Dan Cullen bowls on Test debut

Third place: Dan Cullen made his Test debut for Australia in a Test in which they fielded three spinners

© Getty Images
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One and Done

One turn and then a twist

Dan Cullen is at an age when spinners reach their prime. So it's only natural that he still regrets playing only one Test for Australia

Brydon Coverdale |

"I'd do anything to be playing now."

Dan Cullen says these words with longing, yearning for the days when he could pull on his cricket gear and walk out on the field for Australia. Or even for South Australia. But those days are gone. Long gone. And it still hurts.

Cullen was supposed to be the next big Australian spinner. At 21, he had a Cricket Australia contract and was described by selector Trevor Hohns as "an exciting new prospect and a player of the future". He made his Test debut in Bangladesh a year later, alongside an ageing Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. Although he bowled only 14 overs for the match, it was a symbolic passing of the baton.

Now, Australia are back in Bangladesh for their first Test tour since that 2006 trip. Cullen is excited, but only in the way that any cricket lover is excited for any series. He is looking forward to what he expects will be a tight contest. But his anticipation is tinged with regret, because had things turned out differently he might be there himself, instead of watching from his couch in Adelaide after a hard day's work.

"At the moment I'm doing plumbing," Cullen says, "and hoping to get into building and renovations."

He never added to that one Test cap. At 24, he played his last first-class match. At 25, he played his final one-day game for South Australia. At 26, he lost his state contract and all confidence in his cricket.

Cullen is still only 33 years old. He is younger than Shaun Marsh, George Bailey and Cameron White. He is the same age at which Clarrie Grimmett debuted for Australia, a man who had ample time ahead of him to become Test cricket's first 200-wicket bowler.

In his first Shield season, Cullen was South Australia's second-highest wicket-taker with 43

In his first Shield season, Cullen was South Australia's second-highest wicket-taker with 43 © Getty Images

But Cullen hasn't played a first-class match for eight and a half years. And if he had his time again, he would do things a little differently.

"I still have a bit of regret about things," Cullen says. "I still think about it a fair bit."

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Is it possible to spoof a spoof? The artist Gottfried Helnwein famously parodied Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks painting with his Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which depicts Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart in a lonely diner. But you could create another version: despondent Australian spinners, those who were hailed as exciting prospects in the past dozen years but who never quite made it as Test bowlers.

It would be a pretty full diner.

Jason Krejza would be there, talking offbreaks with Nathan Hauritz. Beau Casson and Bryce McGain would be chatting about wristspin. There would be a four-way left-arm orthodox conversation featuring Michael Beer, Xavier Doherty, Steve O'Keefe and Jon Holland - though Holland would have one eye out the door, hoping to follow Ashton Agar, who just excused himself. Dan Cullen might be chatting to Cullen Bailey, fellow Redback and owner of a national contract in 2007, but who never won a baggy green. Steven Smith and White would be absent, too busy making runs.

"There was that phase after Warney where a lot of guys did get put in and spat out of the system pretty quickly, and probably weren't given amazing opportunities," Cullen says. "Nathan Lyon has done extremely well. He's a very, very good bowler, and I love watching him bowl. But I think they finally looked after him the way that a young spinner should be looked after.

"Michael Clarke, the way he brought him [Lyon] on at good times and then if he was getting hit around or if they had two guys set, he'd take him off and bring the quicks back on. Then if they had the tail in, he'd bring Lyon on and he'd get a few wickets and build up his confidence that way. But there was a real bad stage there where a lot of spinners were getting thrown in and thrown out again."

Of all the cricketing beasts, the spin bowler should have the greatest capacity for longevity. His work is less physically taxing than fast bowling, and does not require the split-second reflexes of a batsman or wicketkeeper. The spinner's art is subtle, and his wiles can improve with the years. Among spin bowlers, older is often better. Just look at Brad Hogg, who became a BBL icon in his forties and made his international comeback at 43.

Cullen (second from left) with the game's legends to his right - Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Michael Hussey and Karen Rolton - at the 2006 Allan Border Medal dinner where he won the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year

Cullen (second from left) with the game's legends to his right - Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Michael Hussey and Karen Rolton - at the 2006 Allan Border Medal dinner where he won the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year © Getty Images

It is especially notable, then, that only one man in our imaginary diner - McGain - is aged over 35 even today, years after most of them played for Australia.

"It's actually really frustrating," Cullen says. "I watch the TV, I watch the BBL and all of this cricket, and with the spinners I feel like when you're older - 30, 33 - you just have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and you understand how things work and how you should do things."

But only if you haven't been burned already, haven't had the door closed in your face.

