In the Shadow of History: The Peter McIntyre Story

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During last year’s Adelaide Test, Mind the Windows caught up with former South Australian leg spinner Peter McIntyre, to chat about a career that started in rural Victoria and peaked with the wicket of Tendulkar in Delhi. In this feature, we track the rise from the early days in Gisborne to a home Ashes debut.

The flight was delayed – and then the bus was too. I was hastily rushing across Adelaide – through a park, over the Torrens, past the church, up Melbourne Street – to dump my gear and rush some more.

Out of breath, with bright aqua bag thoroughly searched, I was in. But an over had been bowled. I’d come to witness history…and missed it.

By the fourth over, the ball is starting to talk. One nips back, beating the batsman’s push, hitting his pad. There’s no doubt, there’s no review, there’s no nothing. The finger’s up, the first wicket is down. A sell-out crowd roars, the fielders celebrate. The historic scoreboard — its clock ticking, cogs whirring — is quickly updated. Martin Guptill, lbw to Hazlewood for one. The Kiwi opening bat goes down in history for all the wrong reasons, Hazlewood perhaps for all the right ones: the first international dismissal with a pink ball.

An hour or so later, I’m walking around the ground, opting against an overpriced plastic cup of XXXX Gold as I cut past the bar, towards the sightscreen. There aren’t many people around here – the views of the surrounding parkland are brilliant, the views of the pitch somewhat obstructed — but one of the few who are is Peter McIntyre. I’m in the presence of two institutions of South Australian cricket: one spinning webs; the other recording each and every victim. McIntyre, ten-years a First Class leg-spinner, struck 200 times at his home ground.

But Adelaide isn’t where this story begins. We have to go about 700km east, and a little to the south. We’re in Victoria, not South Australia, and we’re out in the country – 50, maybe 60 clicks out of Melbourne, and barely a couple of thousand people.

Gisborne’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and the local cop calls himself the sheriff without a hint of irony. And, more importantly for Peter McIntyre, the kind of place where said sheriff is also a handy cricket coach with an eye for talent.

In the early days I tried to be a paceman but hurt my back, and the local ‘sheriff,’ as he used to call himself, saw me bowling leg spin and he basically said ‘yeah, you have to be bowling this’. He showed me how to do it, and from then on I was basically bowling leg spin.

It’s one of those clichés. The rough-and-tumble country kid, living half his life outdoors, sport-obsessed, in communities built around the long weekend roundtrips. He’s a product of backyard games, played hard like their Australian idols – games that Peter’s brother, Rob, fondly remembers:

When we were kids […] we started to imitate a lot of the players in the Australian team. I was more-or-less a left arm version of Dennis Lillee with the big leap at the wicket. There’s a middle brother who was a slinger, so he was able to imitate Jeff Thomson. And Pete took to imitating Jim Higgs with the leg spin.

We know the story: the raw, natural talent coming to the fore and getting the whole town or region talking. It’s a story we’ve read many times before. And the progression is always similar: they outgrow the country. They reach a point where the well-meaning local coach can’t do much more. They reach a point where the regional first grade comp just isn’t a challenge. Professional coaching, added resources, extra competition is needed. It’s no criticism of cricket in the country, it’s just the tyranny of distance. Michael Slater put it plainly in his ghostwritten autobio: “I knew that if I wanted to progress with my cricket, one day I would have to think about moving to the city.” The same applied to Peter McIntyre. And it happened pretty quickly, as Rob remembers:

When he came out of the junior ranks, he was picked in the senior team as a leg spinner, playing in the seconds. It was only about half a season before he was called up into the firsts; that was around ’81/82. He came up halfway through the season and ended up taking out the bowling average for the firsts. The following year he played the whole season in the firsts and was the leading wicket-taker, and took a 5-fer in the grand final in ’82/83. In that year and a half, he started to come on well with his leg-spin. [And] after they won that flag, he went down to Essendon to play premier cricket.

There’s a theme that runs through McIntyre’s career — he builds himself up to reach a standard, then has to seek change to surpass it. As a kid with a natural knack for leg spin, the darkest of all cricketing arts, Gisborne wasn’t ever likely to hold him for long. As he improved, honing his craft, learning his game, he made rep teams. He grew, succeeded, stood out. And unsurprisingly, the big smoke came calling. And as Rob recalls, there was no shortage of interest.

He was representing the region in state championships, and if you wanted to go anywhere back then you had to play premier cricket. There was no such thing as pathways. I suppose it was his performances in regional matches that brought him into notice of premier and district clubs in Melbourne, so he started to get some invitations.

