Ian Healy

If you could only see his fingers you would know. You would know what is demanded of the best. What sacrifices they routinely make. And you would know, in your heart, that you weren`t like them and never would be. Stephen Waugh, watching Healy tape those fingers before taking to the field, thinks them ghastly and mal- formed. And they are mediaeval, those awful hands. Shakespearean in their ruin; the gnarled and broken claws of Macbeth`s witches. They will surely torment him in his later years. But for now he wraps them tightly, hiding all the damage done. He shucks on the outsized leather gloves with which he earns his keep. He adjusts his cap with that familiar and strangely comfortable gesture, that slight tug forward over the eyes, and then he squints into the light, steps into place behind his captain and takes the field. And at that moment he looks... at home. As though, without knowing it himself, he has already settled into history. Some- times this is strong enough to suggest an aura of another age clings to him, hinting that he might be seen to best advantage in a foggy, stuttering black and white newsreel, keeping to O`Reilly, or maybe frozen in a sepia tone, emerging from the dressing rooms with Stan McCabe to see off Harold Larwood in 193?

It is all so far removed from the days of his difficult initia- tion. They called him up for national service with only six games to his credit. Were any more surprised than he, the second string keeper for the bridesmaid state? Well, perhaps Greg Dyer, the man they cut adrift. And the other more experienced, more qualified glove men around the country? Perhaps they were given pause as well.

Does he remember the day? Oh yes, he smiles. He remembers. It was quarter past three in the afternoon. March 31. 1988. He knew there was some sort of tour on the horizon. Disembarking from a flight which brought Queensland home from yet another losing Shield Final he had wished Dirk Tazellar good luck. Everyone agreed that Tazellar was on the fringe of national selection. No- body thought the same of him. There was so many other keepers who had done their apprenticeships. And they were good keepers too, he says, shaking his head just slightly. He still can`t fathom it. "They say I went white at work", he smiles. "The secretary said I turned white and flopped down in the chair". He was work- ing at a fashion agency in South Brisbane. Hadn`t even settled in there. At the start of February he`d been a school teacher. At the end he was a salesman. A month later he was the new Australi- an wicket keeper. He was to be married two weeks after that.

He rang his father and his father said, bullshit, no way. He rang his best mate, who did not believe him either. He went to a Bris- bane golf club with his brother-in-law and sat there, head down on the bar, saying over and over "what`s happened?"

He smiles softly now. Yes, it was a bit daunting.

Did you know he nearly gave the gloves away? He was third in line for the keeper`s job when called for Queensland, only making it on to the Gabba when Ray Phillips stood aside and then his under- study, Peter Anderson broke a finger. He ponders the strange anomalies of fate. "I`d had a bit of a rough trot in club crick- et", he says. "Bad enough so I was thinking of giving it away. I was doing all this training, busting my guts at state training and again at club training. But my game wasn`t even coming to- gether at club level. It was only a brief moment, but I did feel like giving up."

The gloves were the problem. He thought they were holding him back. Perhaps if he gave them away? Batted up the order for his club on the weekends? He might just be able to force his way into the Queensland team as a batsman. But Ernie Toovey, an old northern hand from the 1950`s took him aside. Said the big men really wanted him behind the stumps. So he plugged away as third keeper. Then he was second, and as he says, you never know what can happen when you are second. You could be hauling yourself through the torpid afternoon at a South Brisbane fashion house when somebody rings and says you`re going to Pakistan as your country`s only keeper.

He knows he was fortunate. No illusions on that score. So many things had to fall his way. Phillips had to retire. Anderson had to injured. The national selectors had to be discontented with their own keeper. There had to be a tour so they could to reselect the whole team. "All those things fell my way", he muses. And more. "This all happened three or four months before we actually had to go. In September. So I had some time to get over my fear and anxiety. If I`d been straight into the tour I think I`d have been a cot case. But I did every- thing to prepare for it. Made sure I was fit, physically and mentally. Even went to curry houses and gorged myself to build up my chili resis- tance. I couldn`t have trained any hard- er. And even then I was still a wide eyed unknown going over there. I didn`t really know what I was into. It took a while to adjust".

