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Wonder cricket

The one-dayer as a form has moved along lickety-split - thanks to the genius of players like Lloyd, Garner, Dean Jones, Jayasuriya, Saqlain and Miandad

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan  |  

On a cloudy September day at Lord's in 1972, Lancashire need 235 in 60 overs in the Gillette Cup final. No team, over nine years, has scored so many to win the title. The task gets harder when they lose their openers. Walking in at 26 for 2 is Clive Lloyd, natty in his spotless full-sleeve shirt, half-sleeve jumper and maroon West Indies cap. He slouches from a great height, his bat a toothpick in his hands.

Over the next two and a half hours the packed house at Lord's emits gasp after gasp. Taking their breath away is Lloyd, sweeping, pulling, slashing, driving, pounding, pounding, pounding. There are 14 fours and three sixes, the last one a ferocious front-foot hoick against Bob Willis, catapulting a good-length ball into the crowd at midwicket. Watch it on YouTube. The camera faces the bowler. Lloyd stands still, tapping his meaty Gray-Nicolls on the ground, then takes a forward step and uncoils his bat towards the heavens before curving it down menacingly, meeting the leather with a thunderous crack and tracing a magnificent 330-degree arc from mid-off to mid-on to square leg to fine leg to third man to point: a left-handed slap across Willis' face. Lloyd's 126 takes Lancashire to the title and prompts Richie Benaud, on air, to declare: "It must be one of the greatest innings seen on this ground in any type of cricket. Test matches, three-day cricket or one-day knockout competitions. There could have been few greater innings ever played…"

Lloyd was phenomenal in the slips, electric when fielding close in, and remains the only captain to lead his side to three World Cup finals

The win rounded off Lancashire's hat-trick of Gillette Cup triumphs, underscoring their dominance in the one-day format. Under the astute leadership of Jack Bond, they were one of the first sides to analyse opponents in depth, study scoring patterns and plan for each bowler. Few other teams had such long team meetings. And the Lancashire players had a great rapport with umpires around the county circuit, from whom they learned about pitches and weaknesses of the opposition.

Within that enterprising set-up, Lloyd was a pioneer. He was among the first batsmen to use a heavy bat - "waving that three-pound lump of willow as if it were made of balsa wood," said former Australia offspinner Ashley Mallett - and, even back in the helmetless era, would dare to pull and hook off the front foot. Unlike many batsmen coming to grips with the one-day game, throwing tentative thrusts and apologetic short-arm jabs when they needed to accelerate, Lloyd swung with abandon. One lofted straight drive in the 1975 World Cup final nearly decapitated the Australian swing bowler Gary Gilmour, who would speak for many when he later said: "What's the best way to bowl to Clive Lloyd? With a helmet on!"

Clive Lloyd's 1972 Gillette Cup final innings set the course for limited-overs batting

Clive Lloyd's 1972 Gillette Cup final innings set the course for limited-overs batting © PA Photos

In his 87 ODIs over 12 years, Lloyd made 11 fifties and a 102 that won a World Cup final. Among those who played at least 75 matches in the first 15 years of ODIs, only Viv Richards and Desmond Haynes averaged higher - and Lloyd's strike rate of 81.22 was nearly 18 points higher than Haynes'. Nine of Lloyd's 12 scores of 50-plus contributed to wins (and the three losses weren't significant; West Indies subsequently won both series). As if all that wasn't enough, he was phenomenal in the slips, electric when fielding close in, and remains the only captain to lead his side to three World Cup finals.

Nobody - not movie buffs, not metalheads, not literary critics, not historians - is as obsessed as the sports fan with the concept of greatness. Over the last decade, every tennis grand slam has been followed by heated debates about the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Every Lionel Messi goal glut fuels a similar slugfest among football fans. And after each season in the NBA, LeBron James' superhuman acts on a basketball court are diverted into narratives that zero in on his GOAT-quest.

"I remember an England team meeting when we were discussing how to score off Garner, and Ian Botham said, 'You don't, nobody does'" Geoff Boycott

Cricket fans love to dig their teeth into such arguments. They debate the greatness of teams, players and partnerships. They debate openers and wicketkeepers, pinch-hitters and finishers, new-ball bowlers and end-over specialists, captains and allrounders. They argue that some players are incapable of performing at the clutch. And they call others flat-track bullies.

