December 16, 2011

There's something about Warner

From one-trick slog pony to Test cricketer - and, as always, the children knew first

At ten past three last Sunday at Hobart's rainswept, near-empty cricket ground, David Warner let loose a straight drive like the one Sunil Gavaskar used to play, except Gavaskar played his with such bowler-monstering regularity that the commentators invented a name for it. The "bowler's-back drive" - because no sooner had the ball left the bowler's hand than that's where it was, back at him. Warner dispatched his version with still feet and a lightning wrist snap. It rolled right of bowler Tim Southee and kept rolling, even though the grass was wet, taking his score from 25 to 29.

The afternoon before that, a straggle of children huddled boundaryside around TV commentator Mark Nicholas. Try as he might to interest them in chat about fried chicken and the android wondrousness of Channel 9's U-Be-The-Umpire phone app, these boys and girls were not for distracting. "Warner," Nicholas sighed finally, suave crinkles of bafflement sweaty on his head - Warner was the thing on their brains. Warner was at that moment a convicted one-trick slog-pony on his third strike as a Test cricketer: 3, 12 not out, 15. But the children knew best, and first, as children occasionally do.

It used to be the way that in the event of humiliating defeat for Australia at cricket the nation's newspapers would gang together and put tennis on the back page instead. Yet in the days since Australia's fourth-innings capitulation to New Zealand for 233, 123 of them Warner's, there has been a flap of panic about the 233 and not a lot of stopping and savouring the 123.

Sixth Australian since the war, we heard, to carry his bat. It felt hard to credit there'd been five innings ripe for comparison with Warner's. When Warner plays at the ball he plays with forearms and wrists. Not till after ball's hit bat do his feet tend to move, resulting in an ungainly toppling towards off, even for his fence-bound shots. This chronology - arms, hands, feet - is roughly the reverse of the batting manual's best advice but steadfastly faithful to Warner's T20 approach, where his stationary feet provide the base and ballast needed for his swivelling hips and high hands to skim the ball Babe Ruth-style into the bleachers.

If your policy is to cherry-pick the batting manual, a lot hinges on which clauses you choose to underline in red pen. And Warner kept the ball along the ground - almost obsessively. He rotated the strike. A flicked single taking him from 53 to 54 was strangely reminiscent of the famous Greg Chappell hip shot, except Warner flicked his from a foot outside off stump; a carpet-scorching single hooked off his throat inched him to 61.

On 64 he hacked and missed outside off. Next ball he hacked again - and hit - so heeding the trusty textbook aphorism that says you forget what happened last ball and treat the next one on its merits. Warner dealt not merely in singles but in old-fashioned threes, seven of them, which is to say a modern-day smorgasbord; two more than Virender Sehwag bothered with in his 309 (three) and 319 (two) combined. Today's lumberjack bats mean a push-and-scamper can reap you only one less run than a boundary at a fraction of the risk. Warner is wiser to these mathematics than most. The sport's high-performance jobsworths label him a "controlled power hitter" in T20; playing Test cricket in Hobart, he resembled more closely a controlled power pusher.

This chronology is steadfastly faithful to Warner's T20 approach, where his stationary feet provide the base and ballast needed for his swivelling hips and high hands to skim the ball Babe Ruth-style into the bleachers

Amid thickets of tumbling wickets, only Warner could see the trees. On reaching 100 he rejoiced with a brisk air-punch, a leap, a doffing of his helmet, and a salute. Had Channel 9 master control tried squeezing in a chicken ad they'd have missed the next ball. When Warner said afterwards, "It's fantastic but we lost and it's disappointing," the words smelled like truth. He said, too, that what he'd done had yet to sink in. There's a sense, more widely, even now, that it still hasn't; a sense of reluctance to believe. If we are right about the Yeti and the Tooth Fairy, must we not be right about Davey Warner too?

Twenty-six summers ago there arrived a cricketer with a buzzcut and earring - scarcely a cricketer at all, wise men tut-tutted, though the young people seemed to like him. Matthews was his name. Stupendous to say, he carved out a streetfighter's hundred at the Gabba. And another in calamity in Melbourne. Then one more, for luck, in Wellington. Children clapped when he came on to bowl his offbreaks. Magazines hoisted him on their covers. The board appointed him third selector - "National selector! That's a big rap, man" - for a trip to Sharjah and he seized the Test-tying wicket in Madras. Finally the wise men threw up their hands. "He is the one person now entrenched in our game," wrote Bill O'Reilly in the Sydney Morning Herald, "who possesses the divine touch that will fill cricket grounds… I congratulate all those kids who beat me so smartly to the point."

Three hours after Warner's innings was over I wandered down behind where the number 96 tramline runs, to Lindsay Hassett Oval, where a scruffy mixed-ages match was underway on a matting wicket, the red shirts against the grey shirts. I saw a chinaman bowler bowl; a sticky-fingered slips catch; a slog-sweep for four. I saw a cricket country's future and it looked in shipshape health. After about 10 minutes a boy pounced on a ball a foot outside off stump and flicked it round the corner, sort of like the famous Greg Chappell hip shot, sort of like something else. The boy holed out. Pretty soon, though, someone's going to have to think up a name for that shot.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

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