Mitchell Swepson: 'I loved being thrown the ball to win the game for the team'

Mitchell Swepson produced one of his best performances at the MCG last season Getty Images

Twirling in from the Members End at the MCG in November last year, Mitchell Swepson was fulfilling a dream more elusive for Australian spin bowlers than most.

He had the opportunity to help bowl Queensland to victory over Victoria in a fourth innings on a wearing pitch, and with figures of 3 for 17 in 17.5 overs of suffocating accuracy, after a hat-trick in the first innings, he was the main reason the Bulls were able to claim outright points.

Asked to recall that week, and why it went so well, Swepson is instantly enthused. "I could talk about that game all day if you want to," he laughs. "Leading up to that game, all last season I felt like I'd taken my bowling to somewhere it hadn't been, mainly with my consistency and my plans, I felt like I was in a lot better place to succeed in the Shield last year, just for where my consistency and plans were.

"That game, for starters it was a great cricket wicket, it had a little bit in it for everyone, there was a bit of spin, a bit of seam for the quicks, and if you got yourself in there as enough runs to be scored there for batters as well. It was just a combination of the ball coming out really well, the conditions suited the way I was bowling. I was bowling from the Members End and there was a beautiful breeze blowing to use with some drift, so I found myself loving bowling from that end.

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"But also I loved being thrown the ball to win the game for the team. It was something that I haven't really had a lot of experience doing, which you might think is quite surprising for a legspinner who's played 40-odd first-class games, I haven't really been thrown the ball late on day four to win the game for the team much in my career, and I guess just getting that opportunity excited me a lot, and given I was bowling well, it was the perfect combination. Luckily I was able to do that job on the day and we had a great win."

The sting in Swepson's recollection is the fact that, over a first-class career that began five years ago, this really was a rarity. On only three occasions in 42 matches to date has Swepson been granted circumstances in which he can bowl 20 overs or more in the fourth innings of a match, a quite staggering statistic given that, on the face of it, spin bowlers are generally chosen to take on their most prominent role at the end of a game.

On the occasions when he has been able to be significant part of the Queensland attack in the fourth innings, Swepson has performed: 24 wickets at 26.45 and a startling strike-rate of 40.1, as against career returns of 35.68 and 57.6. But the fact he has bowled little more than a 10th of his career overs in such circumstances should give Australia's coaches, selectors and administrators pause ahead of the latest edition of the Sheffield Shield. If Swepson, a resilient and intelligent character and the best long-form legspinner in the country, is barely getting these opportunities, then it is difficult to imagine anyone would.

"I can't see it being anything other than the fact the conditions nowadays, wickets are just holding together so much better, you find that spinners are having more impact earlier in the game when the wickets are fresher and have a bit more moisture in it and have that tackiness to them," Swepson says. "It's a little bit frustrating because growing up and watching a lot of cricket as a youngster and as a spinner, day four is your day, your time to shine, but I really haven't had much experience of doing that and playing that role."

For Craig Howard, arguably the leading mentor of spin bowlers in Australia, Swepson's advancement is critical given the fact that Nathan Lyon is now 32, while precious few spin bowlers are getting the chance to develop in the pressure of match situations.

"Quite a number of our games over the next couple of years are going to be outside Australia, and if you look at the last two Test series in India [in 2017] and Sri Lanka [2016], 64% of the overs were spin in India, and 74% were spin in Sri Lanka," Howard says. We need players who can play against it, and if they're only facing a handful of overs in first-class cricket in green conditions, how are we going to know who are the players who can actually play really tough, challenging conditions and create some defensive and attacking weapons against it."

"I'm definitely not trying to spin the ball less, I think that's my one weapon that shouldn't change. I'm trying to give it a rip, that's what I'll always try and do" Mitchell Swepson

It is to Swepson's enormous credit that he has managed to keep himself in the arena nevertheless, for recent Australian cricket history is littered with young spin bowlers who have been discarded before getting the chance to develop. Names like Jason Krejza, Beau Casson, James Muirhead, Dan Cullen, Cullen Bailey, Dan Doran, Josh Mangan and even Swepson's Queensland predecessor Cameron Boyce can all be mentioned to instantly conjure stories of hard luck, misunderstanding and the crushing pressure of trying to bowl spin down under.

That's not to say it has been easy for Swepson, despite the presence of empathetic mentors and talent identifiers such as John Davison, Craig Howard and Trevor Hohns. "I had to learn the hard way about how challenging Shield cricket is specifically," Swepson says. "Those drag downs or full tosses that you might slip up on every now and then, you get away with in premier grade cricket, but you step up to Shield cricket and those sorts of things are what you have to get out of your game if you want to have success.

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"So as I've developed my game a little bit, I've had to change the way I went about my bowling and understand my role more in the team and just become a bit more of a holding bowler, rather than as a youngster, as a leggie I was always taught that you've got to try and attack and take wickets and that's my role. But for my role in Queensland, the best role I can play is almost to play second fiddle to our quicks, which as long as the team is having success, I was happy to adapt my game around that."

