October 17, 2011

To baldly go...

Players who have been follically challenged at the top

Brian Close
It's an enduring image for those of a certain age: 45-year-old Close facing up to the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers of 1976 with nothing on his strikingly bald head except perhaps a smudge of sun cream (even that would probably have been rejected as a bit namby-pamby by the famously hard Yorkshireman). Close, who might have been one of the greats, had a peculiar international career, starting as England's youngest player at 18 in 1949, taking in a disastrous tour of Australia in 1950-51, drawing widespread (and rather unfair) vilification for some ill-judged shots that cost a Test against Australia 10 years later, and being dumped as England captain in 1967 - after a superb start - following allegations of time-wasting in a county match. He was recalled for that final hurah in 1976, bravely bald as he'd been for the previous 20-odd years, and took some sickening blows on the body. These - and a similarly dogged innings against the 1963 West Indians at Lord's, when he strolled down the wicket to Wes Hall - enabled him to call his autobiography I Don't Bruise Easily.

Doug Bollinger
The big-hearted New South Wales fast bowler Bollinger started losing his hair at a young age, and by the time he made his international debut at 27, he was already known as "The Bald Eagle". That had to change after he received a new head of hair, courtesy the company that re-thatched Graham Gooch and Shane Warne: Bollinger became "Doug the Rug". But when TV introduced the new Hot Spot thermal-imaging technology, it wasn't only edges that showed up when Bollinger was bowling.

Hashim Amla
The stylish South African batsman Amla, a devout Muslim, makes up for a lack of hair on top with arguably cricket's most impressive beard underneath. It's served him well, as he has built up a Test average of 47, and a one-day one of 57. A crowd chant in South Africa runs: "He's bald, he's feared, he has a cool beard."

Paul Gibb
He looked like a schoolmaster who had taken the day off to play cricket, but Gibb - who played for Yorkshire and Essex - was in reality an adhesive batsman, who scored 93 and 106 on his Test debut against South Africa in Johannesburg in 1938-39. He made another in the last match of that tour - the famous Timeless Test in Durban. Gibb also kept wicket, although he was far from the best at England's disposal, and he lost his place for good to Godfrey Evans after the first post-war Ashes Test, in 1946-47, by which time he was almost bald (he had been reasonably hirsute during that South African adventure). Gibb later became an umpire, then drifted out of the game. When he died, aged 64 in 1977, he had been driving a bus in Guildford for six years, and was living in a caravan.

Viv Richards
Richards was always an impressive sight at the crease, but somehow he became even more imperious when, towards the end of his glittering career, he started shaving his head. If that swagger to the crease wasn't enough, the sight of Viv removing his cap (never a helmet) and mopping that glistening dome, whlie contemplating further batting carnage, was enough to make a fast bowler mistrust his hamstrings.

Darren Lehmann
It's hard to remember the combative Australian left-hander Lehmann ever having hair, not that it seemed to inhibit him during a run-soaked career that belatedly featured Test success too. His bullet-topped image became such a trademark that he featured it prominently on the front of his eventual autobiography. My little son Daniel, who likes to look at the covers of books, decided he was actually not "Lehmann" but "Scaryman".

Geoff Boycott
This rock-like England opening batsman was always a bit sensitive about his hair (or lack of it), famously bowling several handy spells in the 1979 World Cup with his cap on (back to front). He was rumoured to be among the first to undergo a hair transplant (leading to the short-lived and presumably unpopular nickname "Thatch"), and to this day is rarely seen without some item of natty headwear. But you can't argue with 151 first-class hundreds, and a total of 8114 runs in Tests - a world record at the time he retired.

Syed Kirmani
There were some complaints that the long-serving Indian wicketkeeper Kirmani didn't make it into our Beards XI, so he was a shoo-in for this one: Kirmani's bald pate, usually encased in a floppy sunhat, and piratical moustache and beard were an almost ever-present sight behind the stumps for India in the decade from January 1976.

Tony Lock
Lock was a ginger-haired youngster, but most of that had gone by the time he became an England regular in the mid-1950s. Any remaining strands were probably pulled out by Lock himself at Old Trafford in 1956, as he wheeled down 69 overs for just the one wicket in the Ashes match in which his fellow spinner Jim Laker took 19. But Lock was far from finished, remodelling his bowling action after complaints that it was illegal, and successfully emigrating to Perth, where he played on till he was past 40, captaining a rather hairier Western Australia side (including the young Dennis Lillee) to Sheffield Shield glory. In the fourth Test at Headingley in 1963, West Indies' captain Frank Worrell was caught by Brian Close off Lock - possibly the baldest dismissal in Test history.

Tim Ambrose and Matt Prior
It might be something in the sea air: Prior and Ambrose both started their first-class careers at Hove. They competed for the gloves for Sussex until Ambrose gave up and moved to Warwickshire, and when Prior had a rough spell behind the stumps for England, it was Ambrose who briefly replaced him before Prior roared back. And both have a distinct lack of hair.

Vinod Kambli
The youngster who hit the headlines after a school partnership of 664 with Sachin Tendulkar briefly threatened to outshine Sachin, with successive Test double-centuries in 1992-93. But then he slipped out of favour, possibly not helped by shaving his head and preferring the type (and amount) of chunky jewellery last seen adorning Mr T on The A Team. Kambli played what turned out to be his last Test at 24, but soldiered on, always on the lookout for an opportunity to boost his name: poignantly, he announced his retirement from first-class cricket in September 2011... slightly peculiar timing, perhaps, given that he hadn't actually played a first-class match since November 2004, almost seven years previously.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2011.