The dreaded one-day specialist
Cricket is a mind game above all others with the possible exception of golf, the ultimate masochists' pursuit. It is something Michael Bevan, the most driven of Australian players, knows only too well. Bevan spent more than a decade trying to prove himself on the world stage while fighting a losing battle against certain perceptions of his batting, notably that he had a weakness against the short ball and was thus the dreaded "one-day specialist".
So when he lost his lucrative Cricket Australia contract at the end of 2003-04 and went back to negotiate the relative pittance of a salary with his beloved New South Wales, his cricketing life reached a genuine flashpoint. He knew his international career was probably finished at 34, unfair as that might have been given his one-day average of 53.58 and a reputation for owning three or four shots to every ball.
Always a different card, Bevan chose to pack up and play in Tasmania, who also offered an assistant coaching job. He arrived in Hobart with a mindset that reflected the fact he was no longer required to prove anything to anyone beyond himself. Brian McFadyen, the coach, soon noticed the change. While it was different from before, there was also a familiarity about it. McFadyen, now ensconced as a senior coach at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, sensed Bevan wanted to play like he had all those years ago, when it was just another game. In essence, he had gone back to the swashbuckling kid from Canberra who lit up NSW upon his arrival at the end of the 1980s. The result was astonishing. Jamie Cox, the state's veteran top-order batsman, called it "phenomenal". McFadyen preferred "out of this world".
Bevan played nine Pura Cup matches for Tasmania in 2004-05 after missing the opening game with an Achilles injury. He made eight centuries, an Australian record for a single season. He accumulated 1,464 runs, breaking the all-time domestic mark of 1,381, which was set only the season before by Matthew Elliott, another left-hander. He averaged 97.60 and Phil Jaques, the next best player, was 273 runs behind. Tasmania's poor season meant he was no chance of making the final, and combined with his first-game absence four potential hits were sacrificed. It is said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but there is no disguising this one. It is a big number, a significant number, and one for the ages.
Beginning with a muffled 19 and a magnificent, unbeaten 167 against Victoria at Bellerive Oval, Bevan scarcely stopped to smell the roses. Tasmania's season at four-day level was dreadful as they finished last in a competition won by NSW. At least they could watch Bevan from the sanctity of the dressing-room. During the second innings he and the feisty all-rounder Damien Wright met at 6 for 46 and put on 215 for the seventh wicket, a record for Tasmania, who defied Victoria for hour after hour. Bevan survived 439 minutes in the maelstrom and was still there when the Bushrangers secured their first win in Hobart for 25 years. Despite the loss, he was on a roll.
A match later he conjured 106 and 100, from only 137 balls, against South Australia as the Tigers won by 195 runs. Around this point McFadyen spotted the change in Bevan's batting from previous years. "He actually backed himself more," he says. "I suppose he played with the chains off. I've got no doubt he'd played before that with distractions, whether it was national selection, the short ball or a few other things around him." It was clear that he wanted to bat naturally and fluently, like he had as a teenager. "When he first came on the scene he was aggressive," McFadyen says. "Like a lot of young players he's had to temper that to make himself consistent. I reckon the decision he made was instead of being conservative he would throw caution to the wind and see how good he could be."
Twin centuries against the Redbacks were followed by a lean period in the context of his summer: 11 and 93 against Queensland in Brisbane; 21 and 12 against NSW in Sydney; and 42 and 4 in the return match with the Bulls. However, the rest was special. After Tasmania slumped to 3 for 23 against Western Australia at Bellerive Oval in late January, he peeled off a first-innings 190. As they aimed to set the Warriors a target, Bevan hit the ball even better, gleaning an unbeaten 114 out of 5 for 226. Symptomatic of their season, they lost despite setting a monumental 396.
The runaway train was still motoring when, confronted by a Victoria attack headed by Shane Warne, he toiled for 434 minutes over 144, then gathered 86 of Tasmania's limp 198 as they were again defeated. When the Tigers met NSW in Hobart, Bevan smashed an unbeaten 170 against Stuart MacGill and his impressive company. As the Blues rolled to victory on the final day MacGill had his revenge, dismissing Bevan for 26, which was a rare failure on his new home deck.
