CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 2002

Damien Martyn



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Of all the Australian cricketers who swatted aside England during last summer's Ashes series, Damien Martyn was easily the least well known. Others, such as the Waugh twins, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, had been plying their golden standards of Pommie torture for years. Yet Martyn, and in particular his graceful and uncluttered strokeplay, seemed to arrive almost without warning.

To be bracketed among such elite company is the apogee of praise, even in Australia. It may have helped that England's bowlers were rarely at their best as a unit, but Martyn made the most of his opportunities, scoring his maiden Test century in the opening match at Edgbaston and adding another in Australia's shock defeat at Headingley. In a rubber Australia took 4-1, he finished the series with 382 runs and an average of 76.40. Yet impressive as his figures were, and they were pretty eye-catching, it was Martyn's back-foot cover-driving that was the sight of the summer, each stroke a perfect marriage of minimal effort and maximum timing. Because he was brought up on the true, high-bouncing pitches of Perth, his instinct is to stand tall and hit through the line, an action that, despite a distinct lack of footwork, brought him sundry boundaries in the arc between cover and mid-off.

This facility, as well as his impressive nose for a partnership, gave many in England the impression that here was a fully fledged batsman arrived from thin air. In some senses, the perception was accurate. Although he was not some strutting stripling a year out of school - though the description could have applied nine years previously, when Martyn made his Test debut at Brisbane against West Indies - the player himself had been reborn, following a turbulent period when he almost gave up the professional game for good.

Damien Richard Martyn was born in Darwin on October 21, 1971. A tropical city, Darwin is a cricketing backwater. But if a life of obscurity beckoned, Cyclone Tracy, which flattened Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, killing more than 60 people, changed all that. Surviving the five-hour ordeal by sheltering under the dining table, the Martyn family were later evacuated by military plane to Perth where the change of scenery, if at first daunting (the family had lost everything), proved a godsend for young Damien.

Glorying in its isolation, Perth has always tried that little bit harder to impress the rest of Australia, particularly on the cricket field. Its grade competition is felt to be the strongest club competition in the world - a weekend ritual of cut-throat cricket, strong language and even stronger drink. For the teenage Martyn, who felt stifled by the pressed shorts and long sock-culture of Girrawheen High School, it was Elysium, and it wasn't long before he progressed through its ranks to make his first-class debut for Western Australia.

Strong off back foot and front, he quickly developed into the most promising batsman of his generation, with a bullet-proof cockiness to go with it. Australia does not tend to suppress confidence, however misplaced, and Martyn, who had already captained Australia Under-19, suddenly found himself part of the much vaunted Academy, alongside Warne and Justin Langer. A year after leaving, he made his Test debut at the age of 21, and a long and glittering career for state and country looked certain. The portents proved inaccurate, and instead of sailing past the 50-cap mark, like his close friend Warne, Martyn had played just 16 Tests up to the end of the 2001 Ashes series. If that spread is not uncommon in England, where players tend to mature much later, it is a rarity in Australia, where wasted talent is scorned and rarely given a second chance.

The reasons for his lack of progress were mainly self-inflicted, and Martyn freely admits to squandering his early years upon the altar of fast living and an even faster mouth. It was just such a combination that led to a brawl in a Brighton nightclub during the 1993 Ashes tour, an incident that saw him sport a shiner for the rest of the trip. "Playing for Australia at 21, you can go where you want and you get looked after, so there are a lot of late nights," he admitted. "The excesses got worse and worse and you can't get away with that in sport. It took me three or four years to wake up to that fact."

Racy lifestyles will always be correlated with performance, and in the Second Test against South Africa, early in 1994, his critics got their chance to establish a link. It was the middle match of the series and Australia needed 117 to go one up. Instead a parochial Sydney crowd saw them lose by five runs. Martyn's role in the failure was centre stage. Having scored just six runs in an hour and three-quarters, he succumbed to the pressure, lofting a loose drive to cover with just seven runs needed. As mistakes go it was a howler, but the six-year snub that followed cannot have been entirely due to the stroke. He had, after all, scored 59 in the first innings.

A period of self-pity began, and it was during this interval, as his form for Western Australia declined, that he set up a travel company and almost quit the game. Fortunately, a double-century against Tasmania in March 1996, along with the careful cajolings of Wayne Clark, then the Western Australia coach and now in charge at Yorkshire, rekindled his desire. When he did get picked again for Australia, for the 1999-2000 series against New Zealand, his mother had to rummage around in the attic to find his baggy green cap. On the form he showed last summer, it should be some time before it goes back there.

© John Wisden & Co