July 1, 2008

Shockers, sizzlers, run-machines

Cricinfo staff
Umpiring howlers, a new twist on the reverse sweep, and more runs than you can shake a stick at - in our round-up of the on-field performance highlights for June

Wham, bam, thank you, Graham © Getty Images

The Comeback
Talk about taking your chances with both hands. Simon Katich returned to Australia's Test side after two and a half years away and went at the job like a man who had been thrown a line. In the second Test, in Antigua, he made 113, soldiering seven hours and copping a blow to the ribs that kept him out of the rest of the game. In the third he went one better, with an eight-hour-plus 157 that kept West Indies at bay after Australia had managed a slim advantage on first innings. Katich, who was named the Pura Cup Player of the year for his 1328 runs at over 94, said he spent his time out of the side thinking and working on his technique. "Once you get to 30 a lot of people ask you what are you going to do when you finish playing and it was starting to dawn on me that it wasn't that far away. If I've only got a few years left, I'm going to enjoy it." He couldn't have made a better start, finishing the Test series with 319 runs at 63.80, an average second only to that of the estimable Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

The Rampage
"I reckon only two of my big hits might not have been sixes on any other ground," Essex's Graham Napier said after the fact. They may not have, but Napier would still have surpassed Brendon McCullum's world record of 13 sixes in a Twenty20 game. Over 58 deliveries of breathtaking butchery against the Sussex Sharks, Napier, who had been promoted to No. 3 after he told coach Paul Grayson that he felt good after a morning net, plundered 152 runs, with 16 sixes and ten fours, sending balls into the river, the nearby gardens, towards neighbouring flats, and on one occasion smack into the face of one unfortunate Sussex fan. His hundred came off 44 and the remainder from a ridiculous 14, and though he may not have broken McCullum's record score - 158 - he easily bested the Twenty20 Cup mark, Cameron White's 141. Armed with a 2lb-11oz Warsop Stebbing, "bottom-heavy, with a lower sweet spot", Napier took his time playing himself in, before launching a clean-striking blitzkrieg. And he did not omit to chant the mantra of modern cricket success at the end of it all either: "Our coach told me to go out and play my normal game," he said self-effacingly.

The Infatuation
The latest chapter of the blooming one-way romance between Salman Butt and India's bowling attack was written in the final of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Kitply Cup in Bangladesh, where Butt, predictably enough, compiled yet another one-day hundred - 129 retired hurt off 136 balls - against his favourite opponents bar none. Five of his seven ODI centuries have now come against India and his average against them is a Hussey-like 51.88 - as against 38.90 overall. Of the four bowlers Butt took for over a run a ball, he reserved special attention for Piyush Chawla, who was smacked around like a red-headed stepchild for 36 off 26, including two leg-side sixes. The score was Butt's highest against India, equalling the 129 he made in Kanpur last year. It also brought up his 2000th run in one-day internationals - of which, wait for it, 43% have now come against you know who.

Tiffin: giving technology a good name © AFP

The Shockers
Brett Lee narrowly missed a hat-trick in the Antigua Test, taking three wickets in four balls in West Indies' first innings, but he had more than a modest assist from umpire Russell Tiffin, whose trio of howlers possibly put paid to West Indies' chances in the game, and provoked outrage across the islands and then some. West Indies were an impressive 314 for 4 in response to Australia's 479 for 7 declared when "Thiefin" struck, giving Dwayne Bravo, then on 45, out off an attempted leg-side flick where the ball seemed to have come off the thigh pad. Denesh Ramdin, who came in next, got an unplayable fast inswinger first up that hit him low on the shin: out, save that he was hit outside the line of off stump, playing a shot - a fact lost on Tiffin, who sent him packing. Darren Sammy let the hat-trick ball go by, only to be sucker-punched on the next delivery he faced from Lee - after a breather during an over from Andrew Symonds - when he was given out in a dismissal identical to the Ramdin one. Tony Cozier's column in the next day's Trinidad and Tobago Express said it all: "Tiffin makes a strong case for technology."

