Jason Krejza bowls
Indranil Mukherjee / © AFP/Getty Images

Why Jason Krejza never thought he was as good as he really was

The offspinner who took a dozen wickets on debut against India 12 years ago looks back at how it all went downhill from there

Daniel Brettig  |  

Sometimes, in between coaching juniors, when catching a glimpse of some old footage, or perhaps thanks to an interview, Jason Krejza allows himself to remember the hectic couple of months when he was Australia's next spin bowling hope.

Move states. Get picked for Australia A. Get picked for Australia. Get overlooked for Cameron White after Bryce McGain goes home. A debut in Nagpur. Twelve wickets including an otherworldly one: VVS Laxman bowled. Dropped for the Gabba. Ankle injury in Adelaide. A rush to return in Perth. 1 for 200-odd in 49 overs. Dropped over a phone call at the airport the night the game finished. Recalled for the 2011 World Cup. Told by captain and coach to bowl defensively; criticised by a selector for bowling too defensively. One more Australia A tour. Fin.

"It was ten or so years ago, so I've definitely made my peace with it," Krejza says. "But there'll be moments when I still wonder, 'Why didn't that pan out the way I really wanted it to pan out?'

"As much as it was a justified decision to drop me, when I look at the situation, four runs an over playing against the best in the world really attacking me, and then playing in Perth on the flattest wicket in a record run chase, everyone who'd seen the match and knows the situation just said I was the scapegoat, and I probably was.

"If I was there longer, I would've felt a greater sense of belonging at that level, and that would've been a really good feeling, like I was part of the Australian team. I know I would have done well if I was there for longer, because that was when I was bowling at my best. But after that, things went downhill, my body went downhill, so I probably wouldn't have been around that much longer anyway."

Occasionally Krejza will cross paths with fellow Australian slow bowlers who went through the spin cycle of the time. Sometimes they will talk about their experiences, frustrations, and the promises not kept by their fleeting glimpses of international cricket.

He'll always have Nagpur: Krejza celebrates his first Test wicket, Rahul Dravid

He'll always have Nagpur: Krejza celebrates his first Test wicket, Rahul Dravid Michael Steele / © Getty Images

"Steve O'Keefe most recently was one that got a slightly longer term, and I've spoken to him about his experience," Krejza says. "Beau Casson was one I really felt for. He was a good friend of mine and we were on a tour together at the time, just when he got injured, and that is sort of why I got my opportunity. I haven't really discussed it with him, because at the time it was probably too soon and too sore for any of us to talk about, deep down.

"We were all following Shane Warne and it was all over the news of how hard it was for us to be following Warney in his boots. We were our own bowlers, we all did it differently and did it well, we got picked for a reason, so it would've been nice to have been shown some faith. Just getting one opportunity isn't enough. There's feeling nervous, there's what people do to debutants - they really get stuck into them. So it's not really a good reflection on yourself, just one game."

Krejza, of course, did get one more Test than Casson or McGain, and a World Cup too. But his story is a cautionary one - not just in terms of what happened to him when he played for Australia, but for how he got there, and also what happened after he was discarded.

As if to underline what a hard trade he was entering, Krejza bowled one over on his New South Wales debut against Queensland at the Gabba in October 2004, at a cost of 18 runs. His appearances for the Blues were intermittent but undoubtedly promising.

By early 2006 he was good enough to scoop six wickets, claiming Justin Langer in each innings as Western Australia beat New South Wales at the SCG. He spun the ball hard, and was a promising addition to a bowling line-up that, with Stuart MacGill, Doug Bollinger and Matthew Nicholson also in harness, was geared very much towards attack.

"At the beginning, when I was playing with Stu," Krejza remembers, "I didn't bowl a huge amount. I'd bowl a few overs to try get a wicket before lunch and tea and then, sometimes, if it was really spinning, I'd bowl a few more overs. I didn't often get long spells, but it was always to attack.

