June 21, 2013

The smartest cricketers XI

A team featuring an Oxford graduate, a farm boy from Dungog, and an artistic wicketkeeper. And Shane Warne

Jack Russell: the artistic one © Getty Images

Ranjit Fernando
In the World Cup in 1975, Jeff Thomson was bowling faster than anyone ever had and he sent Sri Lanka's Sunil Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis to hospital after hitting the first on the head and smashing the second's instep with his famous "sandshoe crusher". But opener Fernando decided on a novel approach to self-preservation: "I kept smiling at Thomson, hoping to keep him in a good mood." It might not have worked but Fernando walked off unscathed (though he was bowled by Thomson for 22).

Geoff Boycott
While he could kill entire stadiums with batting more boring than the creep of prehistoric moss, Boycott realised it was impossible to score runs when you weren't at the crease. This, curiously, is not obvious to all batsmen. Boycott, though, learned how to occupy the crease. And occupy it. And continue occupying it until the United Nations needed to send in tanks to remove him. Boycott saw his role as a batsman as being around long enough to ensure his team did not lose. Significantly, of his 108 Tests, only 20 ended in defeat.

Douglas Jardine
With his fingers steepled like those of a cunning, ruthless and evil train baron, Jardine devised field placements and bowling methods so cunning, ruthless and evil that they halved Bradman's batting average and won England the 1932-33 Ashes 4-1. Bodyline - or "fast leg theory" as Jardine called it - was so effective it was outlawed. Yet in 1933, Jardine scored 127 - his only Test century - against a West Indies team that was employing these very tactics. So Jardine proved himself smart enough to employ Bodyline and also beat it. He also went to Oxford and learned things.

Steve Waugh
Stephen Rodger Waugh's knowledge of what makes cricketers tick went a long way to making his Australian team an all-conquering force. When he came into the side in 1985, his fellow players were on edge, not talking to those who might take their place. John Dyson once put a debutant's kit in the toilet when the new guy mistakenly used "his" locker. Waugh ended such bastardry and made new chums feel good. Later he coached Glenn McGrath to a Test highest score of 61. Personally Waugh eliminated certain shots from his game and became a massive run accumulator. He also wrote several books, one of them featuring so many words, scholars are still working their way through it.

Doug Walters
It took a clever cricketer to hide in a cemetery smoking cigarettes while the rest of the Australian World Series Cricket team ran laps of it. Walters also managed to score a hundred in South Africa against Mike Procter after a six-pack of "breakfast beers". Once borrowed a spectator's bicycle to get from third man to third man after Ian Chappell had punished him for sleeping in.

Mike Brearley (c)
Brearley was one of the first players to think of wearing a helmet - or at least a pillow-like thing that poked out under his England cap like the ears of a basset hound - against Lillee and Thomson. With grey hair and a scholarly mien, Brearley even looked smart. But his cleverest trick was that he kept getting picked for England despite not being able to bat. A man picked just for his brain. That's the captain of this XI.

Jack Russell (wk)

He managed to last 235 balls and 274 minutes in scoring 29 runs and save a Test match against South Africa despite having a batting range more limited than Jason Gillespie, without the flamboyance. An eccentric character, Russell still wears a floppy white hat despite being retired from cricket for several years, hence eliminating any chance of skin cancer. This is helped by living in England. But Russell's smartest trick has been selling paintings of cricket grounds to people for actual money.

Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram
Sarfraz Nawaz was the first man to discover "reverse" swing but it was this pair that became its masters. The terrible twosome swung the old ball with such menace that it was thought they must have been cheating. Other bowlers - Terry Alderman was one - occasionally swung it Irish by mistake. Imran Khan also had his Irish moments after wheedling the secret out of Sarfraz, who was at first reluctant to share the love. But it was Waqar and Wasim who were the first to truly exploit it, and they did it at exceptional speed and accuracy. Their late inswinging yorkers made batsmen look like splay-footed fools.

Shane Warne
Now, now, none of your cheek. Sure, Warnie's private life hasn't been the neatest. And he's probably made some decisions he'd take back given the location of the hidden cameras. And sharing love-sick tweets with millions of people is sort of naff. Shane the man, like all of us, is not perfect. But Shane the legspinner is a genius, up there with theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Hey, you try rolling the ball out the back of the hand 40,705 times and taking 708 Test wickets at an average of 25.41. You try beating the world's best batters with deliveries that come at them slowly. You try drifting one in and jagging it past Mike Gatting and nipping off his off bail with your first ball in the country Gatting grew up in. All of these things are incredibly difficult; perhaps even impossible. Yet Warnie conjured them all. A dinkum shaman.

Sarfraz Nawaz
It might not really have been quite cricket, wot? But it was certainly quick-witted to think of appealing against Andrew Hilditch for handled the ball when the Australian opener caught an outfield throw on the first bounce and tossed it back to Sarfraz. How was he? Out, as it turned out.

Terry Alderman
Learned about getting close to the stumps off Dennis Lillee. Mastered English conditions on two record-breaking Ashes tours; taking over 40 wickets apiece in '81 and '89. His outswingers and offcutters so upset Graham Gooch that he changed his phone's answering machine message to: "Please leave a message because I'm out, probably lbw Alderman." The Western Australian was also astute enough to take the money for the rebel tour of South Africa and hence avoid one of Australian cricket's worst periods. It might not have been smart to chase the English skinhead who invaded the WACA ground, but it certainly gave Alderman something people will still pay him to hear him speak about. He also earns a crust in a radio role best described as, "be Terry Alderman. And talk about cricket."

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here

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