James Anderson receives his England cap from David Graveney

Fresh-faced James Anderson, 20, and Anthony McGrath get their Test caps from chairman of selectors David Graveney

Tom Shaw / © Getty Images
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Feature

Act one, scene one

For some players, their fate is sealed after their first match. For others, it is merely a sign of things to come

Daniel Brigham |

Across a fortnight in 2003, two English swing bowlers made dream Test debuts. First was James Anderson: erratic, nervous smile, fashionable haircut. Second was Richard Johnson: grooved, confident, balding.

Anderson, 20, had played only 17 first-class matches, but his raw talent was enough for England to take a look at him against a weak Zimbabwe side in the first Test, at Lord's. He took four lower-order wickets in 14 balls and finished with 5 for 73.

Johnson, 28, had played 120 first-class matches, and England were taking a look at him nine years and several injuries after he had first raised eyebrows with ten wickets in an innings for Middlesex. He removed Mark Vermeulen and Stuart Carlisle with successive balls in a menacing first over at Chester-le-Street, and finished with 6 for 33.

Two terrific debuts. Two different impressions in the dressing room.

Anderson's shyness was unusual, even for someone on international debut, and his captain, Nasser Hussain, found it difficult to work out what Anderson was thinking. In contrast, Johnson was confident and went about his business as if it was just another county match.

Across that fortnight in 2003, both produced on-field performances that suggested to team-mates that they could have extended Test careers. Off the field there were questions about Anderson's mental strength at the highest level. There were no such worries about Johnson.

"I had visions of Mike Gatting coming back from England's previous tour of the Caribbean with his nose put out of joint - and my beak was a prime target" Nasser Hussain's thoughts before his debut tour

Johnson played two more Tests and took a further ten wickets. Troubled by injury and overtaken by Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, he never really had the opportunity to explore his own potential. Anderson, well, we all know how Anderson has done.

So can anything be read into a cricketer's Test debut - both on and off the field? How do different players cope? Does the venue or opposition matter? How important is the initial impression, behind closed doors, before that first over or the first walk to the middle?

Can a player's fate be sealed on debut?

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Graham Gooch made a pair on his Test debut in 1975, but went on to break batting records for his country across a 20-year international career. Narendra Hirwani bamboozled West Indies with 16 for 136 in 1988 but played only 16 more Tests. Don Bradman made 18 and 1 and dropped a catch. Muttiah Muralitharan took 3 for 141. Both did okay.

Of the 100 batsmen who have scored a century on Test debut, 29 of them didn't make it past ten Tests in their career. Two men - West Indies' Andy Ganteaume and New Zealand's Rodney Redmond - never played again. Only 11 of those 100 have gone on to earn a century of Test caps - Gordon Greenidge the first, Alastair Cook the latest. Rather curiously, over half of the 55 bowlers to have taken six or more wickets in either innings of their Test debut ended their careers having played ten or fewer Tests. Only Trevor Bailey and Alec Bedser ended up with more than 50 caps.

Sometimes, though, it's not the how many but the how. And where.

Ken Rutherford: when he heard he had been picked for his first Test, he went onto a balcony and cried

Ken Rutherford: when he heard he had been picked for his first Test, he went onto a balcony and cried © Getty Images

If there was one place a young batsman wouldn't want to make his Test debut throughout the 1980s, it was the Caribbean. Fast pitches, faster bowlers, big bouncers, bigger bruises.

Aged 19, Ken Rutherford was studying accountancy part-time at Otago University and working at Inland Revenue in Dunedin when he found out he had been picked to tour West Indies in March 1985. He had played 16 first-class matches, and had just scored a first-ball duck against Wellington when he and his Otago team-mates gathered in a bar under the RA Vance Stand at the Basin Reserve to hear the team announcement.

When his name was read out, Rutherford went onto a balcony and cried. "I was totally shocked," he says from Johannesburg, where he is based these days. "There had been some media comment that I had a chance of being selected. Bruce Edgar and John Reid were unavailable. But I never contemplated selection - it just wasn't on my radar. My next club game in Dunedin was my focus."