Early days: Krejza, with a full head of hair, in a 2004 ING Cup game for New South Wales against Tasmania, who he would go on to play for

Early days: Krejza, with a full head of hair, in a 2004 ING Cup game for New South Wales against Tasmania, who he would go on to play for Adam Pretty / © Getty Images

"I was never told to bowl dots, it was, 'Just get it into the rough', that was always the advice. I wish I'd had someone when I was younger telling me about the different modes of bowling, but because I spun the ball and had overspin, it was always to attack, and that was my strong suit."

Although he gained plenty of promising notices at the time, the pressure for places in NSW was ever present. Things got still tighter when Nathan Hauritz ventured south from Queensland and Casson was lured across from WA. Krejza, eager for more chances, decided he too would make a move - albeit to a Tasmania set-up that was flirting with grassy pitches and a seamer-heavy approach to winning Shield games. Krejza also had talks with South Australia because of Adelaide Oval's propensity to take spin - though they were then home to the twin spin of Dan Cullen and Cullen Bailey.

"When I went to Tassie, with wickets that didn't spin, I had to find different ways to bowl," he says. "Some batters would sit on the back foot and play me off the pitch, or then people started really attacking. I didn't bowl that quickly, I was only around the 80-85kph mark. Then people started bowling a lot quicker, Nathan [Lyon] bowling 90kph, and I struggled doing that, because my whole bowling action was to get up and over and my wrist was sort of on the side of the ball, not behind the ball.

"The mindset of the Tasmanian cricketers was a lot different. It was very much 'Go under two an over.' [The coach] Tim Coyle had a statistic that if a team goes under 2.3 runs per over, they win Shields, and all bowlers tried to do that. It was all about pressure, pressure, pressure, and just bowling dots.

"[It was about trying to] find the balance for me being able to do what I do, because it was almost like I was still a young kid. I wasn't able to be boring for a long time - there'd be a ball I'd want to bowl a bit slower, just to drag a shot out, and then sometimes I'd get hit for four or take a wicket."

Not wanting to be boring is a common desire for young adults, and it was only ever going to be made more intense by a lack of chances to get into a bowling rhythm on surfaces that suited him. Staggeringly, by the time Krejza went to India in 2008, following MacGill's shock retirement earlier that year in the West Indies, he had only bowled in the fourth innings of a first-class match four times.

"Really? Wow. That's an interesting stat," Krejza says. "It's telling, because the teams I played with in NSW, in fourth-innings games, usually at home the ball was reversing massively and we had seriously good quicks, and they'd take away the fourth innings. Then in Tassie it was green, so it would just be seaming around..."

One fast, one slow: Krejza with state and national team-mate Doug Bollinger at the Taj Mahal on the 2008 tour of India

One fast, one slow: Krejza with state and national team-mate Doug Bollinger at the Taj Mahal on the 2008 tour of India Michael Steele / © Getty Images

In India, Krejza faced a vast array of emotions even before the tour proper began. As part of the Australia A group that took part in something of a pre-tour, Krejza was picked for only one game, a rain-ruined fixture in Hyderabad, where he did not bowl a single ball. But when Casson was omitted from the Test squad, having played in the West Indies, and McGain was ruled out of the tour with a shoulder complaint, Krejza was suddenly it.

At least he was going to be, but the selector Andrew Hilditch got the shakes upon seeing Krejza taken for 0 for 199 from 31 overs in the last tour game before the Tests. That there was a long history of visiting spinners being attacked in just such a manner by Indian batsmen before a series, or that the punishment was dished out by young batsmen as promising as Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma mattered little. Krejza was left to cool his heels until the series decider, in Nagpur, where he turned heads as well as the ball, taking 12 for 358.

Weeks of preparation seemed to help. Certainly Krejza was better aware of the challenge the batsmen presented to him. "One of the coaches in India described it well. He said, 'Whenever there was a good-length ball, we'd tried to make our good players attack it by sweeping it,'" Krejza says. "So you'd bowl the perfect ball and they'd be sweeping it, then you bring your length back and they're off the back foot. They try to make your good length feel bad - they're very good at doing that.

