‘Ashes to Ashes
Dust to dust
If Lillee don’t get you
(crowd refrain cheering Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson)
During my one and a half year stay in Australia, during ’06-’08, I got to meet and interact with five Test cricketers – Merv Hughes, Shane Warne, Jeff Thomson, Dean Jones and Max Walker. I also went to a Test match each at the MCG and SCG, the latter one featuring India. I was walking from my workplace to the apartment one lunch hour (Melbourne downtown is a perfect mesh of streets. I walked or took the tram) when at a corner ‘Angus and Robertson’ bookstore (a prominent chain like ‘Barnes and Noble’ in the US or ‘Landmark’ in India) I heard an announcement over the mike that Merv Hughes is there and promoting his book. I got in. Merv, then 45, was sitting relaxed and awaiting customers with a pile of copies of his book ‘Caught in the Deep’ beside him. At that time he was a national selector.
A very jovial type, the mustached man holds a unique bowling feat in Tests. This was a hat trick spread over three overs and two innings! It came against the West Indies at Perth in ’89. He had Curtly Ambrose caught off the last ball of an over and Patrick Patterson off the first ball of his next over to end their first innings. In the second innings he removed Gordon Greenidge off his first ball! The book in question was not about deep fielding as I had suspected. In fact it was not about cricket at all. Caught in the Deep is about his other passion, Fishing. Hughes, Hayden, Symonds et al are great fishing company. I bought that very detailed and illustrated book whose content I haven’t fully assimilated, for obvious reasons. It has exhaustive information on fishing gear, knots, tackles and the appropriate time and place for fishing. We chatted about India and Kerala and the climate there. A friend once spotted David Boon at the bar of Imperial Hotel which was not far from my apartment in Lonsdale St. In fact if I hung out there I could have met not only him but also past heavyweights like the Englishman Alan Lamb who routinely came down to play in veterans’ tournaments.
There was a big queue for Shane Warne, again at the same bookshop. I stood in line with my son Gautam who was then two months shy of his fourth birthday. Warne was still playing international cricket and it was the eve of the Ashes Test where he was to take his 700th wicket and become the first to get to that landmark. The occasion was the release of his book ‘My Illustrated Career’ ghost-written by a journalist called Richard Hobson. It is a collector’s item covering his cricketing life including all home and away series and county performances. There was high security for him and assorted beautiful girls (secretaries?) engaged him in talk inside the shop.
He is a local Melbourne lad and hails from the suburb of St Kilda. At that time he was married to a blonde called Simone and had three kids with her. Not much later he went to England, sent an SMS to a girl instructing her to come by the back door….only problem is, he sent it by mistake to his wife far far away! Suffice it to say that before long they were parting ways. IPL and many happenings later he now dates Liz Hurley, British actress and former wife of Indian tycoon Arun Nayar. The only specialist bowler in Wisden’s list of Five Greatest Cricketers of the Twentieth Century cannot keep it in his pants. His other mighty claim is not to have read a single book in his life. Ironic that this very man has 13 books with his name under ‘author’, thanks to ghost writers. That was five years ago, now the number must be bigger. Apart from the book signing, I did not get much chance to chat with the spin man due to the queue of people and the security egging us on.
For my company’s silver jubilee celebrations at Flinders Park, two past greats in the persons of Dean Jones and Jeff Thomson were the special invitees. The duo dropped in, grabbed their sodas and lingered in the crowd unnoticed. Assorted company directors were strutting around like movie stars, but needless to add they were hardly heroes for me compared to this duo! In Sydney it was Len Pascoe another fast bowling ace who graced the company’s event. (One man who will never forget Pascoe is the present Indian Chief of Selectors Sandeep Patil, who was felled by his bouncer and sent to hospital during a Test back in ’81). It was when Deano and Thommo got on stage that the fun started. Deano is the talker. Barely a week earlier he had talked his way out of the commentary team in South Africa with a terrorist reference. Although Hashim Amla took the catch, the bowler was Shaun Pollock and so Deano’s comment ‘the terrorist has taken another wicket!’ was not exactly a racist remark targeted at the Muslim Amla! But who cares about such details, poor Jones was back by the next plane to Oz. With a batting average close to 50 he is one of the best ODI batsmen of all time. He was in Alan Border’s victorious team that lifted the ‘87 Reliance World Cup in Kolkata. His Test best was 48 until the ’86 Madras Tie where he bettered it to a memorable 210. Naturally a lot of our queries to him were about the experience of being a part of one of only two ties in Test history. He had many fun tales to tell, like how after the Tie the team flew to Hyderabad where they were put up in a luxury hotel and treated like royalty. They were served fine champagne and the hospitality was out of the world. But before the day of leaving, hefty bills were also slipped under their hotel room doors!
