Back in 2007, we paid tribute to the men who dedicated themselves to playing the game with a touch of class.
First published in 2007
Mark Waugh (Australia 1991-2002)
Mark Waugh was special. Everyone knew it. Because Mark was special allowances had to be made. Even the power-crazed Australian team of the Nineties accepted it. In fact, he was so special that they always forgave his concentration lapses, the four successive Test ducks, and comfortably endured those mind-chasm moments when he tossed it away, those moments when his approach, set against the arch scrapper and twin brother Steve, could not have seemed more un-Australian. So why? Why did they forgive, and what was so special?
Let’s start with the fielding. No-one else has got near 181 catches in Test cricket, nor caught edges at slip with such ridiculous ease. He probably did drop a few, but can anyone remember? Left-handed grabs were pouched as nonchalantly as regulation chest-high loopers, and his work at short cover in one-day games was effortlessly brilliant, possessing a wicked underarm flick throw to go with the best hands in the business.
With the ball, he either bowled big spinning off breaks or medium pace bouncers. Why bowl anything else? He took 144 international wickets bowling those two deliveries, always in his short-sleeved sweater and often wearing shades. Here was a man who understood cricket’s complex relationship with style.
And Waugh the batsman, now there was a thing. His stance was classical, perfectly side-on, with the bat tapping calmly against his right toe. The head was always upright, controlling the balance of the body, which never moved too much and certainly never wasted energy doing anything rushed or inelegant. His leave alones were elegant. His back foot defence was a thing of easy beauty. His off-side shots were crisp – cover drives played late with high left elbow, cut shots checked for optimum class – and his leg-side strokes were simply immaculate. He was the finest leg-side player of his era.
But this was no golden age of the carefree amateur. In the era of ultra-professionalism Waugh’s highest score over 128 Tests was just 153 not out. For a decade, he batted at number four for Australia (the stylist’s position), but averaged under 42 – by comparison his brother Steve, with half as many shots, averaged over fifty. He would infuriate – here was a player who could have made a dozen double centuries – but from the moment he replaced his brother in 1991 and made a beautiful Ashes hundred on debut, he was indispensable to the Australian side.
This cricketing aesthete (collar always upturned) had found his place in the most focused mechanical team in history. But it was more than that. This team had found him. The romantic amongst the pragmatists. What a player. Forget the stats. Just remember the imagery.
David Gower (England 1978-1992)
The great Australian wicket-keeper Ian Healy was once asked which players hit the ball the hardest and farthest. Of course Viv was mentioned, Clive Lloyd, Beefy, the usual suspects. And David Gower’s name came up. Healy said Gower’s bat made a different noise to everyone else’s, and that the ball, when touched by Gower, had no right to go as far as it did. His bat made a different noise. I love that line.
This was Gower. No one else played like him. He was a one-off. A touch player, he batted as if lost in a sweet, unearthly dream, and because he always acted in the moment according to his whims and fancies, he thrilled and bedevilled those who paid to watch him more than any other player of his time. He had little call for nets, because that would mean grooving a technique. Bowling machines were never for him; for Gower, who never ground out runs at county level but who pulled his first ball in Test cricket for four, it was always about the occasion. And when everything clicked, as it did over 18 hundreds in 117 Tests, he was just about the most charming batsman who ever played the game.
Frank Woolley (England 1909-1934)
We had to pick one old-timer, but with the exception of the editor this is quite a young office, so we’ve gone on anecdotal accounts, and for all of the words on Tom Graveney’s cover drive, Colin Cowdrey’s back foot ease and Wally Hammond’s straight thwack, we’ve had to go with the one and only Mr Frank Woolley. His Test record is good – 64 Tests and 3,283 runs between 1909 and 1934, and his record of 140 centuries for Kent over 32 years is frightening, but it was the manner in which he scored those runs that makes him our golden oldster.
The willowy Woolley was a tall left-hander with great reach, and wonderful easy timing. His drive, so they say, was his most prized weapon, but he was equally strong square of the wicket and off his legs. He was cricket’s first great crowd-pleasing southpaw, with that gloriously infuriating predilection for giving it away when the fans are baying for more. A carefree amateur, his unconcern for milestones – he was out 35 times in the nineties – added to the myth of the great people’s champion: gifted, stylish, yet resolutely human. And 2,066 wickets with his smooth left-arm spinners surely confirms it. For cricket’s grandest pre-war stylist, it’s got to be Frank.
Malcolm Marshall (West Indies 1978-1991)
The thing about Marshall, the great craftsman, is that he was small and stocky in an era of giants. The West Indians of Holding, Ambrose, Walsh and the 7ft Joel ‘Big Bird’ Garner bestrode the game in the Eighties, and, confronted by these bruisers, it was tempting to think that pace bowling would lose its versatility forever, but Marshall bucked the trend so beautifully that all fears were allayed.
Watching him bowl, with that unique groundbreaking chest-on action, with that curving run-up which seemed to encourage the hooping swing and seam that became his trademark, with those breakbacks and slower balls and skiddy bouncers, and seeing the way batsmen lived in fear of the others but in awe of Marshall, was to witness something very special. Here was a professor sharing the playground with hired muscle, and bossing it throughout a career that yielded 371 wickets from 81 Tests. When he died in 1999 aged just 41, millions mourned the loss of a cricketing aristocrat, and a great man.
Of all the battery of fast bowlers produced by West Indies in the 1970s and 1980s, Malcolm Marshall was the greatest. His death in 1999, on this day, stunned the cricket world.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) November 4, 2020
Bob Taylor (England 1971-1984)
If batsmen are cricket’s preening frontmen, then wicketkeepers must be the drummers at the back of the stage, out of shot, frantically keeping the show together. It’s not glamorous, but just because keepers don’t get the girls doesn’t mean they don’t do a vital job. They are the heartbeat, the rhythm section, the driving force of the whole operation. Without them we’re nothing. But keeping wicket is not sexy. No escaping that.