For McIntyre, it wasn’t a long trip. Gisborne to Melbourne was comfortably drivable – though it was dad who had the car and the license. There was no need to uproot, to pack everything up in the back of a ute because he simply had to know. No, that would come later.

I was playing Country Cup and I was recruited by Essendon Cricket Club when I was 16. At the same time, I was in the Norm Smith squad with Melbourne Football Club. So basically, I started in D Grade with Essendon Cricket Club at 16 years of age. I was behind 12 spinners in the club — I was basically 13th on the list.

There’s a John Green quote that seems to apply quite nicely to Peter McIntyre’s early years at Essendon. He writes that a character “fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”. Substitute ‘fell in love’ for ‘became an elite leg spinner’, and it somewhat translates. He slots in at the bottom of the heap, last on the list, playing D grade with the odd foray into the Cs. Fighting for recognition and progression as a 16-year-old cricketer, all while being new to the city, certainly isn’t easy. There’s a year or two of standing still, and then the great leap forward. Slowly, and then all at once.

I had a couple of years where I was playing Ds, and Cs, and then everything clicked when I was about 17 or 18 [and] I went into the seconds, and had an explosion of wickets and then got into the first side. I picked up Julien Wiener as my first wicket, and it all came together from that — playing Second XI for Victoria. It all happened quickly, I suppose, when I was 21.

It was February ’86. McIntyre bowled 10 tidy overs, 1/28. Wiener, the opposition skipper and ex-Test rep, out for 71. McIntyre wasn’t a regular in the top side until the back end of the 1987/88 season though, and even then his performances failed to set the world alight. A maiden five-fer against Footscray showed glimpses of the talent he possessed.

When it all clicked, the rise was meteoric. Here’s a young Victorian leg spinner ripping the ball away from right handers and turning heads in the process. Sound familiar? Yep, we can’t tell this story without reference to Shane Warne.

It was a time where leg spin wasn’t in vogue. We’d gone through the period where Abdul Qadir was probably the last guy that had internationally held a lot of interest with leg spin. And then Warnie and I had come up at the same time in Victoria, Warnie was probably a year behind me, so leg spin was sort of trying to be re-introduced. There was probably a lot of pressure because leg spin hadn’t been around in the game, but I think it was easier [for that reason], in that batsman had trouble playing quality leg spin.

Perhaps the rarity of leg spin and the batsman’s unfamiliarity was a helpful factor in his rise, but let’s not pretend McIntyre’s success was entirely a product of circumstance — right place, right time. He was a skilled young bowler in 1988/89, when he was picked to make his Sheffield Shield debut.

It was daunting, we had Simon O’Donnell, we had Dean Jones, Merv Hughes, Paul Reiffel and Tony Dodemaide — it was a really good side. So it was daunting, but we had some state players in the Essendon team too which helped things, I knew a few — O’Donnell and Jamie Siddons were playing [for both Essendon and Victoria], Paul Hibbert [was still playing grade cricket] — so that made it a bit easier.

Despite knowing enough guys in the Victorian side to smoothen the dressing room transition, McIntyre was under no illusions of the on-field challenges he faced.

On the 10th of March, 1988, he walked out onto the MCG to play against Western Australia. The opening batsmen were Test incumbent Geoff Marsh and fringe international Mike Veletta. Tom Moody, not far off his Test debut, was batting at three. The experienced Graeme Wood rounded out the top four and Tim Zoehrer the top seven.

Hogan, MacLeay, Alderman featured in the bowling attack; this was a WA team boasting eight players who had, or would soon earn, Test caps. Nine, if you count their twelfth man, the future England quick Alan Mullally. Just two weeks later, WA would win the Shield.

Welcome to First Class cricket.

[The step up was] enormous. You go from grade cricket — and still today, grade cricket to First Class cricket is quite a jump. The pitches are so much better as well, they’re better prepared. The MCG pitch wasn’t a drop-in then, which was quite good — so it spun. The pitch was completely different to what it is today. It’s a big leap in standard — and it’s four days of cricket. You’ve got to come from playing every Saturday to four days in a row. It’s tough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was an uphill battle for both Victoria and McIntyre in that match. Western Australia batted through all but the entirety of the first two days of the match, with Zoehrer and Tom Hogan putting on over 200 for the sixth wicket. McIntyre toiled through 40 overs on debut, returning the respectable-in-context figures of 2/109. Declaring at 6/533, WA had just as much trouble taking wickets as the Victorians and, with most of the third day lost to rain, tons to Gary Watts and Dean Jones ensured the match petered out to a draw.