"If I'd played earlier in that series, I don't think I would've performed. I bowled so much from the start of the tour until I played that I was almost tired of bowling, and I tried to take as much information as possible to make sure I was ready. That's where I figured out that I needed a lot of bowling, because it just became easier and easier."

Colin Miller, a wise voice on spin in Australia, gave a glowing but reasoned assessment. "I can see him playing for the next ten years if he can keep his life in order and handle all the expectations,'' Miller told the Courier-Mail a few days after the Nagpur Test ended. "I thought he should have played all the Tests in India. If he is given the opportunity I think he can be Australia's next long-term offspinner, as long as he is handled well. The big thing for Krejza now is to adjust to [Australian] wickets that don't turn. He can attack. Can he defend? He is going to have to work hard to become a containing bowler."

Ricky Ponting, who had essentially given Krejza a free hand in India, appeared to be of similar mind. "Twelve wickets on debut is a once-in-a-generation effort, but what was so good was watching him improve as the tour went on," Ponting wrote in the Australian. "The thing I saw with him a long time ago at the Centre of Excellence is that he's got all the skills. He's got very good flight, drift and drop, he puts a lot of overspin on the ball and gets a lot of turn.

"Now it's a matter of learning how to use those skills and when to use them. He's still a work in progress. I think he might have bowled a little slow in the second innings at Nagpur. It was fine in the first, but when the track has more variation you need to fire it in a bit more. He has to learn things like bowling faster and straighter deliveries when the batsmen are sweeping, but he's shown he is a fast learner."

Krejza twisted his ankle, missing out on the Adelaide Test against New Zealand in 2008, after being left out for the series opener in Brisbane

Krejza twisted his ankle, missing out on the Adelaide Test against New Zealand in 2008, after being left out for the series opener in Brisbane © Getty Images

Maddeningly for Krejza and others, however, was the sequence by which he missed Australia's next two Tests, against a New Zealand team that offered an ideal opportunity for him to grow more familiar with Test matches. At the Gabba the selectors chose to leave him out in favour of playing both Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson, moving Robert Craddock to remark: "It is just as well Krejza had a freakish debut Test. If he had taken no wickets he would be in the electric chair by now."

Down in Sydney, Greg Matthews fumed. "I wouldn't have cared if it was the fastest wicket in the world. How do you deny a bloke who took 12 wickets in one of the best debuts this country's seen?" he said. "Playing bowlers for particular wickets, if that was the case he [Krejza] would have played every Test in India, but instead they played a bloke [Cameron White] who only had the confidence to bowl for 83 overs in 11 first-class matches [for Victoria last season]… I love these blokes, I played with 'Digger' [Hilditch], but in this case [the selectors] are wrong, wrong, wrong."

Australia won the Test, and Krejza was fully expected to return to the XI for Adelaide Oval. But at training two days before the game, he rolled his ankle during a fielding drill, was helped from the field, and was left to ice a strained ligament as Hauritz was flown in to perform creditably in another big Australian victory. As much as the Nagpur haul was only a few weeks behind him, Krejza felt a nagging pressure to recover as quickly as possible. More quickly, in fact, than his ankle could bear.

"I wouldn't say I was forced, I ended up forcing myself, but so many people around the team and outside the team were saying, 'You need to play in Perth,'" Krejza says. "Haury got picked when I got injured and did a good job, so I had to come in for Perth and be the No. 1 spinner again and say, 'This is my spot.' I was nowhere near 100% right, I had an ankle brace on, I only really had a bowl that morning [before the Test] and for me I had to bowl a lot to be bowling well.

"So my preparation was no good. I'd say I was probably 70% in terms of my fitness, but if I didn't play there again and Haury takes seven, how do I get back in? It would've felt like I was pushing uphill, so I felt like I had to play then, and add in the flattest wicket of the entire world into the situation with some batters in their prime and some really good players in the South African team, it was just a really difficult Test for me."