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Regrets? Cullen has had a few and he wishes he'd stuck to doing it his way.

"I had a really good offspinner that worked really well, and a really good game," Cullen says, "and I tried to get better by doing a few other balls and listening to too many people. In the end I lost my rhythm and had a bad year and a half with the Redbacks.

"Unfortunately I got cut, and once you're out of the system, it's pretty darn hard to get back in. I do regret a few things. But that's the biggest one - going away from what I was so good at."

Cullen tried to do too much. Over-coached or over-ambitious, whatever the case, soon it was all just... over. In his debut Pura Cup season at age 20, he piled up 43 wickets at 30.37. In his last Sheffield Shield season at age 24, all he could manage was ten wickets at 77.70. In his final summer as a state-contracted player, he wasn't even picked for a single Shield game.

They were a difficult couple of years for Cullen. Off the field, he was finding the South Australia set-up challenging, unhelpful, not an enjoyable environment. On the field - well, there was virtually no "on the field" for Cullen, who played just a single one-day game in his last summer for the Redbacks. Allrounder Aaron O'Brien was used as the lead spinner in the Shield, and Cullen Bailey as the occasional second option.

Cullen and the Australian squad do push-ups during a boot camp at the Beerwah State Forest, 2006

Cullen and the Australian squad do push-ups during a boot camp at the Beerwah State Forest, 2006 © Getty Images

At the end of that 2009-10 season, he was cut from South Australia's list. He was 26 years old and suddenly unemployed. The thought of moving away from Adelaide and trying his luck in another state did cross his mind, but by then his confidence was too low.

"I definitely thought about it, but to be honest I don't think I was in the right mind space to do it," he says. "I wasn't feeling good enough about the way I was bowling at that stage. Once I got to about 25, I had a couple of bad years. Then later I thought I got back on track and was going pretty well, but literally the door was closed. It was pretty, pretty difficult to get back in.

"And at that stage, you've got to get your life on track as well. You can't just hang on a hope of getting a few Shield games and maybe cracking it again. So I had to get into the real world and go from there."

The adjustment to life after cricket - or any professional sport - is often a fraught time for young men who have known nothing else. Of course, they are aware that one day they will no longer play sport for a living. But an international cricketer like Cullen might reasonably have expected that day to come a decade later than it did.

"If you can have a career where you're finishing at 33 or something, then you have a little bit more time to work out what you want to do," he says. "But when you're that young, 25 or 26, I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to go in. I went overseas for a while and then came back and tried to give cricket another crack. Then tried a few different things and then settled on plumbing, and I'm pretty keen to get into building.

"But I suppose, when you are 25 or 26, it is really difficult when that's all you've done. And I think a lot of players these days as well - and I know things have got better - but a lot of players do struggle with their life after cricket or footy, because that's been their whole passion and they've put everything into it."

Even club cricket lost its appeal after a while. Cullen still loves the game and is involved with club and junior coaching, but once the dream of top-level cricket had disappeared, he wondered what was the point of playing any longer.

Cullen celebrates what became his only Test wicket - a caught-behind to dismiss Mashrafe Mortaza

Cullen celebrates what became his only Test wicket - a caught-behind to dismiss Mashrafe Mortaza © Getty Images

"I pulled the pin two years ago," he says. "When you feel like the carrot in front of you is not there, or the opportunity is no longer there to play state cricket, it does make it hard to rock up to a grade club on a Tuesday and Thursday night, Saturday and Sunday, and have that real motivation to perform at your best. In the end, motivation was the main thing I lost."

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If the end of Cullen's career was mostly stick, the carrot had been dangled from early on. That debut season of the 43 wickets was followed by 27 the next summer, though a broken finger while attempting a return catch cut his season short. It wasn't just the wickets that raised eyebrows. In his first year, Cullen riled the veteran Justin Langer with his brash behaviour on the field.

In Bangladesh in 2006, ahead of his Test debut, Cullen recalled the incident to the Age newspaper: "It was the first time I had played against him, we were playing at the WACA and he was on about 70 when I came on. It wasn't anything nasty, I was having a bit of fun with him, being cheeky. He tried to sweep and played and missed a few so I felt like I was starting to get on top, in a way. I baited him and was saying, 'Don't sweep, don't sweep', and then got lucky enough to get him out. I gave him a wink."

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and another decade of wisdom, Cullen admits that he was sometimes a little too intense on the field, a fraction too aggressive. But you need a certain level of intensity in elite sport, and his aggression fit the Australian standard perfectly in that golden era for the national side.

At 21, he was handed a Cricket Australia contract. Consider some of the names he was joining on Cricket Australia's payroll in 2005: Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Brett Lee, Stuart MacGill, Michael Kasprowicz.

