The wow and the sheesh
Venkatapathy Raju's hands were cold. Dunedin in March. This was during the 32nd over of the second team's innings of the 27th match of the fifth World Cup. The horizon was grey lumps. Through the gap between the bowler's-end stumps and the umpire's fawn-jacketed waist went Raju, and bowled, a humbly flighted delivery of nondescript pace and minimal spin landing wide of off stump, and - and a glimmer, just here, of two balls of unsurpassed wow and sheesh about to break.
Martin Crowe's front leg slid diagonally down the pitch. Crowe's bat lifted like a pickaxe. He stiff-arm-swept the ball high into the claws of a roaring, freezing, sideways-gusting wind. The ball flew anyway, to the left of a scampering deep-backward-square fielder, and right of a huddle of frigid seagulls, hitting the grass metres in front of a DB Draught advertising board and overspinning away, away from the gulls.
Next ball was like the previous ball, only flatter. Crowe leaned into it, and hoped for one run, pushing the ball slightly wide of and behind the wicketkeeper, Kiran More. More was wearing an extra t-shirt (two extra t-shirts?) under his cricket clothes. Clearly visible beneath Crowe's helmet was his white towelling headband, which looked like a hospital bandage, which gave him the air of either a wounded fighter pilot or an escaped patient on the run, which he wasn't, despite at least one team-mate, Ken Rutherford, writing freely of Crowe's "demeanour" being "outwardly affected by uncertainty" and him seeming "quite paranoid".
Now, not paranoid, just sensibly watchful, Crowe waited. He was two steps out of his crease. Crowe was looking - a safety-first formality, before embarking on his one run - at the galloping away ball; also, at More. More's body was a perfect X. His two legs were doing a giant scissor stride, and one of his arms was lunging after the out-of-reach ball with More's other arm slung high in the reverse direction to keep him balanced. Balletic. Nothing too out of the ordinary, though. Then the ball lodges in the right-hand glove which whiplash-wheels backwards and though his head's pointing the wrong way he blind-hurls at the stumps and a bail jumps and Crowe's run out.
This was the first time at a World Cup that those stumps housed the stump microphones belonging to billionaire media magnate Kerry Packer. Clothes were coloured, sightscreens black, the ball (two balls, more accurately) white and often (not in Dunedin) floodlights were switched on ("Why white balls and floodlights," complained West Indies opener Desi Haynes, "when only about three countries play with either?"). Two balls, not one, had an in-vain purpose (keep the balls non-grubby) and an unintended repercussion (humongous swing). Two men, not four, outside the fielding circle was to tempt batsmen to bash over the infield in the first 15 overs, an artificial lure so subtly artificial that TV watchers mightn't baulk at being tricked.
What's jolting now, peering back, is how much the cosmetic tinkering melts away. The thing that lingers on in memory is the Crowe and the More - the wow and the sheesh - a grabbing by the scruff the game's classic arts and reimagining them, re-performing them, with hyperkinetic verve. TV round the world, which was the other true gift of World Cup '92, meant enthralled millions could see these new twists to old ways. As for the clothes, it wasn't merely that they were coloured. "What are you doing?" enquired Dean Jones inside the Australian dressing room at Bellerive.
"Just writing my name on my clothes," Mike Whitney replied, "like I always do, so they don't get mixed up with everyone else's gear."
"Well," said Deano, "I'll give you a tip. Have a look at the back."
D'oh. Whitney looked: WHITNEY. In big green letters. Every team plays every other team was the tournament's round-robin format, which meant there wasn't a batsman in the world who could rightly call themselves a batsman that didn't experience the sensation of feeling their body sliced ajar by a Wasim Akram in-whipper, the white ball laughing at them as it flashed past. There went Waz, whang, like a lobotomist octopus, releasing the ball out of one hand while manoeuvring a spliff and the fast-forward button of a TV remote-control device between his seven remaining hands. This felt new, different. Brian Lara's wrists announced their genius to the world on a Sunday at the MCG, February 23. Waz reckoned Lara played a shot - "Jumped into the ball, and with both feet off the ground he swivelled into a pull" - superior to any shot any batsman had ever unfurled off Waz.
