India v Australia Tests – Men
A chance encounter in a small country town and a dislike of bowling medium pace were the sliding doors moments that led Australia's newest Test squad member to go all in on spin
11 January 2023, 11:00 AM AEST
Had it not been for a dislike of bowling medium pace at training, Todd Murphy may have still been toiling away for rural club side Moama on a Saturday afternoon.
Such has been the young off-spinner's swift rise from top-order batter and part-time trundler in the NSW border town to Australia's Test squad after just seven first-class matches, that he's still not locked in as the No.1 spinner for his domestic team having played alongside Jon Holland every time the veteran tweaker has been available.
It's meant for Murphy, the hype around him being touted as Nathan Lyon's heir apparent has come as a bit of a shock.
And no doubt today's inclusion in Australia's 18-player squad for their four-Test Border-Gavaskar tour of India next month has too.
But those he's put his trust in can see it.
"He's very well set up to bowl with a high overspun seam position, which in Australian conditions it's imperative that you beat people in the air rather than trying to beat them off the wicket," renowned spin guru Craig Howard tells cricket.com.au.
"The most difficult conditions (for spinners) is Australian conditions; non-abrasive conditions are the most challenging because you've really got to beat people in the air.
"And he certainly can do that, so adapting to highly abrasive conditions is a lot easier than trying to do it the other way."
It was Howard who first unlocked Murphy's potential following a chance encounter at an under-16s pathways training session in the small Victorian country town of Rochester – about 30km south of the Echuca-Moama border community.
His son was also trialling for the same team when a 16-year-old fair-haired kid bowling off-breaks caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.
The former Victorian first-class leg-spinner – a Bendigo local who recently joined the New Zealand women's team as a spin bowling assistant – turned to one of the coaches to enquire about the promising talent he had spotted.
Howard was duly informed, of Murphy: "He's a batter that bowls a bit of medium pace, he's just stuffing around".
"And I actually said, 'he's your best spinner' just off the cuff a little bit," recalls Howard.
"So I just drifted over and watched a little bit. I wasn't involved in the session, I was just there as a parent.
"I went to watch a couple of the games and then I saw that he'd started bowling off-spin, but (the style) was a little bit awkward, his strategies were a little bit different."
Word then filtered back to Murphy and his dad Jamie – an aggressive middle-order batter who played in St Kilda's 1991-92 Premier Cricket premiership alongside Shane Warne – that Howard thought he had some potential.
"He (Jamie) obviously thought he had a bit of potential there too, so he organised him to come down for a couple of private spin sessions just to try and tidy up a little bit," says Howard.
"Todd was umming and ahing what to do from a cricket point of view and we got him to come and play with us (at Sandhurst Cricket Club) in Bendigo.
"He played a full season with us and we worked consistently all through the year on getting him technically set up and then playing with him I was able to guide him tactically as well.
"He ended being a really important part of our bowling attack and culminated in him getting 3-30 in a premiership team – the first time we'd won a premiership in 40 years, and he went straight from there to St Kilda Premier Cricket (club).
"So it was a pretty rapid rise from a spin point of view because he was batting at eight or nine by then with St Kilda so he actually got picked as a frontline spinner which is testament to his ability to take in information and then how coachable he was and how hard he was prepared to work on it."
It was that year playing alongside his mentor at Sandhurst that Murphy credits as devoting all of his time to his new craft.
He had toyed with both bowling styles for a while, sending down medium pace for his first spell in senior cricket at Moama before turning to offies later in the day until his fascination with the slower art eventually won over.
"I never really enjoyed bowling medium pace at training," Murphy tells cricket.com.au. "So I kept tinkering with (off-spin) and then for me it was like 'why not, why can't I do it?'
"The medium pace was never going to take me anywhere.
"And I soon realised I was going to be more effective bowling off-spin.
"So being open to changing and really enjoying learning about off-spin bowling and having Craig there to talk to was awesome."
While still batting in the top four, he spent the entire 2017-18 summer developing consistency with his spin to the point where his results in that season were based more around his bowling than his batting.
Murphy's commitment to go all in on his new passion was never in question, and Howard says it's no fluke he's got to where he is just five years after taking up the skill full-time.
Often the respected spin coach would turn up out of the blue in Moama to work with other promising spinners and find Murphy running laps of the oval or hitting balls and bowling with his dad in the nets.
