The Fury

Australian cricket player Glenn Maxwell playing for Victoria in the Ryobi Cup.
Glenn Maxwell (via NAPARAZZI, Flickr)

Indian Premier League, 21st match: Kings XI Punjab v Mumbai Indians at Mohali, Apr 25, 2016

17.1
Bumrah to Maxwell, OUT, bowled, is that the game? It could as well be. A slower delivery outside off, Maxwell looks to bludgeon it over cover but is through the shot too early, a thick inside edge clips the leg stump. Nice innings from Maxi though.

“Fuck’s sake!” yelled Glenn Maxwell as he wandered off the field, angrily ripping his gloves off.

It’s hard not to love a guy who does this at the nerve-shredding climax of a World Cup match. It’s also hard not to love a guy who banters with Kieron Pollard at the start of his innings — “looks like you’ve been enjoying your time off” — and blows up in fury at its premature end.

The crowd-baiting and opponent-taunting is Maxwell’s default state. He is never short of a word, and because he is articulate enough to avoid curses in most of his on-field banter, he is often miked up for the broadcaster’s benefit.

Maxwell is, however, out of form. A remarkable stat came up on the screen during Kings XI Punjab’s loss to Mumbai Indians: this was only his second fifty in 33 IPL innings in India. This is the guy who seemed to have taken batting to a new level when the 2014 IPL kicked off in the United Arab Emirates, and who had since developed into one of the first picks in Australian limited overs teams: a reliable performer with bat and ball. And if those parts of his game misfire, he is worth an extra ten to twenty runs in the field.

It is riveting to watch a player out of form drag themselves back from the brink. That was what this Maxwell innings gave us. The words with Pollard at its outset were an anchor, a reminder that he was out there to enjoy himself. But it soon became clear that the switch hits and no-look cut shots were in the kit bag, eschewed in favour of bunts into the leg side and ripping cover drives. Proper cricket shots.

Not that this back-to-basics approach relaxed him. Quite the opposite: the longer it went on, the more desperate he became to turn it into a winning knock. He berated his batting partners whenever an opportunity to run two was missed, and he berated himself whenever he swung at thin air. There was one immense six off Tim Southee that seemed to signal a return to the free-swinging Maxwell of old.

But then he was gone, throwing the kitchen sink at a Jasprit Bumrah slower ball. It collected the inside edge of his bat and banged into leg stump, cannoning back up in front of his face. Maxwell was so furious he almost swung his bat at it again, but quickly caught himself with a sheepish look up at the umpire.

He bit down firmly on his bottom lip until he was out of the umpires’ earshot. Then came the torrent of curses. Kings XI Punjab lost, again, but these were good signs from their marquee player: the strokeplay, the passion. At 27, he is still developing.

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The Spark

Cricket player James Taylor batting for Nottinghamshire before his retirement due to a heart condition
James Taylor (via DncnH, Flickr)

Royal London One-Day Cup, 1st Quarter-Final: Nottinghamshire v Derbyshire at Nottingham, Aug 26, 2014
(Video highlights)

44.2
Footitt to Taylor, 2 runs

Flicked off the hip behind square, and as batting partner James Franklin reaches the halfway point of the pitch, James Taylor is about to ground his bat at the other end. Remember that Taylor has played a back-foot stroke and was therefore bound to the crease, but he has still covered almost twice the distance of Franklin, who had the luxury of backing up (and of a non-striker’s clear head).

But Taylor is on 98, just another short sprint from a perfectly paced century, so he turns and bolts back across the pitch. He is a short man, barely five foot six, but the blur of his legs brings him home comfortably ahead of the throw.

He raises his bat calmly to acknowledge the crowd’s applause. His heart rate is high from the sprint, and he takes a few moments to let it settle and soak in the glory of three figures. Then he plunders 46 more runs off the last five overs of Nottinghamshire’s innings — ultimately enough for a comfortable victory.

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James Taylor’s cricket was characterised by electrifying bursts of energy, especially in his running between the wickets. During his only international century, in a one-day international at home to Australia, he was content to wait until his 53rd delivery to hit a boundary. Not that it had mattered all that much. Taylor’s hard running had already brought him 42 runs up to that point.

As those last few overs against Derbyshire showed, Taylor was also as effective and innovative a short-form hitter as anyone. From paddle-sweeps to smashes down the ground, James Taylor could hit you just about anywhere. And if he failed to find the boundary, you knew he would probably take on the fielder’s arm and come back for a second or third, and almost certainly make it home.

Taylor’s superior fitness and passion for training also made him an outstanding fielder. His work at short leg during England’s remarkable series win in South Africa in 2015 was especially notable, with cricket podcast Reverse Swept Radio suggesting Taylor was the best specialist short leg since Brian Close.

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Given the broad and ever-widening range of his gifts, it almost seems unfair on us, the fans, that we won’t get to see James Taylor play any more. Of course, it is much more unfair on him. He just seemed to have cracked England’s Test team, having established himself in the one-day side. The rate and all-round nature of his development suggested he could wear the Three Lions for another decade, anchoring the middle order with Joe Root.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s diagnosis of arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) cannot be taken lightly. Retirement is the only option. It is possible that he could continue playing for years without any problem — he has, after all, been playing top-level cricket for eight years already — but the consequences of an adverse incident would constitute the most dire kind of medical emergency.

For example, there is the story of Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers footballer who retired after an on-field collapse and a similar diagnosis, is well known. And if you have a really hard heart, type Antonio Puerta or Miklos Feher into YouTube.

