A natural galloping on skills

Mentally, Damien Martyn has grown as a cricketer. More of a reckless adventurer in his early days, the Australian has matured, is more focussed now and has adjusted well to the demands of the various slots in the line-up, writes S. Dinakar.

The touch players are a rare breed. In the days of heavy bats and power hitting, they do soothe the senses. These men are a throwback to another era. Damien Martyn does not drive as much as he caresses the ball. He slices open an attack rather than decimate it. His innings are created in the manner a gifted composer conjures up memorable music. When on song, his strokes emanate from the sweet portion of his willow. He also has this habit of timing his performances. And Martyn is humming these days.

The 35-year-old Australian's unbeaten 73 in Mohali knocked India out of the ICC Champions Trophy. His 78 against England in Jaipur proved a match-winning effort.

For the Indians, Martyn is a scourge. He is also one of those batsmen who has adjusted wonderfully well to the pitches of the sub-continent. This is a remarkable accomplishment in itself since Martyn was brought up on the hard, bouncy pitches of the WACA in Perth. He, predictably, was more used to perfume balls than deliveries spinning across the face of the bat. Yet, he had with him a critical element of batting on a bouncy track when he took guard in the sub-continent — soft hands.

When a batsman rises on his toes to keep well-directed deliveries aimed at the rib-cage down, he does so with soft hands. The batsman loosens his grip — often takes his bottom hand off the bat handle — as the ball drops dead in front.

On a track offering turn and bounce — the ball tends to grip the surface too on the sub-continental pitches — a batsman, apart from sure footwork, requires soft hands, whether moving forward or going back, to kill the spin. If he comes down hard on the ball — Ricky Ponting committed this folly on the tour of India in 2001 — it is likely to carry to the close-in cordon.

Not that Martyn is a defence-oriented batsman. In fact, he has a wealth of options. But then, his stroke-making ability is backed by a sound defence and a still head.

He has, in fact, evolved against quality spin bowling. Martyn's stirring deeds — 444 runs in four Tests at 55.50 — during the tour of India in 2004 played a major part in Australia conquering the `Final Frontier'. There was plenty of thinking behind the methods he adopted.

The right-hander relied a lot on back-foot play and, crucially, played the ball late. He would wait for the ball to turn and, just when the bowler thought he had got his man, he would delicately direct the ball between third man and point.

For these tactics to work, a batsman requires two critical attributes — the ability to pick the length in a jiffy and a deft touch. Martyn, the gifted Mark Waugh's logical successor in the Aussie line-up, has them both.

Martyn out-thought the bowlers in the series — he even took an off-stump guard to disrupt their rhythm — and the Indian spinners were unable to adjust their length. They, in the process, tended to over-pitch and Martyn was ready with his response. His batting was sunshine in sun-lit arenas.

Much like Sri Lanka's Mahela Jayawardene, Martyn has a variety of strokes, the cut, the drives on either side of the wicket, the sweep, the flick and the pull. He has used the shots square off the wicket with great success in India and in Sri Lanka, where his 110 (Galle) and 161 (Kandy), countering the wily off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan during the Test series in 2003-04, set the tone.

For the Indians, Martyn brings back bad memories, in both forms of the game. His unbeaten 88 in the 2003 World Cup final in Johannesburg was not just about measured footwork and that uncanny knack of finding the gaps — this again calls for split second adjustments while executing a shot. Martyn's effort oozed character with the batsman braving a broken finger.

Mentally, the Aussie has grown as a cricketer. More of a reckless adventurer in his early days, his irresponsible stroke against South Africa in the Sydney Test of the 1993-94 series saw him being banished from Test cricket till 1999, the West Australian learnt his lessons. He has matured, is more focussed and has adjusted well to the demands of the various slots in the line-up, although his best moments have come while batting at No. 4. Without quite compromising on flair, he is now constructing innings of substance. Martyn, a natural galloping on his skills, has found the right mix.

With new-found confidence stemming from a regular place in the side, Martyn made a statement, whether on the turners of the sub-continent, the bouncy tracks down under or the seaming pitches of New Zealand and South Africa. In a purple 13-month streak in Tests beginning in March 2004, he notched up 1608 runs at 61.00.

This smooth-striker had also emerged from the shadows of some brutal strikers of the ball such as Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist. Martyn, now, has his own identity.

But then, a wretched 2005 Ashes series in Old Blighty resulted in a major career crisis. The English pacemen were able to achieve considerable swing — both conventional and reverse — and Martyn's tendency to drive between point and cover saw him being snared repeatedly in the cordon; he needed to stroke in the `V' with a high elbow.

With just 178 runs in five Tests at 19.77, he found his name omitted again. Martyn accepted the blow in a philosophical manner, but kept the fire burning.

Soon, the Australian selectors realised the value of his experience and quality, and Martyn earned a recall. He scripted a match-winning century too at Johannesburg with a style that was classical at the expense of a probing South African attack.

When the Ashes series resumes down under, Martyn would be seeking revenge. And he should be a key component of a vibrant side when Australia defends its World Cup title in the Caribbean.

Martyn would be expected to bat with the precision of a surgeon. He does have great hands and years do fall away as he strokes the ball. His batsmanship is an amalgam of beauty and steel.

DAMIEN'S NUMBERS TESTS

M: 65; Inn: 106; NO: 14; Runs: 4361; HS: 165; Ave: 47.40;

S/R: 51.48; 100s: 13; 50s: 23; Ct: 33. ONE-DAYERS

M: 206; Inn: 180; NO: 50; Runs: 5273; HS: 144*; Ave: 40.56;

S/R: 78.10; 100s: 5; 50s: 37; Ct: 68.