When an extra was the right choice

S. DINAKAR

IN the end, it was the 14th man who saved the day for the Kiwis. Cricket does have this knack of throwing up unexpected heroes, created by situations.

Scott Styris, the Northern Districts all-allrounder, did not figure in the list of 13 cricketers picked for the two-Test series in the Caribbean. However, the selectors, tantalisingly and wisely, left the 14th spot vacant, to be decided after the five-match one-day series.

Scott Styris may not be the most glamorous of cricketers, but when it matters he gets the job done.-AP

A spirited late middle-order batsman, who often made the bowlers earn his wicket, and a seam bowler of discipline rather than fire, Styris had been in the periphery ever since he broke into the international scene in 1999-2000.

Considered a one-day specialist, Styris knew he had to clutch at the straw offered by the selectors. It would prove 'his gateway' to Test match glory. The 27-year-old all-rounder was sensational in the ODIs, with efforts of 85, 64 not out, and six for 25. He was now moving on to serious business.

In fact, when Styris remained unbeaten with 64, and then destroyed the West Indies batting with a six-wicket haul at Port of Spain, it was only the second occasion in ODI history that someone had made a half century and scalped six, explosive South African Lance Klusener being the first.

It was clear now that Styris would take up the last slot, up for grabs. Yet, would he get to play his first Test? It appeared rather unlikely.

The Kiwis went into the Bridgetown Test with three pacemen in Shane Bond, Darryl Tuffey and Ian Butler with left-armer Daniel Vettori being the lone spinner. And Stephen Fleming's men went on to crush the West Indians by 204 runs.

The New Zealand think-tank had to make a key decision before the second and last Test at Grenada. Retain the winning combination or strengthen the batting by opting for Styris. Indeed, Styris, already 45 ODIs old, was on the verge of a Test debut. And it was actually, the third occasion when this gutsy all-rounder found himself in such a situation.

Styris should have played his first Test in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 2000, but a knee injury, that later required a surgery, forced him to fly back home. He was desperately unlucky to miss out a second time as well. Styris was all set to figure in the Karachi Test earlier this year, but a suicide bomb attack, close to the hotel the Kiwis were staying in, on the morning of the match, signalled the end of the tour.

And here was Styris, still awaiting his 'breakthrough game.' Would he be third time lucky. Styris was. He made the occasion a truly memorable one too. His strokeful 170-ball 107 in the first innings, batting at No. 8, and a dogged 145-ball unbeaten 69 meant he had become only the third New Zealander after Rodney Redmond and Lou Vincent to score a century and a half-century on debut.

Not to forget that Styris picked up two for 88 off 25 overs in the only West Indian innings. A fantastic overall contribution. The all-rounder had shown he could deliver in Test cricket as well.

Perhaps, there is a bigger message in Styris' success. That we often let a few pre-conceived notions about some players cloud our judgment. Styris has managed to break free, yet, so many cricketers have suffered.

More than the runs he made, it was the situation in which the knocks were compiled that provided us with a glimpse of his temperament. The Kiwis, adrift by 97 in the first innings, were at a precarious 157 for five on the final day at Grenada when Styris, with a pugnacious wicket-keeper batsman Hart for company, consumed 145 deliveries for his unbeaten 69.

The Kiwis, gradually managed to wriggle out of trouble. At the end of it all, skipper Stephen Fleming acknowledged the duo's rearguard action. "It took a big effort from two inexperienced players to get us out of a hole again."

In the first innings, the Kiwis had been at an uncomfortable 208 for six, when Styris faced his first delivery in Test cricket. Batting positively, he rallied with the lower order, and the tourists finished at a respectable 373.

Significantly, Styris had registered his highest first class score earlier this season, a mammoth 212 against Otago. A pointer to the future it certainly was. It wouldn't be surprising if Styris finds a regular Test place as a batsman all-rounder; he does consider batting his stronger flank.

Styris is still young in international cricket, yet he has already played important roles in New Zealand's two most cherished triumphs. The just concluded Caribbean campaign and the ICC knock-out tournament in Kenya, 2000.

The Kiwis were without a major ODI tournament trophy, and it threatened to stay that way when they were 187 for six, in pursuit of Pakistan's 252 in the semifinals at Nairobi. With the game on a knife's edge, Styris joined Craig McMillan and it was the Pakistanis who were out, with New Zealand home and dry by four wickets.

If Styris' unbeaten 28 in that last four duel was a vital contribution, his display with the ball in the final, where he prised out Yuveraj Singh and Vinod Kambli at a crucial stage of the innings was no less important. Eventually, it was Chris Cairns' inspirational knock that provided the Kiwis their most glorious moment yet in one-day cricket.

Indeed, when the Kiwis journeyed to the Caribbean this time around, they went with a hole in the side. No Chris Cairns, the match-winning all-rounder. Yet, the Kiwis could fill the breach to an extent since they possess so many useful, combative cricketers, who continue to buck the odds. West Indies skipper Carl Hooper's words after the series reflected just this.

"The New Zealand side plays as a team. I think that is where their strength lies. I wouldn't say they haven't got any talented players. But they have a lot of players you tend to underestimate," Hooper was right on the mark. Styris, who plays grade cricket in Australia, is certainly among those we all might tend to underrate. After all, he is neither the most glamorous nor the most attractive cricketer around. He gets the job done though and that's what matters really.

Over the years, so many efficient players have rolled out of New Zealand. The Brisbane-born Styris himself replaced one such player - Gavin Larsen.

Men like Chris Harris, Dion Nash, Daniel Vettori do belong to a category where team invariably comes before individual glory. Styris is the latest addition to the list. The 14th man was the right choice alright.