Maybe Waz was right. But it was only Lara's third-finest shot that Sunday. Better was when Aaqib Javed wobbled a shortish ball outside off stump, keeping low, and Lara wristed it away between midwicket and mid-on, breathtakingly through the gap. Two overs later off Aaqib, he hit over that gap, introducing the vault-whip, a bat-in-hand reworking of Kiran More's X pose, Lara's rump levitating up towards double-stump height and in the triangle formed between his scissor-blading legs you could see the middle stump and both bails. On spying a gap, he'd contort himself whichever way geometry dictated to pierce that gap, this Lara.
Moin Khan stumped Chris Harris off a Mushtaq Ahmed wide. Jonty Rhodes, horizontal, aped the arc of an upturned smile, suspended mid-air, as he ran out Inzamam-ul-Haq by hand-delivering the ball from the outer point region to the stumps, demolishing all three, leaving the stump mic a black tangle. This was a World Cup where Pringles were more than a baked snack. Pringles - Derek (8.2-5-8-3 v Pakistan) and Meyrick (8-4-11-4 v West Indies) - could be poisonous. Crowe, renowned not just for clean-hittingness, let spinner Dipak Patel open the Kiwi bowling and Mark Greatbatch the batting.
Said Curtly Ambrose to Greatbatch: "If you do that [lumber down-wicket and try slogging me] again, I'll run through [the crease], man."
Malcolm Marshall said: "Greatbatch, do that again and I will kill you, man."
Brian McMillan said: "What the f*** do you think you're doing?"
Greatbatch said: "Get back and bowl, pal."
Robin Smith flatbat-slugged Subroto Banerjee onto some now-extinct brown seats in front of the WACA scoreboard. Allan Donald, zinc-smeared, bowled to Geoff Marsh in Sydney on South Africa's post-apartheid return, Marsh's bat so behind-sync with the ball that it was like there was a tear in time, as if bowler and batsman were in different dimensions. The real ten-tonne (and by now 36 years old) gorilla haunting addled Australian psyches was as usual Ian Botham, fresh from a pantomime season in Bournemouth, a hint of tub, who took 4 for 0 in seven deliveries with three straight balls and one that jagged back niftily to dispatch Peter Taylor lbw. At the pitch-side interviews before Pakistan played Australia in Perth, the tournament took a heady twist.
Ian Chappell: "Imran, I thought you were the Lion of Lahore. What's this [on your t-shirt]?"
Imran Khan: "Well, this is what I've been telling Border [Allan, at the toss, who'd evidently been asking WTF re the tiger on your shirt?], that I want my team today to play like a cornered tiger. You know, when it's at its most dangerous."
Ian Chappell: "Yeah?"
That was on March 11. Clinging tight above Imran's pale green Pakistan trousers was a white t-shirt with a yellow tiger on it. He'd presented, in Perth, replicas of the same shirt to the 13 other Pakistan squad members, according to legspinner Mushtaq Ahmed. March was the period of Ramadan. They would gather to pray five times daily: at five, one, three, six and nine. To make the World Cup final on March 25 they had to win three games straight and bank on other teams cracking up at inopportune moments. It happened. The early afternoon of March 25 was upon them.
Ian Chappell: "I see [faint smirk?] you've got your [suppressing a snort?] tiger on again. You want 'em to play like cornered tigers?"
Imran Khan: "Yes, that's the motto recently, and it's done a great job… If they play like tigers I don't mind if they win or lose today."
The MCG was stacked high with 87,182 Melburnians. Mushtaq, wanting to make a good impression, applied gel to his hair for the first time in his life. Waz swallowed a sleeping pill the night before. He woke at ten "refreshed… just floating". Pakistan's 249, batting first, was a mysterious stop-start affair but thanks to Mushy and to Waz it was ample. Bowling off six flailing steps, Mushtaq skidded a wrong'un through the chasm in Graeme Hick's consciousness. Akram bowled Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis with consecutive late-swinging blurs - a couple of bananas up the tailpipe of the England innings.