And while their chance meetings are no longer just that, Howard remains the former Australia Under-19 tweaker's most trusted advisor despite the distance playing and coaching opportunities has put between them.
When Murphy was in Darwin over the southern winter for his second stint with Tracy Village prior to a shock call up to the Australia A squad for the tour of Sri Lanka last June, he would head down to the local nets with a mate on Sundays (the day following a game) just to get footage to send back to Howard.
"The beauty of having Craig and my relationship is that every time we do work together there might be one little thing that has crept into my bowling that he can just identify really quickly and that helps me a lot," says Murphy.
It's been a remarkable few years for Murphy following that "innocuous" training session in Rochester; an U19 World Cup in South Africa followed three years later, and he earned a rookie contract with Victoria in June 2020 off the back of 61 wickets in two seasons with St Kilda.
But the one thing that has eluded him has been consistent opportunity at first-class level with Victoria – a state he initially struggled to identify with being a proud New South Welshman and having grown up on the northern side of the Murray River.
It's a task that is still proving tough despite his maiden inclusion in Australia's Test squad, with Victoria's long-time first-choice spinner in Holland also recently on the national selectors radar after coming close to adding to his four Tests in Sri Lanka in June.
Almost a year elapsed between Murphy's Marsh Sheffield Shield debut against South Australia in April 2021 and his second match against Tasmania in March 2022.
"You can get a little bit impatient, and you want to keep playing cricket," Murphy says of the 346-day wait between first-class appearances.
"But it also probably gave me the opportunity to keep working in the background without the pressure and expectation of playing.
"It was awesome to get a taste really early in my career.
"But then to be out of the side for a year and still be in the environment of training every day gave me time to improve my bowling and how I wanted to approach it. And then when I did come back in, I felt more confident of being able to take the next step and be a bit more successful."
It was that second Sheffield Shield match last March where Murphy – perhaps apart from when he fully committed to off-spin – took the biggest leap of his career.
Desperate for a result to clinch a spot in the 2021-22 Shield final after five consecutive draws at Junction Oval stretching back to March 2019, Victoria opted for a used pitch hoping that the drier surface would bring their two spinners into the game as the contest wore on.
But they didn't count on losing the toss and being asked to bat last on a wearing surface that would ultimately see Murphy's years as a top-order batter pay off.
After out-bowling his more experienced teammate with seven wickets across Tasmania's first and second innings, Murphy was tasked with saving Victoria from certain defeat when he arrived at the crease on the final afternoon with his side in desperate trouble still needing 44 runs with only two wickets remaining.
What followed was one of the state's more famous Shield victories as he and fellow tailender Mitch Perry peeled off an unbeaten 47-run ninth-wicket partnership to steer Victoria into the season decider with victory inside the final hour of the match.
"Without that game, I don't get the opportunities I've been given over the last eight months so that was a massive starting point for me and my career," Murphy says.
"That was my first game in 12 months playing first-class cricket … so I'm really grateful that I was able to do quite well in that game.
"It's opened up a few doors for me.
"Early days with dad, I took a lot of pride in my batting and that's what I saw myself as, so I always try and keep tinkering with that."
Now, one of Australia's most impressive young cricketers who has added a new chapter in the celebrated history of Rochester – a town of just over 3000 with a claim to fame as the birthplace of revered endurance cyclist Hubert Opperman – has set his sights on making the No.1 role his own.
"Every game I've been able to play for Victoria with Jon has been a massive benefit, because you do get to fast-track your learning being out there with a guy like that," Murphy says.
"I spoke at the start of the year to myself and I really wanted to lock down a role within the Victorian side … and not just be looked at as always a second spinner.
"I wanted to be able to come in and contribute to us winning games. That was the biggest thing this year was trying to break into that red-ball side and be seen as a key part of it."
And one can't help but think Australia have got Murphy earmarked as a key part of theirs, too.
Qantas Border-Gavaskar Tour of India 2023
February 9-13: First Test, Nagpur, 3pm AEDT
February 17-21: Second Test, Delhi, 3pm AEDT
March 1-5: Third Test, Dharamsala, 3pm AEDT
March 9-13: Fourth Test, Ahmedabad, 3pm AEDT
March 17: First ODI, Mumbai, 7pm AEDT
March 19: Second ODI, Vizag, 7pm AEDT
March 22: Third ODI, Chennai, 7pm AEDT
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How 'stuffing around' put Murphy on spinning path – cricket.com.au
India v Australia Tests – Men