The fantasy began to mould into reality. He would be playing with Richard Hadlee, John Wright, Ian Smith and Jeremy Coney. He would be playing against Greenidge, Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes and that pace attack. In the Caribbean. Where West Indies hadn't lost a Test since 1978.

"Joel Garner ripped in from the boundary and I recall looking behind me and wondering where the 'keeper and the slips had gone - they were specks in the distance" Ken Rutherford recalls his first Test

Rutherford met New Zealand captain Geoff Howarth for the first time in the toilets of the Airport Travelodge hotel in Auckland. There was no making the debutant feel at ease, though. Howarth wasn't one for man-management. "His comment to me was, 'Well young man, you have picked a helluva tour for your first one.' Prophetic words, Geoffrey."

Five years later and another young man was on a flight over to the Caribbean for his Test debut. It was February 1990 and Nasser Hussain, 21, was heading to the land from where visiting batsmen returned battered and bruised.

Although Hussain was surprised by his call-up - his Essex captain Gooch had tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would like to come to the West Indies - he had come close to making his debut in the final Test of the 1989 Ashes. This was when he and his Essex team-mate John Stephenson had been called up, parachuted onto the burning building of an Ashes annihilation.

"I remember [captain] David Gower coming up to me and giving me my cap and jumper the night before the Test," says Hussain in an interview with the Cricket Monthly. "And then on the morning of the Test he took them away from me! He said, 'We're going to go with John Stephenson and you've got to drive up to Northampton and play in a county game.' [Essex coach] Keith Fletcher said to me it could be a blessing in disguise."

Fletcher may have been right. Stephenson, on debut, made 25 and 11, wasn't selected for the tour of the West Indies and never played another Test. In contrast, Hussain was joining a new England regime - captained by Gooch - on the tour of the Caribbean. The emphasis was on youth; the press called them the Young Guns and Gooch wanted to give players time to impress. For Hussain, luck had already played its part in his career.

Essex men Nasser Hussain and Graham Gooch prop up the end of a team line-up after England's win in Jamaica in 1990, Hussain's debut Test

Essex men Nasser Hussain and Graham Gooch prop up the end of a team line-up after England's win in Jamaica in 1990, Hussain's debut Test © Getty Images

On the flight, Hussain attempted to distract himself from worrying about Marshall, Walsh, Bishop, Patterson. "I tried not to think about it too much," he says. "I had visions of Mike Gatting coming back from England's previous tour of the Caribbean with his nose put out of joint - and my beak was a prime target, so I tried not to think about it."

While New Zealand made little effort to replicate the sort of ferocious bowling Rutherford would face, Gooch's new regime wanted to make sure the youngsters were fully prepared: if they were being thrown into the deep end, they were going to equip them with paddles and armbands. Gooch had organised for his batsmen to visit Geoff Boycott in the Headingley Indoor Cricket School ahead of the tour. "That was the best thing we did," Hussain says. "Geoffrey being Geoffrey got all the academy lads from Yorkshire running in off literally 15 yards - I don't exaggerate - trying to knock our heads off in the indoor school. They were quick, and off 15 yards were even quicker, and Boycott was winding them up and sledging them and saying, 'Come on, my grandma can bowl quicker than you.' Even if it was Gooch who played a bad shot, Boycott would shout at him, 'That's shit, Gooch, get out of the net.'"

That prudent planning helped Hussain. He was also lucky that everyone in the squad was keen to look out for one another. In contrast, Rutherford was joining a set of senior players who knew each other well - and who needed impressing before a new player was accepted. "It tended to be every man for themselves," he says. "But I haven't got an issue with that. I believe at Test level players need to have a very strong sense of self-sufficiency to survive and prosper. You can only rely on your team-mates so much."

Both benefited from fielding first on debut, easing into Test cricket without the pressure of batting on the first day. The overriding feeling was of excitement. "I recall looking at the old scoreboard at the Queen's Park Oval [in Trinidad] and looking at all the famous names and then seeing my name. Now, that was surreal," says Rutherford. "I can still imagine the noise of the crowd and see the sights at the ground. It was special."