Not far into Krejza's first spell at the WACA Ground, Graeme Smith swept him hard and flat through square leg and to the boundary, well away from where Ponting had posted a traditional deep-backward square. Noting the shape of the shot and the firm hands of the batsman, Krejza wanted the fielder moved. In Shield games, he believes, this would have happened. But under the glare of Test-match attention, Ponting demurred. Krejza remembers the match as much for the on-field debates as for South Africa's record chase.

Are you there God, it's me, Jason. Krejza toiled through 49 overs for a solitary wicket in Perth against South Africa in 2008

Are you there God, it's me, Jason. Krejza toiled through 49 overs for a solitary wicket in Perth against South Africa in 2008 © PA Photos

"I think any bowler wants to be happy with the fields they've got and even the end they want to bowl from, and that was pretty difficult in Perth," he says.

"When I was bowling to Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, I wanted to try to bowl at the stumps because it wasn't spinning very much, and have a 45 [degrees] and a square leg and a midwicket, a very strong leg-side field and try to force them to hit through the off side.

"The wind would be going really strong as I'm about to bowl the ball and then it would stop, so I'd start the ball on off stump and it wouldn't drift, but then the next ball would drift big and go outside off stump, because the wind would just blow it outside off stump. I kept saying, 'I want a guy at square leg or in front of square leg, let me bowl straight.' If I'm bowling straight it's going to be really hard for them to hit through the off side and I'll plug the leg side. And [Ponting] just wouldn't give it to me."

The dismissal of Hashim Amla, bowled through the gate by a princely offbreak that Krejza had tossed up into the breeze, was a sight of what he did best, but perhaps it led Ponting to think that his young spinner needed to try to replicate that one delivery as often as possible.

It was far from an easy time to be a new man in the dressing room. Old heads such as Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds were battling their cricket mortality, others like Brad Haddin were battling to establish themselves after long apprenticeships, while Michael Hussey's initial run of high scoring had petered out. At the same time Ponting and his deputy, Michael Clarke, were in the early stages of a dysfunctional relationship, and the coach, Tim Nielsen, was trying to juggle it all.

"I remember going into the change rooms and saying to Tim Nielsen, 'Punter's not listening to me,'" Krejza says, "and he said, 'I don't know mate, you've got to go and talk to him.' I talked to Pup and he said, 'Go talk to Punter.' And it just didn't happen."

"When you're in there, the way some people act together and talk together, versus how they do with you, can leave you thinking, 'Hang on, are these guys my friends?' I went in there at the beginning with Hayden, Symonds and company, and they had this group of blokes that was quite difficult to actually talk to. Big men, and hard to feel like they'd put their arm around you.

"I'd get my runs down and then I'd be told I wasn't taking enough wickets. So it felt like I had to be perfect - go for two an over and take five-for" Morne de Klerk / © Getty Images

"Whereas someone like Brett [Lee] made me feel like he was part of it. Watto [Shane Watson] made me feel like I was part of it. But there weren't really many others who stood out and made you feel 'I've got your back, you're part of this.' Pretty difficult."

Nielsen, at least publicly, was supportive. Midway through the Test, he gave an assessment that sounded for all the world like Krejza was a long-term project. "With time and given the opportunity, we will see a real Test player coming out of him,'' he said. "In his two Test matches so far he has shown a tremendous willingness to just stick at the game. He has been under pressure at times with the ball but he just keeps running in and doing the things we asked of him, trying to get the ball up into the breeze.

While neither Nielsen nor Ponting were selectors, these words were to prove empty when South Africa pulled off their record fourth-innings chase. "I was dropped literally two hours after the game," Krejza says. "We finished the game, did recovery, I think we had our stuff with us already and we went to the airport, and that's when I had the call.

"I remember telling Brett - we'd hang out a lot - and he just said, 'No way mate, you wouldn't be dropped now, that's way too quick, stop joking around', and just wouldn't believe me until I showed him my phone. He was visibly really upset. It was a huge kick in the teeth, missing the Boxing Day Test. A pretty quick exit."

