Posts Tagged awesomeness

For Grant

I first saw Grant Elliott play in 2008. New Zealand were playing England in an ODI at Old Trafford, and, batting first, had lost their top 5 batsmen for less than 50 runs. Adding insult to injury, two of those wickets had been taken by Stuart Broad, his accuracy miraculously unimpeded by his combination emo-bangs-Flock-of-Seagulls hair. Broad and Tremlett, enormously tall bowlers both, were extracting vicious rearing bounce and movement off the pitch, and the Kiwi batsmen had looked alternately clueless and frantic in the brief moments they were actually at the crease.

I was watching for Daniel Vettori. He may have batted like a man still learning how to control all four of his new prosthetic limbs, but everyone knew he was the only one who could save New Zealand.

I had never seen nor heard of Grant Elliott before – unsurprisingly, as that was only his second ODI. After leaving his native South Africa for New Zealand, doing time in domestic cricket, and playing for Weybridge in the Surrey leagues to hone his skills, he’d finally earned a call-up to the New Zealand side, as injury cover for the all-rounder  they would clearly much rather have had, Jacob Oram.

Jacob Oram is tall, burly, a well-known presence with his shambling walk and shaggy hair and broad gleaming grin, promising big hitting and salvation in the middle order. Grant Elliott, lean and rangy, walked out to the middle wearing a New Zealand kit at least two sizes too big for him, every inch a stoic yet forlorn substitute for the Real Thing, epitomizing the hopelessness of the cause. A club cricketer being unceremoniously tossed to the wolves that had decimated the heavyweights, his presence barely registered. A bored-sounding Geoffrey Boycott mentioned that, though this was Elliott’s second ODI, it would be his batting debut, then promptly resumed talking about how terrible New Zealand were. He didn’t mention that though Elliott hadn’t batted in his debut ODI (rain had curtailed New Zealand’s innings) he had bowled…well enough to return figures of 3-23, claiming Owais Shah, Paul Collingwood and Luke Wright. Perhaps Boycott didn’t remember, or thought it wasn’t relevant. Surely one of Broad, Tremlett or Anderson would take out the newcomer and the England juggernaut would roll on.

Two dot balls, a few moments of Daniel Flynn’s wild slashing, and Elliott was facing up to red-hot Stuart Broad. A ricocheting short ball sent him leaping, arching back as it whistled past his helmet, far too close for comfort. Broad grinned his best version of a shark’s smile; and I saw Elliott smile also, wide and easy, considering, amused…relaxed. It wasn’t a shaky grin of false bravado, or the sweaty anxious involuntary grimace-smile of a newbie who knows he is cannon fodder. Suddenly the overlarge shirt, not being Jacob Oram, and the direness of the situation didn’t seem to matter. He resumed his stance, touched his bat to the deck. Looked up again, directly at Broad standing at the top of his runup, and smiled again, even wider this time. A lopsided, Han Solo smile.

Bring it on.

He didn’t set the ground alight that day with explosive hitting. Grant Elliott is not that kind of player, quite, and Brendon McCullum had already tried that only to hole out for 17. What he did instead was stay at the crease, calmly leaving good deliveries and putting away bad ones, remaining as Flynn, Hopkins and even Vettori the saviour came and went in quick succession. When Kyle Mills opened up and began to hit long and hard, Elliott let him, concentrating on his self-imposed task. Leave good balls, hit anything that’s there to be hit. Only at the end of the penultimate over, in a bid for a final quick haul of runs, did he go, misjudging only slightly, but enough for Luke Wright to hold the catch a step in from the boundary.  He’d made 52, but he’d stayed for 102 balls and over 2 hours.

Later in the day, he would run in, send down a fast fullish delivery to Chris Tremlett, and watch it balloon up off the top edge of the bat directly into his captain’s hands – his second wicket, winning the game for New Zealand with 22 runs to spare, and he’d smile again, a huge triumphant grin as his teammates mobbed him.