Some of the trickiest debates involve one-day cricket, largely because of the extent of change in the format in a short span of time. No ODI today even remotely resembles the Australia-England "exhibition" in 1971. For most of the '70s, kits were white, players wore caps (many batted bareheaded), the ball was red, and innings lasted 40, 50, 55 or 60 overs. Often there was only one television camera at the ground. Batsmen rarely charged bowlers. Few dared to reverse sweep. Floodlights appeared towards the end of the decade but only in Australia. There were no 30-yard circles, and no fielding restrictions (in 1979, Mike Brearley put all fielders, including the wicketkeeper, on the boundary for the last ball of an ODI in Sydney).

Naturally, in such a rapidly changing landscape, some players who redefined the one-day game can appear outdated with the passage of time. If, for example, a panel of experts had been asked in 1985 to vote on the greatest one-day cricketer, Lloyd would most certainly have been part of the conversation. If someone had drawn up a World ODI XI, he would have been a shoo-in for the captaincy. But so swiftly has the game changed that 30 years after his retirement, Lloyd's ODI impact and contributions have been pushed to the margins.

Joel Garner: more bounce per ounce than the rest

Joel Garner: more bounce per ounce than the rest © PA Photos

The same can be said for some of Lloyd's trendsetting contemporaries. Take Joel Garner, all 6ft 8in of him, swooping up catches at gully and delivering thunderbolts from the sky. He would push batsmen back with his steepling bounce and then raze their stumps with pinpoint yorkers. Tailenders would walk in. Tailenders would face Garner. Tailenders would walk out. Back in 1985, if a panel had been set up to select the best ODI cricketers, Garner would probably have been voted as the greatest bowler. An anecdote from Geoffrey Boycott sums up Garner's menace. "I remember an England team meeting when we were discussing how to score off him," he writes in The Best XI, "and Ian Botham said, 'You don't, nobody does.' I asked, 'What about when he bowls to Viv Richards in the nets in Somerset?' Ian said that even Viv couldn't hit Joel and I thought, 'On that note I'll go to bed before I get even more demoralised.'"

To back up such chilling stories are some frightening numbers. Over 98 ODIs Garner averaged fewer than 19 runs per wicket in an era when the norm was around 30. He conceded 3.09 runs per over - the best for anyone with more than 15 ODI innings - at a time when the average economy rate was around four. He was lethal in the 14 finals he played, nailing 30 wickets at a staggering 14.36. He took 5 for 38 in a World Cup final (1979) and 5 for 31 in a World Series Cup final (1984). As ESPNcricinfo's stats editor S Rajesh put it: "Even compared to the other great bowlers who played during that era - and there were several - Garner was far ahead of the rest of the pack."

"I know it sounds un-Australian, and I almost find the idea offensive, but in limited-overs cricket we must learn to think negatively."

Dennis Lillee's thoughts in One-Day Cricket, published in 1980, capture how many Australians viewed the format in the '60s and '70s. Greg Chappell, according to the 1980 Wisden, "made it clear he disliked this defensive form of cricket. He attempted to win his matches without resorting to negative bowling or spreading his fielders around the boundary." As the historian Gideon Haigh reflected in Wisden Asia Cricket in 2004, "… the notorious underarm conclusion to the third World Series Cup final of February 1981 was as much a reflection of Chappell's contempt for one-day cricket as of the shortcomings of his sportsmanship."

Dean Jones set the paradigm for ODI batting in Australia. He lofted over the infield, moved around the crease, charged fast bowlers and hared between wickets

In spite of their misgivings about the new format, both Lillee and Chappell had stellar one-day careers. Lillee was the first bowler to 100 one-day wickets and finished with an average of less than 21 (second only to Garner among those with at least 100 wickets). Chappell soared even higher. As of April 1983, when he played his last one-dayer, he was the only batsman with more than 2000 runs and, among those who had played at least 50 ODIs, the only one to average 40. Chappell also chipped in with his accurate medium pace and his nine Man-of-the-Match awards are indicative of his all-round worth. Yet his ODI exploits have receded from memory, obscured by his most infamous decision as captain.

Less than a year after Chappell played his last one-day match, Australia handed a debut to 22-year-old Dean Jones. Walking in at No. 7 against Pakistan in Adelaide in 1984, Jones made an instant impact with a 33-ball 40, and over the next ten years he set the paradigm for one-day batting in Australia. He lofted over the infield, moved around the crease, charged fast bowlers and hared between wickets (he also claims he was the first international cricketer to wear sunglasses). He was always on the lookout for a stolen single, and was inventive with his strokeplay - on his way to 145 against England in Brisbane in 1990, he chased a ball outside leg stump and swung one-handed over fine leg for six. Jones was always thinking on his feet. Bob Simpson once spoke about a match when a strong wind blew across Perth's WACA and Jones lofted sixes in the direction of the breeze.

