Mason Crane: England’s man for an Indian Winter

Mahela Jayawardene was doing his best to render redundant the six glaring floodlights piercing the afternoon gloom at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl.

The Sri Lankan’s 448 ODI appearances and 39 years would appear to have done nothing to satiate his appetite for runs. And here he was in sparkling form, scoring all around the wicket and lighting up this expansive ground by dint of some exquisite strokeplay.

There was even evidence of his ability to keep up with the young kids, one sharply-executed ramp shot off veteran Gareth Berg dispatched directly over wicketkeeper Lewis McManus’ head.

Another man of relatively advancing years, Gareth Andrew, was welcomed into the hosts’ attack by being lifted sumptuously back over his own head for the latest of Jayawardene’s half-dozen boundaries.

But after recording his 95th List A fifty, Somerset’s gun player was undone by a leg-spinner 20 years his junior.

Mason Crane chose the day his fellow leggie Adil Rashid was once more cut adrift by England’s Test team to induce one of the world’s most accomplished players of the turning ball into an ill-advised hit towards mid-off. Jimmy Adams held on, despite his feet giving way beneath him, and Jayawardene was on his way for 55.

Crane is plainly not intimidated by reputations. Nor by the vicissitudes of his trade. A leggie takes some tap. That is his lot. Peter Trego twice deposited Crane high over the leg side boundary.

Shortly after the ball had been recovered from the first of those two maximum hits Crane nearly had his man, Trego trying to repeat his earlier trick but skewing without control and being lucky to see the ball land harmlessly between two men in the deep.

And when the teenage bowler was next struck for six he immediately responded by sending down a spiteful delivery, bouncing and turning prodigiously, that the batsman was fortunate to miss.

It would be another of Hampshire’s fledgling stars, Brad Wheal, bowling at some lick, who finally snared Trego. The right-hander chanced his arm once too often and was pouched, appropriately, by Crane at long-off.

In the meantime the young leggie had struck again. Tom Abell’s 106 provided the glue in his side’s innings when Somerset beat Sussex by ten runs on Saturday to secure their place in the last-eight of this Royal London One-Day Cup competition – Jim Allenby’s 30 the next best score in a team total of 237.

But Abell hadn’t got off the mark against Hampshire when Crane spun one through his defences, the ball clipping the bails and the bowler haring off, a portrait of unbridled joy.

By the time of his penultimate over, the 19-year-old had two slips posted for his bowling, the distance between the pair and McManus so tight you could have chucked a blanket over the three of them.

It was an example of the trust captain Liam Dawson is prepared to invest in his exciting young charge. Crane repaid that faith with a string of searching, teasing deliveries, each one keeping a leash on James Hildreth, a player not typically easily contained.

Indeed, the former England Lions batsman, desperately searching for ways to score off the bowler, launched into one attempted switch-hit that would have presented Crane with his third wicket had a fully extended Will Smith clung on, diving to his left at first slip.

That Somerset failed to score off 29 of Crane’s 60 deliveries is testament to what a prodigiously talented cricketer he is – figures of two for 48 were scant reward for 10 overs of perspicacious, skilful, courageous bowling.

Little more than one year after his first-class debut, when he claimed five wickets against Durham, Crane belongs to an exclusive spinning club fighting for Test recognition.

England play five long-form matches in India later this year. They will surely travel with three spinners and Moeen Ali, whose off-spin continues to be something of a hit-and-miss affair, is by no means certain to be one of them.

Former England pacemen Steve Harmison saw enough in his breakthrough campaign to tout Crane for a call into the national team to play Pakistan in the UAE last year.

Rashid ultimately made that trip – and played all three matches, without locating any degree of consistency. The evidence of this English summer would suggest that the Yorkshireman has some way to go to win the full confidence of the men responsible for picking the Test team.

Lancashire’s Matt Parkinson, another 19-year-old, is coming up on the rails – four eye-catching first-class appearances this season sufficient for him to be asked to perform net bowling duties ahead of England’s second Test victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford last month.

But Crane has credit in the bank. Moreover he is thriving on the responsibility of being a frontline spinner for his county. And he takes wickets, big wickets.

His maiden white-ball scalp was another esteemed Sri Lankan, Kumar Sangakkara, in a T20 game last summer.

Crane’s second Championship game against Warwickshire yielded a first innings return of five for 35, a haul that included former England men Jonathan Trott and Tim Ambrose.

Warwickshire’s Josh Poysden and Zafar Ansari at Surrey will be others in the reckoning when England come to choose their party for India, where they won on their last visit in 2012.

On that occasion, spin pair Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar shared 37 of the 58 Indian wickets to fall across four Tests. It is clear, then, which facet of England’s attack must fire if the tourists are to experience success on the subcontinent this winter.

And the national team’s hierarchy know all about Crane. He has featured regularly for England Under 19 teams, including at this year’s World Cup in Bangladesh, and took wickets in Sri Lanka when the young tourists participated in a tri-series with the hosts and India late in 2015.

Playing Test cricket in India, a country where the best leggie of them all, Shane Warne, found little joy in a career marked by almost continuous achievement, is a ginormous step up from anything Crane would have previously encountered, of course.

But there is something about this intelligent Hampshire man. Raj Maru first identified it in the 13-year-old Crane and the county’s former left-armer was quick to recommend the burgeoning talent to his ex-employers after Sussex released him aged 14.

Since being rejected by the county of his birth, Crane hasn’t looked back, sensing opportunity in every challenge.

And there is no greater challenge for a man who makes his living spinning a cricket ball than bowling to India’s premier batsmen, in India.

But one suspects Mason Crane would be up to the job.

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