He wouldn’t be remembered for any of that, though. Five minutes at the Oval ensured that Grant Elliott would be permanently stamped That Guy Ryan Sidebottom Smashed Into and Paul Collingwood Screwed Over. Even as Mark Gillespie hit the winning runs, in the glorious chaos as Kyle Mills completed the run and leapt, punching the air, and the usually mild-mannered Daniel Vettori, who had sat glowering with cold, barely-suppressed rage on the balcony though the final overs, sprang to his feet screaming obscenities and pounding the railings with clenched fists, the cameras only briefly caught Elliott, laughing with joy before disappearing into a tangle of hugging New Zealanders.

The next time I saw him, he steadily took New Zealand to victory against Australia at Melbourne in the Chappell Hadlee series, and I wondered if he’d do it again to give them the series in Sydney.

I didn’t see the Han Solo smile in Sydney. The Sydney innings was pure grit, and running. Lots and lots of running. Watching big-hitting batsmen rack up boundary-runs is what people seem to want to see, but I couldn’t stop watching Elliott, sweating profusely, chest heaving, pale eyes intense and staring in his narrow dark face, pounding the SCG pitch. Always forcing one more run, darting in and out of the crease in a way that most Indian batsmen can’t even visualize as part of an aspirational yoga excercise, tempo never easing until a final, tired swing at the death found Michael Hussey at deep midwicket. He sweated and bled for his runs the same way Iain O’Brien did for his wickets, because he had to.

I was riveted.

He became a stabilizer, a composed middle-order striker with correct, technical strokes and the ability to stay at the crease instead of perishing in a flurry of misguided shots. And he kept chipping in with the ball, economically bowling wicket to wicket, getting swing, prising out a wicket here, two more there, a strong solid extra bowler. And every now and then, breaking through the earnest intentness: the incongruous wide, lopsided Han Solo grin – a misplaced swashbuckler’s smile.

The Champions’ Trophy would be the pinnacle. A ripping bowling spell, produced out of nowhere, in his home city of Johannesburg, was more of a joyous fairy tale than you ever usually get in real life, a bellow of incredulous jubilation ringing out at each wicket. After the high, he was out for just 3 at New Zealand’s turn at bat, which went mostly unremarked on in the wake of the Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill blitzkrieg that carried New Zealand through to the semis. It emerged later that a spitting delivery from Stuart Broad had snapped his thumb. It was still broken as he fought his way to an unbeaten 75 in the semifinal, and as he shook hands with a Pakistan team gracious in defeat.

The thumb was the beginning of what looks to be the end. Injuries forced him out of the New Zealand side at the highest point of his rise, and the window closed. In 2011, he was 32, still fighting injuries, and not selected for the Test or ODI teams, remaining instead captain of the domestic Wellington Firebirds.  In that capacity, a few days ago, he reached 188 not out against the Central Stags in the Plunket Shield, breaking free of a lean run of form, just shy of a maiden first-class 200. He then declared the innings, remaining on 188, to give his team the best chance of bowling out the opposition for victory in the rapidly worsening weather.

It didn’t work. It’s difficult for a non-player like me to comprehend the frustration of something like that, but despite the fact that it’s kind of heartbreaking, it’s reassuring in a way. It’s always nice when an awesome, classy player does something to remind you of that fact about himself.

Grant Elliott turned 33 yesterday, which is why I’m writing this. Because I was a fan ever since that first ODI and that first awesome Han Solo smile, all the way through. Because I still listen to Plunket Shield on the radio in the middle of the night to see how the Firebirds are going with him at the helm. Because cricket is great at fêting its rockstars and celebrities, but usually ignores the quietly classy, and the gritty, driven guys who do the hard unglamorous stuff well. For reasons I can’t begin to understand, ESPNcricinfo  didn’t include Grant Elliott’s birthday on their list of notable happenings in cricket for the 21st of March. I’m not sure why they didn’t feel they needed to acknowledge him, but they didn’t, and it’s not the first thing they’ve done that I disagree with, but it is something I can combat. So I wrote this.

For Grant.

Happy birthday, GE.

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Return of the Mac

I just referenced a song in this post title that was released in 1996. FOURTEEN. YEARS. AGO.

