Meg Lanning looks on
© Getty Images

Hate to Love

Loving Lanning is hard to do

But without the Australian captain, her team aren't as vexing, and thus not as much fun to watch

Snehal Pradhan |

I once played a curiously uneven cricket match, one with only 21 players. It was in an inter-railway tournament, and the opposition captain handed over a team sheet with a tiny error. Instead of the real name of one of her Bengali players, she had penned in her daak naam, or pet name. It was an honest mistake but our team officer pounced on it. She insisted that the player in question not be allowed to play, as her name, strictly speaking, was not on the team sheet. The umpires had to play by the book, so our opposition played with just ten.

I think about this when I think about the way Meg Lanning reacted at the toss in the fourth game of the 2017 Women's World Cup, in Taunton. The West Indies captain Stafanie Taylor won the toss, told Lanning she was going to bat, and said the same when she stepped up to the broadcaster. But she seemed to immediately realise that she had misspoken, and changed her decision to bowling first.

Lanning would have none of it. She insisted that Taylor be held to her original call, as Lanning wanted to bowl first as well. After a hands-on discussion (that is, hand on hips, and in Lanning's case, hands in the air), the match referee, David Jukes, held Taylor to her original decision.

Now I'm no fan of the Spirit of Cricket. I believe it's just good sportsmanship wearing an egg-and-bacon tie so that cricket can claim higher ground. Good sportsmanship might have forgiven both errors above and gotten on with the game. What our team officer did was a bit extreme, but what Lanning did was understandable - though I wonder if she would have been so intractable if she had wanted to bat. That is Meg Lanning for you.

Lanning has a line - one that is safely within the rules, unlike in the case of her male counterparts recently - and it looks like this: she and her team on one side of it, and the opposition on the other, blocking the way to winning. Even when her more hostile, finger-waving side is on show, you can't help but admire how ready she seems to head-butt anything that threatens to derail an Australian win.

Lanning's 3074 runs don't put her in the top ten ODI run-getters, and yet she is undoubtedly Mithali Raj's successor-in-waiting. Raj has 6373 runs in 194 matches; Lanning has played just 66 and is nearly halfway there. She already holds the records for the highest individual score in T20Is and the most ODI centuries; she is the only player on the latter list in double figures, with 11. Of active players who have more runs than her, she has the best conversion rate by far.

Meg Lanning's conversion rate among those of active players with more ODI runs than her
Player 50+scores 100s Conversion %
Mithali Raj (IN) 56 6 10.71
Stafanie Taylor (WI) 36 5 13.8
Suzie Bates (NZ) 33 9 27.2
Sarah Taylor (EN) 23 6 24
Amy Satterthwaite (NZ) 23 6 26
Meg Lanning (AU) 22 11 50

Her run-scoring prowess is just a little less predictable than her press conferences; a common joke in the press box is that you can transcribe a Lanning presser without listening to the audio. Unlike the unorthodox bowling rotations she uses, put a mike in front of her and you'll find that each answer has more in common with the next than just the quintessential "Aw, look" that precedes it.

Lanning is good, and Cricket Australia knows it. But she seems to have been playing at times when she should not have, almost as if CA needed her to. After the 2017 World Cup, she missed almost eight months of cricket due to surgery on her right shoulder, but she had been nursing the injury for about a year before that. In that period she only fielded close to the bat, and threw underarm.

Now for an inglorious moment, imagine that Virat Kohli played that fourth Test against Australia in Dharamsala last year with an obviously injured shoulder, just because he was the captain, the best batsman and most important player in the team. Imagine that India lost, and imagine the questions that would have been asked, especially by the Australian media. Lanning's Australia lost the semi-final of a tournament that they were expected to win, and yet few pointed questions about her shoulder flew her way, despite a year of underarm throws.

Numbers game: Lanning holds the record for the most ODI hundreds and is likely to become the highest run getter in the format well before the end of her career

Numbers game: Lanning holds the record for the most ODI hundreds and is likely to become the highest run getter in the format well before the end of her career © Getty Images

If India women had done something like that - and they have; Raj's knees probably horrify her orthopaedist during her annual check-up - it would be less surprising. It would be a reflection of the lack of bench strength, and also the geo-culture; for a long time, that's how injuries were "managed" in the subcontinent.

But Australia were the most egalitarian team in the world. They had the best depth and the most professional of processes, and a domestic system that was the envy of other nations. And yet they had been captained by a player who could not throw overarm, and therefore could not field anywhere except the infield, a player who needed to miss World Cup games, just to manage her injury. And barely a peep from the press about it.

To top it off, CA picked Rachael Haynes to replace Lanning as captain, though Haynes did not fit into the XI when Lanning was fit, passing over the official vice-captain Alex Blackwell in the process. The reason: Haynes' captaincy style was seen as similar to Lanning's.

It is no surprise that CA has been cagey about the exact details of her injury. When asked during her comeback series in Vadodara this March, "a combination of different things that were causing pain" is all that was offered. An email query yielded the reply that Lanning had "shoulder stabilization surgery because her shoulder was unstable". There was even the suggestion that the medical terms aren't given out because no one really understands them. Well, most fans may not know where their tibia is, but when Mitchell Starc is injured, CA still calls it "tibial bone stress". Are the fans of men's cricket that much smarter? Did I miss the memo?

Lanning's responses when threatened are among the sights that make cricket worth watching. Think back to the World Cup, when Australia's bowling attack was slit open by the singular brilliance of Chamari Atapattu's 178 not out. Lanning could not let the challenge lie; she had to score a personal best of 152 not out in reply, with heavy strapping on her shoulder peeking out from under her right sleeve as she hit the winning runs with a straight six.

Then, after coming back from surgery, and despite still not being able to throw overarm, she pulled off a stunning right-handed catch in the T20I tri-series in Mumbai. In those games she was unbeaten over four innings, with 175 runs to her name, and a high score of 88 not out in a record total of 209 for 4 in the final.

Why did I not write about the absurdity of Lanning playing despite an injured shoulder before, I asked myself? I think the answer is that without Lanning, Australia just aren't as vexing, and therefore not as much fun. And I think about that game in Taunton again, the one with the bemused broadcaster and the mix-up at the toss .

Even before the confusion had been digested, the Australian team sheet was circulated to the media, and funnily enough, it had the wrong XI. The West Indies official in the press box said nothing, and a new sheet appeared soon enough. Honest mistake. I think about what team officer Lanning would have done in his stead, and it makes me shake my head and smile.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India and Maharashtra opening bowler, and now a freelance journalist. @SnehalPradhan