What old Imran loved most was the opportunity to enter people's imaginations. It was he who'd soaked the team bus airwaves in a religious cassette praising Allah on the way to the ground; who'd slaked some no-ball and wide worries Waz was having by convincing him simply to bound in, be free; who'd horseshoed into Mushtaq's head a feeling of unclouded certainty that getting Hick out was his job and his destiny. That was at the team meeting beforehand. In that meeting, Imran pointed to his t-shirt. Later during the break between innings, the post-249 lull, he told everyone, "Don't forget, we fight like cornered tigers…" And they hugged. It was in these slippery footholds that Imran was a great leader, the footholds between what's real and make-believe, between cricket being a thrustingly important human endeavour and a thing of ridiculousness - slippery, and the exact same footholds in which cricket exists at all.
Pre-game conversation at Eden Park, Auckland -
Pitch-side interviewer, TVNZ: "Nice and humid here today. Is it a bit more like conditions at home?"
Richie Richardson, West Indies captain: "Wwwell, ahm, well, uh [golf-ball eyeballs tilting skywards], uh, yeah… very much like home, yeah."
Despite their geographical neighbourliness they were not natural co-hosts, New Zealand and Australia, the people who live in the latter seldom thinking of or visiting the former. (Can't swear if the reverse is true: never been there.) Yet in the Cup's lead-up a New Zealander, Greatbatch, read a book by an Australian, John Bertrand. Bertrand had skippered Australia II's outsmarting on the high seas of Dennis Conner's Liberty in the 1983 America's Cup. But Bertrand didn't call the other boat "Liberty", instead it was "the red boat", and from Greatbatch alighting on this modest psychological ploy to it becoming New Zealand cricket team policy was a small step.
The beige team reached the semi-finals. Their reward was public recognition, a novelty in their lives, anytime they ventured outside the door and onto the streets of their cloudy nation. The yellow team couldn't shake off a curious lethargy, at least half the senior members of the crushed berry team had cantankerousness or mutiny written on their faces, and meantime the rain rule was a constant irritant, transforming run chases of, say, 22 from 13 balls - as per the semi-final between the sky blue and cabbage green teams - to 21 from 1. What kind of existential meaning were we to read into this: a competition goes for weeks and weeks, everyone plays everyone else, then in the penultimate game with a cliffhanger looming and two overs to go you don't bowl the two overs even though the floodlights are on and the rain's stopped?
It was about control, the removal of uncertainty. Let no TV watcher be made to stay up past bedtime or go to bed with a result undecided. The longing of administrators to control and bend the plaything in their command underpinned most of the mini-revolutions that embedded themselves here. Let the TV watcher bathe in a rainbow of colours. Let the TV watcher never have to wonder what a player's name is, or squint to see the ball.
Watching the 1992 World Cup meant dragging one's eyes through five weeks of faintly low-key fare interrupted by a scatter of minutes of near-superhuman glitter - involving Akram, Rhodes, Mushtaq, Crowe, More, others. If writing about it now has been more fun than watching it at the time, that's no bad thing, cricket being a game that is played in the moment but lived and relived decades on. And fun, crucially, was still the crucial word. The 50-over format was in its transitional phase, no longer a creature of the village game and not yet a science, and a welcome experiment of 1992, albeit one long since discontinued, was to take big cricket matches to the bush - to Berri, Albury, Ballarat and Mackay where, in the last and most romantic instance, tickets were only available for purchase ($17 adults, $6 kids) from the bus terminal on Milton Street opposite the town swimming pool. A local woman, Sue Compton, had suffered superficial burns putting on her car seatbelt and there was speculation, such was the Queensland humidity, that the two white balls may "swing inside out". A pair of grandstands were erected, seating 500 apiece, while the newly created Harrup Park Hill would accommodate thousands more. The Sri Lankans travelled 15 hours by bus-plane-bus from Hamilton, New Zealand. Sugarcane fields put India's captain Mohammad Azharuddin in mind of home. Over on Milton Street, the bus-terminal manager threw open his ticket shop window at 6.30am and the Mackay Daily Mercury tipped "up to 10,000 may eventuate", crowd-wise.
In the end it was 3000-ish.
The 3000-odd had reason to feel disappointed because it rained. Five hours of rain.
Then the players got on the field for two deliveries. Then the rain set in for good.
"I'm not ashamed to admit I cried twice today," local cricket association president Barry Jansen said.
May Barry's last thought be this: that even on a day of nearly no cricket, it is cricket, not us, who's in control.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. His new book is Rock Country