Bellerive Oval has a reputation as a batsman's paradise, but Bevan was not getting it easy. McFadyen said the curator at the beautiful ground beside the Derwent estuary was urged to prepare "result wickets'' and duly delivered. "There was juice left in and the first hour of each first innings was always difficult," he says. "It was not a traditional batsman-friendly wicket. The scores don't reflect that because it dried out on the third and fourth days. I can tell you it was bloody difficult." In the tough conditions, against quality opposition, and on surfaces helping the pace bowlers, Bevan was unflappable. Even McFadyen was slightly surprised. "There's been a question mark about him when it's difficult and he's been labelled a one-day player," he says. "He did not look like missing a ball, didn't look like playing and missing for the whole season."
Cox recognised an old look in Bevan's eye. "I played under-age cricket with Michael and even then he had the aloofness, if you like, that a lot of special players have," he says. "There's this zone where they go and you wonder what they're thinking. You look at them and you know they're ready to go." By the final game Bevan's mind was still churning, and as they arrived in Adelaide he needed another 76 runs to overtake Elliott's landmark. With 115 and 44 he succeeded in another loss, which won the wooden spoon, and completed a four-game streak of at least one hundred in the world's toughest domestic competition.
The Pura Cup had ended for Tasmania but their season wasn't entirely over. In the ING Cup final Bevan hit a typically inventive 47 not out from 52 balls that helped them to a famous victory over Queensland, the state's first one-day trophy since the low-key Gillette Cup in 1978-79. Enjoying a fine season on that stage, too, he captured 519 runs at 86.50. "In the end, it got ridiculous," Cox says. "We were almost taking it for granted. He'd score a hundred late in the year, and you could see the blokes almost forgetting to pat him on the back."
Bevan told the media he was still improving, and that he remained hopeful of a berth at the 2007 World Cup. He refused to make a retirement announcement, a fact that surprised no one who knew him well. "I'm a better player than when I was in the Australian side, no doubt about it," he says. "The World Cup is a long way off but I don't think it's out of the question. I hope it isn't. It's nice to know that at this stage of my life I'm hitting the ball the best I've ever hit it.''
All of which must make people wonder why Bevan, the artist and sometimes cantankerous player, completed his international career with only 18 Tests, an average of 29.07, and precisely zero centuries. The answer is in the timing. Bevan played in an era when Australian batting opportunities were limited, a fact the likes of Cox, Jamie Siddons, Stuart Law and even Dean Jones could attest. Then there was the short-ball perception and the associated mind games and battles. Devon Malcolm, the very quick English bowler, made him flinch a couple of times in the 1994-95 Ashes series. Bevan paid a massive price for those moments of discomfort, and the irony was that nearing the end of his career he was flaying the short ball.
"It's a myth, there's no doubt about it," Cox says of the weakness-against-the-short-ball theory. "It was exposed on one trip by one bowler. If you watched him last year he pulled and hooked beautifully. People tested him out because they thought he was weak, but he smacked them.''
Everyone already knew that Bevan was a fine player and a highly-charged individual. In a sense he was ahead of his time because he did not fit the archetypal Australian cricket legend of the beer-swilling man's man, the image cultivated by the Chappells, Lillee, Marsh and Walters. He was a gym rat and a fitness fanatic long before it became the norm of the modern professionals. What was not so widely known was that his hunger was undiminished by the vagaries of selection and the bodyblow of losing his contract.
"His strength is his ability to remain focussed on the job at hand," McFadyen says, "but he probably expects that of everyone." While he has been labelled as difficult - not quite normal - last season he was a role model who would spend a couple of hours on the bowling machine the day before a game.
Sitting back watching the show, McFadyen reasoned that if Bevan was picked for Australia again he would thrive. It probably won't happen, but it's a nice thought. "Most of us who witnessed it felt his batting was as good as anything we'd ever seen," he says. "It wasn't just one or two performances, it was every time he went out. It was out of this world."
Martin Blake writes on sport for The Age