2 Nov 2016 |
SETTING THE SCENE - Chapter 1
‘BUCK, IF YOU don’t get it now you’ll never get a hundred. You don’t want to screw this up.’
Thanks a bunch, Matt Prior.
I’m standing out in the middle of the County Ground in Durham on 10 August 2013, four runs away from a hundred. I’ve made 60 of them in first-class cricket, and half of those in England – it’s not like I don’t know how to pass three figures. But I have not made one in a Test match. Right here, right now, I haven’t the faintest idea how to get those four runs. The pressure of Graeme Swann’s bowling, the match and series situation, the hubbub of an Ashes crowd, the fact I’ve got the Australian crest on my helmet instead of the logo of Middlesex, Victoria or others … it’s all added up to one panicking left-hander, and Prior, the English wicketkeeper getting in my ear, knows it. To think that twenty minutes before I’d consciously thought I was going to get there in the space of two balls.
I’d hit a four, a full toss outside off stump that I got enough on to beat the short cover to his right and the extra cover to his left. That got me to 96, and the next ball was short and wide. I got so excited, I thought ‘this is the ball, I just need to hit this in the middle, pick a gap and it’s four’. But I’ve always found it a bit difficult to hit a square cut or forcing shot. I tend to try to hit it with my top hand, rather than letting my bottom hand come through. You almost have to slice it a little bit, but I hit it with my top hand and tend to jam it straight down. That’s exactly what happened, I bunted it into the ground, it trickled out to backward point, and I was standing there with my bat between my feet thinking ‘I won’t get a much better chance than that’. I was right. Swann didn’t bowl another bad ball to me.
I had four lucky escapes in the next 19 balls. I got beaten outside off stump, and I tried to manufacture shots from two balls. I got a leading edge to one that lobbed up to mid-on and landed on one bounce to Stuart Broad. I looked up at the big screen and saw the replay and then the reaction of my Australian teammates on the balcony. Captain Michael Clarke was front and centre with his head in his hands. He wanted this as much as I did.
Then, stupidly, I tried to do it again and it landed on one bounce to midwicket. Shane Watson got out, caught down the leg side off Broad. We’d lost a bit of momentum and I was guilty of putting pressure on Shane in that period – neither of us could get down the other end. It was bad batting and really good bowling, particularly from Swann. Not for the first or the last time, he found another gear to tie me down completely.
As ever in international cricket, the combination of silly mid-off (Ian Bell) and wicketkeeper took every opportunity to remind me of the hole I was digging for myself. Prior and I had a good friendship from playing together for the Sydney Thunder, but he wasn’t shy in talking it up. These were just about the last words I wanted to hear, and my sense of panic was mounting. Next Swann bowled me a ball that I thought was short and wide and I opened up to cut. But Swann’s deception had the ball skidding through low with the arm, so I played over the top and it missed the off stump by a couple of inches. Back I went into head-bowed posture, as everyone on the field, thousands at the ground and many more through television could see how much I was struggling. The longer I spent marooned on 96, the further away that hundred seemed to get.
In some ways, this episode was a little like my whole career. As an undersized kid I’d fought my way into junior, club and state ranks before I had the power to muscle the ball as others did, and focused very much on batting as problem-solving. That method worked for me, and took me to the fringes of the Australian side in 2007, then out onto the WACA Ground as a Test debutant in January the following year. But from a position where I was so close to a career with the national side, it all slid away, to the point that in 2012 I had mentally prepared to quit the game in Australia and play in South Africa or New Zealand in between County seasons in England. Somehow I had found my way back into Test cricket, and fought my way to 96 today. But those last four runs now felt about as reachable as a place in the Australian team had once been. I was consumed by doubt.
Oddly enough, doubts and insecurities have actually been quite a powerful force driving me as a cricketer. Some players are able to back themselves in, but my own doubts about my ability to pull off certain shots led me to a very pragmatic game, where I worked out the most reliable ways of surviving and scoring without taking undue risks. You often hear about the use of positive thoughts to generate good results, but I’m a big believer in finding a way to channel negative thoughts. At one point the former Cricket Australia executive Marianne Roux sat us down and said ‘for every negative thought you’ve got to tell yourself to have five positive thoughts’. I can’t say that’s ever worked for me.