I am SO OLD.

…anyway.

You’re probably expecting me to talk about Brendon McCullum now. You would be entirely justified in this expectation (and yes, I’m very aware of how many times I have used the word ‘expectation’ and its alternate conjugations here in the last few days, it has in fact started to lose all meaning for me) since, of course, Baz done good today. He’s been persona non grata a little bit for his decision to quit keeping, at which he is undeniably excellent, and for being all reputation and no runs of late. Going out to bat against the world’s number one Test side and scoring a shitload of runs is obviously the best way to counter this sort of thing, which is exactly what Baz did and bloody good on him for doing it.

But it’s the other Mac that has drawn my interest. The inconspicuous Mac. Mac the Lesser. Also known (by me, in my head, involuntarily, every time I see him or hear his name mentioned) as TIMMAY!*

Tim McIntosh.

Tim McIntosh is a bit of a cipher. He’s New Zealand’s Test opener, but no-one really knows anything about him – most people, even those who watch cricket regularly, probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Yet in the past year he’s not done too badly – scoring 4 50s (and twice – against Australia and Bangladesh – getting agonizingly close to 100s) in addition of course to coming off a pair to score 102 and 49 against India in Hyderabad. This relative annonymity is quite possibly because unlike the Big Mac (sorry) Brendon McCullum, he isn’t exactly an electric batsman. (Cricinfo’s profile of him calls him ‘a graduate of the Mark Richardson School of Batting,’ which pretty much sums it up.) It is just so typical of the fate of guys like him that when he does something awesome, like score a century and a fifty in the same match after coming off a pair, flashier stars like Baz, Harbhajan, and Chris Gayle swoop in to eclipse him.

Not here, though. Today I celebrate the achievement of quiet, unassuming Timmy Mac. He took on the top Test side in the world on home turf with the axe hanging over his head, and if it wasn’t for him, New Zealand could well have fared far worse in this match.

A footnote: People who know me should have suspected I wouldn’t let this go unmentioned: my beloved Grant Elliott – now CAPTAIN of the Wellington Firebirds, bitches! – has just scored 122 against Northern Districts in the NZ Plunket Shield. It is possible that the percentage of my readership that cares about this is less than 3%, and that’s being optimistic, but you know what? I don’t care! GO GRANT ELLIOTT! WHOO!

 

*I know, I KNOW. I’m a horrible person for this. Tim McIntosh is a fine upstanding and rather hot specimen of a man in the peak of physical and mental health. I AM NOT PROUD, OK?! IT IS AN INVOLUNTARY MENTAL ASSOCIATION!

 

 

 

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On Expecting the Expected

Ever since it became apparent on the second day of the first Test in Ahmedabad that New Zealand weren’t in fact going to be crushed into dust by India, as everyone and their grandmother had predicted, I’ve been giving Dileep Premachandran a hard time for this article. (Mostly because he called Chris Martin “ready for the knackers’ yard” and anyone even casually familiar with me or this blog probably knows that suggesting Chris Martin is anything less than completely awesome is, in my opinion, punishable by torture and execution.)

But.

Truth be told, I was predicting the same thing everyone else was. I believe my exact words were “Vettori’s 100th Test appearance for New Zealand is going to be a nightmarish, bloodstained massacre.” If I felt any ambivalence I disguised it well.

I love New Zealand (yeah, not news, I know). I have a massive amount of faith in their players. I know that they have an uncanny ability to come good when appearing totally down and out. The fact that the spellcheck on WordPress still doesn’t recognize ‘Zealand’ as a word AS IT IS DOING RIGHT THIS FUCKING MINUTE sends me into a mini rage spiral. Still.

It was impossible not to. One of the oldest cliches in cricket is that anything can happen, but that’s sometimes just not true. Put Canada into the field with Australia and there’s a 99.99% chance that you could correctly predict what would happen. It’s like the lottery: technically, yes, there is a chance of winning, but you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, twice, in the same place on your body at the same time of day while wearing the same 6 items of clothing. After the Bangladesh tour, with India coming off beating the mighty(ish) Australians 2-0, it would have just been unrealistic to think that the Kiwis – in a Test series no less (statistically the format in which they have been least successful in recent times) – would be anything other than woefully outmatched. They no longer had Bond or O’Brien. Their batting lineup was shakier than a house of cards on a seesaw in an earthquake. They had just emerged from a series in which they had failed to win a single ODI…against Bangladesh.

