on Australian surfaces, but certainly in this country, it was essential.
With the heat too an extreme factor, how much does the mental aspect of the game come into play?
Because of the heat, in some ways every ball becomes an event on its own. And for fast bowlers in such conditions, the importance of bowling in partnerships is even more. It amplifies because you need to put pressure on both ends, building it up ideally by stringing in consecutive maiden overs. Certainly not easy in India. It is tough, but you just have to find a way. The level of sophistication around sports science today is so much more and greater than what it was when I played and a lot of it have preventive measures as well. The science is a lot more involved now because the players, after all, are an asset — certainly the fast bowlers — and you have to make sure that they are available.
“Because of the heat (in India), in some ways every ball becomes an event on its own. And for fast bowlers in such conditions, the importance of bowling in partnerships is even more.”
As a fast bowler, how do you think the different formats of the game have impacted the art of quick bowling?
You still need to execute, regardless of the format. I think the crucial part for a fast bowler is that you still have got to own your delivery and execute your plans. If the batsman is too good, then he is too good. But certainly, T20s have got the bowlers thinking differently about how they do that. Whether that’s sliding into Test cricket, I am not too sure, I think naturally it does. And I think, maybe the way that Test cricket is played at the moment, the bowlers aren’t as patient as they used to be. I met Bishan Singh Bedi recently at an event and we were sort of having a roundtable discussion about this, and he used a word… He said T20 is restless cricket, and it is. It is restless. That’s what I am thinking, that perhaps the pace, the style, it does get into the longer format of the game in some ways. Test cricket as we know is the patient form of the game, we have got to not think so restlessly.
With the focus on the upcoming Ashes, how do you see the sides going about it?
Australia are looking really good. It is going to be challenging like it always is for the opposition team to play on an away tour, same way the Australians finds the turning wickets in India. Likewise, the bouncy wickets in Australia will provide a challenge for the English players when they come out. And it will be up to them to adjust their skills and techniques to suit the Australian conditions.
How would you rate the current Australian team?
It is quite a young side really when you look at that. The Australian selectors made a constant decision at the start of the year to back some younger players. And we have seen a couple of players come out from the Indian tour who have been highly impressive from the Australian side. Marcus Stoinis with the bat and the ball, and even Nathan Coulter-Nile coming back from injury, he was very good through the series. Aside from everything else, there is a lot of substance when you win, and certainly for the Australian side, from what I have read, Steven Smith was very disappointed with the results (in the ODIs in India which Australia lost 1-4). The expectation was that they could have done a bit better, but like all good teams, you are walking away with a lot of experience and learning from it and use that experience to be better the next time.
“T20s have got the bowlers thinking differently. Whether that’s sliding into Test cricket, I am not too sure. The way Test cricket is played at the moment, the bowlers aren’t as patient as they used to be.”
Who are some of the younger players to have impressed you the most?
There are a lot of good cricketers in our domestic competition, and even the players in the national side, who have been given the opportunity, have certainly been impressive in Australia. I don’t want to single anyone out. We have had a run where I think we have slipped down in rankings at the moment, so it is a great opportunity for players to stamp their place and just follow the process.
A word on Steven Smith, as player and captain.
I have been really impressed with Steve and his leadership style. He is new at it but he has really developed, standing up for what he believes in and in many ways has made the place his own. I think certain players lead by doing, and he definitely does that with the bat. I know how disappointed he gets when he doesn’t score runs, which to be honest in recent history hasn’t been too often.
“I have been really impressed with Steve (Smith) and his leadership style. He is new at it but he has really developed, standing up for what he believes in, and has made the place his own.”
There has been talk about Australia using four pacers to rattle England. For someone who was an integral part of the pace quartet, what do you make of this?
It did not happen too often in my time as well, as we had Shane Warne in our side, who was pretty handy (laughs). If the conditions suit, I think more often than not you would get three fast bowlers and Nathan Lyon is a pretty handy spinner, he has got more than 250 wickets to his name in Test cricket. That illustrates it pretty well. Having said that, if there is grass on the surface, or it has a green tinge, generally three fast bowlers are going to do the job and often you don’t need the fourth. So, it just depends on, like I said the conditions or who’s available.
Your take on the Ben Stokes situation? And how big an impact do you think it will have if he doesn’t play the Ashes?
I can’t really comment on that. Over the past few years, he has been a big part of that English side, but you can’t worry about that and certainly, from an Australian point of view you have to just focus upon playing against who is in front of you. They will just want to go out and back themselves regardless.