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Amid the euphoria at Edgbaston when England won the First Test last June came a salutary reminder of the unedifying face of patriotism. As the Australians trudged off the field, beaten and broody, a pie-eyed partisan relieved Matthew Elliott of his cherished baggy green cap. Giving chase, he hauled the thief to the turf and retrieved it, then found himself assailed by assorted boots and fists.
Those so-called fans did their nation a huge disservice, and not merely in terms of image. They could scarcely have done more, after all, to strengthen Elliott's resolve. Come summer's end, all England had come to fear and admire this intelligent, laconic left-hander. Gaunt, lofty, and prominent of chin (and, for Poms of a certain age, unnervingly reminiscent of another stubborn Victorian opening southpaw, Bill Lawry), Elliott, in a series dominated by the ball, had emerged as the most prolific batsman in either camp. In all, there were 556 Test runs at 55.60, among them the decisive innings of the rubber. It may not be any consolation to his opponents to know that, had he obeyed his instincts, he would have stayed at home.
Two days before reporting to Sydney for the outbound flight, an abortive attempt to jog the few hundred yards to his local corner ship prompted Elliott to believe that his knees, the left especially, were in no shape for the mission. He wanted to inform the selectors there and then. Fears temporarily assuaged by a specialist, he was advised to keep stumm and take the risk. So he did. But for him the tour had an inescapable background: he was never quite certain whether his body would answer opportunity's next knock.
MATTHEW THOMAS GRAY ELLIOTT was born on September 28, 1971, in Chelsea, south-east Melbourne, but moved to Kyabram, in Victoria's Golden Valley, at the age of four. He and his two younger brothers cut their teeth on a half-length concrete pitch laid by their father, John, a secondary school teacher and qualified coach. Those spindly arms inhibited the usual cross-batted swipes of the beginner, and ensured that Matthew seldom veered from the V. "We'd bat in order of age, youngest first," he recalls. "They'd run off when it was my turn, and I'd end up chasing after them." How could he not want to open, to get in first?
In 1990, he gave up studying physiotherapy, and was invited to enlist at the Australian Cricket Academy - in the same intake as Shane Warne - only to be persuaded that his cause would be better served by a summer in Eastcote and Leighton Buzzard. When his form dipped the following winter, the Melbourne Sunday Age sneeringly cited an overdose of mediocre club cricket in England. Rejecting the Academy arrested his progress, yet district cricket, where men delight in putting boys in their place, encouraged a wider awareness and greater self-reliance. Foregoing such a head start also did wonders for the motivation.
Equally assured on front foot or back, and far from inelegant, he scored his maiden Sheffield Shield century in 1993-94, extending it to an unbeaten 175, which suggested a yen for substance. Returning from a solid but seldom imposing tour of the shires with Young Australia in 1995, he overcame an injury to his right knee to lead the domestic averages in 1995-96 with 1,233 runs at 68.50, gleaning Player of the Year garlands from peers and umpires alike. But with Mark Taylor and Michael Slater apparently entrenched as the national opening pair, patience seemed to be his paramount need.
In the event, Slater fell from grace after the one-off Test in India in October 1996, and a vacancy arose. Embarking with a duck against West Indies in Brisbane, Elliott atoned in Sydney, only to retire hurt for 78 following a mid-pitch collision with Mark Waugh that bordered on the tragi-comic. He sat out the next eight weeks. Left knee incapacitated, embarrassment giving way to depression, if not self-doubt, as Matthew Hayden filled the breach with some success. Yet so vivid an impression had Elliott left that the First Test in Johannesburg saw him return at No. 3, the latest applicant to fill David Boon's shoes.
He seized an initiative his compatriots would not relinquish until the series was won, racing to 85 off 113 balls, and at one juncture hooking Allan Donald for six - off the front foot. Further audacity was apparent in England, notably at Lord's and Leeds, where he scored centuries. On both occasions the fates smiled benignly as chances went a-begging. As ever, an ability to shrug off misadventure served him admirably.
Obliged to press on with so much time lost to rain, he swept to the second fifty of his 112 at Lord's with a flurry of fours, nerves undetectable, selflessness plain. At Headingley, he was on 29, his side a creaky 50 for three, when he survived a gift to slip - and Steve Waugh fell next ball. Darren Gough and Dean Headley were pumped up and bumper-happy, but there was no thought of backing down. On the eve of the match, though frustrated by his erratic hooking to date, he had resolved to pick up the gauntlet, whoever did the flinging. urged on by the puckish Ricky Ponting, he swatted Headley for a magisterial six and swept on to 199, turning the tide of the series for good.
True, one swirling hook was downed at long leg shortly after he reached three figures, yet the abiding image was one of unshakeable conviction. Here were the fruits of courage, of enterprise, of self-belief. Of the Australian Way.