It wasn’t a consistent rise for McIntyre; Sheffield Shield cricket was tough. And in Victoria, he found himself in a three-way battle for what was often a single spot for spin bowlers – and under an administrative regime that only began to value leg spin after Warne went stratospheric. Constantly fighting to play – both against the other spinners and pace-centric tactics (refusing to play spinners in Brisbane and Perth, for instance) – McIntyre would only take the field for Victoria on 15 occasions across four seasons. He never gained an extended run in the senior side, taking 31 wickets at a shade under 50, figures far short of commanding a place.

Questionable tactics and field placements played their part in his performances too – back in 1989, McIntyre noted in The Age that he was bowling flatter for Victoria than he was in club cricket, because when, early on in a spell, “you’ve got two blokes in close, you’ve got to keep it tight” to avoid possible injury to the fieldsmen. McIntyre was as much a victim of Victorian (and nationwide) failures to use spin well; his Victorian contemporary, Paul Jackson, recalls the three-way battle for a spot:

I think having the competition there helped – nobody ever takes their place in a side for granted. […] But I think the advantage that we had was we had three of us there that were budding spinners, and while we were probably competing for one spot in the Victorian team, in some respects [we] egged each other along. It was a pretty tough environment for spin bowling in Victoria at that stage, because it was the end of the West Indies era.

But despite the uncertainty, not just of selection, but in his role as a specialist spin bowler, McIntyre was grateful for the opportunity to play whenever he could. And many of the games he did play were against international opposition. In November of 1989, he partnered Jackson — alongside Reiffel, Fleming and O’Donnell — to play against the touring Sri Lankans. Expensive in the first innings, McIntyre was instrumental in skittling the tourists in the second: he took 4/56 from 39 overs, including the wickets of Asanka Gurusinha and Aravinda de Silva. Victoria won by an innings and three.

A few months later, in January 1990, Pakistan also fell to the Victorian side. McIntyre took 5/53 in the second dig to knock the tourists over for under 200. This time, there was no Jackson; he was trusted as the sole spinner. Facing the high class opposition was a challenge McIntyre relished and, somewhat counterintuitively, found easier than the Shield.

To play against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the tour matches, I always found that when you played against the international players…I thought it was a bit easier, to be honest, than playing against some of the guys you always bowled against and who knew what you did.

When he was selected in an Australian XI — essentially an Australia A team — to play against England in a tour match in November 1990, it was clear that McIntyre was in the thoughts of selectors. It wasn’t his strongest outing — going wicketless in a draw — but the fact that here he was, selected in the same team as the likes of David Boon, Mark Waugh, Ian Healy, and Craig McDermott, showed that he was seen as a potential future international.

Ahead of the 1991/92 Sheffield Shield summer, both McIntyre and Warne were selected to represent Australia B on a tour to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe didn’t yet have Test status, and were arguably between generations. Kevin Arnott, Andy Pycroft, John Traicos and Malcolm Jarvis were coming towards the ends of their careers, while Alastair Campbell and the brothers Flower were just starting theirs. With Eddo Brandes and evergreen skipper Dave Houghton bridging the gap, it was a side beginning to signal the potential it would make clear by the end of the decade.

But the strength of that Australia B side signaled the dominance they’d soon show. Under the leadership of Mark Taylor and featuring a top order including Moody, Stuart Law, Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan — ably supported by Jamie Cox, Rod Tucker and Tim Nielsen — there was never any question of whether the spinners would have runs on the board to play with. And with Reiffel, Wayne Holdsworth and the raw pace of speedster-turned-CEO Denis Hickey, there was certainly able bowling support too.

For Warne and McIntyre, it was clear that both were of interest to selectors looking for a long-term spin prospect. Yet it was more of a friendly rivalry than a bitter fight to the death: two guys loving their cricket and enjoying experimenting with their leg spin bowling, learning and developing in parallel.

It was nice to be recognised. Warnie and I were replacing each other: he’d play, then I’d play, and then all of a sudden we were both off to Zimbabwe. We’d worked together in the nets at Victoria and supported each other, and we got to Zimbabwe and again, Zimbabweans hadn’t played a lot of leg spin. We had some fantastic fun — I’d muck around with the flipper — and we basically both had a similar number of wickets [on that tour]. I think Warnie had taken a 7-fer in one of the last games and you could tell that he was going to be a superstar. And I think that 7-fer propelled him into the next stage.

It is interesting, as a cricket fan, to think back to seminal moments and wonder ‘what if’. It’s almost embedded in the human psyche, to imagine the different ways things could have gone: Sliding Doors, If/Then. In this story, perhaps the question is to wonder what would have happened if the roles were reversed. What if it wasn’t Shane Warne who took that 7-fer, but Peter McIntyre.