In Krejza's mind, his chances receded so quickly that he never really considered himself a chance to be recalled for the SCG Test that summer, though the pitch there promised something like the assistance he had been able to capitalise upon in Nagpur. "I didn't really think about that, it was almost like that was me struck off," he says. "That's what it felt like anyway, particularly how quick it was and the lack of communication afterwards - the phone went dead.

"I loved bowling in Sydney, I played a lot there, and the SCG's my favourite ground in the world. So I know I would have felt good there, and I would've had time to get my ankle right and bowl a ton to get myself ready, but it didn't even feel like that was going to happen."

History records that Australia lost in Melbourne, won a dead Test in Sydney, and then defeated South Africa on their home soil in early 2009 without even choosing a spin bowler in the XI. Hauritz, a more economical offspin bowler, would cling on to a place in the team and the squad for the next two years, but struggled to retain the faith of captain coach and selectors for lacking the attacking weapons Krejza possessed. It's a paradox Krejza has wrestled with ever since.

Krejza didn't have the best time under Ricky Ponting in international cricket.

Krejza didn't have the best time under Ricky Ponting in international cricket. "I think [Ponting] was under a lot of pressure [during the 2011 World Cup], because I've been captained by him at other levels, particularly in state cricket, and it was nothing like this" Indranil Mukherjee / © AFP/Getty Images

"Particularly after the [Perth] Test match and being told I was expensive, even the Tassie selectors would say, 'Get your runs down,'" he says. "So I'd get my runs down and wouldn't take as many wickets, and then I'd be told I wasn't taking enough wickets. So it felt like my KPIs were just out of my reach. I had to be perfect - go for two an over and take five-for. It felt like I was always having to evolve as a cricketer, but it felt like when I evolved into something, I'd get told I immediately needed to change. 'That's not the right one, do this.'"

There was one final chapter to Krejza's story of international misadventure two seasons later. At the end of the ignoble 2010-11 Ashes summer, injuries to Xavier Doherty, Steve O'Keefe and Hauritz opened an unlikely path to the World Cup in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The combination of injuries and Ponting's obvious preference for captaining pace meant that Krejza found himself cast as a runs-saving stock bowler.

Years later, Krejza wonders at the forces pressing Ponting at the time. He still shakes his head at the distance in rhetoric between the captain, Nielsen, and the selector on duty, Greg Chappell. "I think Ricky was under a lot of pressure then, because I've been captained by him at other levels, particularly in state cricket, and it was nothing like this," he says.

Stuart Law batted throughout the second day at Hove, Sussex v Lancashire, 2nd day, Hove, June 30, 2008 © Getty Images Five Aussie what-ifs since 1990

Stuart Law (above) Deemed good enough to be brought into the Australian ODI team in 1994 and to debut in Tests the following year, Law's composed half-century at the WACA suggested he might easily have made many more runs at the top given the chance. As it was, he kept churning them out for Queensland, Essex, Lancashire and Derbyshire until 2009.

Andrew Symonds Over his final 16 Tests, Symonds averaged 56 with the bat at a strike rate of 66, and took 15 wickets at 32.46. We might never know how much his sense of betrayal over the Monkeygate affair contributed to his international career spluttering out well before it should have.

Andrew McDonald He played four Tests for three victories, all against a South Africa team that was arguably the world's best. The mystery has always been why he was dropped after that, when his utilitarian attributes could quite easily have made a difference to the 2009 Ashes series.

Trent Copeland A tinder-dry Galle surface was hardly the most helpful pitch to debut on, but he acquitted himself decently in what is still Australia's most recent Test series victory in Asia. His subsequent omission, particularly on the 2013 and 2015 Ashes tours, appeared to have more to do with an Australian obsession with extreme pace than logic.

Glenn Maxwell Ask anyone why Maxwell has not played more Test cricket and fingers will be pointed at his ability to weather storms of short-pitched bowling. But even that does not explain why, with Steven Smith and David Warner suspended for a year, the other outstanding talent of their generation did not add even a single Test to his tally.

"We had [Shaun] Tait, Johnson and Lee, who were all very, very attacking, and I was forced to bowl around the wicket and told to 'bowl like the Indians' and I remember having a big argument with them saying, 'But that's not how I bowl, I need to actually go away and practise this', because I never even practised it, I hardly ever bowled around the wicket to right-handers ever.

