January 11, 2012

Four magical, suffocating days in Perth

Chris Rogers
For one of Australia's openers in their 2008 match against India at the WACA, it was the only Test he has played

I've heard that many guys don't end up remembering the first Test match they play - it becomes a blur in the excitement of it all. But when it turns out to be your one and only, you savour every moment in retrospect.

It's nearly four years to the day since I received an unexpected phone call from then chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch, telling me I had been added to the squad as cover for an injured Matthew Hayden. Australia were riding high on the back of a record-equalling 16 straight Test wins and had flown into my hometown, Perth, after beating India in an incident-packed game in Sydney, which featured the infamous Harbhajan-Symonds Monkeygate affair.

Walking into that Australian change room, I wasn't really sure what to make of it. On the one hand, my life had just taken off dramatically, and on the other all the talk was about how we had to be on our best behaviour. Throw in a team full of legends on each side, and uncertainty about whether I was even going to play, and it was a confusing couple of days. It wasn't until after training two days before the game, when I watched Hayden limp through a fitness test and shake his head, that I realised a life dream had come true.

All that awaited was a few sleepless nights and then the honour of pulling on that elusive baggy green in front of a packed WACA ground.

The preparation seemed low key. Perhaps the players were a little jaded after four Tests and a number of flights, with two Tests to go. I don't remember being summoned to any meetings, and I was left to my own devices the practice-free day before. On the eve of the game I even managed to have dinner with my parents. But not a minute went by when I wasn't thinking of the challenge ahead.

I can tell you it's an amazing and humbling experience to walk into a change room that has Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Tait and Andrew Symonds, plus a few more in it. It's easy to get caught up in star-gazing. And when they pat you on the back when you are presented your cap by Test legend Justin Langer, it's positively daunting.

As much as I loved every moment of it, there was an unmistakable current of tension running through the side. The fallout from Monkeygate, and Cricket Australia's reticence to pursue it, were playing havoc. It seemed as though the cricket was a sideshow.

It was almost a relief for me when we lost the toss and were made to field. I thought it might give me some time to adjust to the feel of Test cricket.

Rod Marsh used to warn against playing Tests in Perth in January, and sure enough, it was a blazing 40-degree day and I spent most of the morning fruitlessly chasing Virender Sehwag and Co's cover-drives out towards the practice wickets.

A slow pitch, unlike any I had played on the WACA, plus the heat, combined to blunt our four-paceman bowling attack. During the off-season a decision had been taken to replace the top few inches of the pitch with sods, and all season it had been unpredictable. My WA team-mate Brad Hogg had been hoping to play a Test for the first time on his home ground but was made 12th man. I felt for him.

Tennis-ball bounce and the lack of swing or seam took the sting out of Lee, Johnson, Stuart Clark and Tait. Both Lee and Tait were reaching the 150kph mark, but the Indians seemed to have time to spare playing them.

A century partnership by Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar unfolded in front of me, and by the time we removed them, the heat had almost knocked us out.

Taity, in his first Test in Australia, had bowled a horror last over before lunch. In trying to fit another in before the break, he overstepped and wided, and the confidence seemed to flow out of the big man on the cut strip - in front of 20-odd thousand people. He had gone into the match with an injured hamstring.

By the end of the first day our backs were up against it, after we'd dismissed only six of the Indian batsmen. I don't think I'd ever been so drained after a day. Not only had the heat been unbearable, the intensity of the contest and a bigger crowd than I'd ever played in front of made for a unique experience.

The next morning turned out to be productive for us, and I even managed to take a decent diving catch at point. Then it was my turn to bat. Comments from the crowd when fielding, like "Get ready to bat Rogers" and "Don't stuff up" were friendly, I'm sure. Shame they did nothing to ease my ever-growing nerves.

A cover-drive out of the middle to the scoreboard boundary slowed my heartbeat considerably, and I thought I was ready to get stuck in and grind out some runs. An iffy lbw decision - I thought it was sliding down leg - put an end to that, and before I knew it, I was taking off the pads in extreme disappointment.

I will always remember telling my father that facing every ball was like a match in itself, due to the pressure that comes with that level of cricket. Michael Hussey said after the game that people who thought batting in Shield cricket was harder than Tests had rocks in their head

Suddenly we were in all sorts of trouble. The bland pitch that had blunted our quickies came alive for the Indians, and their medium-pace seamers had our batsmen in all sorts of trouble. In what seemed the blink of an eye we were back out in the field 118 behind - with Sehwag cutting balls for fun as we scrambled to limit the damage.

My mood wasn't made any better when standing next to the umpire who had given me out - Asad Rauf. He told me that if he'd had the benefit of the replay, he wouldn't have given me out. It felt like a punch to the chest. But I wasn't the first person to get a dodgy decision, and I won't be the last. Still, I respected him for telling me that, even after Hawk-Eye had estimated the ball was angling crazily back to clip the leg stump.

As with every time I'm dismissed, I analysed what I did wrong and saw I'd fallen towards the off side getting out in the first innings, and was determined not to repeat the mistake. I was in good touch getting to 15, and felt I was doing a lot of good things. Then Pathan produced a gem - directed at off, forcing me to play and moving away late, that I could only get an edge to - and my first Test was over.

I will always remember telling my father that facing every ball was like a match in itself, due to the pressure that comes with that level of cricket. Michael Hussey said after the game that people who thought batting in Shield cricket was harder than Tests had rocks in their head. The pressure from the crowd and the media was almost suffocating.

It would have been nice to be a part of a record-breaking side, but it wasn't to be. I do remember the pure elation of being picked and the soul-crushing disappointment of failure and losing. What happened in the middle still feels like it passed in the blink of an eye.

Shaking hands at the end, I prayed I would get at least one more chance to sing the winning song and prove to myself I belonged in Test cricket. "Get more runs," I was told when I lost my Australian contract at the end of that summer.

But I feel privileged to have squeezed into one of the best Australian teams ever, and to have had an experience at the very peak of my sport. And as all one-Test wonders must sing to themselves in the shower occasionally: "You can't take that away from me..."

Victoria opener Chris Rogers played one Test match for Australia

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