Michael Bevan. Yuvraj Singh. Suresh Raina. All left-hand batsmen, yes, but each different in his method, in his approach. Each also a white-ball behemoth, but less than underwhelming when it comes to red-ball cricket. Limited-overs willow-wielders extraordinaire, some distance short of awe-inspiring in the Test match version.
Now, Martin Guptill has emphatically crashed into this group. Another giant in limited-overs cricket who hasn’t quite translated his exploits with field restrictions in place to the format that asks questions not just of skill sets, but also temperament and fortitude, resolve and character.
The other night, as he toyed with a quality South African attack, Guptill looked every inch the physical giant that he is. Tall and upright, almost majestic, he packed quite a punch, making batting on a somewhat tricky surface look remarkably simple. It was his first international outing in a month as he was wending his way back from a hamstring injury, but he looked neither rusty nor uncertain on his way to a match-sealing unbeaten 180.
It was the third time the New Zealand opener had gotten into the 180s in top-flight 50-over cricket. No one else is in that territory – not Rohit Sharma, the only batsman with two One-Day International double-hundreds, not Sachin Tendulkar, the first man to scale Mt 200, not even the peerless Viv Richards who played a fair bit of his ODI cricket in the 60-over era.
In 142 ODIs, Guptill averages an impressive 43.98 at a more than acceptable strike-rate of 87.78. He also ticks over at 34.73 per innings in 61 Twenty20 Internationals, and if he hasn’t been spoken of in the same breath as some of the names mentioned, it perhaps has more to do with the fact that he comes from the still unfashionable land of the Kiwi. Nice men, great sports, wonderful entertainers, humble and grounded and ready with a smile. But champion cricketers? That’s not a tag that is used as often as it should be when it comes to New Zealanders.
Bevan stands out as the leader of this unenviable group – a magnificent average of 53.58 boosted admittedly by 67 not outs in 232 ODIs, a far less edifying 29.07 from 18 Tests that yielded a highest of 91. Before Yuvraj and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and long, long before the brief fling that James Faulkner had with that epithet, Bevan had set stall as the original Finisher: nerves of steel in the tensest of run-chases
Never mind. Inasmuch as cricketers too are creative artists and therefore crave adulation and recognition and ego-boosts, nothing matters more to them than their own perceptions of themselves and the esteem in which their teammates, peers and opponents hold them. On that count, the Kiwis are second to none; while they may not be feted and celebrated and idolised and deified almost like the Kohlis of the world, they are primarily content with what they have. They are an easy-going, fun-loving bunch that is as competitive as anyone else on any sporting arena, but that has shown repeatedly that you can win with a smile and with compassion as often as you can with a snarl and with disrespect.Nice men, great sports, wonderful entertainers, humble and grounded and ready with a smile. But champion cricketers? That’s not a tag that is used as often as it should be when it comes to New Zealander
But we digress. This is supposed to be less about nice men who finish first and more about the white-ball virtuosos who haven’t quite been able to translate those stirring deeds in coloured clothing to meaningful, consistent performances in flannels. Bevan stands out as the leader of this unenviable group – a magnificent average of 53.58 boosted admittedly by 67 not outs in 232 ODIs, a far less edifying 29.07 from 18 Tests that yielded a highest of 91. Before Yuvraj and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and long, long before the brief fling that James Faulkner had with that epithet, Bevan had set stall as the original Finisher: nerves of steel in the tensest of run-chases, a supercomputer for a brain with perfectly laid out maps of field placements and angles, an intuitive understanding of what the bowler was likely to send down, the presence of mind in the most high-pressure situation to instantly suss which fielder was worth taking a punt over swiftness across the ground and strongness of arm from the deep.
For nearly a decade until tiring legs and advancing years caught up with him, Bevan was in a league of his own in 50-over cricket, an ominous presence at mostly No. 6 but occasionally No. 7 too. Till he was in the middle, no chase was impossible, no target insurmountable, no required rate too daunting. He wasn’t the most feared boundary hitter – 450 fours and 21 sixes only from 196 innings – but the Bevan package was dynamite. Until you stripped him of his armour, kitted him with the whites, and sent him out to face the red sphere of doom.
With a pronounced distaste for and weakness against the short ball, Bevan looked out of his depth in the days format. The confident swagger of coloured clothing nowhere in evidence, he slipped deeper and deeper into the mire with each passing outing, with each expectation unfulfilled. Remarkably, even as his travails in Test cricket continued, he was still unstoppable in the limited-overs game. How do you explain that? How can you explain that?
Just as, how can you explain why Yuvraj Singh, the six-sixes-an-over man, the destroyer who even today can dismantle the fiercest of international attacks so long as they have a little white ball in their hand, has been a serious underachiever in the Test arena? Unlike in Bevan’s case where there is a 24-run skew in averages, Yuvraj’s numbers aren’t drastically dissimilar – 33.92 in 40 Tests, 36.8 in 296 ODIs. And yet, have we ever had the sense that Yuvraj himself has truly believed that he has belonged in Test cricket?
Yuvraj has three hundreds, all against Pakistan and two of them away, and will forever be remembered for his memorable unbeaten 85 against England when, not long after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, India emotionally scaled down 387 in the final innings at Chepauk. But what is his Test legacy really? Unrealised potential, methinks. The aforesaid 85 was the kind of Yuvraj we are accustomed to seeing in limited-overs matches – uncluttered, uncomplicated, not over-analytical. Gary Kirsten asked him before he went out to bat to treat it like an ODI chase; the left-handed powerhouse did not disappoint his coach either with his approach or the returns. Sadly, that wasn’t the template he used to reignite what by all accounts has been a stop-start career.
Much like Raina’s, actually. 35.46 in 223 ODIs but only 26.48 in 18 Tests, and this despite making a century on debut in Sri Lanka, followed by scores of 62, 41 not out and 86 in his next three Test innings. Word got around quickly, as it invariably does when it comes to these things, that Raina was suspect against the short ball. Raina himself started to believe it, his thinking addled, his mind confused, his footwork suspect, his demeanour hesitant, his body language negative. He will in all probability end his Test career with ducks in each of his last three innings, a far cry from the exceptional start he had made in 2010.
Have Bevan, Guptill, Yuvraj and Raina been let down by a lack of technique? Or is it skills? Belief? Mindset? The perhaps unrealistic expectations raised by their limited-overs dominance? All of these, certainly. The white ball calls for a certain daring and enterprise that demands action more than circumspection; red-ball cricket comes with an entirely different set of challenges that can still be met with the same aggressive mindset, as Virender Sehwag, David Warner and, less consistently, Brendan McCullum have exemplified. No easy runs in Test cricket, they tell us ever so often. The Bevan-Yuvraj-Raina-Guptill quartet will emphatically agree.