January 11, 2011

Big Mac in three clicks

A trio of quintessential images sums up Brian McMillan: his hands, a broken middle stump and the farcical end to South Africa's 1992 World Cup campaign

At the risk of over-simplifying, the Brian McMillan story can be told through three images that come forth when you first think of McMillan. Not necessarily ones seen on TV or in photo albums or collectors' libraries. They are etched in the mind.

THE HANDS. Those big hands, almost the size of baseball gloves. And not just big, they are fleshy, hence soft. Hands made to catch round objects hit hard at you, to the right of you, to the left of you, at your toes, over your head. McMillan caught his fair share, standing at slip. If he dropped a catch - and there aren't too many recorded instances, so you have to rely on his first-class colleagues for that - the reaction in the field would be stunned silence. Just silence, players looking at each other, not saying a word.

"It happened once or twice. I have got to be honest," says McMillan, who obviously has no need to be humble about his slip-catching.

Talking to him about slip-catching is a fascinating experience. It's something he can date back to when he was around eight or nine years old, when "you were not even thought of".

"My brother was a good cricketer as well, and we played cricket against men," he says. "We were youngsters playing with men, and the men were so bloody slow, they couldn't bend down, you know. So after a while they thought, 'Let's try the youngsters and see if they can catch.' We then went to slip and gully. It was never first slip, more third slip and gully.

"And then we started practising together, as you would do with brothers. We started taking good catches. We always took the good catches, never the average one. Always had the thing for a difficult catch, the dive."

Once the bug bit them, the McMillan brothers went on to acquire skills needed in the slips. "We used to ping golf balls at each other, get in line and defend. And then catch with those golf balls and hard balls. You had to catch them in your fingers, if you caught them in your palm, it would be quite sore. Slowly you develop a web between your fingers."

The key to any catching, he says, is to catch the ball between the lowest third of the fingers and the first horizontal line on the palm. On his hands, of course, it is a huge area. "The easiest way to catch a ball - people talk about catching in the palm and all - is actually, like baseball, you have to catch in the fingers and upper palm of your hand. If it hits you in the palm, it's going to hit you slap bang and it is going to hurt. I promise you, in my career it happened 10 times. Rest of the catches were always in my finger region."

That kind of self-assurance - and he admits he might sound a bit cocky at times - is the biggest attribute of a good slip fielder.

"You need confidence in yourself," he says. "So any ball that comes your way, say a metre and a half to your left or right or above you, if you can get three-quarters of your hand to it, you should be able to catch the ball. If you reach it with the tip, you can never catch it. If you get three-quarters of your hand, you should have soft enough hands to absorb the impact of the ball.

"Anything in your region, where you have to step this side, step that side, you shouldn't miss it. Slip fielding is about the other percentage, something a little further, the half chance. If you pick up 60 or 70% of half chances, then you are a good slip fielder."

McMillan's inclination to the sporting life helped offset the big frame, which could be a hindrance in taking those half chances. "I was a natural sportsperson, used to play cricket, rugby, hockey, squash, tennis. So you learn to move around the court, you learn the basics."

"When a catch is good, smooth - when a batsman hits it, it is quick, and you catch it in finger and lower palm - it is a good feeling. It's nice. But the real good feeling is when it is wide of you and you pick it one-handed. That's fantastic"

To the outsider it seems like the Mark Waugh-type catches, ones that smoothly settle in the hands, making a soft little sound, would be the most satisfying for a slip fielder. They must feel as good as a full ball despatched with a straight bat and high elbow is to a batsman. For McMillan it was about the ones that made him stretch. "When a catch is good, smooth - when a batsman hits it, it is quick, and you catch it in finger and lower palm - it is a good feeling. It's nice. But the real good feeling is when it is wide of you and you pick it one-handed. That's fantastic."

McMillan remembers two of those. "One in India. Mohammad Azharuddin was batting, Allan Donald was bowling, wide, and I was standing one-and-a-half, and he hit at a wide one, and it went wide to my right, and I picked it in three fingers, which is phenomenal. I thought it was one of my best catches.

"Another one, there is a picture of that somewhere in England, in one of the brochures, where Graeme Hick at Headingley edged a very similar one. In the air, wide. Caught it in three fingers again. So those are the good catches."

Hard as it is to believe, McMillan has done a lot of fielding at silly point and forward short leg too. "I have got a lot in the shin off the bowling of Pat Symcox. Especially against Sri Lanka and India. They would come down and smash it straight into silly point."

MIDDLE STUMP SNAPPED. Brian McMillan to Ian Botham, allrounder to allrounder, good friend to good friend, in a league match in the 1992 World Cup, at the MCG, and the middle stump broken into two. McMillan was never a fast bowler. He'd just put his body in, bowl the heavy balls, cutters, and also rely on the seam and the pitch.

"More of a strength bowler," he says. "Not a technique bowler, not somebody like Dale Steyn, who goes on rhythm. I had to run in hard, bowl hard. Hit the deck. I loved wickets that had good bounce. That suited me. If the wicket was green I could bowl the seamers."

It was on that sort of pitch in Melbourne, during the course of a "phenomenal trip" for the World Cup, that he bowled to Botham.

"Beefy and I are good mates as well. I remember he was trying the pinch-hitter thing for England. The wicket was good to bowl on, and I knew if I bowled well there was something. I got that ball right, with a bit of gas in it, it nipped back in, took the stumps out. It hit the middle of the stump, perhaps that's why it broke. I told Beefy 'I'll meet you for a beer afterwards.'"

SOUTH AFRICA TO WIN NEED 22 RUNS OFF 1 BALL. The giant screen at the SCG narrating the farcical turn of events. An angry McMillan and Dave Richardson just going through the motions. Ambassadors of a nation, part of a team just readmitted to cricket and hugely loved in Australia, trying their best to suppress anger and avoid ugly scenes.

"I promise you," McMillan says. "If we had played Pakistan in the final, we would have beaten them. We had beaten them before that, we had a mental edge. They just couldn't play us."

In the semi-final, though, chasing an improbable target, South Africa came really close. They needed 25 off three overs when rain arrived, and thanks to a mindless rule - drawn up, ironically, by a committee that had Richie Benaud on it - after the interruption they were left to chase 22 off seven balls. Which turned out to be a typo on the big screen. The reality was even more ridiculous.

"We knew they would need to bowl a part-time bowler for at least one over," McMillan says. "So at 27 off three overs, the game was on. Then it came to 23 off 13. We thought we were still on. We had a short boundary on one side at the SCG. Even then it was great. But at 22 off 1 we were stuffed.

"The irony of the whole saga was that a South African, Allan Lamb, went up to Graham Gooch and told him they must walk off. It was actually he who advised Gooch, otherwise Gooch was going to play on. Lamb advised Gooch, and he is a South African. When we walked off, to give them credit, Gooch and Ian Botham walked up saying, 'If we were to win, we don't want to win that way.' So I have got to give them credit. That meant a lot to me."

That third picture is not in the McMillan house, but the one where Gooch is shaking his hand after the farce is over, hangs on a wall. So conveniently located is it that he sees it every day walking out to work.

"That was the rule of the game. That was it. So we live by it."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

Comments