"You're looking for the way he holds himself, the way he walks, the way he talks. From how he practises, how he is in the nets, how he's like under pressure in fielding practice" Andrew Strauss on what he looks for in a debutant

At lunch in Kingston, Viv Richards wandered over to Hussain to show him his bat. They chatted and hit it off, and it helped to normalise the superstar. There was still that pace attack, though. No socialising with them, no pleasant chats: off the field they sat together, saying very little to opposition batsmen. They knew they had an aura, and fostered it to their advantage. It was the same on the field.

Hussain walked out to bat at 288 for 4. Improbably, England already had a lead of over 100. With him was Allan Lamb, whom he had established a rapport with during the Nehru Cup at the end of 1989. Runs on the board, familiar batting partner. It was a comfortable time to make his Test debut. Then, whoosh, the first bouncer. His senses were alive.

"When the first bouncer goes down and you're looking around and there's seven slips and a gully and two short legs and Patrick Patterson is at the end of his run, part of you thinks, 'Crikey,'" says Hussain. "But part of you thinks, 'This is great, this is great fun.'"

Fun? Rutherford didn't find it quite so fun. "Joel Garner ripped in from the boundary and I recall looking behind me and wondering where the keeper and the slips had gone - they were specks in the distance, they were that far back. I didn't always bat in a helmet, but here I was with helmet, chest pad, inside thigh pad, arm guard. I could hardly move. It was thoroughly intimidating. The West Indies of that era had this air of supremacy, of invincibility, and you certainly felt that when you were out there."

Meet the new boys: debutants Chris Adams, Gavin Hamilton and Michael Vaughan the day before the Johannesburg Test of 1999

Meet the new boys: debutants Chris Adams, Gavin Hamilton and Michael Vaughan the day before the Johannesburg Test of 1999 © Getty Images

Rutherford's first Test innings lasted 21 minutes. It felt like a lifetime. After eight balls he was put out of his misery by Malcolm Marshall. A debut duck.

Hussain lasted only 12 balls - scoring 13 - but had revelled in the battle. A naturally nervous cricketer, he realised that Test cricket wasn't the leap up he had been expecting, and he played a small part in a famous England victory. "If you could cope with that sort of bowling, you could cope with anything, at least mentally," says Hussain. "If you found that exhilarating and wanted a bit more of it, then you could cope with anything as an international cricketer. That's what that Test taught me."

In the second innings in Trinidad, Rutherford, like Gooch, made a pair on Test debut. Five years later Marvan Atapattu and Saeed Anwar would join the gang - between them they played 319 Tests and scored 20,919 runs; hope, perhaps, for West Indies' Rajendra Chandrika, the 40th and most recent player to face the ill fortune of a first-Test pair, in June last year.

"A lot of international sportsmen get luck," says Hussain. "And my bit of luck was getting selected from nowhere. You don't turn that luck down." While Rutherford went on to captain his country, he was in and out of the side and his Test average of 27.08 was way below what his talents demanded. His ill luck, he says, was to have been picked too early.

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As soon as a player receives his first Test call-up, the captain becomes the most important person in their life. He is the one who needs to be impressed, who picks up on their quirks, spots their nerves, assesses their ability to interact with their heroes and elders.

"You've got Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock bowling at you, and it quickly becomes 2 for 4, and the lights are on, and it's more than damp underneath. Then your batsman gets 33 and you immediately know right then that you've got a little gem" Nasser Hussain on Michael Vaughan's Test debut

Andrew Strauss tells a story of breaking the news to Jonathan Trott that he wouldn't be making his debut in the fourth Test at Headingley in the 2009 Ashes. Trott had impressed Strauss, the captain, and coach Andy Flower in the nets, dealing well with a hostile Andrew Flintoff. But England decided to go with five bowlers. "I took him to one side," says Strauss, "and I think he probably felt he was going to play at Headingley, but I told him he wasn't playing, and he looked genuinely mortified. He looked distraught. In that situation a lot of guys would've been thinking, 'It's great to be in the England team environment but there are easier matches to make my debut in than an Ashes Test.' Some would have been relieved. But you could just see Trott was desperate to play."

From that moment Strauss knew Trott would be fine at Test level. (Trott made his debut in the following match, at The Oval: the Ashes decider. He was run out on 41 in the first innings and top-scored with 119 in the second to help England win the series). As a senior player and then captain, Strauss would pick up on small cues from debutants.

