Farewell to a thrillseeker
Michael Slater, the rollicking Test opener who gave happiness to millions, bid farewell to big-time cricket on Wednesday, after having conceded defeat to the reactive arthritis that had played havoc with his career over the past few months. Slater, 34, played just three one-dayers for New South Wales in the last summer before being hospitalised.
Addressing the media in Sydney, he said, "The decision has been a painful one. It's been a very tough one, given that I still have the desire to play and believe I still had a lot to offer New South Wales cricket." But selfishness was never part of Slater's cricket psyche, and he added, "But I feel to have signed with the Blues in the hope of being fit for the season would have been irresponsible."
Looking back at his career, Slater said that the one regret centred around his exit from the Australian side, on the Ashes tour of 2001. Personal travails relating to his marriage ensured that there would be no fairytale swansong, and Slater said that harsh media scrutiny hadn't helped matters. "The nature of me or the basis of me is I'm emotional and very sensitive, and unfortunately with the rumours and innuendo and the media coverage, I really took it to heart and it was a very difficult period to get through," he said.
James Sutherland, chief executive of Cricket Australia, was one of those to pay fulsome tribute to one of cricket's most intriguing characters. "Michael is one of those rare players whose contribution to the game was even greater than his impressive statistics imply," he said. "Fourteen Test tons is pretty impressive, and so was his role helping Australia back to the top.
"But it was his approach and obvious pride representing his country which inspired countless Australian kids and left fans with our most lasting memories of him as an international player. His practice of kissing the Australian coat-of-arms on his helmet upon reaching a century emphasised the passion and pride with which he represented our country."
Recent newspaper reports had suggested that he was unhappy with his latest contract offer from NSW and was considering permanently trading the cricket field for the commentary box, where his alert and energetic style have made him an engaging TV performer.
Slater's Test record - 5312 runs, 14 hundreds and an average of 42.84 - leaves him just short of the truly great Test openers. But those numbers give little hint of his flamboyance or clean hitting, his determination to take on rather than see off opening bowlers, which made him one of the most thrilling batsmen of the modern era.
He adopted the same hyperactive approach off the field, which was thought to be a big part of the reason why he was dumped by Australia for the second and final time after the fourth Ashes Test of 2001. Slater himself was convinced his removal "had nothing to do with form" and vowed to "come back bigger and better".
But it was not be. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer immediately made themselves indisposable, Slater never quite recaptured his old lustre and a certain amount of melancholic underachievement now accompanies his premature retirement.
Nonetheless, his opening partnership with Mark Taylor - by far the stodgier of the two - rates as the second most prolific in Test history, behind the West Indians Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. Slater's opening-Test assaults against England at the Gabba in 1994-95, then again at Edgbaston in 2001, effectively dictated the course of two Ashes series by the end of their first day.
He suffered from weight fluctuations and swollen ankles in recent times, with doctors unsure precisely what is wrong with him. "Some days he struggles to get out of bed, other days he is pretty good," his manager Neil Maxwell said back in February.
Slater's most recent first-class appearance was for NSW against South Australia at the Adelaide Oval last November. He made 10 followed by a six-ball duck. He leaves the playing field with vivid memories of exuberant strokeplay, and unforgettable images of the Australian crest - on his helmet - being kissed with unbridled passion.