If the New Zealand team were a horse, it would have been taken behind some sheds and shot as an act of mercy.

There is very rarely anything nice about being proved spectacularly wrong, but (as England fans who were around in the 90s and early Aughts will attest) there’s nothing better than the team you love winning when you had prepared yourself for them to lose. It’s SO much better than an expected win. It more than compensates for the contrasting feeling – losing when winning should have been a foregone conclusion. It may in fact be one of the best feelings there is for a sports fan.

Shane Bond has said publicly that he’s always hated the ‘underdogs’ tag New Zealand have long been saddled with for this very reason, that they were expected to lose and winning was a bonus. And I agree with him. It’s not healthy for the team to think that way. It’s probably more than a little pathetic for the fans to constantly think that way. But it’s so hard not to, when it means that you occasionally get to experience this feeling. Because, for real, it feels fucking fantastic.

Or maybe I’m biased and the feeling is heightened for me because my long-beloved Chris Martin took 5 for 63 when certain people-who-will-not-be-named-except-that-their-first-name-rhymes-with-Felipe-and-their-last-name-is-Premachandran had written him off as old and past it. It’s possible.

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The Ghost Who Rocks

I love cricket. Possibly more than is entirely healthy. But probably 80% of what there is to know about the game, I don’t.

Here are some things I know.

Chris Martin is 36 years old. Chris Martin is a punchline. Chris Martin cannot bat. Chris Martin is not Shane Bond.

Chris Martin has 187 test wickets, at an average of 34.44 and an economy rate of 3.42.

Chris Martin has a sense of humour. Chris Martin got Jesse Ryder to his maiden Test Century. Chris Martin leaps like a lanky-shaven-headed-yet-still-graceful gazelle at the end of his run-up. Chris Martin has knocked over 5 top-order Indian batsmen for 25 runs. On November 7 2010 Chris Martin scored three times as many runs as Virender Sehwag before sending Sachin Tendulkar back to the pavilion with a flick of his wrists. Chris Martin has really pretty eyes.

Pretty, pretty eyes.

So dreamy!

When Chris Martin takes a wicket, he roars his awesome badassery to the skies, and the very ground trembles beneath him.

Chris Martin is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

They call Chris Martin The Phantom, even though he doesn’t wear a purple bodysuit and stripy Y-fronts. (That I know of. But even if he does, he probably rocks that look. Rocks it hard.)

Chris Martin is cooler than you.

No, I don’t know who you are. But I know Chris Martin’s cooler than you.

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Five Open Letters

Dear Test Matches are Boring People:

I’m sorry. There is nothing here for you. I recommend that you seek alternate sources of amusement: maybe stare at a slowly revolving disco ball (so much SHINY! You’ll be amused for hours! Oh, wait, you don’t have hours, do you? Ok, minutes! You’ll be amused for whole minutes!), or go watch some MTV.

Dear Murali is a Chucker, Dammit! Stop celebrating him and loving him! I said STOP! People:

I’m sorry. It must be hard, living in your joyless, cobwebbed world where fun goes to die and everything is angular and narrow and unchanging. It sounds awful. But you know, most of you are really really old, so you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that the sweet release of death is likely near at hand.

Dear Pakistan Fans:

I am deeply, indescribably, bouncing-up-and-down-shrieking-nonsense-and-flinging-confetti thrilled for you. I really really am. But I am also concerned, knowing that many of you are probably still recovering from yesterday. Remember: if you are still experiencing seizures, blood rushes to the head, stomach-turning nausea and/or constriction in the chest area in 24 hours, seek medical attention without delay.

