January 12, 2014

I beat Kostya Tszyu

Or what it takes to defeat a champion boxer at cricket and win $20

Kosta Szyu may have a mean swing, but not much cop with a bat in hand Aaron Francis / © Getty Images

On a hot summer's afternoon in February of 2001, I had a hit of cricket with boxing world champion Kostya Tszyu. Earlier he'd towelled me up on the squash court (he was rather fit) so for revenge, and to double-or-nothin' the $20 I'd lost to him, I took him into the nets behind his gym in Rockdale in Sydney's south, inland from Botany Bay.

And there on a concrete slab surrounded by chain-link fence, we had a bet about who could dismiss each other the most in one six-ball over. I'm not sure Kostya completely understood the rules - or the point - of what we were doing, but affable fellow that he is, he nodded, called "heads" in his cool Russian Bond villain accent, and elected to bowl.

And so I stood there, padded up in all the kit - gloves, box, thigh guard - thumping my Gray-Nicolls twin scoop on the crease, preparing to face the light welterweight boxing champion of the world. Bring it, Tszyu, I muttered. What you got…

Now, given they'd never heard of cricket in Serov, the industrial town at the base of the Ural Mountains in Russia where Kostya grew up, his idea of "bowling" was what Shane Warne did. He'd met Warney a couple of times, been in the Australian dressing room. Hence "bowling", in Kostya's mind, was legspin, a notoriously difficult discipline even for a cricket savant like Steve Smith, say, much less a 31-year-old Russian émigré fresh out of the former Soviet Union.

And so, with a run-up the length of Warney's, and an action through the crease that was not, Kostya flung out a delivery that went 45 degrees from target and whacked into the chain-link fence. He smiled. I smiled. He came in again, and missed the pitch. His third and fourth did too, and I was pretty confident of keeping the 20 clams. And then, on ball five, he landed one… right in the slot.

And I smashed it straight back over his head, way down the ground, six anywhere in Australia, much less the Rockdale nets. Fetch that, Kostya Tszyu, I said (quietly). Fetch that. Gloriously, he did, wandering off to pick up the ball. And I may have told the story a time or two, of smashing the undisputed light welterweight boxing champion of the woooorrrrld for six back over his head.

When Kostya reached the ball, an interesting sort of "cultural" thing happened. Instead of charging back in and screaming like a banshee, swinging his arm in crazy windmills like Aussie kids have done since time immemorial, Kostya casually strolled back in. Then he took his mark, and, wordlessly, started in, tossing up another slow legspinner. It landed in the slot and I, of course, smashed it straight back over his head. Six more. Cop that, Tszyu. Your bat.

In pads that looked too big and a thigh guard that continually slipped down his leg, Kostya defended a couple of my military mediums and missed one down leg. Then he flayed at a wide one and got a healthy outside edge which thudded into the back fence. I ran down the wicket, finger in the air. You beauty. Shed's that way, buddy.

"That is out?" queried Kostya. "Why so?"

I explained the rules of net cricket, whereby hitting that back portion of the net is automatically caught in "slips". He smiled and shrugged, another mystifying "cricket thing".

Later, as the sun went down, the journo produced an esky full of traditional Australian refreshments, though Kostya did not partake, given he was training to unify the belts in the world light welterweight division and knock out Zab Judah. So we sat under a tree and talked boxing and Australia and cricket, and the champion offered this about the country's national game:

"Cricket, I never know when one game finish and another one start," he mused. "It is on all the time, the television. White clothes, yellow clothes. All the time. But I like it very much. Like in boxing, there is much skill and courage. It is man against man."

Footnote: The author did not take up Tszyu's offer to settle their $20 bet in the ring.

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