As Swepson took his economy rate down to 2.53 in last season's Shield after it had never been better than 3.55 in previous seasons, the non-negotiable to spin the ball as hard as possible has remained. He knows it is essential to generate the drift, drop and turn that has helped him take the ball past most of the nation's best batsmen when he's been given the chance to do so. But his focus has grown ever more sharply onto accuracy and the preference for subtle variation in pace, seam angle or position rather than trying for the big spinning wrong'un.

"I'm definitely not trying to spin the ball less, I think that's my one weapon that shouldn't change," he says. "I'm trying to give it a rip, that's what I'll always try and do. I think it's about using more subtle variations than the big ones. I think in the past I used to fancy my wrong'un quite a bit and use it quite a lot, whereas that can sometimes get you out of your rhythm if you're constantly using it, so it's just using a little more subtle variations, changing the seam angle slightly or bowling cross-seam and then seam on, or just changing pace slightly, a few kph down or up. No big changes.

"That's been a way for me to get into a groove and be able to lock in one the same spot and go from there and hopefully the batter then has to be the one that makes the play and makes the error first. I think in the past people have spoken about using flight and using different amounts of spin and all these different things on flat wickets and using all your variations if the wicket's flat. I've tried to make my stock ball as good on a flat wicket as it is on a spinning wicket.

"If I'm coming on in different conditions, my game plan doesn't change too much, and therefore that consistency is hopefully still there. I'm not having to bowl completely differently on different wickets, because you're fighting an uphill battle there. If I can make that stock ball a weapon on any surface, it's obviously better for me and it makes it tough for the batters if it's spinning as well."

These sorts of insights have arrived, in part, from Davison and Howard, but also through gradually more trusting conversations between Swepson and his team-mates. "It can be lonely from a spin point of view, because quite often you don't have others there, a bit different to the quicks where they've always got their fast bowling coach at training and at games, sometimes the spinners are left to their own devices a little bit," Howard says.

"So, it is important they have someone they can talk to about, not just their cricket but their life. I know Nathan had that during his early period, there were a lot of opinions, and he found the people he trusted around him and protected him a little bit from some of that information, and that certainly helped."

This off-season, blessed by Queensland's relative lack of Covid-19 restrictions, Swepson has bowled countless deliveries to Marnus Labuschagne in particular.

"I've taken it upon myself, not only when I was within that Australian squad but also here in Queensland, to get a lot of feedback from the batters," he says. "I've bowled a lot to Marnus in this pre-season, and given that he bowls leggies as well, it's been great to bowl at him and then get his feedback on that stuff. On my pace and my shape. Talking to those batters, they find something that's coming down at them fast, but still dropping, drifting and spinning, is a lot harder than something a little bit above the eyeline - it just gives them that little bit less time to react to it."

In many ways, with the benefit of friendly weather, no-expense-spared facilities at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, and an ever more attentive ear from the Queensland coach Wade Seccombe, Swepson has enjoyed the best preparation any Australian spin bowler could hope for. That has extended to increasingly match-oriented scenarios in the nets, even sprinkling loose earth to create faux footmarks for batsmen to counter and then asking them to survive without getting out for a fixed number of deliveries.

"I've thought, if I am given that opportunity at the next level, I want to be ready," Swepson says. "I'm not getting that experience of being a match-winning bowler on day four in Shield cricket, so I need to come up with a way of training and finding ways at training to practice that match-winning scenario and practice my skills under pressure."

When the Queensland squad travels down to Adelaide for the first stint of four Shield rounds on slow surfaces that may, if anything, bring spin bowlers a little more into the game than Swepson might have expected on an early season Gabba strip, it will be without Davison, while Howard is currently out of contract with Cricket Australia. There will, undoubtedly, be days when Swepson will need to ignore as much advice as he listens to.

"It definitely has been a challenge. It's something that in a way, I guess it's made me my best coach," he says. "When you're on the road, while Davo is part of our setup, he doesn't really travel with us for Shield games, so I've sort of had to feed off those learnings I've had at training before I leave and then basically mentor and coach myself while I'm away.

"I know there's a lot of states now that are not picking spinners for Shield teams and it's quite sad to see because you want to see spinners developing their games in Shield cricket. Even still, as well as I was bowling last year, I still missed the first two rounds at the Gabba, so for me it's an ongoing battle, not something where I'm just going to be happy with where I'm at right now, I've got to keep looking to improve and demand selection."

Swepson can only hope that the performances he requires will take place in a few more fourth innings, so often the time when a Test match comes to such fascinating life in the duel between an attacking batsman and a canny spin bowler on a tiring pitch.

"Shield sides have shown they can win within their state without spin. And if you get the wickets right to a certain degree you can potentially win in Test match cricket in Australia without spin," Howard says. "But I don't think it's going to be the spectacle everyone wants. Day five with rough around, fielders around the bat, chunks of rough to bowl into, balls spinning or skidding out of the rough…if you don't have it, you're taking away a very exciting part of the game."

For Swepson, it will be a case of closing his eyes and thinking back to the MCG.