November 30, 2016

Matt Renshaw's excellent adventure

You only needed to watch Australia's youngest debutant in Adelaide to know that the playing of cricket brings joy

Wide-eyed delight: Renshaw loved every moment of his debut © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

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.

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

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.

Hameed: bringing barnacles back into vogue © AFP

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • john on December 2, 2016, 21:00 GMT

    A dead rubber in an exhibition match that's all. Stork hazelwoof lyon etc only took wickets then and now they're suddenly world beaters

  • mohan on December 2, 2016, 6:31 GMT

    Give atleast 10 tests to them to show their talents.

  • Peter on December 1, 2016, 22:04 GMT

    Unlike a few here who have no idea about research, I looked up his FC stats & asked a few Qld friends about him. Apparently, he is quite a decent shot maker & plays with a lot of ease when set. From those who have actually seen him play & score FC hundreds, he has the full complement of strokes, what he did show me was he was a fighter who valued his wickets & played to the conditions. We needed someone to graft because that wasn't easy batting. He played that second dig a lot like Khawaja's first innings dig. People who write him off after one defensive innings show us all exactly how little they know about the game. Wonder how harsh they would have been on Warne, S.Waugh, Hayden & McGrath after their first games? Get the point?

  • Terry on December 1, 2016, 20:28 GMT

    Lots of drawn Tests? Australia have drawn 2 of their last 21 Tests (11 wins 8 defeats) ..... one of which was the Sydney Test against the West Indies where at least 3 days were washed out and the Perth Test against NZ played on a very placid wicket. Some people seem to be charging Matt Renshaw with the destruction of Test cricket as we know it or telling his fortune after they have watched him bat twice on a greenish wicket against a pink ball against a very strong S African fast bowling attack. Extraordinary.

  • sam on December 1, 2016, 17:14 GMT

    If all batsmen block we are going to get a lot of drawn test matches. In this day and age if anything is going to kill test cricket: yes you read that right; KILL TEST MATCHES; then it too many drawn tests like the 1980s. We need only about 10% tests being draws and 90% tests being results otherwise the interest of future generations will dwindle even more from cricket. Nobody has time to sit for 5 days and watch a drawn test. And if this process keeps on repeating (i.e. drawn test after drawn test) don't blame the crowd for forsaking test cricket. Yes, there needs to be balance between attack and defence. That's why anywhere between 2.5 to 3.5 runs an over works in test cricket. Australian Test Team of the early 2000s often went at over 4 an over without losing too many wickets. That was primarily down to two things: how great the Aussies were and how poor the rest were (as the other great bowling attacks WI, PAK and SA had lost their men to age and injuries).

  • Adito on December 1, 2016, 11:11 GMT

    Happy to see Australia embracing Matt Renshaw in his 20s, surely must have the after effect of Chris Rogers showing that he should have played a lot more tests if he would have selected earlier.

    Also I hope Joe Burns is not left out of contention after just 3 bad tests, the team management should instill more belief to their younger players.

  •   Venkatesh Venkatesh on December 1, 2016, 11:00 GMT

    To early to say judge about this batsman at highest level of cricket the number of times he played and missed in the second knock is much more than number of runs he scored in this match & bit suspected against quality top class bowling attack of SA but his mettle will be tested only against moving ball both on and off the pitch where conditions prevail like in England and New Zealand . One thing is certain if and if plays like this as did in second knock the Australian selectors will dump him that is sure

  • Alex on December 1, 2016, 9:52 GMT

    He is a stop gap arrangement. He will be dropped the minute they find a attacking batsman. Aussies obsessed with dictating not like to get dictated. Rahul dravid style batsman is no no for australia. He is ideal for england though. England looking to fill few holes for last 2 years. They have not found one yet. Renshaw may have to go england now. Any team can have renshaw type player only on one condition. They must have stud all rounder to balance the team. Then they will have cushion to experiment. All type of players makes the team. He probably need to score some runs otherwise he will be soon forgotten for another flashy young player. Humans have short memory. That is all.

  • James on December 1, 2016, 3:27 GMT

    There's a lot of negativity in these comments about a guy who has just played his first game. Maybe let him play a bit more before casting judgment.

    The Australian test team needs another attacking batsman like a polar bear needs sunscreen. Have none of you watched any Australian cricket over the past 7-8 years? We are addicted to playing at everything with hard hands, even when we've just lost 3 for nothing. We collapse because so few of our players seem to have the temperament to knuckle down and put a price on their wicket.

    Provided that he can learn to turn the strike over a bit more, Renshaw can become the perfect foil for Warner. I couldn't care less how many times he plays the line of the ball and gets beaten. Australian cricket needs a Cook, not a Sehwag.

  • Rajaram on December 1, 2016, 0:33 GMT

    At Last Selectors and Commentators are realizing the Value of a "Bat-All -Day" Opener like Matt Renshaw, Bill Lawry, Mark Taylor, Justin Langer. I hope this is the end of the road for Shaun Marsh. He has been given too many chances, is impatient,has not learnt how to play in front of the wicket, and has got out countless times nicking to the slips.

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