You spend so much of your time questioning yourself and competing against others that you need to find a way to use those doubts. To block them out successfully means kidding yourself, and how long can that last? Instead I find it best to know and own those doubts, and use them to sculpt a technique within my own limitations. By thinking my way through it, I’ve been able to find ways of succeeding where others have not, particularly as an Australian batsman in England. There is, perhaps, something for others to learn from that, in an age where we constantly hear so much batting bravado talk, which can lead either to rapid scoring or rapid collapsing.
Back in Durham, I’ve been left with a desperate kind of multiple-choice question. After a moment’s contemplation I decide that I’ve simply become a wicket in the making for Swann, unless I can attack him in a way he doesn’t expect. It’s a case of taking things on or getting out. The options in my head are to try to hit him back over his head, or play the sweep, neither shot a favourite of mine. When it came to sweeping, I’d habitually avoided the shot because I felt the chances of lbw were too high. But if I try to take him over the top I’m more than likely going to deliver a skier to one of Swann’s catchers, just as Steve Smith had done when he made it to the fringes of a hundred in the previous Test at Old Trafford. Later, I find out that at about this time John Inverarity turned to his fellow selector Rod Marsh with the words ‘I know what you’d do.’ In unison they laugh and exclaim ‘slog!’
Ultimately I decide the sweep will have to do, even if I have to fetch it from outside off stump. Funnily enough, that moment’s fatalism is rewarded when Swann tosses one up on the perfect length and line for me to swat to the leg side. Looking back at the footage it appears almost as if I was expecting it – a happy coincidence – and the ball pings sweetly off the bat, over the square-leg umpire’s head and into the unmanned expanses beyond him. There is a split second, just as I strike it, when I’m the first person on the ground to know I have a hundred. I yell ‘YES’ as in to run, but I know I’ve got four – and it takes a moment for everyone to recover from their shock that I’d finally managed to hit one off the square.
As I jog down the other end, a sense of exhaustion overtakes me: I can’t believe it’s happened. A few people told me later that they enjoyed how restrained my celebration was, but it was really a case of being too overwhelmed and overcome to do anything else. Brad Haddin comes down the wicket, puts his arm around me and said ‘mate enjoy this, you deserve it’. We trade singles in the next few balls and I find myself at the non-striker’s end for the following over. It is then that it all hits me, the enormousness of the moment. So many hours of so many days over so many years working up to this innings, and so much of that time playing the game without any real expectation I’d get the chance to do what I have just done. Alone in those thoughts, under the helmet and looking down at the ground, there are tears in my eyes.
We go off for bad light a few overs later. I walk up the stairs to the Australian team’s collection of smiles and pats on the back, and sit down in something of a daze. That’s when Darren Lehmann comes up to me and says ‘mate, you can enjoy this now, you’re allowed to smile’, which gets me grinning. He asks me to say something about it to the guys, but I can’t manage much. My mum Ros and dad John have been at the ground watching, and while the team invites them into the dressing room, I head off with the media manager Matt Cenin to speak to the press. While I’m away David Warner ushers Mum and Dad into the rooms, sits them down and offers a drink, in a warm gesture they haven’t forgotten.
A lot of the media conference is a blur to me, but I’ve read back what I had to say and this passage sums up how I was feeling, after the Fox Sports reporter Daniel Garb asked whether it meant any more having waited so long: ‘After all this time you just don’t think that this opportunity is going to come up. I wanted to believe I was good enough, but never knew. To get a hundred, that’s something that no one can take away from me, and I can tell my grandchildren about it now … if I have any.’ That last bit gets a big laugh. The journalists seem to know a little about me.
On the way back from that chat to the media, a Durham security guard escorts me to the change room and says: ‘Mate that was amazing. I’ve done a few games here and there and I’ve never, ever seen a crowd applaud an opposition player like I saw today.’ That’s still one of the nicest memories I have of the day, because it said something about how much of a role England had played in my story. Andrew Strauss, the former England captain, helped too by saying on Sky that you wouldn’t see a better first Test hundred.
I’m meant to have dinner with an old friend Frank Biederman, who picked me up from the airport on my very first time to the UK to play, but my only thought is to share the moment with my parents and we have dinner at the team hotel to soak up the day’s events. It isn’t a case of big conversations or anything like that, just a nice chance for my two biggest inspirations and I to sit back and enjoy the fact I’d finally done it. They’d been there since the beginning, and been through just as much as I had along the way, right down to agonising over those 19 balls stuck on 96. We got there in the end.
This is an edited extract from Bucking the Trend by Chris Rogers and Daniel Brettig
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