Greg Chappell November 29, 2010

The gold standard

Chappell had talent, elegance and technique to burn, but more formidable was the discipline he imposed on himself - one more severe than those of any of his contemporaries

Australian cricket doesn't have much time for elegance. It looks unserious, brittle, even a little effete. Australians favour aggression - bustling, bristling, business-like. They like to think of themselves as all about effect and output; it's not how but how many. For Greg Chappell, they made an exception.

The elegance did not, of course, come first. For more than a decade Chappell was the gold standard of Australian batting. He was like bullion in the vaults: the reserve currency. In the speculative side you chose at the pub, you put down his name at No. 4, and then you started with the rest. I dare say Australia's selectors were the same. So Chappell did what was in him, and it happened to be beautiful.

Yet it did matter how he achieved this, by looking a treat. After an early tightening of his technique, there was no stage in Chappell's career when he was not a dazzling strokemaker. Nobody ever enjoined him to "bat ugly"; it would hardly have been possible. He had a bearing, a majesty, even in repose. He might have played three maidens, but if one dropped into the slot you knew it would be on-driven for four; he might take three hours over the first fifty, but the second fifty would take 45 minutes with barely a hint of extra effort.

Chappell was a tall, slim, lean man - even a little austere. He played his cover drive from full height. The bat came down straight. The weight surged through the ball. It looked imperious. It was imperious. As a spectator, you felt the wash of disdain - how it must have felt to bowlers. As for the leg side, you sensed he could have nominated any of its 180 degrees and hit it there, particularly behind square, the quadrant into which he directed his signature, wristy, upright flick. He never hurried, never seemed to push too hard, never thrashed or slogged when a stroke would do - he just made up his own rules and followed them, without deviation.

Between balls and times, Chappell looked a little uptight, his pipe-cleaner man's physique emphasised by a shirt buttoned to the neck, sleeves always to the wrist. His stance was stiff-legged, over-topped by a stoop. The bat made a rhythmic tap, before one final, faintly voluptuous loop towards gully. Then, with the ball in flight, everything changed. The bat and body snapped into line. The hands aligned perfectly at slip. Chappell didn't take spectacular catches, fumbles or rebounds - his anticipation was too good to need to. The ball simply vanished and never reappeared.

The effect was strangely humbling. When Chappell reached 200 at the Gabba in December 1981, a spectator bounced off the old Hill there and began hare-ing for the centre, pursued at the plod by security - a year before the misfortune of Terry Alderman, such invaders were an annoyance rather than a threat. It wasn't to slap Chappell on the back or obtain his autograph that this man came either: he took the batsman's gloved hand, went down on one knee and bowed his head, as if genuflecting to royalty. Watching Chappell put John Arlott in mind of William Clarke's description of Joe Guy: "All ease and elegance, fit to play before the Queen in Her Majesty's parlour." It was something to provoke similar spontaneous homage from the Aussie egalitariat.

It was not all patrician airs and drawing-room decorum, of course. Most people know that Chappell scored a century in his first Test. Not everyone remembers that he did so batting at No. 7, bowling his medium pace as the first-change bowler. He was joining a rather embattled team, recently mauled in South Africa and about to lose the Ashes too. Nor did he immediately impress as a permanent fixture. A couple of months before the Australian team to tour England in 1972 was chosen, his place was uncertain.

Chappell's batting crystallised when abundant natural talent was harnessed by an anchorite's self-control. Early in his career he played his shots with a generous abandon. His biographer Adrian McGregor explains that the admonitions of Chappell's father, and of the respected Adelaide journalist Keith Butler, caused him to undergo some soul-searching. Nine times out of 10, Chappell reasoned, a batsman blew himself up. He must not indulge bowlers so. He sacrificed none of his strokes - Richie Benaud had enjoined him not to. He simply developed a mental self-discipline more severe than any contemporary's. His was the first generation to take the mental side of cricket in earnest, reading Rudi Webster's Winning Ways, visiting the hypnotherapist Arthur Jackson, invoking the "flow" of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. They were lucky in already having good techniques - later players thought positive thinking could do the work for them. Chappell, however, was a class apart. He may even have imparted some of his drive to brother Ian, whose average after Greg joined him in the Test team was 12 runs higher than before.

