AGE REFUSES to weary Sportshound KEN PIESSE, who this week celebrates the release of his 72nd cricket or football book, an output unequalled by any other living sports author in Australasia.
Known as cricket’s master storyteller, Ken’s latest is Heroes of the Hour, cricket’s quintessential moments from Bradman and Lillee to Warne and Steve Smith – their greatest triumph, their greatest day.
Ever since 1963 when he attended his first Melbourne Test match, the MCG has been a home away from home for Ken.
He has seen most of Australia’s Test matches home and away in the last 30 years and says the game never ceases to produce the extraordinary.
Ashton Agar has contributed the foreword to Heroes of the Hour — an inspired choice given his 2017 comeback to Australia’s Test and ODI teams.
Of his remarkable debut, at Trent Bridge in 2013 when he made 98 from Number 11, Agar says: “It’s still the best week of my life. I’m at Trent Bridge playing in an Ashes Test, sharing a big partnership with my hero Phil Hughes… You can’t wipe the smile off my face. This is what I’d dreamed about all my life…”
From the heroics of Don Bradman’s Invincibles at Leeds in 1948 to Mark Waugh’s steely match-winning 100 at Port Elizabeth in 1997 and David Warner’s exuberant century before lunch in Sydney in 2017, the game’s signature moments continue to compel and excite.
“Champions like Dennis Lillee, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting have all delivered when it was most crucial,” Ken says.
“For key occasions where Tests have been turned by a ball, a catch or a fabulous innings, we cricket purists can tell you our exact location, even the row and seat number.
“When Warnie flippered Richie Richardson (in 1992) we were five rows back in the (MCG’s) old cigar stand. The commentators initially called it a wrong-un, but Shane was too scared to bowl one in case it bounced twice.
“It was his quicker one, which hustled through 20 per cent quicker than his normal leg break. As it scuttled past Richardson and hit his middle and off stumps, a big-time career was established then and there.
“It was just amazing to be there and witness history.”
- Heroes of the Hour (384 pages, $40) is Ken’s 52ndcricket book — and fifth with Echo/Bonnier Publishing. Signed copies are available from Ken via his cricketbooks.com.au
Here is an exclusive excerpt:
Lord’s, London: July 16 and 17, 2015
Feat: His scintillating double century in blissful summer sunshine is a victory for the lovers of the unorthodox and for Australia which squares the 2015 series at Lord’s.
It was at Haileybury College, half an hour south of the MCG, when a baby-faced Steve Smith lit up a sleepy mid-week afternoon with a brilliant century in a state second XI fixture. Commanding, balanced and inventive, anything pitched straight at the stumps was sent skidding through mid-wicket and square leg. When the Victorians tried to bowl a restrictive fifth stump line, he unleashed several luscious cover drives. The attack was fast and willing and included Peter Siddle and Darren Pattinson, who within months were to be playing Test cricket. But even on a school pitch the blond teenager was unstoppable. He made 162.
It was the New Year of 2008. Smith was the most rated teenager in Sydney grade cricket having made 90 for Sutherland on debut as a 16-year-old. I immediately rang Rob Elliot, my mate at Melbourne bat and ball manufacturers Kookaburra Sport, told him of Smith’s genius and recommended he sign him immediately — before someone else did. Elliot had contracted Ricky Ponting as a 13-year-old. He loved unearthing champions-in-the-making. Smith duly joined the Kookaburra stable and by 21, his precocious talents so captivated and tantalised sets of selectors Australia-wide that he was representing Australia in Tests, one-day internationals and Twenty20s.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Australia’s tour of the UK. It was mid-afternoon on day two of the first Ashes Test in party-town Cardiff. The contest was keen. Warner had nicked one behind and to warm around-the-ground applause, Smith entered at number three, every eye on him, the sense of expectation palpable. He’d averaged 80 in the previous two Test calendar years and was now the Number One ranked batsman in the world. Taking guard, he vigorously marked three lines rather than just one, stretched a little, faced one way and then the other. It seemed like an eternity before he finally settled to muffled boos and calls, “Get on with it!” He seemed a little edgy, as if he was shouldering the whole weight of Australia’s Ashes defense.
Upstairs in the BBC’s Test Match Special broadcast box Graeme Swann told listeners how Number Three may have been the plum batting slot, but it was also the hardest position of all to master, particularly in the UK with the higher-seamed Dukes ball veering and seaming this way and that. Smith was good, he said, but he was no Ricky Ponting. It seemed Smith was listening. Third ball he edged only to be saved by the benign Sophia Gardens surface, the snick carrying only two-thirds of the way to captain Alastair Cook at first slip.
Jimmy Anderson and the English wanted to make life truly uncomfortable for Smith and in between overs the two umpires Marais Erasmus and Kumar Dharmesena walked backwards to their position at square leg, looking to be peacemakers and arbiters in case of any cross words and pique.