"The hardest thing was maybe... being a 21-year-old coming into that scene and everyone else being 30, apart from Watto and Clarke, was probably trying to find your way around that group," Cullen says, "because they were so established and they were legends."

Hero and mate: Warne and Cullen talk to the Australian press in 2006

Hero and mate: Warne and Cullen talk to the Australian press in 2006 © Getty Images

One year later, Cullen found himself in Australia's squad for the ODI portion of their tour of Bangladesh. But midway through the first Test, which preceded the one-dayers, he got a phone call. Warne had a dodgy elbow and might not be fit for the second Test. Cullen would be rushed to Bangladesh to join the Test squad.

As it turned out, Warne was passed fit for the second Test in Chittagong, and MacGill played too. But so did Cullen, an exceptionally rare occurrence of Australia fielding three specialist spinners in one Test XI.

"I found out on the morning," Cullen says. "I remember getting ready in the room, putting the sunscreen on and the training kit, and then going out into a net. I think I rolled one over while I was waiting for everyone to come out. Brett Lee came over and said congratulations, and I was like, 'What do you mean?' because no one had told me anything. He said, 'You're playing today, you're in the XI.' I was a bit stunned, I was like wow, this is actually happening."

As a ten-year-old in Adelaide, Cullen had once chased Warne for an autograph. Now, here he was in Chittagong being presented with baggy green cap number 397 by the very same Warne. They would be Test team-mates.

****

Fourteen overs, seven in each innings. That was the sum total required of Australia's third spinner in that Chittagong Test. It was time enough to get one wicket. Meanwhile, Warne sent down 54.2 overs and MacGill bowled 44.2.

"That's the thing, when you've got probably the two best legspinners Australia has ever had playing in the same team as you," Cullen says. "Opportunities aren't really going to be there as much. I bowled seven in the first and seven in the second. It would have been nicer to get a longer bowl, but then Ricky is trying to win the Test match and I understand that."

He remembers the wicket well, Mashrafe Mortaza caught behind in Cullen's second over as a Test bowler. He recalls the emotions: please put your finger up, please put your finger up - and then relief. At least I've got one, he thought.

Bangladesh were soon bowled out for 197, and then came the unlikeliest Test double-century of them all, the innings for which that entire tour is remembered by Australians: Jason Gillespie's 201 not out.

Cullen gets to take the ball as he and his team-mates walk back after dismissing Bangladesh for 197 in the first innings

Cullen gets to take the ball as he and his team-mates walk back after dismissing Bangladesh for 197 in the first innings © Getty Images

"That was pretty phenomenal," Cullen says. "No one could believe that Dizzy was staying out there, especially in those conditions, because they were pretty foreign to what we play in. It's insane humidity and feels like 50-degree heat. You're constantly sweating. So for Dizzy to back up the first-innings bowling performance and then bat for a couple of days, was just unbelievable."

Those are memories that Cullen will always cherish. He was grateful for the opportunity to play with such legends of the game, to wear the baggy green and take a Test wicket and watch one of the most iconic Australian Test innings of all time. If only his Test career hadn't ended as quickly as it began.

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"I've always been one of those guys who has a real intense passion for spin bowling and for cricket," Cullen says. "I've lived and breathed it my whole life and I still love it, I'm still involved on the coaching side of things. I just love spin bowling. I don't know what it is. I just love it."

At least in playing retirement he has found an outlet for that love.

"I have aspirations to coach, or at least do more spin-bowling coaching," Cullen says. "I'm doing the juniors at the SACA at the moment, and the emerging Redbacks, which is great. I'm doing the assistant role with West Torrens. I definitely do have aspirations of coaching spinners at the higher level. One day I'd love to be involved at the state level and work with spinners at a more professional level."

Perhaps life didn't turn out exactly as he envisaged when he burst onto the cricket scene at the age of 20, but is Dan Cullen, Test cricketer and aspiring coach, plumber and aspiring builder, pleased with what he achieved in cricket? Is he proud of playing one Test and five ODIs for his country?

"I definitely am," he says, hesitantly, "but I suppose maybe when I'm 50 or something, I might look back and think 'at least I played six games'. It's six games more than a lot of other people do. But at the moment, I still have a bit of regret about things. I still think about it a fair bit. Down the track, I'm sure it will sink in a bit more. I'm still very grateful for what I got to do. I just wish I could have added a bit to the games and the wickets."

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

 

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  • POSTED BY cjwats4626196 on | August 25, 2017, 11:37 GMT

    Superb story on Dan Cullen. Thanks Brydon.. You encapsulate the glory and the tragedy of professional sport.