Calum MacLeod reinvents himself as a batsman

Calum MacLeod is excited as he embarks on a career with Durham as a batsman. Pictures: Donald MacLeod
Calum MacLeod is excited as he embarks on a career with Durham as a batsman. Pictures: Donald MacLeod
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SCOTTISH cricketers are not unaccustomed to being told when they can and cannot play.

For starters, Scotland gained cricketing independence as recently as 1994. Any international match before that did not officially happen. This summer, after 11 consecutive seasons of limited-overs league combat with the professional counties of England and Wales, the Scottish Saltires have been forcibly disbanded.

In municipal parks from Glasgow to Forfar, Aberdeen to Ayr, club stalwarts still grapple with local authorities for the right to use the grass for the indulgence of their ‘Sassenach’ passion. Throughout most summers the weather is the meanest of matrons, allowing play only in transitory bursts and sometimes not at all for weeks on end.

The International Cricket Council gives oxygen to cricket in territories across the world where the game struggles to breathe, but it takes with the other hand. Never mind years of continuous development and progress, when countries fail to qualify for World Cups they are removed from performance programmes for the next four-year cycle, giving players who have been granted the right to go full-time no choice but to return to their day jobs.

Scotland, it is a relief to record, currently have a full oxygen tank, having qualified for the 2015 World Cup. Our near neighbours, the Netherlands, didn’t make it. They are waiting to discover if anybody will agree to play them between now and 2017, despite the fact they have been competitive enough to beat England at the World Twenty20 – twice. Like Scotland they have also been excluded from county cricket after the latest adjustment of priorities at Lord’s.

Scottish cricket is a sporting underworld, one whose inhabitants live constantly in peril of the scoreboard being padlocked, the grass being tarmaced and the umpire going home with the ball. There are far more setbacks than successes, at least in international terms. But then along comes Calum MacLeod, to make it all feel worthwhile. Easter is approaching and this is a tale of sporting resurrection, about a young man’s response to being told he was no longer allowed to play.

MacLeod had been bowling cricket balls since the age of three. Bowling to his elder brother, Allan, in the back garden in Stepps, bowling at rivals in under-11 and under-13 games for Drumpellier, getting faster as the opponents grew taller, his star in the ascendancy, shining more and more brightly all the way to a Warwickshire contract at 17, a senior Scotland debut at 18. The county had a hunch that he would make it; in Scotland he was considered the future of cricket. And then the authorities said he could no longer bowl, not so much clipping his wings as leaving him pinioned.

Anyone who has ever bowled knows that the fundamental principle is that the arm must be kept straight at the point of delivery, as distinct to the pitcher who releases the ball from a cocked arm. Somehow, undetected or at least not policed, MacLeod had begun to throw the ball rather than bowl it. This is a career blight that has afflicted others, but MacLeod was 21 when the umpires in the Scotland-Canada Intercontinental Cup game at Mannofield reported his action as suspect, and he was on the brink of ‘making it’ professionally. It could not have happened at a worse time.

MacLeod, it must be noted, was always handy with a bat in hand. It is one of the reasons Warwickshire coach Ashley Giles, now England supremo, liked what he saw in him. When he was named at No 11 for a Scotland Under-19 match against Ireland in Paisley, the coach responsible was roundly condemned. He could bat, and he could field, so he was not left entirely bereft by an enforced rehabilitation that left him able again to bowl legally, but not with enough pace to cut it at the top.

Warwickshire were patient. MacLeod is eternally grateful to Allan Donald and Graeme Welch, the bowling coaches who worked overtime to help him try to remodel his action. But come the end of the 2010 season, the Edgbaston county did not renew MacLeod’s contract. He was “upset” for a while, but he recognises now that professional cricket is a business and he had become a luxury, almost a recipient of charity.

It was bowling that had promised to make him a star, or at the very least make him a living. So when rehabilitation failed, MacLeod opted to reinvent himself, in a dramatic manner usually reserved for Marvel characters. Less than four years later, he finds himself filed once again among the wannabes, having refused to accept his fate as a “couldabeen”. Now Calum MacLeod is a batsman, an opener no less, one whose skills have been labelled “incredible” by a judge with impeccable credentials.

Like Giles before him, Paul Collingwood saw something in MacLeod during his commission as Scotland coach over the winter, and recommended that his county, Durham, snap him up. In the past two days the 25-year-old has played his first two games for the 2nd XI of the reigning LV county champions, scoring a half century the only time he was called on to bat, and if his trial continues to go well he will be asked after the Scotland-England clash in Aberdeen on 9 May to report back for the rest of the summer.

What Collingwood saw was different to what Giles saw, of course, all those years ago, but where the skills are different, the character is the same. Cricket is all about character, as Collingwood would testify, and MacLeod has always struck observers as unusually mature, with a mixture of tenacity and intelligence. This goes some way to explaining how he dealt with the blow of being told that, to all intents and purposes, his career was over before it had really begun.