His first test was a nightmare. The tour was a nightmare, described by Wisden as perhaps the most ill-timed tour in Pakistan`s history. The country was in turmoil after the death, in a plane crash, of maximum dictator General Zia ul-Haq. Two one day matches in Karachi and Hyderbad were cancelled after savage eruptions of ethnic violence. Another was written off by mas- sive floods in the Punjab. Imran, the Pakistani`s crown Prince, re- fused to play, saying that a September tour was impossi- ble. It was just too hot to play cricket. The pitches greeting the tour- ists looked more like scar tissue than pressed turf. The umpiring was... well... problematic. So much so that the Australians wanted to cancel the tour and go home.

And into this boiling maelstrom stepped the Australians` new wicket keeper, freshly minted and crinkle wrapped and in for the shock of his life. "It was just hard work", he says wearily. "I`d never fielded for more than maybe a day and one session. And all of a sudden I`m fielding for two days and two sessions. It was just a long, hard slog and then they beat us outright and I thought, God, how long has this been going on. I did not have a great game".

Australia clawed back some ground and a little pride in the last two tests. It is possible that had Bruce Reid`s back not given out they could have squared the series. Healy remembers walking into the team`s hotel beside Alan Border towards the end of the final test. The long, hard initiation of his first game had not given way to any easier passage through the remainder of the series. But Border remarked that while he`d had his doubts about Healy he`d come back well. The skipper pronounced himself happy with the debutante`s performance. "I won`t forget that AB did that", he remembers fondly. "It was just a casual comment, and he probably forgot about it pretty quickly, but it meant a lot to me. I got a couple of calls like that when I needed them, all the way through my career. I was lucky that the team was offering that sort of support."

It was a radically different welcome than that received by most young players during the 1980s, those mean and barren dog days of Australian cricket. With England powerful, the West Indies un- stoppable, and a quirky renaissance across the Tasman adding in- sult to injury, it was not a happy time for an unstable Australi- an eleven. Players came and went, wicket keepers featuring heavi- ly on the casualty lists. Some men were destroyed. Some self destructed. And a few came through burned clean and hard as tungsten. The team Healy joined had pulled out of that power dive. The team he joined had tasted success at the World Cup and started to pack down behind a tight phalanx of survivors.

"The problem they had through the mid-eighties", says Healy, "was a lack of senior players. They had Border, then a huge gap down to Boon and Marsh and then the rest. They hadn`t found their footing. Everyone would have been too selfish and focused on their own games without enough left over to put into other people and bring the young blokes on. After that World Cup win there was just a lot more confidence. Even so it wasn`t perfect. Nobody was really working on getting the side together. And I think there was a pretty ordinary attitude in Pakistan. Nobody really wanted to get in and have a good tour. There was no effort. It was just `Oh shit, Pakistan. Here we go". There were blokes on that tour who didn`t want to be there, and that simply cannot be the case in a successful team".

The scene moves on to a small, dusty room above a gate house at the Gabba. Two old men shuffle about, picking over stacks of dried out papers and piles of ancient cricket gear. They are old soldiers. Believers. This is a few years before Carl Rack- emann will swallow up the catch which brings the Shield home to glory and thus they have that weary, ironic presence common to the men who spent themselves in Queensland`s fruitless service. They are reliving the campaigns of their youth. Remembering the greats. Lindwall, Burge, Tallon and Grout. The talk turns to young Healy. In the test side for some time now. But still, it seems, not set- tled.

"Well, Healy. He`s a very appealing character", grins one of the old duffers.

"Appealing?" laughs his friend. "Oh yes, very appealing". And they set to cackling like a couple of old rummies.