Dean Jones was a generation ahead of his time in one-day batting and fielding

Dean Jones was a generation ahead of his time in one-day batting and fielding © Getty Images

Jones was fortunate to play under a captain and coach who understood the nuances of the one-day game. In the mid-1980s, Allan Border and Simpson embraced the shorter format, emphasising the value of fielding, fitness and running between the wickets. Jones prospered in that environment and had a big hand in Australia's World Cup win in 1987, both with the bat and in the field. Like Lloyd before him, Jones is unlikely to make many all-time ODI XIs but his biggest contribution was the impression he left on a generation of Australian superstars, like Ricky Ponting and Michael Bevan, who would propel the team over the next two decades. "I think he played almost a whole generation ahead of his time," said Ponting in an interview to the Cricket Monthly. "It's amazing how you look at someone early on and end up sort of moulding [your game] in the way that they played."

There is a delightful little passage of play towards the end of the first innings in the Pakistan-West Indies match in the 1992 World Cup. Pakistan are 196 for 2 at the start of the 49th over. Javed Miandad, on 45, is on strike. The field is spread around the MCG but there is no one at fine leg. Square leg is in the circle. Malcolm Marshall sprints in and fires one full on middle and leg. As if expecting this, Miandad walks across the stumps and flicks the low full toss to the fine-leg boundary. It's all so casual, like tapping a cigarette into an ashtray. Four.

Miandad may not pop into your head when asked to name the three greatest ODI players of all time but it's not a stretch to call him the first great finisher

The next ball is full and outside off. Miandad walks across again, half-attempting another flick to fine leg, but quickly readjusts his bat and taps to the covers. An easy single.

Miandad is back on strike for the final ball. Marshall still has no fine leg. He runs in and launches the ball full and outside off - around the seventh stump. But Miandad has made up his mind. He walks more than a foot across - so far that all three stumps are visible - shapes to defend with the full face of the bat, and then, in a split-second, turns his wrists in a lightning motion, like a hockey player faking a pass. So audacious is the flick that it takes a couple of seconds for the caffeinated Tony Greig, on air, to understand what has happened. Then, both bemused and aroused, he screams: "He's done it again!"

That was Miandad in a nutshell: so expert that he could mess with the greatest of bowlers. Pakistan would go on to lose that game but Miandad, with four more half-centuries, would steer his team to the title. He could be subtle when the situation demanded - gliding, angling, dabbing - but brutal at other times, most famously backing away and, with both shoulders facing the bowler, swinging over midwicket. He was a master at rotating the strike - an astonishing 59 not out in Perth in late 1992 contained 45 singles and zero boundaries - and, most of all, he understood the art of the run chase. When Miandad was at the crease, Pakistan were in the game. His last-ball six against India in Sharjah still resounds, and his unbeaten 57 in the 1992 World Cup semi-final drove New Zealand's stand-in captain John Wright batty. Even in his last ODI, the 1996 World Cup quarter-final, when his reflexes had considerably slowed and when Pakistan were all but out of the game, the Bangalore crowd came to life only when Miandad was out.

Miandad: master of the art of the chase

Miandad: master of the art of the chase © PA Photos

Miandad may not pop into your head when asked to name the three greatest one-day players of all time but it's probably not a stretch to call him the first great finisher. When left with only the tail, even when the asking rate climbed over ten - like on that day in Sharjah - he knew how to find a way. He targeted specific bowlers and made a mockery of field settings. He provoked opponents into indiscretion and riled fielders when they misfielded or missed direct hits. He walked down the pitch and swung sixes. He backed away and swung sixes. He stood his ground and swung sixes. Like Michael Bevan after him, he shuffled around the crease and hit through the gaps or lofted over the infield. And like MS Dhoni a decade later, he had the power to consistently clear the boundary and the confidence to take the game to the final over - all the while convinced that the opposition would blink first.

For a few months in mid-2014, sportswriters in the US were frothing over what many thought was a death knell for their summer pastime. "The last vestiges of baseball's home-run era are gone, taking all manner of hitting and scoring along with them," wrote John Branch in the New York Times. "In Major League Baseball, pitchers are dominating hitters in ways not seen in the last 20 years - or, by some standards, ever."

The reasons for this trend were multifold. Some pointed to the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs, others to advanced analytics that armed pitchers with valuable information, and still others to enhanced training methods. But many agreed this was a "problem", one that could only be rectified if the administrators modified the rules in favour of hitters.