It’s nothing more than a hypothetical of hindsight, but perhaps that innings dramatically changed the pace at which the trajectories of McIntyre and Warne would diverge. Warne was quickly elevated to Test cricket, would go on to take a casual 708 Test match wickets and, perhaps more importantly, capture the attention of cricket fans around the globe (for reasons both good and bad). McIntyre, meanwhile, would not play a Shield game in 1991/92. Maybe Warne’s rise wouldn’t have been so meteoric, inevitable as it was. Maybe McIntyre would have hung with him for a while, forming a genuine leg spin pairing. Maybe Warne would have had to wait a little bit longer to make his mark. Maybe New South Wales would have been successful in their attempt to lure Warne to the spin-friendly SCG.

Yet as Warne was rushed into the international arena, Peter McIntyre could barely string two Shield games together.

If everything continued as it was, in 1992/93 there would be no such battle for the Victorian spin bowling slot. Shane Warne was nailed on as the unquestionable number one, in an era where the Test side still turned out for most Shield games. McIntyre and Paul Jackson would form his reserves (of whom Jackson, the more experienced finger spinner, would likely be chosen to complement Warne), with the impossibly young and highly rated Craig Howard coming through the ranks. The battle was unwinnable; regular cricket was never going to be available in Victoria. And for McIntyre personally, he needed to play if he was to have any chance of reaching his ultimate goal: representing Australia.

So he and Jackson both exited the Victorian system. Jackson went to Queensland, perhaps an unnatural home for a slow left armer in the ‘90s, but nonetheless forming an important part of John Buchanan’s plans up at the ‘Gabba. McIntyre, on the other hand, was off to Adelaide.

I’d come across to the Cricket Academy to spend three months living with Terry Jenner, and he was coaching the Tea Tree Gully cricket club at the time. So I was living with TJ, and he convinced me to come back and play for Tea Tree Gully. Terry was a fantastic coach of spinners – coach of Warnie as well – and it opened up more opportunities. Obviously Warnie was starting to get some traction in Victoria — so I saw the opportunity to come to South Australia. It was fantastic; I had ten years at Essendon and then I had ten years at Tea Tree Gully, and it was probably the best move I ever made, really.

[Naturally it was a tough decision to make], but at the end of the day, I was trying to play cricket for Australia. So I basically made the decision, packed the car, drove to Adelaide and I’ve been here ever since.

Even in the early days of the move, the international opposition kept coming: there was a match against England A in early 1993, McIntyre taking six in the second dig. And perhaps more importantly than the results, he was relishing the challenge and enjoying his cricket. When Peter Sleep retired at the end of 1992/93, regular Sheffield Shield cricket was on the table. He’d impressed in his few opportunities that season — 16 wickets at 32.75 apiece — and followed that up with 29 poles the following summer. He didn’t strike cheaply that year, but the signs were there. Peter McIntyre was a serious bowler.

I’ve always loved [Adelaide], Sydney and to an extent Melbourne [as places to bowl spin]. It was always tough work. Shield cricket was tough. […] You look at Warnie — he used to come back to Shield cricket and he didn’t do as well in Shield cricket as he was doing for Australia when he was travelling around the other countries. And as a leg spinner, I always said I felt it was easier to travel around playing tour games — going to England for example, there was a Young Australians tour over there, and I loved bowling in England. It spun, and you just felt you were going to take wickets: they just hadn’t been exposed to leg spin. And that’s where Shield cricket was so tough — they had been exposed to leg spin, they did know how to play it, the pitches [weren’t as conducive], and I found that it was a really tough nursery.

Despite the challenges of bowling spin on Australian decks, against high-class domestic opposition, McIntyre performed consistently for South Australia during the start of the 1994/95 summer, continuing to progress through the ranks and make an impact on the right people. When England toured, McIntyre took six for the match in the tour game; right place, right time. Ahead of the Adelaide Test, he’d get arguably the most important phone call of his life. Everything had gone right. And he was in.

It was the fourth Test of the Ashes here [in Adelaide]. I’d been playing Shield and doing pretty well, taking wickets, and got the call-up with my great mate Greg Blewett. [Being selected] was a massive surprise to me, and it’s hard to explain when you get that call to say you’re in the team to play England in an Ashes Test.

I’m 364, my baggy green number, and there’s only 449 over 139 years of Test cricket that Australia’s played in. It’s just an amazing moment when you’re going from playing cricket in the country to actually putting your baggy green on and playing for Australia.

He’d worked his way up, from Romsey to Gisborne to Essendon to Victoria to South Australia (via Tea Tree Gully) to Australia. No pathways, just wickets. And now that he’d reached the top, he wanted more.


Authors Note: Thanks go to Greg Blewett, Paul Jackson and Rob McIntyre for their contributions.
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