Glenn McGrath drops Ian Bell. 'He fumbled and fumed, a teapot waiting to spout'
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Some passages of play live in the memory more starkly
than others, for reasons that have nothing to do with
glorious cover drives or great catches, and everything
to do with intangibles such as bloody-mindedness and
commitment to the cause. They are the moments when
you can almost see into a player's soul.
One that is impossible to forget is Mike Atherton's
eyeballing duel with Allan Donald in the fourth Test
of the 1998 tour at Trent Bridge as England chased
down 247 to win. It was such a collision of attitudes
and temperaments that it could have been written by
At the Waca in the early 1980s Dennis Lillee looked
ready to punch Javed Miandad's lights out in an
incident that did neither much credit but certainly
made for interesting television.
Of the current wild men,
Andre Nel can be relied on
to stir up reaction in the
opposition with the odd snarl.
The coolest man on the planet,
Chris Gayle, only has to lift an
eyebrow to get opponents riled
- or the Australians anyway.
And who among Inzi's Pakistan
team-mates would dare go near
him after he'd run himself out
yet again? Shane Warne, as his
recent sledging of Ian Bell showed, might not have
mastered the art of wit and repartee but he always
kept the pot boiling.
More recently another moment to stir the blood
arrived at the MCG midway through the first match
in the ODI finals between Australia and England.
England were progressing comfortably, 149 for
3, needing 105 from 102 balls to win, with Ian Bell
and Paul Collingwood well set, each having compiled
decent half-centuries. Australia had collapsed from
170 for 1 to 252, falling eight deliveries short of
batting out their 50 overs and were unusually slack
in the field, even after early wickets had put England
under pressure for the eleventeenth time this tour.
Glenn McGrath, particularly, was out of sorts on
his 37th birthday and final appearance for Australia
in Melbourne. He dropped Bell early, an appalling
miss in the deep. He was smacked on the head taking
a return at the bowling crease. Collingwood cracked
him for a nonchalant straight six. He fumbled and
fumed, a teapot waiting to spout.
Elsewhere the ground fielding was sloppy, the
returns poor. In short, everything was going wrong
for Australia. And that doesn't happen very often or
for very long.
Then Brett Lee, always such a heroic trier,
was brought back. In the outfield the mood was
transformed in an instant. Matthew Hayden looked as
if he wanted to murder someone. Brad Hogg, tongue
permanently out, was manic, clapping his hands, eyes
blazing. The Michaels, Clarke and Hussey, bounced
on their toes, eager to get into the game. Ricky
Ponting, who had not looked ecstatic at some of his
side's ordinary fielding, was on edge. The whole team
seemed energised as if they'd taken a communal shot
of some banned substance.
It is said cricket is not a game you can play revved
up to red all the time. And that is true. But there are
times when a common feeling runs through the side,
unspoken but palpable. After nearly two hours of
torpor, you sensed Australia were about to explode.
And Lee struck. Firstly, he risked serious injury
with a dash-and-dive at the batsman's end in trying
to run out Bell. He ignored Ponting's offer to help
him to his feet and marched with purpose and fire
back to his mark. Next ball ... he produced a quite
brilliant 94mph yorker that went through Bell and
the celebrations began. Game on again. It was a moment of
extreme emotion and high drama during an otherwise irrelevant one-day match
that attracted a poor crowd in a town where a stranger's funeral is considered a
That little extra: Lee attempts to run out Bell
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Why did Lee stretch and
strain so valiantly in such a
lost cause in such an ordinary
game? Because, probably, he can't play any other way.
It illustrated vividly the intensity of this Australian
team. They are never beaten - even when they seem
to be. They have that invaluable quality of being able
to draw on reserves not seemingly available to others.
It's as if they all just know that this is the time to
get serious. Opponents are aware of this, of course;
they're just usually powerless to do anything about it.
England over the past few years have attained a
similar level of self-belief - who could forget their
win in the dark at Karachi, or Flintoff's young team
performing minor miracles at Chennai, or, indeed,
winning the Ashes back (if we are allowed to mention
that again)? But, pointedly, so shattered were they after
being consistently hammered by the Australians, that
doubts began inexorably to crowd out their confidence.
It leaks into the commentary box too. I might have
been dreaming but I'm sure I heard Geoff Boycott say,
when Australia had reached 170 for 1, that they would
go on to get 290-odd and England would be lucky to
So what happened next? Collingwood held his
nerve and, front of his shirt drenched, saw England
home with his second century in succession. "One of
the great one-day innings," as Atherton described it.
And, yes, it was only another ODI ... but tell that
to the players involved in a game where emotions ran
extraordinarily high. Long may it be the case that
they care enough.
Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer for The Observer