"What you're generally looking for is someone who's not overawed by being with guys who they might have only seen on TV before," says Strauss, who himself enjoyed a glorious debut with 112 and 83 against New Zealand at Lord's in 2004. "Someone like Alastair Cook, who wasn't afraid to immediately contribute to team discussions, immediately stood out. You're looking for the way he holds himself, the way he walks, the way he talks. From how he practises, how he is in the nets, how he's like under pressure in fielding practice. This can all build a picture for you."

Strauss, Hussain and Rutherford - who captained in 113 Tests among them - all talk about strong impressions at the nets. Former England batsman Ed Smith, in his diary of the 2003 English season, On And Off The Field, says the first net session was the most nerve-racking aspect of being called up for his Test debut against South Africa at Trent Bridge in 2003. Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher and Flintoff were all watching him from the side of the net. Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher were chatting behind the bowler's arm and keeping an eye on him. It was more intense than walking out to the middle for the first time.

Mohammad Zahid, the one-time fastest gun in the East

Mohammad Zahid, the one-time fastest gun in the East © AFP

Getting called up for your country means a player will have been taking wickets or scoring runs for their domestic side. They will be used to team-mates looking up to them, so being transported into an environment where they are being judged can he hard to adjust to.

Former Pakistan tearaway Mohammad Zahid discovered this early. In 1996, aged 20, he took 6 for 54 for a Combined XI against New Zealand. Afterwards Zaheer Abbas, then Pakistan's chairman of selectors, told him he was in for the second Test, in Rawalpindi. With Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram both out injured and New Zealand 1-0 up, there was a lot of pressure on Zahid. Despite this, he felt confident. His rhythm was slick and his form good. The nets, though, were a different story.

"I got the impression that they [team-mates] weren't that pleased to see me in the team," Zahid, who now lives in the north of England, says. "It would be hard to say they didn't like me, but certainly it was uncomfortable. I think they were naturally suspicious of the new guy."

So he bowled as fast as he could. "Soon I made some good relationships, as they no longer wanted to face me in the nets!" A few of the senior guys took him under their wings, while the captain, Saeed Anwar, made sure he felt comfortable on debut. In the dressing room Zahid felt fine. Like he belonged.

Looking at ease in the dressing room is no guarantee of success, though. "You never know properly until you see someone walk out to bat, or to take their first over, and then you can tell pretty quickly," Strauss says. "I always felt you could see in someone's eyes whether they were calm, engaged and in control of their emotions. Or sometimes they're not with you and you can see the occasion is getting too much for them."

A bomb blast in Colombo meant the rest of the tour was cancelled. Kuruppu didn't have the opportunity to capitalise on his excellent debut, and played only three more Tests across four years

Zahid had no such problems. His startling pace - Brian Lara would later call him the fastest bowler in the world - unsettled the New Zealanders. "Right from the first over I tried to bowl as fast as I can," he says. "From an early age I'd been told I'd have a chance to get into the team if I bowled quick. So I carried on doing that. No finding my length first - it was all about bowling as fast as possible."

He took 4 for 64 in the first innings and then - after squeezing in a first-ball lbw to Nathan Astle when he batted ("I was convinced I wasn't out but when I saw the highlights on the telly, I saw that I was dead plumb!") he ripped New Zealand apart with 7 for 66. On debut, he had the crowd cheering him each time he ran in to bowl off his long, smooth run. He was the first, and to date only, Pakistani to take ten wickets on debut.

"You can't actually tell until they're in that pressure situation," says Hussain, who says he always goes back to Vaughan's first Test innings in Johannesburg in 1999, with England 2 for 2 on the first morning of the series. "You push them out that door and you've got Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock bowling at you, and it quickly becomes 2 for 4, and the lights are on, and it's more than damp underneath. Then your batsman gets 33 and you immediately know right then that you've got a little gem.

"Whatever he does in the next year or two, he'll be one for the future. You can tell right then."

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"Brendon Kuruppu? Batted forever."

