A batting artist

To Damien Martyn's great credit, he was loved both as a batting artist of unsullied pedigree and as a genuinely nice person through his career, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

We've seen the last of Damien Martyn, the batsman. It's tempting — and often the norm — to look at a man with greater fondness after he is done with the game. Flaws are forgotten, prejudices put aside, as we savour for a few moments the pleasure he afforded us. As time passes, revisionism creeps in: there is a brief period of assessment during which we are inclined to be more accommodating; soon, all that's left of him are memory shells that gather shades of sepia. To Martyn's great credit, he was loved both as a batting artist of unsullied pedigree and as a genuinely nice person through his career. Little need for the forgiving prism of revisionism.

The 35-year-old's decision to retire from all forms of the game, announced through a statement, caught most by surprise — always an excellent indication that the timing is just right. Martyn, one sensed, always saw cricket for what it was: a game to be enjoyed. Played hard yes, but without losing perspective. Perhaps, as pointed out by cricket-writer Peter Roebuck, Martyn wasn't sufficiently wired emotionally to handle cricket as a lifestyle. There certainly wasn't a Steve Waugh-like aspiration to use it to achieve something greater, as a struggle to find a grand and noble purpose. Gideon Haigh, the Australian historian and writer, wrote — with greater elegance than is mustered herein — of how cricket for Pakistan's Wasim Bari seemingly existed for his pleasure, not the other way around. Martyn, in his time, exuded the same air.

In many ways, Martyn broke the stereotype of the modern Australian cricketer. He didn't see the need to throw out his chest, raise unseemly stubble, and sledge in an affected, deep bass voice: a distinctly Australian phenomenon psychologists and anthropologists link to insecurity about their virility. He hadn't the suffocating in-your-face carriage modern cricket celebrates. Indeed, he often appeared dispassionate to the point of seeming distant, not someone who would hang around for last hoorahs. It would appear from his statement — "such challenges (playing for Australia) require people who are more than 100 per cent committed, dedicated, disciplined and passionate about the game" — that the cumulative rigours of a 14-year career finally reached tipping point. Cricket was no longer a priority worth fighting for. Certainly not the priority it is for Michael Hussey. Perhaps getting married in the off-season played a part in Martyn's decision.

At his prime — and most other times in between — Martyn was a shoo-in along with Brian Lara, Mark Waugh, and V. V. S. Laxman of this generation to parade his artistry in front of the batting gods. He was just the right size for a batsman — neither tall enough to appear ungainly nor short enough to look laboured. Beautifully balanced at the crease, Martyn played late, so late some observers were positive he greeted the ball posthumously. Like Majid Khan before him, the Western Australian showed that footwork — while having its uses — wasn't the absolute necessity it was made out to be. A concise, languid backlift preceded strokes of finesse, conceived and tended to by soft, caring hands. Of particular beauty was the Martyn square drive. The closest kinaesthetic match to Martyn's production of stroke was Russian swimmer Alexander Popov's lingering arm stroke during the front crawl. It seemed a crime that such prettiness of stroke production was wasted on a right-hander. At least in batting soul, Martyn was left-handed.

Despite a tendency to get caught behind point, which brought him great grief during the 2005 Ashes, Martyn wasn't some frivolous wafter. His centuries in Chennai and Nagpur during the successful 2004 tour — Australia hadn't won in India in 35 years— were efforts of exacting mental discipline. In the preceding tour of Sri Lanka, Martyn made crucial, defining hundreds at Galle and Kandy. He also has centuries at Birmingham, Leeds, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Johannesburg, and Wellington: a case if ever for an adaptable, all-conditions batsman. He would have played more than 67 Tests if it hadn't been for a knee-jerk reaction by the Australian selectors to drop him for an ill-advised stroke in a Test against South Africa at the SCG in 1994.

To return from six years in the wilderness, hold his own in a line-up of born-again batsmen, each seeking redemption, and compile 4406 Test runs at 46.37 (touching 57.25 at one point) with 13 hundreds is remarkable. Australia's best batsman on low, turgid tracks — evident during an excellent Champions Trophy run — Martyn, who averages an excellent 40.80 in 208 ODIs, will be missed most by Ricky Ponting at the 2007 World Cup.