It was duffer-speak of course. Coded references to a man who had become known for the fierceness of his competitive spirit. A man who would not take a backward step. A man who might push the en- velope of fair play, perhaps? It was suggested more than once. Even Wisden, in naming him as one of their five cricketers of the year paid him the left handed compliment of announcing that it could no longer be said that his words spoke louder than his ac- tions. As though their imprimatur were needed for some form of absolution. As though everyone had forgotten those tormented Aus- tralian sides which proclaimed their lack of spirit and seemed only to ready to take a backward step.

And Healy himself? The abrasive, combative Healy? The man whose celebrated clash with Desmond Haynes is still brought out like a little voodoo doll to prick him whenever critics feel the need. How stands Healy on this duffer-speak? Well, he stands easy.

"I did it pretty tough", he smiles. "I only realised how much I missed on the `89 Ashes tour when we went back in `93. We visited places we`d been four years earlier but I could only piece a few memories together. I was preoccupied, feeling lots of pressure and putting lots of pressure on myself. It was only four years later I could relax and take everything in. That suggests I was pretty anxious. I was concentrating on concentrating and making myself hard . Now I know relaxation to be as important as concen- tration. But I didn`t have the confidence to identify those sorts of things in those years".

In truth it would be four year before he attained any real confi- dence. In 1992, in Sri Lanka. Healy suddenly realised that he was an important part of the team. Other players were consulting him, asking questions, coming to trust and rely on his advice. "I was contributing", he says with still evident satisfaction. "I just felt relaxed. It was the first time I had felt that way. I could soak everything up and start having fun with the game. I felt at home. I had played for four years, missing out and being pretty uptight".

He recalls the exact moment of this revelation, walking from the lifts in the team hotel after a training session. "It was a sud- den thing", he says. "It had been happening gradually but at that minute on that little walkway I identified my feelings. I thought, `I am comfortable`. I might have been feeling that way for a year but didn`t really know and certainly couldn`t verbal- ise it". He had been battling from day to day and hoping like hell the selectors would be patient. As they were. "I`ve been really, really lucky" he says.

Luck does play a part, but such a small part across the arc of a decade. That hardness which drew so much attention in his early days - attention fuelled by doubts about whether he should have even been playing - that hardness was recognised as undeveloped resilience by older, wiser heads. While Healy struggled with the burden imposed on him by fate, the arbiters of that fate kept their own counsel. They knew what they had seen in the raw nature of the young man.

Greg Chappell, the Australian selector most responsible for Healy`s elevation did not rate him the best keeper at the time. Not technically at least. But while he admitted that his protege was not the most talented Chappell saw him as the best all round prospect precisely because of his temperament.

"We`d had problems in this area which were of great concern", said Chappell later on in Healy`s hometown paper. "For someone to withstand that sort of initiation he needed a lot of character, intestinal fortitude, maturity and intelligence. There are times as a selector when you cross your fingers and have your heart in your mouth... but in Ian`s case I never really doubt- ed he would be able to handle it".

Chappell placed a lot of faith in Healy`s childhood in the coun- try town of Biloela, believing it to be the source of a remark- able resilience. Country kids play against fully grown men from an early age. "They get a bit of attention verbally and their character is put to the test... They soon realise what the big, bad world is all about", said Chappell.

Biloela is a landlocked country town, about a hundred and forty clicks south west of Rockhampton. Maybe five thousand people lived there when the Healy`s were resident, with more again in scattered satellite villages. It was a mining settlement with a meatworks a lot of cotton in the surrounding countryside. He remembers it as a great place to grow up.

"There were lots of local sporting competitions. Not just cricket but basketball, squash, soccer, rugby league and athletics as well. The biggest bonus for me growing up in Biloela was ex- periencing that whole range of sports".

