Scott Muller took seven wickets in two Test matches, but never played first-class cricket after that season. Abhishek Mukherjee revisits a short career, packed with incident, and turning on one of the game’s most infamous sledges.
Brisbane, 1999/00. The Indians had lost Devang Gandhi and Rahul Dravid cheaply in their first match of the tour, against Queensland, but VVS Laxman (113) and Sachin Tendulkar (83) had turned things around with a 136-run stand. Australia would whitewash India 3-0 that summer, but Tendulkar would be named Player of the Series. In the last Test match, Laxman would play the first of his many special innings on Australian soil.
The Indians were not overly worried even when Scott Muller eventually got Laxman. It was, after all, a four-day match, and they were in a commanding position. But on came Muller again, landing the ball on the seam to hit the stumps and send Tendulkar back. Three balls later, he got MSK Prasad caught behind. From 236-3, India slumped to 245-6, and were bowled out for 277.
Queensland responded with 401. And Muller got Tendulkar again, along with S Ramesh and Vijay Bharadwaj. India began their tour with a 10-wicket defeat. Muller finished with 3-27 and 3-37, terrific numbers in a largely forgotten match.
But while he was busy taking Indian wickets, Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming, and Michael Kasprowicz were sharing 19 wickets to help Australia thrash Pakistan by an innings inside three days at Sydney. The Test match before that, at Hobart, would remain the last of Muller’s career. His bowling in the tour match was not enough to help Muller earn back a place in the Australian Test XI against the same Indians.
To be fair to the selectors, they were spoilt for choice. They retained Kasprowicz for the first Test match against India, at Adelaide. And when Kasprowicz had an ordinary showing, they decided to try out a young New South Welshman who had taken 3-56 and 4-77 – also against the Indians.
Muller’s numbers had been as impressive, but this man – Brett Lee – was easily the fastest Australian bowler. Lee got a chance, and did not look back after a searing spell on debut, in Melbourne, where he took 5-47 and 2-31 and broke Ramesh’s thumb. With Jason Gillespie and Andy Bichel also lurking around, Muller’s Test career was over.
So too, soon, was his first-class career. His last day in first-class cricket came only 138 days after he got his Test cap. From 30 first-class matches, he took 102 wickets at 23.50. Outside Test cricket, his 95 wickets came at 22.52, better than the corresponding numbers for Fleming (28.88), Gillespie (27.60), Kasprowicz (25.76), Bichel (25.48), and Lee (23.68). His is a tale illuminating of the small moments that can make a promising path turn sour, a story of self-confidence and sledging, perhaps even from his own teammates.
The forgotten German
Scott Muller comes from a long line of cricketers of German origin to have played Test cricket for Australia. The curious list probably began with Albert Hartkopf, Jack Nitschke, and Hans Ebeling, all of whom played between the two World Wars.
The greatest of them all was (the past tense still feels awkward), of course, Shane Warne, a man whose name would forever be entwined with Muller’s. In 2007, Warne even wanted to obtain a German passport – his mother Brigitte Szczepiak was born in the country – to play as a Kolpak professional in England; he later abandoned the idea.
Muller took the usual route, through grade cricket, Queensland Under-19s, and Queensland Seconds. He took two wickets when he got a sudden Sheffield Shield call-up at 19, but did not play again for another six seasons, with his love for the sport waning. Even when he returned, he had an unremarkable stint: four Queensland bowlers had more wickets in the Sheffield Shield that season. He pulled out of the 1996/97 Sheffield Shield final, citing a conflict with his work, and then announced his retirement altogether
But Queensland coach John Buchanan lured Muller back to sport, and the state selectors backed him, perhaps because three of their fast bowlers – Bichel, Kasprowicz, Adam Dale – were all fighting for a place in a Test side that had, halfway through the decade, replaced the West Indies as the unofficial champions in Test cricket.
Muller repaid the faith with 35 wickets at 18.11 apiece across his next two seasons. He earned a berth for the 1999 tour of Sri Lanka, along with McGrath, Gillespie, and Fleming. A Test cap was, however, out of the question, even after Gillespie crashed into Steve Waugh during the first Test match and was ruled out. Australia stuck to two fast bowlers, to some extent because Colin Miller – one of their spinners – could also bowl seam.
Muller did get one chance, against the Sri Lanka Board XI. Here, he took 5-64 and 2-24. Upon his return, he got 3-34 and 4-68 against New South Wales. That earned him a call-up to the Test side, alongside Adam Gilchrist; they got their caps from Bill Brown, one of Don Bradman’s Invincibles.
On debut, between his 2-72 and 1-55, Muller scored an unbeaten six, helping Warne put on 86 for the last wicket. Retained at Hobart, Muller claimed 3-68 and 1-63, with Australia claiming a remarkable victory, recovering from 126-5 to chase 369. None of his seven wickets was of a rank tail-ender (though Wasim Akram batted No.10). He went for 4.44 an over, but seven wickets in two Tests was by no means an ordinary return.
“Maybe I had what people call green and gold fever. Or maybe I kicked back and relaxed a little bit,” Muller would later reminisce.
And yet, Muller never played for Australia again. One can only speculate whether four of the most controversial words of the era, uttered during his last Test match, played a role in that.
“He can’t bowl and he can’t throw”
Pakistan were 211-3 in the second innings when the ball was hit out to Muller at deep mid-wicket. His throw soared over Gilchrist’s head, but there was a fielder to back up, so no damage was done.
During the throw, however, the powerful microphones picked up the now-infamous words “he can’t bowl, he can’t throw.” Warne, the bowler, was close enough to the stump mics for his voice to have been picked up, and became the prime suspect. The video was replayed on a national television show, The Panel.
Warne called up Muller to sort out the matter. Muller was neither amused nor polite. “It’s a pretty ugly sort of time when one of your teammates doesn’t believe you,” a disgruntled Warne would later say. Joe Previtera, a Channel Nine camera operator, admitted to having uttered the words.
But Muller was not convinced. Neither was the Australian press pack, with two members of the media nearly coming to blows over their differing opinions of the incident. Voice analysts were employed to inspect the recording, coming to the conclusion that Warne was not to blame. The matter reached Parliament, with Mark Latham, a Labour backbencher who raising the subject: “Fantastic excuses were invented to preserve Channel Nine’s commercial interest in Mr Warne.”
One can only guess to what extent it affected Muller, who – as mentioned above – did not play first-class cricket after that season. Two seasons later, he showed up twice in the ING Cup – the Australian interstate 50-over tournament – before walking away from the cricket fraternity forever.
Muller was only 28 years old when he played first-class cricket the last time. “I’ve gone from being the happiest bloke going round two weeks ago to being rissoled completely.”
Did Warne say the words? Did Previtera? Or was it someone else? Warne always maintained his innocence. “If anyone wants to still pretend it was me, it wasn’t – just to clear that up,” he said in 2016. “If I wanted to tell him that, I would have told him that anyway, whoever did say it, it’s probably true.”
All that can be left to speculations. What we do know is the words were probably enough for Muller to spiral out of first-class cricket. It certainly did not help when Six and Out, a band featuring cricketers Brett Lee, Shane Lee, Gavin Robertson, Richard Chee Quee, and Brad McNamara, released their popular single Can’t bowl, can’t throw.
Australia’s ‘mental disintegration’ – a term that had gained popularity around that period – had come home to roost.