Cloudy in Stormont, Sunny for McBrine : A Highbrow’s Class Act

Andy McBrine
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19th May. You could be excused if you were caught sneaking the weather updates more often than usual but the European summer can be idiosyncratic in a way. The question of whether there would be a shortened game (at least) is doing the rounds not only in England but also in Belfast.

The home summer had seen the Irish run England close in a keenly contested affair before going winless in a competitive display against the West Indies and Bangladesh in a tri-nation series. The ongoing series against the touring Afghans was to be the penultimate of the summer before Zimbabwe come visiting for three ODIs and as many T20Is in the first week of July.

The mental conclusion drawn from the grey skies was a sign of the home summer coming to a pre-mature close. Interestingly, for the likes of Andy McBrine, the summer had just begun.

The same day Donemana Cricket Club were playing an away fixture against Ballyspallen sans their International star who was set to take field for Ireland for the first time in the home Summer. It is something the North Western Club have gotten used to and would take immense pride every time McBrine dons the Irish greens as it stands testimony to his rise through the Donemana cricket system.

Andy McBrine: Ireland’s Steady Presence

Since his ODI debut in 2014, he has been a steady presence in the Irish squads but not clearly evidenced and vindicated by only 39 ODI caps in five years. He has been in and out of the starting XI despite having enjoyed brief sunny spells as Ireland’s frontline spinner. Many plausible factors come into play when the aforementioned fact is questioned.

With Ireland having played ODIs few and far between, the conditions have also, at times, not demanded two spinners in the XI and have dictated terms heavily in the favour of the those hitting the speed guns at a higher mark. George Dockrell’s superior batting ability to go along with his canny left-arm spin has seen him often playing as the lead and a lone spinner. For a back-up spinner’s role, Ireland had Paul Stirling and Simi Singh’s serviceable off spin at their disposal. The spin-bowling depth in Ireland’s arsenal has swelled significantly. 

With off spinners come the general perception that they are more suitable to the left-handed batsmen and are often held back when the captains see a tinge of grass or a heavily right-handed batting line-up. Dockrell has also been helped by the presence of more right-handed batsmen than the southpaws in the opposition ranks. Interestingly, McBrine’s 27 wickets out of 41 have come against right-handed batsmen.

Now at this point, the reader might wonder as to why I have chosen to write about Andy McBrine of all spinners. Quite simply, staying relevant as a conventional off spinner in a decade dominated by mystery balls and wrist spinners is a Hornet’s nest. He is above par in comparison to the world-renowned entity in club cricket i.e. the off spinner who keeps up with the tradition of getting wickets off rubbish balls. He is not even one of those spinners with fancy variations the likes of Mujeeb Zadran, Sunil Narine or Ajantha Mendis have mastered. He is more of James Tredwell or Gareth Batty at best. You get the drift.

Since the Champions Trophy in 2017, he boasts of a staggering economy of just a shade above four as he sits well above the likes of Moeen Ali, Shakib Al Hasan, Ravindra Jadeja, Mitchell Santner and Mohammad Nabi to name a few.

McBrine, a canny operator with the new ball, gets into the act early, threatens both the edges of the bat and blocks any chance of a boundary. His consistency in line and length dries up runs and creates pressure on the batsmen by not allowing them enough room to free up their arms. His role in ODI cricket is synonymous to that played by Nathan Lyon in the Test format : choking the batsmen for runs and closing out their only option of breaking free against spinners on a seamer-friendly pitch

Key to bowling spin in Ireland is to not bowl too full and floaty. At the same time, it is imperative to not offer too much width for the batsmen to work with or slap it through the covers. There might be an odd ball that sticks and turns a tad askew.

Out of his 41 wickets, 23 have resulted in catches with 56.1 % middle order wickets and 17 top order wickets (41.5%). The numbers speak for themselves to suggest how the batsmen try to take him on in order to release pressure or score quick runs once they see the pace off the ball. He keeps the batsmen on their toes with his pace variation, changes in length and trajectory with wee turners and a few slide ons.

Andy McBrine bowls to Rahmat Shah in the 2nd ODI at Stormont. Picture Courtesy: Cricket Ieland

Rob Cassell, Ireland’s assistant head coach, believes he takes the pressure off the fast bowlers by bowling tight lines and often targets the batsmen strengths rather than waiting for them to play a false shot.

“Scra (McBrine) has some impressive powerplay numbers for us over the past few summers and is a great match up for Hazratullah Zazai who has caused us problems in the past. I think it’s his ability to compete in any conditions and is always in a contest with the batsman that makes him successful. We know that if Scra is bowling, there won’t be many easy boundaries or singles so we can build pressure around that.”

Against Hazratullah Zazai, who scored a whirlwind 162 in a T20I against Ireland, McBrine chose to operate around the wicket and targeted his hitting zones with two men outside the circle; a long on, a wide deep mid-wicket, square leg, backward square leg, a mid-wicket and a slip.

He set a similar field for the right-handed Mohammad Shahzad not letting him tee off. As a result, the openers had to employ a watchful approach to tackle the new ball. Zazai, with a career strike rate of 93.31 ended up with a strike rate of only 35 having scored a painfully slow 40-ball 14.

By the time McBrine finished his spell, he had bowled ten overs unchanged conceding a miserly 17 runs bowling four maidens. The fifth fewest conceded by a spinner opening the bowling in an ODI. The fewest are 14 runs by Mujeeb Ur Rahman also during an ODI against Ireland earlier this year.

In the second ODI, McBrine played as a lone spinner and bowled in the middle overs, a slightly more familiar role. He dismissed the two set batsmen Shahzad (101) and Rahmat Shah (67) who were looking to accelerate after reaching personal milestones. When he broke the 150-run stand between the two, it was the first wicket by an Irish front-line spinner of the summer, in the 55th over.

Much of his bowling success is down to his simple technique and a competitive mindset. He is a feisty character dropped in the middle of a jujitsu showdown with all he is wanting to do is to get the better of the opponent with his short arm jabs. He has often thrown his hat in the ring whenever a situation has demanded risks, discipline and patience.

Cassell, having observed and coached McBrine since 2017, says, “In terms of his technique it is a pure and simple one where not much can go wrong but he does not over think technique. He’d rather focus on setting a good field for the scenario and getting into a battle with the batsman. Whether it’s on the golf course or on the soccer pitch Scra is always competing to a high level!”

With three fifties in List A cricket, he is a dab hand with a willow but his batting hasn’t quite got the same recognition and reputation on the International stage as Donemana or Bready spectators have applauded for. Apart from a thorough enterprising and a redeeming knock of 79 against the visiting Lankans, his career average stands at a lowly 17. With more opportunities down the order, he can certainly rake up the bowlers on a given day as he so often has playing for the ‘A’ side and performing a rescue act that has often got strangers talking in a pub.

Having bowled eye-catchy and credible spells against the Afghans- home and away this year to go along with a Test debut, he lines up for an exciting challenge of bowling against a bigger Full Member, Zimbabwe, in front of his home crowd in Bready next week. A bumper domestic season is also on cards as he would look to lead his team North West Warriors to hopefully, a treble in the InterPro series but more importantly show a steely resolve to defend their InterPro Championship title.

Off spin is perhaps not a daunting proposition but with McBrine’s calm disposition and competitiveness blending in, he surely has made his bowling a statement of intent and authority on many an occasion. Much like the Irish team, his performances never seem to take the centre stage but have often been instrumental in being the underdog defining a decade.