July 3, 2013

The Phantom walks away

Chris Martin was not only one of New Zealand's most successful bowlers, but a cricketer who endeared himself to everyone with his humility and humour

For more than 12 years, New Zealand Test fans watched Chris Martin bustle to the crease, splaying his arms for balance before looking over his left shoulder and firing 14,026 deliveries at opposition batsmen.

His retirement at the age of 38 ends one of the more uplifting tales in the country's cricket history. He went from being the lad who cycled to practices in Christchurch without his bat to the most resilient pace bowler of his era.

Martin's performances place him among New Zealand's most successful - but possibly underrated - cricketers. In 71 Tests, he took 233 wickets at 33.81, getting one victim for every ten overs of toil. To put his performances in context, he has a better average and strike rate than Daniel Vettori and Danny Morrison among the country's top five wicket-takers. Both those figures are also better than current Test spearhead Tim Southee.

Martin's wicket haul is the third best on New Zealand's all-time list, behind Sir Richard Hadlee and Vettori. His Man-of-the-Match 11 for 180 in 2004 to create New Zealand's first - and so far only - Test win at home in 17 attempts against South Africa remains his crowning achievement.

However, Martin's career is best not summed up in statistics. It was his impact on the team environment and warmth to those outside the dressing-room walls that marked him as a decent human being in addition to his obvious bowling skills. Never one to suffer a sense-of-humour bypass, Martin even slipped a retro Dennis Lillee headband over his balding pate on hot days, amusing his legion of fans no end. He never appeared affected by the trappings of fame or false pretences that can come with professional sporting success.

Martin's attitude reminds one of the anecdote passed on by a fellow journalist about golfer Ernie Els, who allegedly once told him: "The only difference between you and me, mate, is that on a given day I might be a bit better at golf." The story wasn't designed as a boast, it merely pointed out Els was otherwise just a normal bloke.

Martin brought a similar humility to his craft. For most of his career, he was the most articulate player in the team, a default choice for any journalist seeking insightful analysis delivered with a common touch.

Hopefully such contributions will continue. Martin has dabbled in the media briefly. Writing or broadcasting about the game seems a logical career path. His measured approach might also be welcome in mentoring future international aspirants.

Martin's inclusive nature came through in comments about his decision to ESPNcricinfo. He said he looked forward to seeing how the next generation of bowlers fared and would "always be available to whoever needs me for a chat and a coffee or beer. I'll stay connected in some way…"

The end to Martin's international career appeared nigh with the decision to take Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Mark Gillespie, Southee and Neil Wagner to England (with Ian Butler on stand-by).

Martin didn't get a fairytale Test farewell. His last appearance was as part of an attack that failed to dismiss South Africa in Cape Town, a match haunted by New Zealand's first-innings 45. Still, at least Martin's batting wasn't to blame - he was nought not out.

Unfortunately his bowling achievements were sometimes eclipsed by cult No. 11 status which "earned" an average of 2.36 in 104 innings. He passed 100 runs in his 60th Test... to a standing ovation against Pakistan at Seddon Park in January 2011. His only defence over the years: "I did turn down a lot of singles."

His self-deprecating humour prompted him to endorse a Learn To Bat Like Chris Martin spoof video for the New Zealand television show Pulp Sport. It showed a montage of dreadful dismissals and included "techniques" to emulate his "strokemaking", like switching hands on the grip and tying a batsman's shoelaces together. The video finishes with the pithy catchphrase: "It's out now."

Hints of Martin's exit began to come last August when the team played India in Bangalore. Martin missed selection for the second time in three Tests. He had been dropped earlier in the month after being part of an attack that struggled to dismiss West Indies in Antigua. They amassed 522 in the first innings and eased to victory. Martin's return for the first Test in India coincided with the hosts making 438 and winning by more than an innings.

At the time, coach Mike Hesson acknowledged it was a tough call axing Martin after the Hyderabad loss but gave no guarantee of his return. Martin subsequently earned a reprieve in Cape Town. It was his last chance, despite a Test average that had not noticeably deteriorated. A new generation of bowlers warranted selection, which Martin acknowledged yesterday: "It's nice to see a group of bowlers coming through. Watching the good sides over the years, they tend to have a pack, a nice steady rotation of guys that can put pressure on each other."

Whatever Martin's future, it would be a shame if he was lost to cricket. Until then, being dad to his two young daughters is what he's turning his hand to.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday