Fast bowling came easily to the young Nathan Bracken, and he reveled in its sadistic pleasures. To him, speed and cricket were inseparable: watching Test matches on TV, he would leave the house once the new ball had lost its zing and not return until the next one was due. In the meantime, he might explore the bush of his neighborhood-the splendid Blue Mountains, west of Sydney-dreaming of the day when he would play the game on its highest stage.
That time may be nigh. Bracken arrives in London this week as the baby of Australia's 16-man Ashes squad. Even if he doesn't get to play his maiden Test this northern summer, the 23-year-old's efforts on tour will be scrutinized, not least by those who suspect that Australian cricket-supreme since 1995 -is headed for a fall. Steve Waugh's graying squad looks good for maybe one last mission. Among the new generation that is slowly taking shape, Bracken's 1.94-m frame is unmistakable.
He's determined to stay in exalted company. "In two years' time, when the selectors sit down to pick a Test side," he says, "I want to be an automatic choice." He has a quality every cricket team covets: he bowls with his left arm. Keen to unearth another Alan Davidson or Bruce Reid, Australia in recent times has tried some mediocre left-arm pacemen. Bracken is mildly sensitive to any suggestion he's benefited from selectors' bias.
"If I was a right-armer," he says, "I still think I'd have this opportunity." He knew from his early teens that he'd play sport for a living; the only question was which one. "If I didn't pick one up straight away," he says, "I'd practice it until I had it down pat." But he was best at cricket, and while his father, Gordon, fended off his thunderbolts in the backyard, his mother, Robin, studied the game by watching instructional videos inside. "Mum was always there when I came home from school," says Bracken, "ready to listen to my sporting stories of the day."
Over time, those stories became more impressive: Bracken was selected for the New South Wales under-15 team; then the Australian under-19s. He was inducted into the Australian Cricket Academy in 1997; picked for N.S.W. the following year; and, in January, elevated to the Australian one-day team. In his first match for his country, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Bracken's nerves threatened to mutiny as he prepared to bowl to Windies batting great Brian Lara.
"It was then I clicked back and imagined I was bowling to my Dad in the backyard," he says. He bowled competently to Lara over the summer, but the sure-fire story for the grandkids happened some months later in India, where in the one-day series he twice dismissed the world's best batsman, Sachin Tendulkar.
These experiences have accelerated Bracken's progress, a fact reflected in his hardening competitive instincts. Instead of trying to bowl tidily and waiting for batsmen to err, "I have the confidence now to act on all hunches," he says, "to go for the throat." He dismisses some people's reservations about him. That he is not quite fast enough: he bowls for accuracy in one-day cricket; in Tests, "I'd find an extra yard." That he's too lean for a long career in pace bowling: "I'm no Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I'm strong where I have to be." Says Bracken of a boyhood hero, Pakistani left-arm speedster Wasim Akram: "He has an unbelievable record, but I don't want to rule out the possibility I could be as good."
Beneath the earnest tone is a pure love for the game. "I'd be happy to play every day of the week," he says. "Even in [stifling hot] India, we'd finish for the day and I'd be wishing it could have lasted longer." Many fans of the Australian team, concerned about a lack of fresh talent, are hoping the former terror of the Blue Mountains will become Australia's next world-beating quickie.