"I was generally bowling over the wicket into the rough and spinning it back, which is what was on offer in India. So that made it really hard, and I was basically told to bowl at 4 or 4.5 an over, and if I didn't take a wicket, that was my job done. I kept getting high fives throughout the whole World Cup whenever I did that - it was 'Well done, you played your role.'"

In seven matches, Krejza claimed five wickets at 55.6 and conceded 4.49 runs per over while Lee, Johnson and Tait were all used as wicket-takers. Intriguingly, Krejza's figures stand up well against those of Lyon at last year's ODI World Cup in England (three wickets at 60.33, 5.32 runs per over), where he had a similar commission. The formula came unstuck against India in the quarter-final, however, and Krejza found himself being informed that not all had agreed with the approach prescribed for him.

"Literally as we finished the quarter-final, I was walking up the race and Greg Chappell took me aside," Krejza recalls. "He was saying, 'What was that, why were you bowling so negative?' and I was saying, 'Well that was my role.' I was taken aback, I went into the back room and cried. I just wasn't sure what I could've done.

"He said, 'Well, you should've been stronger', and I was like, 'I've got Ricky Ponting and Tim Nielsen standing in front of me, I'm going to listen to them, they've got a plan, so I'm going to try and do it.' It was really odd, but maybe I should've been stronger, maybe I should've just said, 'That's not what I do.'"

Krejza, Chappell and a young Lyon were all together on an Australia A tour to Zimbabwe later that year - the trip on which Lyon convinced Chappell he was the next long-term spin bowler for the national team. While he enjoyed Lyon's subsequent successes, Krejza could not help but puzzle about whether he might have fared differently given similarly thoughtful guidance and, at times, protection.

"I spent a lot of time with Nathan when he was just taking over, and he fully deserved it - I'd never take anything away from him. He's become one of the best spinners on the planet," Krejza says. "But watching him when he first started was really frustrating for me because the amount of times he'd be brought on at perfect times, and particularly coming on to bowl to the tail a lot. So he might take one wicket in the top five and then as soon as eight to 11 were in, he'd come on and end up taking three or four.

Krejza turns out for the Tasmania Tigers in 2010-11, the season before the Twenty20 Big Bash turned into a franchise tournament

Krejza turns out for the Tasmania Tigers in 2010-11, the season before the Twenty20 Big Bash turned into a franchise tournament Matt King / © Getty Images

"I was like, 'Oh man, that's such good captaincy, I wish that was happening when I was bowling.'"

Krejza lasted another two seasons with Tasmania, long enough to demonstrate his abilities translated well to T20. He led Hobart Hurricanes' wicket-takers in the inaugural Big Bash League, but then found himself on the outer the following season. Curiously it was Ponting who both consoled and cajoled him, insisting that Krejza push for better explanations as to why he was not playing. But by that stage, the vigorous hip twisting in Krejza's action was starting to add up to an inescapable conclusion.

"Once the body starts going, that's really difficult," he says. "My hips were the main ones that caused me a lot of pain with bowling - that was really frustrating, because when you can't do what you want to do as well as you want to, that's when it's frustrating.

"I probably went a season too long with my body. When a surgeon writes a note to give to your physio [after a hip operation] saying, 'This is definitely the last time, he's done', and you play another season. There was just that whole fear of stopping what you love doing."

While he admits he never felt as much a part of the Tasmania set-up as the players who had grown up in the island state, Krejza will always be grateful for meeting his wife there in his first season down south. In the seven years since the loss of his last state contract, they have returned to Sydney, started a family, and Krejza is now head coach of North Sydney in grade cricket. He also works in school and private junior coaching. He is gratified to learn that, this year, Cricket Australia contract discussions now offer omitted players a formal chance for feedback.

Even so, those moments where he catches himself remembering will always be tinged with questions, as well as with wonder. "I never thought I was as good as I was," he says. "I never did."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

 

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