Many in the crowd were hooked into the TMS commentary and applauded when the evergreen Henry Blofeld proudly proclaimed 118 countries were listening that morning. The interest in the match was extraordinary.
Having come off a century in his only innings of the tour at Canterbury – combined with a match double of 199 and 54 not out in his previous Test just weeks earlier at Sabina Park – Smith was Australia’s in-form player. But for all the headlining hype, Australia’s new star was strangely subdued and out-scored by his partner Chris Rogers. At 10, he almost played on to Ashes debutant the hustling Northern express Mark Wood. Moeen Ali was introduced with his seemingly innocuous off-breaks and from his first ball Smith ran at him, clubbing three boundaries down the ground in four balls. We all relaxed. Our bright young champion seemed to be on song.
Maintaining his faith in Moeen, Cook altered his field, employing two catching mid-wickets and refusing to allow mid-on to retreat. Within minutes he’d been rewarded as Smith again ran at an Ali change-up, looking to hit a little straighter only for a leading edge to land directly with Cook in the centre of his leg trap.
Coming off five centuries in his previous six Tests, Smith’s was the golden wicket and the Australians, despite Rogers’ grit and purpose, never recovered. Forced to play catch-up, they were beaten in four days. On the last afternoon, an out-of-sorts Brad Haddin holed out to Cook at silly mid-on and as he trudged off, sections of the pro-England crowd began chanting, “Easy, easy, easy.”
The toss had been important, but had Haddin held a sharp catch off England’s best player Joe Root to the second ball he faced on the opening morning, England would have been 4-43. Anything was possible. A pair of 33s from Smith was promising — but a waste, given he’d made a start in each innings.
Back to the nets he went, working on his balance and looking to be more disciplined in his choice of shots. Smith’s extravagant step across the stumps had been pinpointed by some as a weakness, but he believed it pivotal to his game. Trying not to preempt line or length, he worked on playing the ball as late as possible.
To Lord’s and sellout crowds every day, the Australians hit back under brilliant blue London skies, squaring the series, also with a day to spare.
In from the 15th over under sunny skies and on a beautiful pure wicket, Smith played with immediate poise and purpose. If he’d seemed shackled and weighed down by responsibilities and nerves in Cardiff, he played with refreshing freedom this time, reminding of the second XI game mid-week against Siddle and Co. all those years earlier at Haileybury.
Adjusting his trigger movement earlier than in Cardiff, Smith was completely still as the bowler delivered and his old confidence soon flowed. Cook almost immediately placed a deep point to restrict Smith’s mastery square of the wicket.
Other than a miss by Ian Bell at second slip when he was 50, Smith played virtually error-free. In the commentary box, Swann admitted that while Smith may not be a Ponting, in this sort of touch he wasn’t far off. Maybe his criticism had been premature.
With Rogers also in stellar form, the pair carried Australia to an impregnable 1-337 at stumps, Smith’s 100, his 10th in 19 Tests, coming via a savage pull for four against swing king Anderson, who was to go wicket-less for the first time in 18 Lord’s Tests. For Australian supporters — and thousands had again come to cricket’s mecca to worship — the run spree after the early finish in Cardiff was greeted with joy. It was a merry Thursday night in ol’ London town.
Rogers talked with pride about obtaining the “trifecta” — 100s at cricket’s three most prestigious Test grounds: Melbourne, Sydney and Lord’s. His resurrection after turning 35 had been remarkable.
The next day Smith cruised relentlessly towards 200 and having joined Don Bradman as the only other Australian to score a double-century at Lord’s, he was out playing a cavalier reverse sweep to Root. His stand with Rogers had been worth a record 284.
“It was a place I’d never had much success at,” said Smith (with previous scores at Lord’s of one, 12, two and one), “so I was pretty keen to turn that around. To get my name up on the (Lord’s honor) board with 215 is pretty special.”
With a half century in Australia’s second innings, Smith emulated Bradman’s 1934 double of 244 and 77 at The Oval in 1934. He was in the form of his life. And destined to only get better.
With his lofty backlift and sweet timing, Smith’s legacy as an inventive, successful strokemaker was assured as his average soared beyond all fellow Australians bar the Don. Only Yorkshireman Root and India’s Virat Kohli could truly claim to share the same stratosphere among cricket’s elite batsmen — and entering 2018 neither approached Smith’s average of 60-plus. And to think, on Smith’s debut at Lord’s in 2010, he’d played as a leg-spin bowler and No.8 batsman…
KEN PIESSE has covered cricket and football for more than 30 years in Melbourne. Despite that setback, Ken has written, published and edited 86 books on cricket and AFL football to become Australian sport’s most prolific author.
His latest cricket book is David Warner, The Bull, Daring to be Different with Wilkinson Publishing, out now