April 23, 2003

A short bulbous phenomenon

Wisden's Australian View by Chris Ryan

Thirteen years, five months and seven days is time enough for a man to lose his hair, nurture a beer belly, get married, raise children, move home a couple of times, see the world, accumulate friends and make enemies. Darren Lehmann has done all that and more. Thirteen years, five months and seven days is the time between his maiden first-class century and his first Test hundred; the time it took an angry, ambitious young man to become a mellow, methodical older one.

No Australian has ever waited so long. Not Bobby Simpson, notoriously considered a slow bloomer. Lindsay Hassett, his career segmented by war, had to wait only nine years. Lehmann's development, too, has been stifled by Waugh - a couple of them, in fact - but that is merely a minor subplot in his long and far-fetched soap opera.

The next episode promises to be the most engrossing yet. Will his hundred at Port-of-Spain be the first of many, or his one and only? It might spur him on to bigger and better things, as happened with Simpson. Or it might be that this one, belated century - the product of so much sweat and pain and perseverance - will be enough for him. He has proved time and his detractors wrong. He can now call himself a Test-class batsman and really believe it. Whatever happens next, he can die happy.

To make runs against new bowlers in new lands will mean setting himself new goals. He must rise early and train hard. He must fight off wear and tear, put putty in the inevitable cracks in technique the minute they appear. He must bat with the hunger and vigour of a young man while ignoring the whispers and moans of a 33-year-old body.

Lehmann has the pitiless grimace of a tenacious old Australian bushman of the early-1900s. Back then luxuries were few and the burdens many; the land was hard and so was life. Success was ultimately possible for the average bushman, Les Carlyon once noted, but "the odds were that when that day came he would be too worn out to do anything other than sit on a bench and rummage in his waistcoat for tobacco". Does Lehmann, known to fancy a bit of 'baccy, face a similar fate?

It is a question nobody dreamed they'd be asking 13 years, five months and seven days ago. On November 12, 1989, Lehmann did not simply arrive as a first-class batsman. He booted the door down. Aged 19, and playing his 10th game for South Australia, he sauntered out at 90 for 4 with the New South Wales bowlers making merry. Seven scintillating hours later he departed for 228.

His captain David Hookes, watching bug-eyed from the non-striker's end, immediately branded Lehmann the most naturally gifted teenager he'd ever set eyes on. Phil Wilkins, the venerable Sydney Morning Herald reporter, could not have been more gushing had his own bride blasted Geoff Lawson and Mike Whitney all round the Adelaide Oval. When Lehmann was named 12th man for Australia two months later Wilkins called him "the most spectacular young batsman in 20 years and the best since Greg Chappell".

Ten Tests in 13 years seems a low return for such high acclaim. Lehmann looked "the most improbable Galahad" back then, Wilkins observed: "A short, bulbous, unathletic phenomenon." That much remains true. Yet in other ways, more telling ways, the old Lehmann is dead and buried.

In the course of his extraordinary 228 Lehmann, it was reported, "did not seem to have a nerve in his body". At Port-of-Spain the other day he seemed jittery early on, his timing astray. Against NSW, Lehmann "danced down the wicket" and hit "the most glorious cuts, drives and flicks off the body imaginable". Against West Indies, 13 years on, his footwork consisted primarily of a flat-footed shuffle across the crease, exposing a lonely leg stump. Cuts and drives were few and far between. Instead he tickled short balls round his hips and fuller deliveries through the slips. There was no backswing to speak of. A buccaneer was now a needle-worker.

For the first half of his innings, in fact, Lehmann seemed to be hanging on by a thread. He could have fallen several times and should have been out on 65, when a crunchy edge escaped umpire Rudi Koertzen's notice. He played more freely thereafter, but the bowling was ragged. For the most part all Lehmann had to do was extend his bat horizontally like a butterfly catcher and swat half-trackers into the offside.

He remains a clever operator and good batsman - good enough to manufacture 160 against an ordinary attack. But he is a Galahad no more. It is a harsh thing to say about a bloke who's just belted his first Test ton, but Lehmann looks half the batsman he used to be.

The time to pick and stick by him was probably two or three years ago. In 2001 he averaged 83 for Yorkshire in the Australian winter and 64 for South Australia in the summer. At Headingley, against Lancashire, he thumped an audacious 252, sparking feverish comparisons with Don Bradman.

Yet had the script unfolded according to plan Lehmann would not have even played in that game. Instead he would have been batting a couple of hundred miles south, where the touring Australians were on show at Southampton. A left-handed Bradman, maybe. The best youngster since Greg Chappell, perhaps. Still Australia's selectors did not rate Lehmann among their top 17.

Now their timing seems awry. Lehmann's spark, his splash of pizzazz, has gone missing. Maybe his first Test century will prove his watershed, galvanising his position and untethering those cuts and pulls. Maybe this is the beginning of the rest of his batting life.

If so, then his freewheeling 66 in the second innings was a bright start. If not, then he can at least tell his grandchildren he once made a hundred for Australia. He did it for a champion team inside a bubbling cauldron against once-fearsome opponents. It is something most men never manage in a lifetime. Thirteen years ago, however, Lehmann probably hoped for more.

Chris Ryan is a former managing editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and a former Darwin correspondent of the Melbourne Age.