Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Chris Martin: A Rabbit's Tale

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in October 2009)

Tailenders. They just don’t make ’em like they used to. The genuine rabbit – a creature prone to prod meekly at balls outside off stump and liable to leap out of the way of anything close to the body – is now an endangered species in international cricket. Everywhere we look, tailenders are working hard at their batting and scoring more and more runs. The members of the Aussie fast bowlers' union are the “worst” tailenders of the lot. Glenn McGrath – surprisingly but fittingly – led the way in 2004 by reaching a half-century at the 115th time of asking. Since then, we’ve seen courageous final stands in the 2005 Ashes, fifties aplenty, Johnson’s heroic hundred and Dizzy’s frankly ridiculous double. Here in England, Duncan Fletcher orchestrated a ruthless rabbit cull. Dear old Monty managed to survive, but only because he is every bit as industrious as he is inept, in contrast to his undeniably indolent predecessors Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm.

However, all is not lost for rabbit-lovers. In seamer Chris Martin, New Zealand, a warren of some pedigree – Ewen Chatfield, Danny Morrison and Geoff Allott spring to mind – have produced a very fine specimen indeed. What's more, there is a strong case for anointing Martin as the worst batsman Test cricket has ever seen.

Not many players have managed to chalk up fewer runs than wickets over their career. Martin, however, has in 48 tests scored only half as many runs (80) as he has taken wickets (160). He has an overall batting average of 2.28, but a closer look reveals that, like many others in recent times, he has feasted on minnows. If we exclude his innings against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (in which he has plundered 16 runs without being dismissed), his average plummets to 1.82. Among all those who have batted 10 or more times in Tests, no one has fared worse. Roughly speaking, a third of his visits to the middle have resulted in ducks (25 of them), another third have seen him stranded on zero, and the final third have produced single digit scores. (The one exception, his magnum opus of 12 not out, was achieved against Bangladesh; his best against a major nation is merely a magnificent 7). If he continues at this rate, Courtney Walsh’s world record for the most ducks (43) won’t be intact for much longer.

These figures are astonishing, but what of the things statistics cannot convey – technique, style, image, impact? Well, in this regard too, Martin’s leporine credentials are impeccable. His defence is unprecedentedly porous, his footwork all but nonexistent and his range of strokes limited to say the least. His incompetence is something of a running joke among teammates, coaches and fans alike. Last month, he survived 5 balls to allow Jesse Ryder the chance to reach his maiden century and the latter’s overriding emotion was disbelief. Often overlooked for ODIs, Martin once revealed that John Bracewell had no misgivings about selecting him in Twenty20 matches because the “likelihood of me having to bat is quite minimal.” Such is his cult status among Black Caps fans that he made a cameo appearance on comedy TV show Pulp Sport, advertising a “Learn to bat like Chris Martin” video. Indeed, he has no pretensions about his ability and no aspirations whatsoever. In his 297 matches in professional cricket (both domestic and international), every single time he has walked out to bat, it has been as his team’s very last able-bodied batsman. It doesn’t matter whether it’s T20 or 20 minutes before tea on the fifth day, white clothes or white balls, Southampton or South Island – the sight of Chris Martin at the crease means that there is only one wicket left to fall. And fall it most surely and swiftly will.

Now, the Kiwis are certainly not the only cricket fans who love watching a genuine rabbit in action. In fact, one might go as far as saying that any true cricket fan – provided his or her team's fortunes aren't hanging in the balance – enjoys doing so. It is, after all, an experience unique to cricket, one of the game’s eccentric charms. Think about it – what other sport allows us to watch a top athlete do something he’s woeful at? We don’t get to see Shane Williams jump in the lineout. We don’t get to see Shaun Wright-Phillips in goal during a penalty shoot-out. We do get to see Chris Martin bat. Sadly, if the rabbit-killers and manufacturers of multi-dimensional cricketers get their way, we’re likely to see less and less of his kind in future. So while we can, we should cherish Chris Martin, the latest – and greatest – of Test cricket’s rabbits.

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