Strained by the pressure of external competition and his own extended run rut, Martin Guptill bounced back with an exhilarating 50-ball 97 against Australia. Aadya Sharma on the knock that could resurrect his floundering T20I career.
It was probably in the seventh over that Australia truly realised Martin Guptill had rediscovered his touch. Matthew Wade surely knew, the cameras zooming into the wicketkeeper’s bedazzled face.
Guptill had just thwacked a no-look six off Adam Zampa, sending the ball into orbit with his long levers. Even for the small University Oval, hosting its first-ever T20I, the ball was hit far, taking its first bounce only in the parking lot.
With the stroke, Guptill moved into his 40s, the first time since November 2019 that he had crossed that score. He ended up doubling it and more, eventually falling three short of his third T20I century. More than any milestone, however, the 50-ball blitzkrieg was a thumping statement by the Kiwi opener that he was by no means finished in the format.
There were valid reasons for the doubts to seep in. Before Thursday, Guptill had collected just one fifty in the last 19 innings, the last one dating back 15 months. A fifty in T20 cricket is hardly the right metric to gauge form, but for Guptill, the criteria will always be steep. Once the No.2 batsman in the ICC T20I rankings, and currently the third-highest run-getter in the format, he’s constructed a reputation of a white-ball superstar over the past decade.
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) February 25, 2021
Even beyond the numbers, it was Guptill’s recent hesitant approach that seemed to have shackled him. In the previous innings, his stiff hands had jammed a full ball into the hands of point, when one would usually see him completing the stroke with a flourish. It was his first game after returning from a finger injury, having passed a fitness test on the eve of the opening T20I, and fighting off competition from the two other openers cooling their heels on the sidelines.
One of them was Colin Munro, who was eventually not picked in the squad, despite looking in fine nick in the 2020/21 Big Bash, ending as Perth Scorchers’ top run-getter with 443 runs @ 31.64. The other was Finn Allen, the 21-year-old uncapped batsman who had been kept on stand-by for Guptill. When Guptill was dismissed for a two-ball duck in the previous game, calls for Allen to don the beige jersey intensified, with many convinced that they had seen the last of Guptill.
It wasn’t to be. Of almost exactly the same delivery that sent him back in Christchurch, Guptill got off the mark on Thursday, creaming the first ball of the innings through covers. He patiently waited for his next delivery to score off, almost determined to collect a big score this time.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) February 25, 2021
Slowly, the grim exterior peeled off, revealing the Guptill of old. He was suddenly reeling off sixes with abundant ease, starting off by launching one from Jhye Richardson over long off. It had the same characteristic authority of a Guptill six – he had done it to Morne Morkel in East London nine years ago, and he had done that to Billy Stanlake in Auckland in 2018.
Those two shots were from his two T20I centuries, the one against Australia being a 49-ball ton, a personal record that he, at one point, looked good to eclipse. By the end of the 14th over, he had raced up to 96 off just 47 balls. It was an innings headlined by strokes drilled in the ‘V’, where he collected 52 per cent of his runs, helped by the Australian bowlers who kept feeding him full ones. Some of them were immaculate punches that flew off the straight face of the bat, an intangible yet apt reflection that a batsman is genuinely in form. In a matter of an hour, he had left behind doubts over his efficacy in the format.
The management, too, deserves credit for sticking by Guptill in his run rut. On top of his recent dry run in T20Is, he had averaged a lowly 11.50 from four innings in the Super Smash, intensifying scrutiny over his place in the T20I team. Gary Stead, the head coach, however, expressed “full confidence” in Guptill even before the squad was announced, convinced that “it is one knock around the corner” and that “it can change very quickly.”
“I understand also how media works,” Stead said earlier this month. “You guys have got to write things in papers and stuff as well. If it was not Martin, it would be someone else you would be talking about … We have faith he will come good.”
That he did.
At 34, competition from the younger lot will surely linger in the future. Guptill is often panned for his rather inconsistent scoring patterns, and would be wary of slipping into that loop again. It’s probably partly the reason why he hasn’t managed more than 13 games in his IPL career, struggling to win the confidence of any team, and has now been unsold two years in a row. The knock probably came a week late, and the man himself admitted after the game that “things haven’t quite gone my way [recently]”, but insisted that getting the win “was the most important thing”.
Whether he revels in his rediscovered touch or falls into the loop again remains to be seen, but for now, the Guptill of old has finally resurfaced.