Andrew Strauss thought batting partner Alastair Cook stood out for not being afraid to contribute to team discussions even as a newbie

Andrew Strauss thought batting partner Alastair Cook stood out for not being afraid to contribute to team discussions even as a newbie Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

Rutherford isn't wrong. In Colombo in April 1987, wicketkeeper Kuruppu walked out on Test debut to open Sri Lanka's innings in the first Test against New Zealand. Rutherford greeted him from under the helmet at short leg. Seven hundred and seventy-seven minutes later, Kuruppu walked back to the pavilion to a huge ovation. He had scored an unbeaten 201 - Sri Lanka's first double-century and the slowest in Tests. He had a couple of minutes to soak in the applause before strapping on his wicketkeeping pads and heading back out.

New Zealand batted out a draw, and Kuruppu took another record: the longest uninterrupted time on the field during a Test match (26 hours, seven minutes; a record he held for 14 years until Marvan Atapattu surpassed it in Galle). "With my pads on," Kuruppu adds. "And I didn't concede a bye."

He knew it was his batting that had got him into the Test side, so there was anxiety as he walked out for the first time. "I was nervous because it was the first Test opportunity I'd got after four years," he said in a phone interview. "In my era we had three wicketkeepers [Kuruppu, Guy de Alwis and Amal Silva] fighting for one place. Whoever batted well got the opportunity, so I knew I had to make the most of it."

Moustachioed and lean, Kuruppu had earned a reputation as a big hitter in ODIs. He had caught the eye in the 1983 World Cup when he launched Mudassar Nazar out of the ground in Swansea - the same ground where Garry Sobers struck his six sixes - on his way to a rapid 72. That was Kuruppu's second one-day international, and he had played a further 21 before his Test debut. He's in no doubt his previous international experience helped.

"It allowed me to understand the team's requirements," he says. "I had faced Richard Hadlee during the 1983 World Cup and knew every delivery would be a challenge. I'd also toured England in 1984 as a replacement wicketkeeper, and all of that experience helped me."

"I got the impression that they [team-mates] weren't that pleased to see me in the team. It would be hard to say they didn't like me, but certainly it was uncomfortable" Mohammad Zahid

A bomb blast in Colombo meant the rest of New Zealand's tour was cancelled. Kuruppu didn't have the opportunity to capitalise on his excellent debut, and played only three more Tests across four years. Luck had again played its part.

Luck also featured heavily in Zahid's destiny. On the first morning of his Test debut, Pakistan won the toss and bowled. It meant he wouldn't spend a day or two in the dressing room worrying about his first over. Then the start of the match was delayed by 20 minutes. "For some reason, they didn't have a ball," says Zahid. "They had recently started using the Dukes ball, but the umpires didn't have a Dukes ball and the teams didn't have a Dukes ball, so they had to use a local ball. And obviously I was very used to the local ball and how it behaved, as we used it in the domestic competition. That bit of luck made me feel even more comfortable."

Zahid also had his share of bad luck. Five months after his debut he was on his first tour, to Sri Lanka. Pakistan had picked only four fast bowlers for the tour and Waqar and Wasim both went down in a warm-up game. A day before the first Test, Zahid felt something judder in his back. He was in a lot of pain. But management made him play both Tests. By the end he could barely breathe, the pain was so intense. It later transpired he had broken his back. Zahid was later told by a surgeon that if he'd been allowed to miss those Tests his back would have recovered naturally. Instead, he needed surgery and was ruled out for 16 months. He was never as quick again. The fastest bowler in the world, who took 11 wickets on debut, played only five Tests.

Strauss believes location and timing have a role to play: he was 27 when he made his debut, so had the experience of 82 first-class matches. He was captain of Middlesex, which had forced him to lead by example. He was playing his first Test on his county ground, Lord's, so he was familiar with the surroundings. He had also been involved with the England one-day side, which meant he had got to know his coach, Fletcher, and his opening partner, Marcus Trescothick.

Fun or fear? Facing the likes of Patrick Patterson was among the travails debutants in the '80s had to look forward to

Fun or fear? Facing the likes of Patrick Patterson was among the travails debutants in the '80s had to look forward to © Getty Images

"It almost felt like it was all meant to be, to some degree," Strauss says. "I remember our England analyst, Nathan Leamon, showing us that England players who make their debut at home have 40% more chance of having a long England career than if you make your debut away from home."

