Matt Renshaw's excellent adventure
Is batting fun? Almost immediately after the winning runs in Adelaide were struck through midwicket by Peter Handscomb, his partner at the crease, 20-year-old Matt Renshaw, told the television camera that he had never had so much fun in all his life. Drenched in sweat and still breathless, Renshaw spoke with boyish enthusiasm about the extraordinary few days that might well change his life forever. Not that he thought quite so deeply about it, only that a month ago he could not have imagined such a thing, and now that it had come along, he was loving every moment.
Many a batsman, and especially those to whom batsmanship is work, not play, talk of reflected glory; of satisfactory achievement in hindsight. The rigour of a methodical approach can suck the joy out of batting, unless the batsman has a sadistic streak that delights in the torture of bowlers - Michael Atherton and Gary Kirsten might admit to this; Justin Langer and Alastair Cook too. Renshaw's ability to miss the right ball served him well in his first Test match. The sight of him playing down the Bakerloo as the ball whistled passed his outside edge on the Piccadilly had a spendidly Machiavellian irony about it, given the amount of times the South African bowlers had found the edge of every other Australian bat during the series.
On the first evening of the game, this skill earned the adopted Queenslander a standing ovation for the fact that 12 overs were safely negotiated beneath the stars when the ball zipped around much as it does before noon at Headingley in April. In the second innings, amid the nervous energy that accompanies a small target to win, the same playing and missing morphed into the theatre of the absurd. The audience was torn between hearty admiration for one so young actually out there resisting the apparently evil saliva-slapping South Africans - men with the gall to have successfully raided Australian shores three times in succession - and slow-handclapping the bloke in the baggy green who was dragging out the kill.
His father said it was something they worked on with Billy Root, brother of the Joe who commands Headingley these days. By this, he didn't mean playing and missing but learning the discipline of not being drawn to the line of the ball as it moved. They played Mind the Gap, said Ian Renshaw, a game in which they placed another stump on the line of a sixth stump and he would either bowl or throw into that channel. If the boys let it go by, they won a point, but if they played at it, he won a point. Very droll. The rigour of methodology is right there. Yet Renshaw junior delighted in it. Very Cook. In fact, there is much of the young Cook about him - gangly, tall and teenage-awkward, with an erratic gallop between the wickets for a single.
Not that there were many. Renshaw will have to make the single his friend; indeed he will have to become its master. It is not much of a claim: pah, a single! What's in a single? Well, four of them mean a boundary for a start, and anyway, bowlers hate them. It's a bit like saying Lionel Messi tackles back. Who cares? The opposition, that's who. The reality of sport is not all glamour and glory. Yes, Australian batsmen blister straight drives, scorch the turf with their cuts and pulls, drill through midwicket and hook hard. In comparison, the single tucked to midwicket is a bauble. Except that it isn't. It is a mechanism in the craft of batting, an acknowledgment of need and movement. A single is part of the process. Moreover, David Warner needs singles from Matt Renshaw. Warner's oxygen is the strike. Deprive him and he suffocates.
One can only imagine how Warner reacted when he heard the team for Adelaide. Who?! Then he saw the chance to play dad, a job he has delighted in since the birth of his two children. Channel Nine miked up Warner at net practice - a rare insight - and the viewers heard him turn his attention to the newbie, talk him though facing "Hoff" (Josh Hazelwood) and then, more generally, encourage his talent. Renshaw's own dad had said he didn't expect his son to score much on the off side - "If he goes well, 70% of his runs will be leg side." Oh for some of that 70%, thought Sunday's crowd as he defended 123 of the 137 he balls faced. Warner used to get 150 from that sort of leverage. But this misses the point, which was that the newbie ensured no repeat of the old record. Australian teams of the recent past collapse - fact. Not Renshaw, no baggage there. He thought, sod it, I'll be here at the end and we will win. He was right on both counts. It is clear the opposition has had enough when they start smiling, laughing even, at the incompetence of the opponent. The great thing was that Renshaw laughed back. I'm still here, he said, you can belly-laugh all you like but you haven't got me out and we're about to win, tee hee. South African exasperation turned to desperation turned to okay, we give up.
I'll wager Bill Lawry loved it - that's the Bill of the black-and-white television age, when runs were carved from granite; not the technicolour post-Packer Bill, whose calling of the game entertained like no other. Lawry loved batting. So does Kevin Pietersen, who was commentating for Nine and was blown away by Renshaw's capacity to soak it up. Pietersen says batting is fun - the Pietersen way, of course. He's not sure about the Renshaw way, never tried it.
Participating in sport is fun, but not always in a fun way. There is sport with your mates and sport with ambition. After ambition comes achievement at something you enjoy and was once recreation, but to which you have now become utterly committed. If you go the limit and become professional in sport, it is bound to become less fun because it is work, or at least it is a job. If you play sport for a living, you change the parameters. As you grow older, failure means more than getting out, going wicketless or dropping a catch; failure means you will be out of a job. That's not funny, neither is it much fun. Ideally sport is escapism. Only a lucky few whose livelihood depends upon playing sport see it as such. Pietersen once did but it is unlikely he does now. Now, understandably, it is more about the coin. He knows he will be a long time retired and that batting still fascinates him. The nets are fun. The middle is harder because he plays so little and so much is expected. But he makes that bed. The chore for an older sportsman is in training and travelling. If every match was in your home town and a net the day before was the sum total of the extraneous responsibility - well, hell, you could go on for years.
None of this concerns Renshaw, who is starting out on his adventure. To Renshaw, playing and missing is fun, really fun, because it is a whole lot better than not playing at all. We enjoyed his debut because he took us back to our own, at whatever level that might have been. He looked the naïve, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, over-excited cricketer we have all been. This could have been a first-grade match, an Under-19 event, a provincial, state or county debut. He might be taking guard in the middle of a growth spurt - his father alluded to this, incidentally. Perhaps he is new to shaving, shy with girls, incapable of picking his own clothes off the floor, and almost certainly unaware of how to wash and dry them. Probably he likes a drink; he has played enough first-class cricket for that, though Lawry was never seduced by the common denominator of a beer, and managed to survive the fallout from such resistance.
As I write, Haseeb Hameed is blocking back everything India throw at him. He came in at No. 8 for England, having sustained an injury to his hand in the first innings, but continues to play with the preservation of his wicket as the first concern. This is all so retro. There, right there on the TV, he stuns a half-volley into the ground as if it had the potential to explode in his face. A moment ago, he was swaying back from a Mohammed Shami bouncer as if it were a guided missile. Most children of the T20 age take on this sort of bowling but not baby Boycott: he's planning on a good time forged out of a long time. Hameed will not let the Indian bowlers break him, not if he can possibly help it.
Renshaw was playing for Australia and neither could a fine South African attack break him. Upgrades in a couple of areas will help his method but his mind can be left just as it is. This was a selection gamble born of a crisis and it has proved to be quite brilliant. Not because he is the most gifted man to pull on the jumper worn by Bradman but because he bloody well relishes the opportunity and will not sell it short. As they say in Australia, how good is that! If Renshaw and Hameed keep at it, who knows, the preservation of wickets might catch on. Next thing we know, it will be trending. Imagine that, the day it becomes cool to block.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK