November 13, 2014

The men and memories that made me

Of Sobers, Sutcliffe, Hookes and other inspirations and influences down the years

Garry Sobers was cricket's superstar and had a certain six-year-old mesmerised at Eden Park in the '60s © PA Photos

Since enduring KP and chemotherapy, as bad a couple of weeks as I can remember, I have been struck by a wave of gratitude for many great images and moments from the game. It started with something special from Suresh Raina.

When I saw his six-hitting recently, something caught my eye. It wasn't just the sight of the ball soaring, perfectly timed and lofted. I saw a new innovation that I believe will last many a generation. As he connected with the ball, hitting with a pure, straight bat and a wondrous follow-through, I realised why he made six-hitting such a new, explosive joy.

His back leg launched an almighty dance into the air, thrusting his whole body into the completed athletic movement. Raina's back-leg-high, climbing follow-through will change the game. He is hitting sixes with absolute new dynamism and athleticism. Forget the stupid switch hit or the risky scoop, the Raina high-step has been released for all to admire as a truly great shot. It reminds me of what Mark Greatbatch did in the 1992 World Cup with his similar drop-kick technique.

And it made me think: who else has grabbed me like this, during my lifetime? What are the images that have shone forever?

Garry Sobers captured me the minute I saw him, at the first Test match I watched, at Eden Park, aged six, with my other inspiration, my father Dave. At the time, 1968-69, Sobers was cricket's superstar, the best player in the world, arguably the finest mover of all. He had his long white collar up, pointing skywards, sleeves down; dark, sweaty skin, loose limbs glistening in the sun. He looked cool in his remarkable body, he looked secure in his own free mind. This freak of nature was my call to cricket.

Two-thirds through my career, I looked for something to inspire me once more. Then I saw that famous black-and-white photo of Bert Sutcliffe, wide blood-soaked white bandages around his head, walking off during the bloodbath in Johannesburg, Christmas 1953

Dad was mesmerised by cricket, but not as much as I was gawking at Sobers, the greatest leftie of all time. That image of him with collar up has never left me, neither has the memory of playing golf with him, both-handed, nor the rum we had at 5am one morning at a late-night spicy-chicken joint.

Once hooked, I was thirsty for any tidbit, a gem of advice. "Take the top hand past the back leg" was the first such I heard from a professional coach. I was nine. He was Merv Wallace, a superb former NZ player who turned out to be a masterful coach for many generations. He gave me the simplest advice on the backlift. Basically saying the bat is behind you, so don't worry about it, just get it moving in the right direction behind you, and focus on the ball. Timeless. He might have been saddened to know that 90% of young batsmen today are holding their bats up high like baseball batters - the very thing he warned us against.

There were other more inspiring chats and pearls of wisdom that I was lucky to enjoy hearing from former great personalities of the game. I was lucky to meet, analyse and engage with Colin Cowdrey, who spoke to me about the on-drive. Sunil Gavaskar told me about the imaginary wall that helped keep his head dead still. Geoff Boycott insisted I work hard on fitness and leg strength. Richard Hadlee showed me commitment. Barry Richards told me to look at gaps, not fielders. Ian and Greg Chappell are the finest brains I have met in the game.

Of all the men who taught me to love the game, no one did it better than David Hookes, a gentle rogue who played hard on the field and was notoriously infectious off. "That is the worst 242 not out I have ever seen, Hogan" he once yelled at me, as I entered the South Australia dressing room at stumps, his keenness to grab my cold six-pack for the punishment I had put him through spilling forth.

The stories about him were long and succulent - like the one about how Wayne Phillips was crashing fours all over Adelaide Oval and Hookesy walked out declaring loudly, "Anyone can hit fours." Hookes' first four balls that day were lifted nonchalantly over the Richardson gates.

Or what about his fastest ever first-class hundred, off 34 balls? No doubt a certain set of gates was targeted. Or the audacity of clean hitting a Greg Matthews warm-up ball on a side wicket, also over the Richardson gates? "Just warming up, like you, Greg."

I adored his zest for the game, his spark for life. He had a way with him that brought a smile. His tragic, unnecessary death reminded us of the importance of mastering the moment we are in, living for the moment while we can. From my father to Sobers to Hookes, my cricket life has been blessed by being touched by certain men, bold men. And now Raina has me wondering about what might be in 20 years' time.

Two-thirds through my career, I looked for something to inspire me once more. Then I saw that famous black-and-white photo of Bert Sutcliffe, wide blood-soaked white bandages around his head, walking off during the bloodbath in Johannesburg, Christmas 1953. It was an image of a true warrior, bloodied and unbeaten for the cause. With the image cast in stone in my mind, I began wearing white towelling headbands under my helmet, in honour of the great Bert Sutcliffe. Note: another leftie.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand