Long before the word entered cricket parlance, Michael Bevan had made the finisher's role his own
Australia won by one wicket
Sydney, New Year's Day 1996. An innings in tatters as West Indies run riot. And all that remains for Australia, at 38 for 6 chasing 173, is a middle-order supercomputer with enough time to make his calculations.
That someone, for the purposes of our narrative, was Michael Gwyl Bevan - the first great finisher in "white-ball cricket", as nobody called it in that indeterminate era towards the turn of the millennium, when each host nation was taking its own sweet time to divorce the format from its Test origins and move fully into the coloured-clothing era.
West Indies and England would be the last two teams to make the switch, as late as 1998, which goes to show how rare it was for genuine innovation to take root. Sure, bits-and-pieces allrounders had held a currency since the days of Simon O'Donnell, while Jonty Rhodes' focus on fielding gave South Africa a revolutionary edge at the 1992 World Cup - but broadly speaking, in those antediluvian days, cricketers were just… cricketers. The best men available from any given nation, trusted to adapt their methods from five days to one, often at little more than a day's notice during the frequent flits between formats that took place on those elongated tours of yore.
Almost exactly 12 months prior to his defining innings, in fact, Bevan had discovered that this deal cut both ways. Throughout the 1994-95 Ashes, he'd been harassed by the short ball, by Darren Gough in particular, and after his twin failures in the Sydney Test he was jettisoned for the rest of the year - the ODI side included. That said, his subsequent exploits with Australia A in the Benson & Hedges World Series, including a century against England that propelled the reserves into the tournament finals, would prove crucial in the long run in honing the role he'd soon make his own.
And so, when Bevan was recalled the following December for the next World Series against Sri Lanka and West Indies, he embarked on a run of bloodlessly insuperable scores. In three consecutive victories from the outset of the tournament, he compiled innings of 32 not out from 27 balls, 44 not out from 41 balls, and 18 not out from 16 balls - the latter to nudge Australia over the line with two balls to spare against Sri Lanka. None of it quite amounted to definitive proof of what he had turned himself into. By the end of his next outing, however, a legend had been born.
The scorecard alone can't quite convey the drama that unfolded on a damp night at the SCG. One-wicket wins are two-a-penny in the T20 age, and most of them come about at a significantly more brisk tempo than four runs an over. But a harbinger of what would follow had been witnessed in West Indies' own innings, as they slipped to 54 for 5 - including two in Shane Warne's first three balls after a rain delay - before Carl Hooper's magnificent 93 not out from 96 balls hoisted them to 172 for 9, with only Roger Harper's 28 from 63 offering any lasting ballast.
From the outset of Australia's reply, however, that target seemed formidable. Courtney Walsh pulled off a direct hit in his follow-through to send Mark Taylor back for 1, then Curtly Ambrose picked off two in two - the first a stunning grab from Phil Simmons at point to remove Michael Slater, before Ricky Ponting played on first ball to Ambrose's inexorable angle and bounce.
Stuart Law counterattacked briefly before a limp prod gave Ambrose his third at 32 for 4, and before Bevan could get started on his night's work, that scoreline had slipped to a disastrous 38 for 6, as Mark Waugh fenced a leading edge off Ottis Gibson into the covers and Shane Lee nibbled at a lifter to be caught behind second ball.
Bevan was the first great finisher in "white-ball cricket", as nobody called it then, towards the turn of the millennium, when each host nation was taking its own sweet time to move fully into the coloured-clothing era
For a time, all Australia could do was cling to the wreckage of their innings. Bevan survived a crucial let-off on 14 when Harper dropped, then attempted to claim, a return catch that rebounded off the turf into his knee, but the required rate had ticked above a run a ball - an alarming prospect in an era when 300-run totals were virtually unheard of - when Ian Healy was bowled by a ripping offbreak from Harper to end a 36-run seventh-wicket stand.
Bevan knew he had to get busy soon. His response was to slap the first boundary of his innings, through point as Simmons went wide, before opening his stance to drive Harper through the covers. Gibson then dropped short, and got carved through point as well, whereupon the redoubtable Paul Reiffel joined the gallop with a brace of swishes to the leg-side boundary.
All the while, Bevan's mind was visibly whirring - bat hoisted over his shoulder as he calibrated his gaps in the field, his eyes intermittently glancing to the scoreboard to keep tabs of his requirement. With five overs remaining, he knelt into a sweep behind square off Hooper to bring up his fifty from 70 balls, then immediately opened his stance again to club another four through the covers off Hooper and bring the requirement down to 36.
Australia's eighth-wicket pair had chewed a further 20 off the target when, with 16 needed from 11 balls, Reiffel swung through another pull off Simmons but picked out midwicket, whereupon Warne found a gap in the covers off a full toss (14 off 9), then opened the face for a single to deep third… 13 off 8.
Nowadays such an equation would be settled by two swings for the fence and a few scampered singles, but Bevan's options were framed by the zeitgeist. A clip to long-on, and a crucial fumble got him back for two (11 off seven), before Simmons served up a full toss, gratefully skimmed through midwicket to leave seven needed in Harper's final over.
A dot and a wide later, Warne ran himself out in his bid to get off strike, and Bevan was left grinning at the absurdity as Glenn McGrath joined him with six still needed from four. A hard crash into the covers nearly found enough of a gap, but they took the single nonetheless; again, the tactic of turning down such runs hadn't yet been invented. As it was, McGrath then did the needful with a priceless inside edge into the covers, and Bevan had the strike back for four needed from two.
Now it was obvious: one blow or bust, two attempts to land. Bevan made room to leg for his first swing for glory, but couldn't thrash a drive past Harper. So he patted down the pitch, and counted his fielders one last time. Now, his slap through the line was shovelled harder and straighter, with his bottom hand yanking up into the stroke for extra leverage towards the unguarded straight boundary. It was a conventional option with an improvisatory tweak, the product of an all-seeing eye that had taken its time - across 88 calm and calculated deliveries - to be well and truly in.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
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