Saqlain did what no spinner had: he mastered bowling at the death and hastened end-over collapses - not with defensive bowling but with flight and cunning

Cricket has been grappling with the opposite problem for the last two decades. Flat pitches, bulging bats, shorter boundaries, fielding restrictions and Powerplays have led to batsmen racking up scores that were unimaginable in an earlier era. Richards' 189 not out was the highest ODI score for 13 years. Saeed Anwar's 194 stood for another 13. But in 2010, the dam burst. Since then there have been five scores of 200 or more, and even 300 seems within reach. Of all the mind-blowing numbers from Rohit Sharma's 264, one sent a shiver down the spine: he had not scored off 58 of the 173 balls he faced.

Down the years, various bowlers have protested the inequity in ingenious ways. Franklyn Stephenson mastered the slower ball in the mid-1980s; Imran, Wasim and Waqar unleashed reverse swing; some spinners like Anil Kumble surprised batsmen with yorkers; some relied on the carrom ball; and fast bowlers like Lasith Malinga fine-tuned the slow bouncer. But no invention has been shrouded in as much mystery - and had such a profound impact on the modern game - as the doosra.

Second wind: Saqlain's invention allowed bowlers to make a comeback into run-stuffed ODIs

Second wind: Saqlain's invention allowed bowlers to make a comeback into run-stuffed ODIs © Getty Images

Search for "magic doosra" on YouTube and the first clip is of Damien Martyn batting against Saqlain Mushtaq in Nottingham in 2001. Waiting for a catch close in - in the 14th over, with Australia off to a flyer, against an offspinner - are two slips and a silly mid-off. Saqlain hustles in and flights the ball on leg stump. The wicketkeeper, Rashid Latif, rises with the ball and hops to the leg side to collect it - only to realise it has spun viciously from leg to outside off, snicked the bat's edge, and flown to first slip. There is a sense of bewilderment in the air. A flummoxed Martyn looks at the umpire, George Sharp, who sends him off with a gentle nod - like a pained doctor informing someone of the demise of a relative. Walking back, Martyn keeps checking for the replay on the big screen. "That's unbelievable, really," says Michael Holding on air. "Shane Warne didn't get the ball to spin this much."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Saqlain, it seemed, could take the piss at will. In Adelaide in 1996-97 he engineered an Australian collapse of 5 for 19 (when they needed 32 off 30) and confounded everyone with the ball that turned away. Some thought it was a legbreak, others said it was the drifter, many stuck to "mystery ball". Akram intensified the suspense when he said, "He won't even tell me how he bowls it." Moin Khan would soon coin a name for the delivery, a word that means "second" or "other" but is suggestive of a secret lover who sabotages the marital equilibrium.

"Another Jayasuriya rumour, kids used to say he wore contact lenses which made him see the ball as big as a soccer ball"

Over the next four years, Saqlain did what no spinner had achieved in ODIs: he mastered bowling at the death and hastened end-over collapses - not with dour, flat, defensive bowling but with flight, change of pace and cunning. Where Wasim and Waqar had eliminated tailenders with toe-crushers, Saqlain artfully lured them to their suicide. He got batsmen to hole out in the deep; that was if they made contact in the first place. No other bowler-wicketkeeper combination has as many ODI stumpings as Saqlain and Moin's 31. And sometimes it was all too predictable. Saqlain would toss it up, the batsman would charge - or, like Tom Moody in that Adelaide game, lose his back-foot balance, the doosra tying him in knots - and Moin would put him out of his misery.

Not surprisingly, none of the 50 jurors on the Cricket Monthly panel picked Saqlain among their three greatest ODI cricketers. His relatively short period of dominance - between 1997 and 2001 - would have worked against him. As would the fact that he never won a World Cup (though he was awesome in 1999, taking his side to the final). But few will dispute that he was a pioneer, an anti-establishment gadfly who rocked the boat, birthing dangerous spinners around the world, transforming the way slow bowlers approached ODIs and altering the way captains used spin in the death overs.

In May 2014, a commenter on Reddit threw up a question: "What is the most absurd myth you have heard in cricket?"

Limited-overs cricket as a creature today has nothing in common with its ancestor from 1971

Limited-overs cricket as a creature today has nothing in common with its ancestor from 1971 © AFP

Pat came the first reply: "When I was a kid, people used to say Jayasuriya had metal springs in his bat. That's why his shots all flew over the boundary."

A second commenter chimed in: "Another Jayasuriya rumour, kids used to say he wore contact lenses which made him see the ball as big as a soccer ball."

A third poster added: "Ha... I came here to post the Jayasuriya myth..."

A fourth said: "And in continuation to this I heard once that when Jayasuriya hit Courtney Walsh out of the park, he complained to the umpire that Jaya had iron in his bat. And that umpire found out and asked him to change his bat."