The condition is not so commonly discussed in cricket as it is in football. Presumably, football requires greater exertion on the part of the player and therefore poses a greater risk of cardiomyopathy-related arrhythmia. But a study by the Government Medical College of Surat in Gujarat, India, cites the sudden death of an 18-year-old male cricketer due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

There is therefore at least one precedent of sudden cardiac arrest on a cricket field. The risk is not worth any reward.

*

James Taylor has now been implanted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator device (ICD), which shocks the heart in the event of life-threatening arrhythmia. Support has rolled in from across the globe, from cricket circles and beyond.

He’s also received support from someone who can empathise:

Meantime, Taylor’s liberal Twitter use of hashtags such as #whenlifegivesyoulemons and #BeingHeldCaptive suggest he is taking his current predicament with some humour. I expect his tenacity and drive on the cricket field will translate to his career off it.

The Grafter

Australian cricket player John Hastings
John Hastings (via bestofT20.com)

IPL 2016 — 2nd match: Kolkata Knight Riders v Delhi Daredevils, 10 April 2016

5.2
Hastings to Nair, no run, nibbles away off the seam again, Nair is late on the drive, doesn’t miss the edge by much

Sweat rained from John Hastings’ brow as he shook his head. He’d beaten the bat, again – the fourth time in eight balls.

The mercury was hovering around 37° C. Hastings is a big man, and even though he is from sun-scorched Australia, no human is built for charging in and bowling at 140 kph on a humid Kolkata evening. Conditions like this are why elite sportspeople put themselves through all those beep tests and laps. The refinement of line and length in the nets is all well and good, but without the fitness to back it up, the body will refuse to do what you tell it to do.

On his IPL debut for Kolkata Knight Riders, his considerable frame in good shape, Hastings was putting the ball on a paisa. Good length on about a fifth stump line. The covering of grass on the pitch meant that was all he really needed to do.

Again and again, Delhi Daredevils batsmen Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair wafted aimlessly outside off as the ball fizzed past their bat. Hastings kept shaking his head. Somehow, he wasn’t catching the edge.

At the other end, Hastings’ teammate Andre Russell had picked up three wickets despite an erratic line and length. Two of them were skiers off hit-me length deliveries. Russell isn’t a line and length kind of guy: dyed mohawk, fierce good looks, massive slogs, and raw pace. He couldn’t be more different from Hastings, who is another one of these no-nonsense Aussies hardened by Shield cricket into a relentlessly effective machine. But Russell’s glitz was attracting all the luck.

Hastings turned at the top of his mark and changed his plan. The good length balls weren’t getting wickets; maybe a half-volley would. So he pitched one up, a little wide – a teaser for Nair, who was starving for a little bat on ball. Nair obligingly smacked it straight to point.

Sweat rained from Hastings’ brow again, but with a roar rather than a shake of the head. He would go on to bowl out a maiden. Later, after spinners Brad Hogg and Piyush Chawla bamboozled the rest of the Daredevils, Hastings returned to take the final wicket, earning himself a few pats on the back. He wouldn’t be man of the match, he wouldn’t be sought out by the press, but he provided the steady bookends to KKR’s bowling effort.

The Resistance

Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh of Mumbai Indians in training
Harbhajan Singh (via Royal Challengers Bangalore, Flickr)

IPL 2016 — 1st match: Mumbai Indians v Rising Pune Supergiants, 9 April 2016

19.5
Sharma to Harbhajan Singh, SIX, carved straight into the Pune ice box! The men in the dug out had to run for cover there. Low full toss, slapped down the ground

It was little more than a tap off Harbhajan Singh’s bat. He was off balance, falling away towards the leg side as he gave himself room. A resurgent Ishant Sharma at full pace meant he was barely able to complete a full-blooded swing. But still, the ball flew off Harbhajan’s blade, back over Ishant’s head and beyond the long-off boundary.

This is Harbhajan the irresistible force. The guy who destroyed the all-conquering Australians at Kolkata and Chennai in 2001. The guy whose natural gifts seem able to make his fielders grow extra arms, double the decibel level of the crowd’s roar, and triple the size of his bat.

After the six, Harbhajan took one more four off Ishant’s bowling to finish on 45 off 31. Not his most destructive IPL innings, but it dwarfed his teammate’s efforts. At one stage Mumbai Indians appeared unlikely to crack 60. Thanks to Harbhajan’s hitting, they finished on 121.

Unfortunately, Harbhajan is not in the team for his batting. He earns his crores as an off-spin bowler – the most prolific in India’s history. Mumbai Indians rely on him to take wickets and keep the run rate down, not to biff sixes.

The blessed natural talent is still there. But there’s a lack of fluidity in Harbhajan’s bowling stride now. He used to hop gracefully through the crease, a smooth carriage to support his windmill arms. Something has changed. He stutters a little just before the delivers the ball.

For Harbhajan’s Rising Pune Supergiants and Indian national team rival R Ashwin, stutters and jerks in the delivery stride are a stock in trade; an intentional variation. They are not what we expect from Harbhajan. Kevin Pietersen delivered the exclamation points: two vicious sixes over mid-wicket. But the story of Harbhajan’s decline had already been told in that stutter.

This decline, this inevitable slowing, is something that happens to every cricketer. It’s especially brutal on bowlers, whose shortcomings are revealed repeatedly, ball by ball, rather in the one-off event that is a batter’s dismissal.

Harbhajan will still have his good days with ball in hand. He is still one of the best spin bowlers in India, which is a lofty position if you consider how many million spin bowlers there are in India. For now, at least he knows that if the bowling action isn’t running smoothly, he can still swing the bat.