Thommo in his prime was tearaway fast. He had a slinging action and at his best was unplayable. On paper his Test record says 200 wickets with exactly half of them against the Poms. This is no earthshaking event and many bowlers from the major cricketing nations have gone beyond that aggregate. But such records do not tell the whole story. In ’76 a fast bowling competition was conducted to scientifically determine who was the fastest in the world. Beating a invincible battery of Imran, Hadlee, Roberts, Garner, Croft, Rice and Holding, it was Thommo who emerged the winner. He was also fond of fast cars and lovely ladies. This is touched upon in the book ‘Thommo Declares’ by John Byrell which is subtitled ‘The Life and Times of Cricket’s Most Colorful Larrikin’. Greg Chappell in his foreword says that he was born to bowl fast and that had he the ambition he would have been a great decathlete….there was no one quicker and more lethal than Thommo.’ The aggressive bowler’s verbiage was well-known for its liberal spicing of swear words which was why Ian Chappell, his ex-captain once remarked that he wouldn’t use the Thommo lingo on even his worst enemy! If Lillee inspired respect, Thommo instilled fear. His prowess with the fairer sex was renowned and he is described by tour-mates as absolutely tireless. Said one, ‘….he’d be entertaining one of them in our room while another was waiting in someone else’s room and yet another all ready down in the foyer. How Thommo bowled like he did in those days, I ‘ll never know.’ He eventually married a supermodel called Cheryl. Life in the fast lane also meant that he was a compulsive spender. His passions included family, golf, fishing, pig shooting, gardening and beer. The book informs us that Thommo was sometimes referred to as Sandshoe or Crusher because of his particular partiality for a full-length full-blooded delivery aimed directly at the batsman’s boot and which was called The Sandshoe Crusher. Deano pulled his leg saying fast bowlers can’t count beyond six. He also added that someone once snicked a Thomson delivery and that fine leg near the boundary took the catch. When we asked Thommo to name some difficult batsman he had bowled to, the first name that popped out was Javed Miandad, ‘a real nuisance. It was very tough to get rid of the bastard. He would just hang in there and keep on scoring’. Sunny Gavaskar was a hard nut to crack too. Funnily enough my introduction to this legend was thanks to his batting. The memory dates back to ‘82-83 when I read in The Hindu about the pair of Thommo and Border valiantly trying to fend off the English bowling in a Test which they eventually lost by a narrow margin of three runs. The one-time fastest hurler of the red cherry on the planet is right up there among the bowling legends of Test cricket in the last century.
Sledging is common in cricket and Australians perhaps wrote the book on the subject. And one can only expect a competitive fast bowler like Merv Hughes to take to it like fish to water. Deano recounts this in the book ‘One Day Magic’ which he co-authored with Border, Geoff Marsh and Simon O’Donnell: In a Test against Pakistan in Adelaide the Aussies were being given a tough time by Miandad, so Merv went up to him and said, ‘Javed, you are ugly, and we have a “Keep Australia Beautiful” campaign going on here, so why don’t you f____ off?!’ Javed: ‘You are a bus-driver; you are a bus-driver.’ Merv changed his line of attack and went around the wicket. It proved successful as Miandad gloved one to gully. As he walked past him en route to the pavilion, Merv had the last laugh saying, ‘Tickets please!’ I had procured this and many other cricket books from the used books shops of Melbourne which are real treasure troves, to put it mildly.
By the next year I was in Sydney. The company’s Christmas party for clients was held at the Members’ Box room of SCG. It is a nice club room with a view to the ground. The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Max Walker. Deano came too. They both entertained us a lot. Maxie is amazing. He is quite versatile and played cricket and footie (Australian Rules football) and also earned name as architect, writer and TV anchor! Thommo it was who nicknamed him Tangles after his tangled up bowling action. He came from that appendix at the bottom of the Australian island called Tasmania. That is from where Boon and Ponting came too. I got his sign on my copy of his book ‘Caps, Hats and Helmets – Cricket is a Funny Game’. The book is a delightful read from cover to cover. Like the writer Suresh Menon said, ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket knows!’ Cricket in these books is incidental; they are largely a cultural voyage. This is Max’s philosophy on writing: ‘I believe cricket books should take the reader to a different place – a bridge to the theatre of the mind. A space they would not normally inhabit…..Under every cap, hat and helmet are a million stories. No matter what the viewpoint – winner/loser, batsman/bowler/keeper, spectator/commentator, father/mother…the game is compelling.’ Maxie is no pushover as a cricketer. He once took 6 for 15 in a Test against Pakistan at the SCG. He played in the centenary Test with England where David Hookes (who died in a bar brawl) stole the show. He was a member of the team in the ODI where Greg Chappell infamously made brother Trevor bowl underarm to deny New Zealand a shot at winning off the last ball. He said in that very room, exactly thirty years ago in ’77 he was present when Kerry Packer and the boys sowed the seeds of day-night cricket. He joked how technology has advanced, there was stump camera, third umpire, this that……..but “Warney” couldn’t use a mobile phone! (in reference to the SMS incident which did Shane Warne in). Deano said that when he met Bradman the legend pointed out some flaws in his technique and how to fix them etc. Then he joked that after coming back to Victoria he thought of shooting a letter to the great man like this: ‘Dear Don, you may be the greatest Test batsman that ever was, but how many ODI runs have you scored?!!!’