“It’s a funny thing. Obviously some people have dealt with it better, the mental challenge of having your action questioned,” he reflected before heading south at the beginning of the month. “I couldn’t bowl a spell, I couldn’t go out to training, I couldn’t do anything without . . . if I bowled a really good ball, the first thought would be – and it’s so hard to get it out of your head – ‘I must have done that illegally’. There’s always that little monkey on your shoulder saying ‘oh, you might have slipped there, you might have done that wrong’.

“That was what I went through when I was trying to come back as a bowler, whereas with batting it’s a blank canvas. Anything that I do now as a batsman, I know it is the result of hard work, and I can trust myself a little bit more.”

At the World Cup qualifier in New Zealand, Scotland, who had forgotten how to win, needed a hero to lead the way and MacLeod obliged. He scored 113 off 62 balls against the United Arab Emirates and in the very next match smashed a variety of one-day international records in compiling 175 against Canada. Scotland won both games at a canter, marched into the Super Six and won every subsequent game to claim the trophy, other players picking up the mantle when the MacLeod runs dried up.

So just when did it occur to the Glaswegian, who also played representative hockey as a teenager, that his future lay with bat in hand and not ball? Was it when Warwickshire released him at the end of the 2010 summer, or when Scotland, who obliged with a full-time contract as soon as he came home, first picked him to open the batting? “Right up until I played my first few games for Scotland and didn’t bowl at all, I probably saw myself as a player who batted a bit, bowled a bit and fielded. An all-round cricketer. But then you play a few games and people say ‘your batting’s going well’ and there’s no mention of your bowling.

“There is no ‘how is the bowling going?’ and suddenly it starts to become clear that this is your bread and butter, making runs,” he says, carefully picking his way through the journey that led him to catharsis.

“I think it came down to a mentality change. When I was younger I would be more inclined to try and hit sixes, try and do the big shots and try and play a maverick shot that, if you do it and get out, you’ve got the opportunity then to go and bowl and make your mark on it that way. As I progressed, and the more I chatted to other batters and the more I watched how guys construct their innings, I started to quickly realise that batting is a process, and it was my mindset that changed, as well as small technical things.

“When I was trying to make my way back as a bowler I spent four months travelling with the Warwickshire first team and I think that the lessons I learnt there, about the mental side of the game, were probably more valuable than the technical things. Day to day I was able to work with and chat with Allan Donald and Ashley Giles, and watch Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell bat.

“When you’ve got four guys like that to chat to and learn from, it’s a big opportunity. So I think that’s where it started to switch, and it was probably from me being slightly annoying and asking questions, trying to access as much knowledge as I possibly can. I think that’s what stood me in good stead, not just going and crunching a thousand balls.

“Day to day we were still trying to work on my bowling, because at that point they were still keen for me to progress and we did some good work, and it got me into the position where I could bowl again, bowl legally again. I could bowl nicely, but realistically, in my own head, if you were being honest I didn’t have the pace at that time that would have been able to sustain a career as a first-class cricketer.

“So through chatting to people, and through people being honest, I realised I had to work on my batting if I wanted to further my career. It’s quite a personal thing to see and I had to understand that myself – I had to accept that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it was going to be, and I’d have to do work and take myself in a completely different direction.”

MacLeod could have been a hockey player, but few hockey players make a decent living. The money is better in cricket, and if a player’s assets are marketed judiciously he can get rich. Not that this is MacLeod’s primary concern right now. He has been signed by Durham as a weapon, one whose runs can be the difference between victory and defeat in a limited-overs game. But he has also been offered the chance to prove that he can apply himself to batting all day, and all the next day if necessary.

This is what excites MacLeod most, and it is not only about his county future but his international career, too. Earlier this week the ICC announced that the winner of the next Intercontinental Cup (two innings per side over four days) will play the worst-performing Test nation in a series of four five-day matches. Test cricket in Scotland has never seemed particularly feasible but at least now there is a context to what was previously a spurious first-class competition.

“My relative success as a batter has come so far in the short formats, but as a traditionalist, if I was to choose the format I want to play in, it would be the multi-day stuff,” he says. “Albeit there may be skills and shots I would play in T20s and one-days that aren’t traditional four-day shots, it’s not to say I can’t rein them in and be a lot tighter for a four-day game.

“It will be a good challenge to try and adapt to that. I’m a massive purist and love the multi-day format. All three formats have their own little nuances that make them slightly more special in their own little way, but I think if you’re playing for four days against a team and it builds up and builds up and you get to that final day and you’ve got that final session that will decide the game, the excitement and the nerves and adrenaline of that session, for some reason, seems to just perk you up that little bit more than anything else. It might just be because it’s taken you four days to get there.”

Whether it takes four days or four years to show what he can do, Calum MacLeod is able once more to enjoy the pleasure of plain old participation. As any Test veteran knows, there is no limit to what a dangerous player can achieve when granted a second chance.