The genesis of the first rumour, it seems, was a jokey news item in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, after Sanath Jayasuriya had blitzed a 44-ball 82 against England in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final in Faisalabad. But the fact that such bizarre stories were so widely shared - and often swallowed whole - reveals how freakish Jayasuriya's batting appeared.

Saeed Anwar's 194 stood as the highest score for 13 years. But in 2010, the dam burst. Since then there have been five scores of 200 or more, and even 300 seems within reach

The word that comes to mind is pandemonium. There were fiery openers before him but nobody struck the ball as powerfully, as consistently, as effectively, as clinically, and as audaciously. To experience Jayasuriya was to see how bowlers reacted immediately after he lashed his broadax. Some scratched their heads. Some stood arms akimbo. Some smiled in disbelief. Most wore the look of defeat. As of March 1996, Manoj Prabhakar and Phil DeFreitas were medium-pacers with more than 270 ODI wickets between them. Within one week Jayasuriya turned both into innocuous offspinners. (Prabhakar didn't play for India again; DeFreitas played two more ODIs.)

What made Jayasuriya exceptional was, he didn't change his approach whether he was playing a dead rubber or a crunch game. He didn't discriminate between minnows and big fish. Pitches and conditions didn't seem to matter. In 39 tournament finals he scored at nearly a run a ball, made 15 scores of 50-plus (just behind Sachin Tendulkar's 16), scored 1613 runs (second only to Tendulkar) and struck 32 sixes (the most).

Jayasuriya: flayed 'em all

Jayasuriya: flayed 'em all © Getty Images

Jayasuriya's greatness lay in the effect he had on other teams. Batsmen like Saeed Anwar, Mark Waugh and Tendulkar had set a template for top-order one-day batting but Jayasuriya forced teams to recalibrate expectations. Australia asked Adam Gilchrist to open, Pakistan promoted Shahid Afridi, and India moved Sourav Ganguly up the order. Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag would soon emerge. Players would dream of scoring a hundred in less than 50 balls. They would dare to careen along at ten an over in the first 15. And they would carry that bullying spirit into Test cricket.

As Mukul Kesavan once memorably wrote of Jayasuriya, "He is a landmark in the history of the game because he was a successful heretic, the Martin Luther of modern cricket. He made the rules of orthodox batsmanship (getting to the pitch, getting in line, playing along the ground and that holiest of holies, playing with a straight bat) seem overstated and dogmatic."

Greatness encompasses several attributes. Talent and skill play a part but not as much as match-winning ability. Longevity matters but consistency and brilliance are vital. Breathtaking performances add to a player's lustre but they don't mean much if the team rarely wins. Eye-popping numbers can make a difference but only if the stats are put in context.

No ODI today even remotely resembles the Australia-England "exhibition" in 1971. For most of the '70s, kits were white, players wore caps, the ball was red, and innings lasted 40, 50, 55 or 60 overs

Breaking new ground counts too, but equally important, sometimes more so, is stretching the limits of what one thought imaginable. Gilchrist took Jayasuriya's cue but quickly created a niche for himself as a wicketkeeper who could butcher attacks up front. Dhoni melded Miandad's cunning and Bevan's calm to turn the one-day finish into an art form. Akram learnt reverse swing from Imran and, using a deadly angle, a whippy action and infinite variety, turned into the most lethal left-armer of all time. Tendulkar took his classical technique and, with dollops of bravado, transformed into a versatile one-day batsman, capable of anchoring and launching in equal measure, sustaining his excellence over two decades.

Now fuse Gilchrist's murderousness, Dhoni's cool, Tendulkar's technique, Jayasuriya's power, Lloyd's big-game temperament, Jones' athleticism, Greg Chappell's grace and Miandad's chutzpah. Make sure this composite cricketer scores at an unheard of strike rate. Get him to smash a century every 15 ODI innings, at a time when middle-order batsmen score one in 62. He should be a master at milking the bowling, gathering speed towards the finish; if his team is in early trouble, he should counterattack with a vengeance. He should dominate under gloomy skies or in the furnaces of the subcontinent. He should annihilate bowlers both in the day and at night. Get him to bowl offspin. And make him a great captain. Ensure he wins two World Cup finals - one with his fielding, another with the bat. And while you're at it, let him pilot his side to a third World Cup final. Through it all, see that he never wears a helmet. Give him oodles of swagger. And, to add to the aura, let him chew gum.

What are you left with? The greatest one-day cricketer of all. And perhaps the greatest there will ever be.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA