Sunday, 10 December 2006

Farewell to the king of style

Damien Martyn was an extremely elegant batsman, often appearing almost nonchalant. But his style did not reflect the tremendous endeavours needed to revive his career, after he was outrageously made the scapegoat of Australia’s six-run defeat to South Africa at Sydney in 1994, at the age of 22.

Having made a vital 59 in the first innings – the second top score by an Australian all game – Martyn, seemingly paralysed, took 59 balls in which to reach six. Australia, chasing 117 in their fourth innings, reached 110-8 before Martyn’s judgement failed him. His cover-drive off Allan Donald was caught; if Glenn McGrath had not been out one run later, Australia’s selectors might have been more forgiving. But, alas, his impressive first-innings knock against a heavyweight bowling attack was forgotten.

Martyn was always seen as a definite future star, like Michael Clarke, ironically the player who ultimately did much to convince Martyn the end was nigh. Australia, notorious for giving batsmen their first chance when they are nearing 30, first picked Martyn at 21.

His first seven Tests brought seven fifties, respectable enough considering six were against the might of West Indies and South Africa, but that failure of nerve in 1994 convinced the selectors that he was not mentally stong enough for an Australian cricketer. So, after three one-day failures, he was mercilessly dumped and thrown back into state cricket.

What followed was a tumultuous six years. Made Western Australian skipper to toughen him up, Martyn proved unsuited to the job. Indeed, after a torturous 21-game run without a first-class 50, he was even dropped. The prodigy was in grave danger of becoming a huge enigma.

Thankfully, Martyn got his act together. He spent a few years on the periphery of the one-day side, but that would never have remotely done justice to his talent. An injury to Ricky Ponting gave him three Tests against New Zealand in 2000 in which to prove himself; his two fifties suggested a man finally coming to terms with his talents.

He had to wait over a year before getting a chance to truly establish himself – on the 2001 Ashes tour. He breezed to a hundred in the first Test, scored another later in the series and was finally established in the Australian side. Over four calendar years from the start of that tour, Martyn scored 12 hundreds in 45 Tests at an average of 53. His cycle of dominance ended, as it began, with a tour to England. This time, however, he was victim to a number of erroneous umpiring decisions and endured a miserable season against England’s fine pace attack.

His runs were always scored in a graceful manner, such was his innate sense of timing. Martyn’s hallmark shot was the square cut, delivered with minimal foot movement and apparent ease. Martyn had an idiosyncratic tendency to cut the ball in the air behind the wicket; he is one of very few modern batsmen to whom fly slip was not a redundant position.

But it must not be suggested that Martyn lacked application or skill against more disciplined bowlers. His 101 at Johannesburg in 2006 was the game’s sole century, scored over five concentration-fuelled hours, though, in being dismissed before victory was secured, he was not quite able to completely right his ’94 wrong. But he more than compensated in other aspects of a wonderful career.

2004 was Martyn’s year, producing six regal Test hundreds; of his four in seven Tests on the sub-continent, three were made in the second innings, when he had arrived at the crease with Australia still behind. It is rare for Western Australians to show such dexterity against spin, but Martyn gradually worked out a method – which primarily involved playing off the back foot wherever possible, utilising his wonderful hand-eye coordination to play the ball late – and it came, stunningly, to fruition. He was the outstanding batsman of the year, and his mastery over Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and especially Muttiah Muralitharan is the abiding memory of his career.

A majestic 88* in the World Cup Final, despite a broken finger, will be fondly remembered, too, though it was largely anonymous – just the way Martyn, a low-key man, likes it. As a one-day player, he was outstanding till the end, averaging over 40 in 208 one-day internationals. The recent Champions Trophy, in which Martyn played decisive roles in three of Australia’s four wins, showed his apparent decline did not extend to the one-day game. While Australia have an abundance of excellent batsmen vying for his Test spot, it will prove impossible to find a man with such experience, and so adept at accumulating in the middle overs, in time for the World Cup.

Due to his ease on the eye and penchant for finding quirky methods of dismissal, Martyn has long since been compared to Mark Waugh. The relative injustice of Martyn playing just 67 Tests is shown by the fact that Waugh, who was more inconsistent and averaged five runs less, played 61 more games.

It is highly unusual for players to retire in the middle of Test series, let alone Ashes ones. It is, surely, testament to the fact Martyn is content with his career’s work; history will remember him as a rare stylist in an era of hard-handed bashers, not the enigma he once threatened to be. Like many boyhood stars of such talent, he took time to adjust to the rigours of international cricket. But his grace and proven quality against all types of bowling ensured that, while he could have achieved even more, he did rich justice to his talents

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Nick Gammons said...

A very good tribute to a batsmen who always made scoring runs look so easy. It is a shame Martyn never got the number of Tests his talent deserved, but he proved his worth to those early doubters and provided cricket supporters with some wonderful innings.

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