So with this in mind, what an achievement it was for Derbyshire’s Bob Taylor, the old English charmer from the Seventies and Eighties, to make standing behind the timbers in a pair of enormous gloves and a silly hat somehow desirable, aspirational and yes, even a wee bit sexy. Back then Alan Knott was the main man on account of his superior batting, but Taylor – the tiny titan who stood behind Willis that day at Headingley ’81 – was the more stylish stumper.
There are artists (wicketkeepers are often called ‘artists’ – it denotes both a dedication to one’s principal craft, and the subtle suggestion of a comparatively poor batting technique), and then there is Taylor, no more than a doughty blocker with the bat, but a gloveman of unique beauty with 1,649 career dismissals. He never made a Test century – walking on 97 at Adelaide after a tickle down the leg-side. A few runs and he’d have been one of cricket’s legends.
Richard Hadlee (New Zealand 1973-1990)
It’s still a mystery how Richard Hadlee made cricket look so damned easy. As a bowler, his short run-up was a study in clinical simplicity, and his action, perfectly side-on with a balletic criss-crossing of the feet in delivery stride, flowed effortlessly through the crease. Style can either be packaged messily, its streaks spilling over the edges, or it can be immaculate. Hadlee was the antithesis of the romantic, delicately fallible cricketer who charmed the birds from the trees. He was simply the perfect technician, and perfection has a style all of its own.
Combining good pace, movement either way and relentless accuracy, Hadlee was always about to take a wicket (431 in 86 Tests; 1,490 in all), which would explain his cool celebration – a dispassionate Shearer-like jog through to the slips with one arm raised. He assumed a wicket was coming any minute, because it was. The man known as Big Dick around Trent Bridge, where the Kiwi played at Notts for many years, is still to this day the high priest of pace bowling.
Mohammad Azharuddin (India 1985-2000)
Asian cricketers tend to play with their wrists, working and flicking straight balls through the leg-side, or behind square on the off-side, and the master of this style was Azhar. Watching him through the Eighties – when he started his Test career with centuries in his first three Tests – and into the early Nineties, was to witness a paradigm shift in batsmanship.
He was inventing new ways of playing, just as Viv had done the previous decade. There was the lazy stance at the wicket, vaguely crouched over, with his light wand of a bat lurking in midair, but then there were the electric hands that would engineer the ball with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scythe, and the lightning quick feet. Then there was the grace of timing allied to the power produced by those quick hands and the duelling speed of Zorro. He was a whirligig batter, but somehow all these factors worked in exhilarating harmony. His 121 at Lord’s in 1990, after Gooch’s 333, was a knock from the heavens; his 182 at Calcutta against the same opponents was almost as special, and his 74-ball century against South Africa might have been the best of the lot. An Indian master, which makes those subsequent and manifold allegations of match fixing all the more dispiriting.
Michael Holding (1975-1987)
Violence has never been so seductive. In his pomp Michael Holding, the lithe Jamaican thoroughbred with the whiplash physique and dancehall afro, was frankly a rather beautiful human being, and never more so than in the summer of 1976. Holding was the West Indies’ wrecker-in-chief, with 14 wickets at The Oval when he took the placid pitch out of the equation by bowling fast straight unplayable yorkers. Others have used this tactic, but never so elegantly.
The grace of Holding’s approach belied the eruption that followed. He would glide to the crease with his head cocked regally skywards and his long legs eating up the turf, and then, when he leapt into his delivery stride there was a spilt-second moment when ‘Whispering Death’ (no one heard him move) would hang in the air, and everything, would, just. Stop. Time and motion were suspended. Holding was mid-air, body cocked and about to uncoil. The batsman… well, let’s just forget the batsman. A spilt-second after this tantalising, gravity-defying ceasefire, the resumption of hostilities was nasty, brutish and invariably short. Too quick, too good.
Bishan Singh Bedi (India 1967-1979)
Bedi was a Sikh left-arm spinner for Northants, who was rarely seen scoring runs and seldom observed snatching one-handed slip catches, but who was transformed into a thing of aesthetic wonder with a ball in his fingers. When he bowled, Bedi the slightly awkward athlete became Bedi the cunning master, with impeccable control of flight, fizz, turn, loop, dip, rip, grip, and all those other terms exclusive to the spin bowler.
At times he would release the ball absurdly slowly, tossing it way above the batsman’s eyeline and goading him into the big shot. The goading worked 266 times for India, and 1,560 times over a twenty-year career. And his legacy to the art of left-arm orthodox? A decade ago a young Sikh spinner in England began studying the Bedi technique from an old MCC manual, and got rather good. Later his career began to take shape, coincidentally for Northants, and he got to meet his mentor, at one point having him round to his parents’ house for dinner. For the record, Bedi rates Monty Panesar very highly.
Greg Chappell (Australia 1970-1984)
Statuesque at the crease, Greg Chappell was the gum-chewing blue-eyed boy of Seventies Australian cricket, and a batsman with stardust in his strokes. It was the ‘on drive’ that established his style credo. Recognised as the hardest shot to play, Chappell played it so easily that he seemed to be waging a one-man campaign to demystify its difficulty. He was the outstanding strokemaker of his time, with the weight of runs – 7,110 from 87 Tests, 48 as captain – to justify the greatness tag. Whilst his brother Ian snarled and spat at one end, Greg would be the one standing bolt upright at the other, mentally impenetrable, cool, and caressing the ball to all parts.
First published in 2007