He played his cover drive from full height. The bat came down straight. The weight surged through the ball. It looked imperious. It was imperious. He never hurried, never seemed to push too hard, never thrashed or slogged when a stroke would do - he just made up his own rules and followed them, without deviation

There was something slightly forbidding about this. In contrast to Ian, a natural leader of men, Greg confessed himself only a "workmanlike" captain. Even to team-mates he could look stern, schoolmasterly. Geoff Lawson has described the agonies of entering the Australia team in 1980, of Chappell with hands on hips at slip "as if to say, 'Don't bowl that crap, son,' every time I bowled a half-volley or got hit for a boundary": he deemed Chappell "one of the poorest captains that I had ever played under". His confreres Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh found Chappell a more communicative and empathic captain after he had tasted ruinous failure in the summer of 1981-82. The struggles of others became more explicable in terms of his own.

Chappell's great indiscretion was the underarm delivery. Most cricket conflicts arise from adrenaline, anger, petulance. Here was a rare counter-example, originating in the opposite state of mind, from a coldly rational assessment of problem and of probabilities, involving a solution on Chappell's mind since a one-day match during World Series Cricket had been won off the last ball by a tailender's six. Chappell's decision is generally construed as a momentary lapse, an instance of judgement impaired by tiredness. Yet it might also be seen as one of Chappell's truest actions - evidence of his analytical mind and unsentimental nature. Producers in Channel 9's commentary position used to direct cameramen to vision of Chappell with a terse instruction: "Give us a shot of Killer." Killers are as killers do.

Chappell's self-mastery might have come harder than it appears. He retired twice in his career, once publicly in 1977, once privately in 1982, when his form was at its worst. He also developed considerable business interests, as though he aspired to leaving cricket behind. When they did not really fructify, he remained in the game with a seeming ambivalence. Few men know batting better, but his coaching record is indifferent. He commentates knowledgeably but without much enthusiasm. He quit noisily as an Australian selector in the 1980s, and has returned more than 20 years later, this time in the created role of national talent manager. He is not the only cricketer, of course, to have struggled to find a place in life that suited him as amply as the crease. Nor in art is it rare for beauty to arise from hidden struggle.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ajinkya on December 2, 2010, 4:33 GMT

    @Meety.....I meant as a batsman....although GC was obviously a better player. I think players who played in that era always rated IC as a better 'crisis' player than Greg.

  • Andrew on December 2, 2010, 0:03 GMT

    @jay57870 - sadly for you - you have based about 90% of your critique on about 5% of Chappell's legacy. The biggest problem for Chappell as coach of India was he didn't fit with the culture, Ganguly's atitude was not professional when it came to fitness & practise. If India kept to Ganguly's standard they would of remained easy beats. @ Arun14 - your criteria of playing in India is not as valid in the 1970s. This is because India were pretty easy to beat back then, yes they did have very good spinners, but they created nowhere near as big of a hurdle as later decades. The Home & Away split isn't too bad either for that era by the way. That criteria would expose some truths about Indian cricketers too! @ LordAjinkya - I think where you might be confused is in captaincy, Ian Chappell was a far greater leader of men. IC could be one of the boys & a dictator all in one day, where as GC was more aloof, (note the Lawson comments). No one I know rates IC better as a batsmen!

  • Jay on December 1, 2010, 13:56 GMT

    (Contd) Thankfully, the team was guided by two of the best men in the business: John Wright (Greg's predecessor) in the early five years of this decade and now Gary Kirsten for the past two years. They believed in instilling mutual trust and creating a harmonious environment: Team-first approach. Thankfully, they worked well in tandem with a couple of excellent captains in Ganguly (Wright) and MS Dhoni (Kirsten). Contrast all this to the Chappell era. Sadly, this marquee batsman, in many dark ways, falls short of the "gold standard" Gideon bestows on him. Sad, but true.

  • Jay on December 1, 2010, 13:33 GMT

    (Contd) Greg's cricketing resume exposes a "Jekyll & Hyde"-type personality. As player he had self-discipline, but as coach he was unprincipled in imposing his "process" on the team. He had a great vision for Indian cricket, but his dubious tactics/lack of execution were abominable. His constant meddling with the batting lineup and a youth-first approach led to failure. His modus operandi of leaking "Dressing Room Stuff" to the press was the most egregious (maybe not as bad, some comfort, as the notorious Julian Assange, Australia-based founder of WikiLeaks). His propensity to use words like "cancer" (sledging?) created a toxic environment with disastrous consequences. Thankfully, players in his dog-house - incl. Ganguly, Tendulkar, Sehwag, Zaheer & Harbhajan - stood up to him. Thankfully, Sachin ignored Greg's unsolicited advice (as also brother Ian's silly dictum) to retire. Thankfully, Team India was determined not to be pushed off its long hard-fought ascent to the top. (TBC)

