When Peter Siddle retired from international cricket in the midst of last year’s Boxing Day Test at the MCG, Michael Neser was doing what he has been for most of the past two years – warming up with the Australian Test squad, training with them, bowling to them and living every moment with them.
Everything, that is, except actually playing alongside them. Since he was first chosen in the group that went to the UAE to play Pakistan in October 2018, Neser’s bearded face and pleasant countenance have been a fixture at the fringes, as he patiently awaits his chance to showcase the swinging and seaming skills he has demonstrated so ably for Queensland, the Adelaide Strikers and, on occasion, the Australian side in tour matches.
Siddle’s decision to step aside has been both a source of pain but also opportunity for Neser: without the older Victorian ahead of him anymore, Neser has lost a source of advice in the dressing room but gained a place on the ladder towards selection. He will get another chance to push his case for Australia A against the England Lions at the MCG from Saturday.
“He helped me heaps with my game as well, so him retiring is a downer for me as well because I was learning so much off him,” Neser said. “He was great around the squad and helped everyone, so fortunately for me, I’m still around him with the Strikers, so I’m still learning a lot off him and I suppose Siddsy’s done a great job for Australia for many years, so it’s sad to see him go.
“I learned a lot playing with him at the Strikers actually, in the moment, and just him helping me go through my thought process at the top of my mark. The thing with him, he makes sure you have a clear plan, he’s very calm under those pressure situations, so I just see how he goes about it and just little things rub off. His work ethic is amazing, sticking with him at his age and he’s still one of the most energetic guys in the squad, so it’s inspiring and great to watch.
“There are little tricks here and there that he’ll help with. The main thing with Siddsy is he changed his career from being a fast, out and out pace bowler to a more skilful swing bowler and it’s transformed the way he bowled. I think it’s a credit to him because he showed he’s more than a one-trick pony. He’s been such a skilful bowler and still is. Unfortunately, Queensland have him at the Gabba this coming up game with the Dukes, so he’ll be a handful for the Queensland batters!”
Reflecting on his past 18 months in and around the Australian squad, Neser spoke of the privilege and the challenge with a strong sense of equanimity. It is no disgrace, after all, to be kept out of the Test team by Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Siddle – there are plenty of other Test sides around the world for whom Neser may already have played 20 or so matches. Before Boxing Day, he was talked up as a chance to play as a fifth bowler, only for the captain Tim Paine to subsequently describe it as a ruse to fool New Zealand.
“I genuinely have no clue! Hopefully, I was close,” Neser said when asked how much of a chance he had had to play. “[The coach Justin Langer] said be ready, you never know what might happen. He pushes with all our players to be ready, no matter if you’re a shoo-in or on the side, that’s what he drills into us, to always be ready.
“It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. I love being in the squad and it’s a great honour as well, but at the same time I’m itching to go and I see where I stand in the pecking order though. Our bowlers have performed so well, so it’s kind of hard for me to fit into that line-up when they’re all going so strongly and playing well. But if the opportunity comes, fingers crossed I’ll be ready.”
A surfeit of withdrawals ahead of the Australia A match – Pattinson, Marcus Stoinis and Will Pucovski among them – have heightened Neser’s role, and underlined why he would do well to closely follow Siddle’s blueprint for durability in the game. And while there will likely be only a paltry crowd in attendance, Neser is one of many players on the fringe to benefit from the experience of excelling under the crowd and broadcast pressure of the BBL.
“Definitely it does [help], it adds an extra element of nerves and it’s great with Big Bash, we experience that feeling around the ground,” Neser said. “When I was sitting here with the Ashes watching that first ball and the crowd was absolutely amazing here with a full house, so it does add an extra element. It’s really intense when the crowd is going like that, and to be blooded in Big Bash and to experience that is less daunting.”
A four-day fixture against an England Lions team featuring numerous members of the Test side will be the ideal opportunity for Neser to demonstrate that, in the wake of Siddle, he can be the reliable operator Australia are sure to need on tough days in the future.