“Forget the speed. Look at the skill.”
The coach who promoted Chadd Sayers to first-class cricket five years ago, Darren Berry, knows the doubters will be out in force if the South Australian debuts in New Zealand next month and doesn’t break 130km/h.
He encountered similar scepticism when he began coaching in SA and started investigating the player dominating the scorecards for Woodville, “the grade-cricket guru, he just took wickets for fun”.
“Everyone in South Australia, the selectors at the time, said ‘He’s too small, he’s not fast enough, and he won’t get good players out.’,” said Berry, who was so impressed on his first viewing that he put his “nuts on the line” to get him a chance for the Redbacks.
“What I knew he had was a big ticker and was a quality person who was desperate to play for South Australia,” said Berry, who coached SA until last season.
The first vindication for Sayers’ inclusion came in his third match, through his 2-47 and 5-57 in a loss to Victoria at the MCG late in the 2011-12 season.
“That was his breakthrough game, I reckon, that he started to believe,” Berry said. “When they first come in they still doubt whether they’re good enough for that level – Nathan Lyon was the same – but you back people that you believe in. I remember putting my arm around him and saying it was the start of a long career.”
Across his first two full seasons, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, he surged into prominence – at least among domestic-cricket devotees – by claiming 84 wickets at an average of 22.61, at a miserly 2.54 runs per over.
It was through this period that teams, and specific batsmen, that had unflattering first impressions of the right-armer had to urgently revise their opinion, and their approach to him.
“He moves the ball in the air and off the wicket. He looks innocuous, and the Victorian batsmen treated him with no respect in the first couple of years, didn’t rate him,” Berry said.
“I’ve heard people say they’re going to slog him, threaten to do it. I reckon maybe once it’s happened, when Ben Cutting made a bit of a mess of him at the Gabba when he stood and slogged him and got away with it.
“He hits people in the knee-roll, nips one back and gets them LBW, gets blokes caught in the cordon. He gets people out like good bowlers do, like Terry Alderman used to get people out. He just gently swings the ball away, looks innocuous, and then all of a sudden Terry Alderman-like.”
Sayers’ form saw him chosen for Australia A’s winter tours in 2013, first in England and then in southern Africa. While his statistics were decent – in four matches he took 14 wickets at 19.86 – he returned home believing he was a long way short of getting picked for Australia, perhaps insurmountably so.
“A couple of times he got picked for Australia A sides . . . he’d ring me and say ‘Coach, I get the vibe they think I’m not fast enough’, so I tried to bowl faster. I had to tell him ‘Listen, you’re not a fast-bowler: you’re not Brett Lee, you’re not Mitchell Johnson’,” Berry said.
“I had to convince him ‘You will get your opportunity doing what you do . . . your strength is your control, your [consistent] line and length, and you nip the ball around, and you don’t clean up the tail but you get good players out . . . please believe in yourself’.”
It was primarily Sayers’ bowling that made him the “first-picked” player by Berry-coached Redbacks teams, but his attitude helped too.
“He never dogged it. Ever,” Berry said. “He’s small in stature but big in heart and desire.”
One clear example of Sayers’ driven attitude came in a match against NSW at Adelaide Oval in 2012-13, when he had taken two second-innings wickets with the new ball but had to leave the ground after straining a muscle in his side typically referred to by fast-bowlers as their “grunter” muscle. The Blues had been 4-49, but were on the comeback through a partnership between Peter Nevill and Brad Haddin that was nearing a half-century. The stricken Sayers decided he was the man to break that partnership.
“He could hardly breathe, but he said ‘Coach, I’ll get it strapped up and I’ll go out and get Haddin out’,” Berry said. “They strapped him and jabbed him up. He went out there and got Brad Haddin, then put his fist up in the air. We went on to win outright.
That dismissal of Haddin was one of the 30 leg-before dismissals taken by Sayers in the shield. Since his debut, only two have exceeded that: recently retired Luke Butterworth with 32, and fellow New Zealand squad member Jackson Bird with 31.
Berry said such traits would make him ideal for an Ashes tour. He was not in contention for last year’s series because of a long-term ankle injury that forced him to miss the second half of the season. But Berry also insisted he was not simply a bowler who was dangerous in complementary conditions, pointing to his Adelaide Oval record of 47 wickets at 25 from 13 matches as proof of that.
Berry said he was “enormously proud” of Sayers for having demanded selection through his consistent performances for the Redbacks.
“I said to [wife] Kath this morning ‘I feel like my son has been picked’,” he said. “It’s another great story for every grade cricketer out there, where you think you’re miles away but you’re actually two steps away from playing for your country.”
The former SA coach commended Australian selectors for picking him in the squad, but urged them to go one step further and select the 28-year-old in the XI against the Black Caps in the two-Test series.
“He won’t let you down. And if he gets conditions that suit him [he can be almost unplayable]. He’s right-arm medium, but he nips the ball of the seam and troubles good batsmen,” Berry said.