December 2, 2010

'My problems at Test level were psychological, not technical'

Interview by Richard Edwards
Michael Bevan looks back at his early years and at a Test career that never took off

Michael Bevan was the first Canberra-born player to represent Australia and came to be seen as the world's finest one-day batsman, a left-hander whose nerveless mastery of tight run-chases led to the term "finisher". But his Test career stuttered, blighted by a perceived weakness against the short ball, and he ended up pigeonholed as a limited-overs specialist.

What are your early memories?
Playing representative cricket against all the other states for what was really a minnow ACT [Australian Capital Territory] side. Back then I was more of a fast bowler than a batsman. I didn't really start taking batting seriously until the age of 16, when I injured my back.

Did it hamper your development, coming from the country's smallest state?
Given that I always wanted to play for Australia, I knew I would have to change states at some stage, but that problem was really solved for me when I was included in the Australian Under-19 side and then picked for the Australian Academy in Adelaide.

What are your memories of your first-class debut for South Australia?
We were playing against Western Australia at the WACA in December 1989 and I spent my first two days in the field basically chasing leather and standing at cover watching Geoff Marsh [who scored 355 not out] smash cover-drives past me. I did manage to score a hundred in my first innings, though. The wicket was like glass. It's not like that now but back then the ball was still swinging after 80 overs, so it was an unusual experience playing and missing regularly when you were nearing your hundred.

Allan Border's retirement handed you your international chance in 1994…
AB had called it a day and I suppose you could say that I was the first player to take his place in the Australian side, and for a 23-year-old they were pretty big shoes to fill.

How was your first tour, to Pakistan?
Travelling over there was a new experience, but I was pretty excited to be making my Test debut and playing with some of the legends of the game. I scored 80 in my first innings and had a good series. It was probably the best I'd hit them in Test cricket, even though I had a pretty dubious start. I remember taking strike against Wasim Akram for my first ball and he nearly took my head off. After that I did pretty well and I've no doubt it was because the wickets and the reverse-swing in Pakistan were similar to what I had been used to at the SCG. In the end we lost that first match by one wicket after Heals [Ian Healy] fumbled a stumping and the ball ran for four byes. He was distraught walking off afterwards.

You played two matches of the Ashes series after that Pakistan tour and were then dropped. Was that hard to take?
Funnily enough, being dropped from the Australian team in an Ashes series was probably the first time I had learnt anything about myself and my game, and I actually improved as a player after that. Looking back now, that was obviously a good thing, but starting that Ashes series so poorly was a real low because I couldn't work out why I wasn't performing.

You joined Yorkshire soon afterwards. Did playing county cricket help your game?
Generally speaking, I would say yes. As a batsman it gives you a great opportunity to spend a lot of time in the middle and there's no substitute for that. I always enjoyed playing county cricket because it was a touch more light-hearted than playing domestic cricket back home, so I definitely took a lot of positives from my experiences in England.

Was that light-hearted environment a reason why England struggled to beat Australia during that time?
Look, I'm not sure about that but what I did notice is that the first five matches of every summer were the toughest - those matches were probably tougher than most of the Shield matches we played because the bowlers were fresh, there was a bit of juice in the wicket and there was a bit of rain around. One of the problems that the English domestic game had to get a handle on was that by the middle of summer, with so many flat wickets, the new ball being replaced after 100 overs and the one-bouncer rule, life was very tough for a lot of the bowlers and a lot easier for the batsmen.

"I never saw myself as being just a one-day player. It's just a tag I was given and have to live with. I guess when I first started I hoped I would play 100 Tests, but obviously it didn't pan out that way. In the end I think I was dropped from the one-day side too soon"

You had such a great record in England but struggled in the Ashes. Why was that?
I played two Ashes series and in both of them I did particularly poorly. I think I averaged over 50 against West Indies and over 60 against Pakistan but against England I averaged 8 and 13, so there was no in-between for me at that point. It's hard to put your finger on why that might have happened but, while playing in the Ashes is something that every Australian cricketer looks forward to, from a personal perspective it was a pretty challenging time and ultimately it's always hard to enjoy it when you're going through that kind of trot.

A lot of people blamed your failures at Test level on a weakness against the short ball. Was that fair?
I couldn't work it out at the time because I'd never really had an issue with it in the past but the more it happened, the more of an issue it became. I don't think I helped myself. I probably put too much focus on trying to play it well and gave it too much priority. I probably lacked a little belief that I could play it, even though a first-class average of 60 would suggest that it shouldn't have been a problem. I think in the end that my problems at Test level were more psychological than anything physical or technical.

Which Australian captain did you most enjoy playing under?
Steve Waugh was a good captain and a good leader, although very different from Mark Taylor or Ricky Ponting. Steve wasn't a big communicator, which is quite strange for a leader, but he believed in leading through action. He set such high standards and wanted to achieve such great things. He also took a genuine interest in his players and was empathetic to players who were struggling, which is the way he built his trust and respect.

Mark was completely different. He was comfortable in his own skin, extremely astute as a tactician, he was a great communicator and really knew how to get the best out of the players. He was probably the most well-rounded captain that I played under.

Did you ever see yourself as a one-day specialist?
I never saw myself as being just a one-day player. It's just a tag I was given and have to live with. I guess when I first started I hoped I would play 100 Tests, but obviously it didn't pan out that way. In the end I think I was dropped from the one-day side too soon. I was left out because I think my role at No. 6 had been diminished by virtue of us having so many great players - I was simply required less.

Was there a time when you thought you could win a match as a "finisher" for Australia from any position?
I felt it was my job as a No. 6 batsman to be there at the end when we were either chasing runs or setting totals. Quite often when you go in and your side is in trouble, the last thing on your mind is winning. You try to survive, hang around and keep an eye on the run-rate so that it's still manageable. In one-day cricket the pressure comes from the run-rate and the scoreboard and they're the factors that you need to cope with. You need to choose the right gameplan, minimise risk and make the right decisions.

What was your best innings?
A lot of people remember when I hit a four off the last ball against West Indies to win a match at Sydney in 1996, but I prefer a knock I played against New Zealand in 2002 in the domestic series at the MCG. We were under the pump and were looking as though we were going to miss out on the finals. They got about 240, we were 6 for 80-odd and I got 100. Chasing a large total like that under that sort of pressure was a really enjoyable, satisfying experience.

Any regrets?
I haven't watched much cricket now that I've finished. I've just sort of moved on. I would love to have played more Test cricket, but then again it was one of the best learning experiences of my life. It wouldn't make sense for me to harbour any grudges about what happened in the past.

This article was first published in the October 2010 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here