Dear Mohammed Aamer:

You are altogether adorable and delightful, and fucking hell you can bowl. May your career be long, illustrious and smiley. PS: Eat a sandwich or something. You’re clearly in great shape, but some of us are worried that if you fall over you’ll snap in two and that would be a tragic loss.

Dear Salman Butt:

Not to be a buzzkill or anything, and I want to extend my sincerest congratulations on your fabulous victory, but please, please, PLEASE don’t get ahead of yourself. The crash is going to make that one time you drank eight cups of coffee and everything was great until later that afternoon when you thought you were going to die seem insignificant by contrast. Also do not listen to Moin Khan: he means well, but the last time someone got as throughly carried away as Moin seems to have been after you won, his name was Mr. Fredricksen and he lived in a house with billions of balloons attached.

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Atlas Sighed

There’s been a trend in recent years of younger men captaining their national sides. The current captains of India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Bangladesh are all in their twenties. (I am going to leave Pakistan out of this equation because their captaincy issues – well, issues in general – are myriad, and give me stress headaches when I think about them.) England and Sri Lanka have guys in their early thirties, and Australia has either a 28-year old or a 35-year-old depending on what format they’re playing.

Chris Gayle and New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori have a couple of things in common – they’re both national captains, they’re both 30 years old, both are key players in their respective IPL teams, and they both put in an all-rounder’s version of what is usually called a captain’s knock in ODIs this past week – Vettori’s a fighting 70 off 49 and 2-43 from his ten overs against Australia, and, against Zimbabwe, Gayle’s an 88 off 111 and 1-25 from his ten (he also took a catch and was instrumental in a runout.) Gayle’s performance helped the West Indies win, Vettori’s wasn’t quite enough to allow New Zealand to do the same.

Here are ways in which they are different. Gayle has a carefully cultivated image as Mr. Cool, all shades and bling and diamond earrings; while Vettori is occasionally bearded, laconic, and wears prescription glasses – you know, like a geek. Gayle loves his lucrative high-profile endorsements and his million-dollar-deals; Vettori, presumably content with the not-inconsiderable revenue from his own IPL contract, is known for commercials promoting sunglasses for schoolchildren, New Zealand Libraries and Visique Optometrists. Despite both being key batsmen for their sides, Gayle is a top-order striker of skill and elegance, where Vettori comes in at number eight with a small and homely repertoire of shots that somehow brings him lots of runs.

Those don’t really matter very much, though; they’re just interesting tidbits of trivia.

Here are the important differences.

What he just about failed to do the other night, Vettori does all the freaking time. He’s New Zealand’s rock, a man who started out as a bowler of finger-spin in a country filled with quicks because of its fast seaming wickets and made himself one of the best in the world at that, and then worked on his mediocre batting with single-minded focus that couldn’t make it any prettier to look at but did quadruple its effectiveness. He’s now New Zealand’s talisman, their beardy lanky Superman who does it with his glasses on. The side has suffered in ODIs, where they are usually strongest, with the loss of people like Jesse Ryder and my beloved Grant Elliott to injury, but it’s Vettori’s presence or absence that makes or breaks this team. Ever since he took on the responsibilities of national selector, coach-of-sorts and Lord knows what else, the jokes have been coming thick and fast – it’s only a matter of time before the ‘Vettori for PM’ shirts hit the market. They already have ones reading ‘Give Dan More Jobs’ – in what I can only assume is a fatalistic attempt to see just how many things can be dumped on him before he cracks, like a reverse game of Jenga with weights added instead of bricks taken away…and, you know, a real-life dude instead of a toy tower. (Or, as Dave Tickner has pointed out, a really sadistic real-life version of Buckaroo. Crickaroo?) The sight of him coming in late in the game, face set in concentration, to save the innings and take New Zealand home, has become so familiar it’s a wonder they haven’t come up with ‘doing a Vettori’ as verbal shorthand for it, like the way ‘being Mankaded’ came to represent being run out by the bowler because you backed up too far in anticipation.