The Catch
Being acting captain in an India-Pakistan game would be regarded by most as an assignment guaranteed to weigh a man down. If you're Misbah-ul-Haq, though, it gives wings to your feet. Standing in for Shoaib Malik at the start of India's chase in the first meeting between the two sides in the Asia Cup, Misbah pulled off a screamer to dismiss Gautam Gambhir early in the piece. Gambhir went hard at a short-of-length delivery from Rao Iftikhar and the ball flew through gully and to the boundary... or it would have, were it not for Misbah at backward point who leapt to his left like a ballerina - albeit one in unbecomingly ill-fitting clothes - and plucked it out of thin air one-handed. With his wrong hand. And all in a little over 0.25 seconds.

The Inventor
Stunning innovation or cunning breach of the spirit of the game? The MCC may have ruled in Kevin Pietersen's favour but the jury at large is still unconvinced the switch-hitting he unveiled in the ODI at Chester-le-Street against New Zealand is wholly legit. Pietersen executed two reverse-sweep sixes that were, in fact, not strictly reverse sweeps, because he switched the position of his hands and his feet while the bowler - Scott Styris on both occasions - was in his run-up. The first came in the 39th over when the ball went over deep cover (deep square-leg by then) for maximum. The second, in the 43rd, was more audacious still, flying over long-on/long-off. It wasn't entirely unprecedented: KP had once previously hit Muttiah Muralitharan similarly, in the Edgbaston Test of 2006. And, as non-striker Paul Collingwood revealed later, "He did actually come up the wicket and say 'I was thinking about that in bed last night,' so at least we know the visualisation was there." John Buchanan would approve.

Smart start: Grant Elliott takes his first ODI wicket © Getty Images

The Allrounder
What is it about South Africa-born cricketers who go on to play for other countries? Grant Elliott may not quite be Kevin Pietersen but on the evidence of his showing in his debut ODI series, against England, he's a more than handy player to have in your side. Brought in for the injured Jacob Oram, Johannesburg-born Elliott, who moved to Wellington in 2001, turned in a bravura allround performance in the third ODI. He warmed up with 3 for 23 in the abandoned game at Edgbaston, then turned it up a notch in Bristol with a match-winning 56 from No. 6 after New Zealand were treading water at 49 for 5, and sealed it with 2 for 9 (though the Man-of-the-Match award went to Kyle Mills for his 47 and two top-order wickets). At The Oval, Elliott was in the thick of it again: on 24 (and New Zealand in hailing distance of victory) at the time of the now infamous collision with Ryan Sidebottom and subsequent run-out. Not bad going for a man who was playing club cricket in the Surrey League just the week before.

The Debut
The award for the most predictably assured big-stage entry of recent times ought to go to Shaun Marsh, who lit up the first ODI against West Indies with 81 runs compiled with the sort of calm poise he showed while methodically climbing to the top of the run-scorers' list in the IPL a month ago. Marsh was Western Australia's leading run-getter in the FR Cup and the domestic Twenty20 competition for 2007-08, and scored 663 runs at 60.27 in the Pura Cup, and he looks to have carried the momentum into big cricket. He met all expectations in Kingstown, composing a risk-free innings where he unleashed powerful drives and pulls when opportunity presented itself. Marsh's fifty came off 55 balls with a cover-driven boundary off Dwayne Bravo, and he also played behind the wicket with ease. His 81 was the second-highest score by an Australian on debut and it took the side to an 84-run victory.

The Drop
In a tournament where the money was at least as big a talking point as the cricket itself, it was ironic, or possibly appropriate, that the least expensive team in the IPL emerged smiling on the biggest payday of them all. As far as pivotal moments go, one stood out. Over No. 10 of the chase, ball No. 3. The asking-rate is touching 10. Muttiah Muralitharan to Yusuf Pathan, who wades in, launching it high over midwicket. Suresh Raina runs to his left, gets under but not quite, gets the ball but not quite, fumbles, latches on the second time, hits the ground, spills it. Pathan, then on 13, goes on to make 56, hitting two sixes over long-on in Murali's next over to rub it in. Rajasthan go on to win by three wickets off the last ball. Did we hear someone say, "You've just dropped a million dollars"?