HE MAY be a recent convert but PETER MEARES has been infected by the fun and fury of the wild new child of cricket:
CRICKET IS, without doubt, Australia’s favourite Summer sport. Even with the Australian Open tennis in full swing, cricket’s TV ratings and crowds are through the roof. A recent report that the Big Bash was losing its appeal was, in this reporter’s opinion, way off beam.
A cricket tragic who was raised on a diet of Sheffield Shield and Test matches, I must admit to being a reluctant convert to the shorter formats. Perhaps this was not surprising, as I was working as a commentator/interviewer for ABC Sport when Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket took on the Establishment in the late Seventies. But it didn’t take long for me to start joining in the chorus of “Come on Aussie come on,” when our boys took the field against the world’s best in this exciting, abbreviated 50-over format.
Then T20 came along.
This frenetic format, with its fireworks, cheerleading and dancing in the stands was everything my generation had been raised to dislike. A polite handclap was the only sort of appreciation in our day, be it Shield or Test match. It just wasn’t cricket.
Of course, I’d watched T20 on television and must admit to being awed by the six-hitting and acrobatic fielding but Test cricket, especially the Ashes, was still the format I loved. I never tire of watching the ebb and flow of a match as conditions change over the five days – first pace has the edge, then batting and finally, spin. The bumper crowds for this Summer’s Ashes prove that I’m not alone.
But, to find out what all the fuss was about, I decided to actually go along and witness a T20 match “live.” The Brisbane Heat were playing the Melbourne Renegades at the Gabba, with a place in the semi-finals on the line. The fact that the Heat were second last on the table and had lost their last three games didn’t deter the crowd. I knew this from the free Brisbane City Council bus I caught to the ground, standing-room only. Sitting next to me was a woman who was born in South Africa but confessed to knowing nothing about cricket. Sharon and her two teenage sons were going along because their neighbours’ boys were keen cricketers and all the youngsters loved the atmosphere.
A crowd of 34,000 filled the Gabba with colour, excitement and noise. What a contrast to the Sheffield Shield of my day. Even the 1994-95 final, which saw Queensland finally win the elusive Shield after 68 years of trying, was like a funeral compared to this cacophony. And I was sitting in the Press Box behind a thick pane of glass!
The Heat won the toss and bowled first. The Renegades openers, Matt Short and Marcus Harris, had no problems handling the Heat’s pace bowlers and compiled a 75-run partnership before Brendon McCullum took a smart catch at short cover off leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson to remove Harris for 42.
I was feeling despondent about the Heat’s chances but, for the crowd, it didn’t seem to matter what happened in the middle. They responded to the roving TV cameras by dancing wildly in the aisles, being rewarded with their image on the big screens. And when they weren’t dancing there was breakdancing, bongo drums and bikinis. Everyone was smiling, regardless of the score.
Tom Cooper was in at number three and struggled to lay bat on ball against the Heat’s spinners, Swepson and Pakistani import, Yasir Shah. But, thanks to some sloppy fielding and wayward bowling, he went on to an entertaining 65 not out. With Matt Short making 62 the Renegades tallied 3/187 from their 20 overs. Yet the feeling in the Press Box was that it might not be enough against the Heat’s strong batting lineup, bolstered by the return of Chris Lynn and the debut of Test opener Matt Renshaw.
One of the reasons I wanted to come to this match was the return of the Master Blaster, Chris Lynn, after injury. With over 170 sixes, he’s one of the cleanest hitters the BBL has seen. He and his NZ-born captain, Brendon McCullum are known as the “Bash Brothers.” No sooner had I settled into my seat than the powerful Lynn struck his first six, straight over off-spinner Tom Cooper’s head, with elegant ease from the fourth ball of the innings.
Kane Richardson, an occasional Australian representative quick, opened from the other end. When he dropped short Lynn cut him for six, a stroke of enormous power and exquisite timing. After just 12 balls Lynn had made 21 and looked set to steer the Heat to victory. But 13 proved unlucky – he smashed a cover drive off Richardson and Marcus Harris flung himself sideways and somehow held on to a remarkable catch. Lynn commented afterwards that he had middled it better than his two sixes.
Sam Heazlett went cheaply but the experienced Kiwi McCullum was looking dangerous. Alas! Next ball he too was gone, pulling Richardson to Dwayne Bravo at mid-wicket. Out for five. The Heat 3/29. The run-rate was 12 an over and one felt that the Heat had definitely cooled in the betting.
Alex Ross steadied the ship with 36 (27 balls) and Matt Renshaw made 22 off 19, but both were out to fantastic catches. Ross went to a diving Jon Holland, a left-hander, caught in his right hand. Renshaw skied a cover drive and Tom Cooper, after initially misjudging it, ran back towards the boundary and stuck out his right hand – brilliant!
With 87 needed from the last six overs, all-rounder Ben Cutting needed to do something special – and he did. Richardson, who had removed the Bash Brothers, came back for a second spell. His first ball was a fraction short and the powerful Cutting pulled it for 6. Next ball was a further up on leg stump and was sweetly swept for another 6. Richardson is no fool, so his next ball was outside off stump. However, it too went over the ropes. Eighteen from three balls! Perhaps the Heat had a chance after all.
However, West Indian veteran Dwayne Bravo came on and deceived Cutting with a slow bouncer, having him caught on the boundary for 35 (18 balls.) Richardson mopped up the tail and, for the second time in the innings, was on a hat-trick, finishing with 4/35. The Heat fell 26 runs short, all out for 161, their sixth loss in 10 games. So, all in all, it seemed a bit disappointing after their good start to the season. But, as Chris Lynn pointed out after the game, the loss of both he and Joe Burns for most of the season through injury had let the team down. The Heat missed the finals, with the Renegades going through to Thursday’s semi-final against the Scorchers in Perth. But there was some consolation in the news from the IPL auction.
“Oh yeah, how much did I go for? $1.86 million. Is that right? I was too busy preparing for today’s game to be sure. But that’s a life-changer isn’t it.”
It will be fascinating to watch the explosive Lynn in action, alongside the likes of Warner, Finch, Maxwell and Stoinis over the next month in the triangular series against England and New Zealand.
PETER MEARES has covered sport on radio, TV and in print for 50 years. He’s the author of six published books on sport. His favourite sports are cricket, rugby union, rugby league, athletics, golf and tennis. His career has included Olympics, Commonwealth Games and a host of minor sports.