Leamon confirms this, although it applies only to England. Taking into account all England Test debuts up to 2010, players have a 43% chance of playing ten or more matches if they debuted at home, while that reduces to 32% if they made their debut overseas. There is no trend towards a home or away bias across all other nations.

"[The England stats] kind of makes sense - you're more comfortable [at home]," says Strauss. "So being lucky enough to be picked at the right time, as I was, is a massive part of it. You can't discount the role of fortune in all of these things. But if your mindset is right, you're confident and feel like you belong there, then the odds are certainly more in your favour."

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For those who enjoy a successful debut, there are few better highs. "I remember going up to my wife the night of my debut hundred and just going, 'Wow,'" says Strauss. "Our future fundamentally changed on the back of that innings. It was a bit premature but mentally I was thinking I'd be part of the England team, I'd be touring much more, all that sort of stuff in my mind was ticked."

"First impressions are important, but they're not the be-all and end-all - people can surprise you in both directions" Nasser Hussain

Gooch, in his autobiography, says he was disconsolate after his pair. His team-mates - none of whom had taken him under his wing - ignored him. He was persona non grata. On the rest day he drove back to Essex to see his mum, who cooked him chips. He found it impossible to enjoy his first taste of Test cricket.

Rutherford struggled badly on the rest of the West Indies tour, scoring just 12 runs in his seven innings: 0, 0, 4, 0, 2, 1, 5. The scars stayed with him for a very long time. "I never really felt at ease, as I always felt I was playing catch up," he says. "I often felt I was on my last chance. For the next five years I was moved up and down the batting order with moderate success. I was picked too early, but I don't blame the selectors for that." It wasn't all bad. Rutherford says he learnt important lessons: the tour had taught him what it would take to be a successful international cricketer, about life on tour, about the politics of the team environment.

Whether a debut goes well or badly, there is always - or, at least often - still hope. That Kuruppu made a double-century but played only four Tests and Rutherford made a pair but went on to captain New Zealand shows it's best for coaches and selectors not to make hasty judgements. That applies on the field as much as off. Hussain remembers seeing the state of Michael Atherton's disorganised, stinky kit for the first time. "If you'd asked yourself if he'd make an international cricketer after seeing that, you'd think probably not. But he bloody did."

It taught Hussain that you can't pigeonhole cricketers. Which brings us back to James Anderson and Richard Johnson. Two debuts, two five-fors. One successful international career, one cut short.

As good as it gets: Richard Johnson celebrates the fifth of his six wickets in Zimbabwe's first innings in the Durham Test of 2003

As good as it gets: Richard Johnson celebrates the fifth of his six wickets in Zimbabwe's first innings in the Durham Test of 2003 Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

"If you give me a choice between someone who ticked every box off the field but was lacking a bit of ability, or someone like Jimmy who had raw ability but didn't say boo to a goose, then give me that raw ability," says Hussain. "From the first over I saw Anderson bowl, I said he'd be England's leading wicket-taker - and I wrote that in my book back then! I knew he was going to be a superstar.

"First impressions are important, but they're not the be-all and end-all - people can surprise you in both directions. They can look as if they tick every box, but once they get out there and it's 20 for 3 and Shane Warne's at one end and Glenn McGrath's at the other end, well then they can look like startled rabbits. Or they look like nervous wrecks in the dressing room and are quiet, don't say a word, look like a fish out of water, and then you put them in the toughest situation and they go and deliver.

"You've got to remember that it takes all sorts to succeed at Test cricket. You can learn a lot from a player's debut - both on and off the field - but you can't learn everything."

Daniel Brigham is a sportswriter and editor. @dan_brigham

 

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  • POSTED BY John on | April 6, 2016, 8:50 GMT

    "When the first bouncer goes down and you're looking around and there's seven slips and a gully and two short legs and Patrick Patterson is at the end of his run, part of you thinks, 'Crikey,'" says Hussain. "But part of you thinks, 'This is great, this is great fun.'" What he should have been thinking is, "Crikey, they've got twelve men on the field!".

  • POSTED BY Ashok on | April 6, 2016, 4:43 GMT

    This article reminded me of another English player who made his début in 2003- Anthony McGrath (who pronounced the T at the end of his name, unlike his more famous namesake). I wonder how many people even remember him today