At about nine or ten years old he started scratching for a game of cricket with the seniors. He`d play junior grade on Saturday morning and try for a senior game in the afternoon. If they were short, if a farmer hadn`t come in, Healy would fill in, batting number eleven, and running from fine leg to fine leg. He smiles at that memory. Says they went easy on him. The bowlers didn`t really unleash themselves. But they would let you know if you were hanging around too long and they were keen to get to the pub. "I guess mixing with those older blokes in all those sports gave me a little extra start", he says. He also remembers hunker- ing down behind the stumps for the first time around then too. He`d seen a keeper going through his rou- tines at the local tri- als. "I must have liked it", he says. "Something struck me, the extra attention he was getting or the extra work or something. He had something to do rather than just mucking around bowling in the nets. So I took it up too".

The scene moves again. To a bar this time. Somewhere in Mel- bourne. He is not hiding out, head down on the bar, wondering `what`s happened` any more. He is relaxing when Rod Marsh stomps in. He had met Marsh the first summer he played in Australia. He was in Perth for a one day match and sought out the great man in a commentary box. He was very nervous and anxious, the young keeper, and Marsh just made it sound all too easy. Healy was overawed. It was another year before he spoke to him again. He picked up a few pointers. Then, one night in this bar in Mel- bourne, Marsh walked in and blasted him. Said if Healy wasn`t go- ing to listen to him then he wasn`t going to waste his time on him. The younger man was stunned. He didn`t know what was going on. But Marsh had been watching him at training, had seen him slip back into some bad, lazy routines. Routines Marsh thought they had agreed were not to be countenanced. It is not a pleasant thing, to be stripped down in public by your hero. And certainly not one as direct as Mr Rodney Marsh. But dazed as he was Healy took heart from the attack.

"The thing was", says Healy all these years later, "I knew from that moment, when he went through me, that he cared. That two, maybe three years into my career he`d finally seen something he liked. I felt I`d won my stripes a little bit in his eyes be- cause you don`t waste energy going through someone if you don`t rate them".

So Healy and Marsh talked that night. Then later in Perth they worked through a practice session. Marsh showed him how he had once practiced, what he did to prepare for a match. "And from then on he`s kept an eye on me", says Healy. "We`ve done a fair bit of work together. I`m very... comfortable... in his company now which is fantastic".

He is reticent in this, not stumbling over the words, but respectful and cautious about placing himself too comfortably within the circle of the great Marsh. An awareness of history and it`s heavy burdens rests on him. As a child he met John Maclean, the legendary Queensland keeper who came to Biloela on a country tour. "Mum dragged me along to talk to John Maclean about which gloves I should get... all that stuff I get now". Maclean helped him chose his first set of wicket keeping gloves. He wishes now that he had kept that pair, rotted out the back with the sweat and the the abrasion of wet inners as they were. "But I haven`t got them any more", he says a little sadly.

Maclean left the game some years before Healy joined its senior ranks. But Healy cites him as another mentor and guide. "Not so much on the cricket side of things", he says. "But he`s al- ways been very supportive. He took me to lunch when I first made the side and I think it was something Wally Grout had done for him. That`s something I`ll be carrying on when a new keeper comes along, either for Australia, or when I give it away for Queens- land".

It calls to mind that strange, old fashioned sort of aura which sometimes seems to hang about him, a faint and shifting glow from that link through time, through Marsh, Maclean, Grout, the magi- cal Don Tallon and then further back, to Bradman and the elder Gods. He can feel these things settle over him when contemplates the baggy green cap in his kit bag, the press of history, of the responsibilities imposed by men who wore it before he was even born.

But he need not be overawed. Almost every great team in cricket has been blessed with a great keeper. And Healy is moving towards greatness. He is the second most succesful wicket keeper in Aus- tralian test history. By a long, long way. He is arguably the best all round keeper now playing anywhere in the world. His bat- ting, once a frustrating affair, has toughened and become in turn a source of immense frustration for opposing teams. Unlike Marsh, whose batting fell away in the latter half of his career, Healy`s seems to improve with each season. And unlike Marsh he has had to contend with the baffling magic of Shane Warne. Healy has stepped into his master`s shoes and out of his shadow and it is a measure of his character that when he reads these words he will not feel pride so much as discomfort.

Source :: Inside Sport