The reason I’m mentioning all this is to explain why, despite Gayle’s performance and the fact that it was the only thing that saved the West Indies from another in a long, long string of emphatic and embarrassing defeats, I haven’t written a post praising him, and don’t plan to. He doesn’t deserve it. The contrast between him and a man like Daniel Vettori is significant because of their many similarities in age, IPL-involvement and all-round ability, but there’s another comparison I can make that’s even more telling: with Bangladesh’s captain. Another man who this week has had, like Vettori, to be key bowler and batsman for his side while also serving as their leader, only to fall agonizingly short of victory (in his case, to England.) And having done that, to face the international press with grace, optimism and a relentlessly positive attitude.

His name is Shakib-al-Hasan. And he is 22 years old.

So this, Chris Gayle, is why you don’t deserve to be praised. You don’t get to come in after months of fuckery and think you can make up for it with one game. Not enough. You’ve been put to shame by a No. 8 batsman and a kid barely out of his teens – in my humble opinion, they are twice the captains, twice the cricketers, and, yes, each of them is twice the man you are. It’s clear you have an extremely high opinion of yourself; well, take off them shades, boy, I’ve got a photo to leave you with.

This is Daniel Vettori the other night, in the process of trying desperately to take his team over the line. Fun fact: Dan’s got chronic back issues, stemming from an incident in his teens when he actually broke his back; an injury to his bowling shoulder that he’s opted not to have surgery on because that would mean not being able to play for up to 12 months; and on the morning that photo was taken, a stiff neck that almost forced him not to play in the match at all.

Yes, that is him diving. After having spent the first session in the field, and already having batted for an unknown period of time. That’s commitment, Chris. (It might also be stupidity, but it’s certainly not stupidity on the level of some of the stuff you’ve come out with.)

Commitment.

Look it up.

And when you’re done, go talk to young Shakib and take notes on how to be a real man.

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Ah, poetry

Today was a grey day.

Literally, because the weather gods, having well and truly lost their marbles, decided that pouring rain, thunder and lightning were exactly what this corner of the Middle Eastern desert needed this week. And metaphorically, because young Shakib-al-Hasan and his valiant Bangladeshi tigers once again almost won a cricket match before having it slip away agonizingly at the last minute – this time courtesy of an England player who isn’t even English. (Although, half the England side are, you know, South African, so I’m not sure what the deal is with all the fuss being made about Eoin Morgan being Irish. I just figured I ought to mention it.) I would mention his excellent steely-nerved hundred, but I kind of wish he hadn’t made it because it was the sole reason that England ended up winning, so it may take a few days for the rawness to subside before I can appreciate it for what it was.

But, courtesy of the wonder that is Twitter, I have found the key to brightening up any day – even if you’re a Bangladeshi supporter and have had to install extra drainage on account of your house being constantly awash with your own tears, and extra handrails because the constant abrupt swinging back from the edge of victory to the grim depths of defeat is making you dizzy and prone to falling down a lot.

I have linked to Dave ‘The Bard’ Bird’s cricket poetry website already – it’s over there at the right-hand side of the homepage – but one of his more recent mad genius offerings deserves special mention because he produced it totally out of the blue and it just happened to be a tribute to one of my favourite players of all time.

I have reproduced it in full below, with Dave’s permission:

Ode to Lance Klusener

-David Bird

Klusener could whack it, yes Lance,
To spinners, down wicket, he’d dance,
No defensive tricks,
He smote them for six,
The same for the quicks without prance.

Sometimes he could bowl pretty quick,
Sometimes the batsmen he’d trick.
Gave balance to the side,
Served country with pride,
All without ever being a prick.

His best score V England, remember?
Our bowlers he got to dismember.
Zulu hit it so high
Way up into the sky,
It didn’t come down ’til November.

Dave adds, as a side note: ‘Lovely Long-Limbed Lance was, challenged only by Jonty Rhodes, my favourite South African cricketer for YEARS.’

Mine too, David. He wasn’t even second to Jonty – or anyone else for that matter – in my book. I even have the song ‘Impi’ on my iPod because of him. I may go hunt down highlight reels of him playing to help me get over the match result today.

The rest of you, get on over to David’s site and immerse yourself in mad limericky genius. Go on. Why are you still here??

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