  • Jay on December 1, 2010, 12:42 GMT

    Greg Chappell was a world-class batsman, Australia's best since The Don. As a *legend* though, his legacy is tainted with many (dis)qualifying footnotes*. It's a benevolent time of the year: Gideon Haigh shows it by glossing over the dark side of this pedigreed cricketer: 1* His questionable loyalty to Australia in jumping ship (as captain) to the rebel WSC; 2* His unsportsmanlike conduct in the "underarm bowling" incident exposed his true "Killer" instinct to win at any cost; 3* His violation of the unwritten code of "Dressing Room Stuff," when as India's coach he "outed" captain Sourav Ganguly in a leaked e-mail to the BCCI; Ganguly was dropped; 4* His manipulation of the media via misleading comments, leaked info and SMSs targeted at certain players to humiliate them, even calling out a couple as "cancer" in the team; 5* His high-handed style toward the old order (incl. Sachin Tendulkar) disrupted team stability/confidence, leading to the 2007 WC debacle; Chappell was fired. (TBC)

  • Ajinkya on December 1, 2010, 3:22 GMT

    @aussiefan4waugh.....I wasn't trying to drag Tendulkar into the debate. I was just expressing my opinion at that decidedly ridiculous first comment. Greg Chappell was a great batsman, no doubt. In fact, although he wasn't a very good coach, he probably helped Sehwag and Ganguly come back as better players. Look at both their records after their'll see what I mean.

  • Harsh on December 1, 2010, 3:07 GMT

    It is sad that officially World series records are not included as well as the 1972 Australai v Rest of the World Series.With that Greg would have come much closer to Sachin and Lara.What was remarkable was greg's outstanding performance in the Carribean in supertests in 1979 where he averaged 69 runs ,scoring 3 centuries and 621 runs.Infact his centuries against West Indies were scored against beter bolwing attacks than Gavaskar.Greg's genius lay in the fact that he combined perfect technique with the ability to dominate the best of attacks.In that regard he was the most perfect batsman of the 1970's.

    The main weakness Greg exposed was against the bouncing ball or on fast tracks.Most of his hundreds against the Carribean were scored on the slower batting pitches like Trinidad,Georgetown etc.This was shown in 1979-80 and 1981-82.In a crisis or on fast tracks against the bouncing ball,brother Ian was a better batsman.

  • Arun on November 30, 2010, 19:02 GMT

    Greg Chappell was certainly a quality player, no doubt. You could almost make a case for him as one of the greats. Afterall he averages 53. But look at it a little closely and you will wonder if it seems a little hollow. Chappell racked up his runs playing 55 tests on home turf as opposed to 32 away. Of these, only 4 were on Asian soil. He, like his good friend and fellow 'great' Lillee avoided the sub-continent like the plague. Post-career, these fellows chose to sell their wares in India, but that's digressing. His only notable score in Asia was against an Imran-less Pak in Faislabad, a 235. But in the same test, Taslim Arif (who played a grand total of 6 tests) scored a 200 against Lillee and co. Could Chappell play spin well? Dont know. He obviously wasn't the same batsman in seaming conditions - he averaged 40 in England. He avaraged ok in the Carribbean (48). He must have been really pleasing on the eye to be regarded so highly. His record at home doesn't hurt either.

  • Shubh on November 30, 2010, 8:14 GMT

    damn, 20 comments and its Sachin fans sorry worshippers vs cricket lovers :D I expected a few sourav fans emphasizing how big a menace Greg Chappell has been to cricket by removing the God of cricket from Indian side :D............jokes apart I really wish cricinfo I mean wisden puts the unofficial tests as official, and Greg's greatest achievement comes in his career statistics....holds true for few others(like Barry Richards,Gary Sobers) as well :)

  • IFTIKHAR on November 30, 2010, 8:06 GMT

    Greg Chappell was a great batsman of that there is no doubt!But as a captain he lacked the chemistry of his brother i.e.being one of team and always for the team AND doing justice leading them!If we are to consider him on his ability alone and not to judge what he did AFTER he stopped playing then he is one of the greatest batsmen from Australia better than his brother my favourite Aussie!Whatever he is doing as an administrator has nothing to do with his playing days.He was superb batsman.

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