The manic mercenary
On a green and goose-bumped MCG wicket, some balls speared high and others shimmied low. Ian Healy, clobbered twice in the groin, felt sick. Dean Jones had a smashed rib and fingers so bruised it felt like he had been playing the piano for ten hours. Seldom did Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, or Courtney Walsh land the ball in the batsman's half. Patrick Patterson, the brute, never did. "There is absolutely no pleasure in it," muttered Allan Border, no coward. "You walk in wondering where your next single is going to come from."
On this same hellhole, against these same hellraisers, Graeme Wood resembled a dartboard in pads. But if he was scared, he never flinched. If he was hurting, he did not grimace. He batted 130 minutes in the first innings and 50 in the second. He made 12 and seven. He never played for Australia again. It was Christmas 1988 and Christmas has felt a bit meaner, a bit thinner, ever since. Or it has to me.
The Test before that was in Perth, on a pitch chipped and crusty, littered with loose flakes of turf as big as pizzas. "No Test cricketer," wrote Mark Ray, "should have been asked to bat on such a pitch, let alone against West Indies." Wood jumped up and bunted down the janglers at his throat. The rest he hooked, pulled, cut, or drove. These were not simply shots out of a textbook but shots fired across Caribbean bows, executed with a tumbling back-lift and a loose flap of the arms. He made 111 and 42. One game before life's darkest injustice, this was cricket's brightest rearguard. Or it was to me.
Politicians must lie awake at night racked by visions of broken promises. Me, I often lie there wishing Woody's Test average was a few decimal points higher: 31.83 is such a slap in the face. Lower than Graeme Fowler and Haroon Rashid and Bevan Congdon. It seems almost unspeakable. So belittling. Sometimes I wonder if he feels the same way.
As a teenager, the game was almost an afterthought for me: Graeme Wood came first, leather and wood second. When the Australians took a wicket I would scan the team huddle, looking for Wood - who he was next to, whether he was mates with DK and AB, one of the boys or a misfit. His bravery was part of the fascination. He'd wear a helmet but no grill. He'd field at short leg. He was the man the selectors rang whenever the Windies were in town.
Wood had a stance built to combat express bowling. Feet splayed wide apart, bum sticking out, so square-on that his front shoulder pointed almost to midwicket, as if daring the bowlers to aim at it - and when they did he would hook without hesitation, whether there was no man in the deep or three. Bouncers would be swayed rather than ducked, neck craned diagonally and eyes wide open, the ball grazing his moustache. They do not collate statistics that count how often batsmen get cracked on the knuckles, but this is one table Wood might sit atop. A radio commentator once said Wood's hands were stained violet and swollen to twice the size of a normal human's.
|Only one person, it seemed, shared my preoccupation with Wood, and that was the man himself. Old team-mates speak of an exquisitely gifted batsman, hardworking too, running pre-season laps with Olympian zeal, driven by his conviction that he could best serve the team by summoning the best out of himself|
And yet this courage of Wood's was never selfless - not like his opening partner Bruce Laird's. Laird would do anything for his team. Wood, you fancied, would do anything to shore up his spot. If he made a duck in the first dig, you could tell he was trying extra hard in the second. If he made a hundred first-up, he'd lope out in the second innings like some obnoxious millionaire, serenely disinterested, then get out attempting something goofy. Only twice in 59 Tests did he make a half-century in each innings. I know without looking it up that this is a world record for a specialist batsman. Not an admirable record but never mind. Laird I always found a bit grey. Everything about Wood was utterly compelling.
Before facing a ball he would gallop on the spot, pads and buckles flapping. He never played for the red ink, or calmly negotiated a maiden over. Everything had to be manic. He was dropped and recalled by Australia 14 times. So skittish was his running, lightning but hair-brained, that the papers called him "The Kamikaze Kid". He was run out four times in his first 22 Test innings, and there was always the sense that he was a bus crash waiting to happen. He once grafted 104 not out in an Adelaide one-dayer, against the hostile West Indians of course, but ruined it by running out Kepler Wessels, Wayne Phillips and Rod McCurdy. It was the first hundred by an Australian against West Indies in 26 one-day matches. Yet he wasn't even named Man of the Match. Why couldn't the world see what I saw?
Only one person, it seemed, shared my preoccupation with Wood, and that was the man himself. Old team-mates speak of an exquisitely gifted batsman, hardworking too, running pre-season laps with Olympian zeal, driven by his conviction that he could best serve the team by summoning the best out of himself. Woody was a strange one, they'd say. Remote, self-absorbed, focused, disciplined. Maybe he was too intense. Maybe to succeed in batting you need to realise how unimportant success in batting is. But batsmen averaging in the mid-30s, 40s or 50s are dime a dozen. On reflection, 31.83 feels about right. If he averaged more he would amount to less.
Christian Ryan is a former editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia and the Monthly. His book on Kim Hughes will be published in 2008. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine