Cricket World Cup: Come in No 6, your time is now

The One-Day Specialist: Michael Bevan of Australia
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The Independent Online
WHOEVER HEARD of a "specialist No 6 batsman"? A specialist opening batsman certainly, maybe a specialist No 3 but in all of cricket history it has been a case of assemble the rest as you please. Then along comes Michael Bevan and rewrites cricket orthodoxy.

Faithful Bevan watchers are not surprised. From the moment he first picked up a bat in his left hand his cricket career has been a sort of contradiction.

In the Eighties, the talent scouts called him a natural, a fluent shot- maker who could bowl unorthodox left-arm spin as well as pace, and he was like a deer in the field. Just when the headline writers had the makings of "another Bradman" they had to settle for "Australia's own Sobers".

His batting genius was a joy to behold, nothing brutal, more a tapestry of fluency and timing; yet, any achievement short of his objective, which he confessed was usually perfection, could trigger what team-mates nominated as a "Bev attack" - Bevan assaulting something, a cricket bag, a wall or a locker, with his offending bat.

In the Nineties he made the Test team on the strength of his brilliance in the high order for New South Wales and the memory still lingers of an afternoon at the SCG when he launched a ferocious counterattack on a short-pitched blitz from Carl Rackemann. But a few years on people were saying he was gun-shy against fast bowling, and that he was finished as a Test batsman and would have to play out his career as a low-order one- day batsman.

Which brings us to now, the 1999 World Cup and Bevan's likely influence upon it. Bevan is a quite different player in outlook. For a start, he is 28 now and happily married and with that has come maturity, via the sharpened focus that settling a family can naturally generate.

To his immense credit he has managed to put aside the frustrating urgency that overwhelmed him when he was trying to regain his Test batting spot and has emerged a better-equipped player mentally. Any dropping is a test of a cricketer's character, but Bevan's had a "PS" attached.

Orthodoxy has long dictated that the way back for an Australian Test reject is to try ever harder to score the elusive big runs in the Sheffield Shield, the long game, to jog the selectors' memories.

But Bevan was confronted by the unorthodox - dropped, then told he had been consigned to "one-day player only" status. To a young cricketer who craved perfection it must have been a hammer blow.

A few summers on from his Test demise, the recent official declaration that Bevan is rated the world's best one-day batsman might have softened the blow, but not by much. We all remember Dean Jones once burned that bright, and Bevan knows that yesterday the best was Tendulkar. One-day wonders come and go as fast as the matches themselves. Deep down Bevan would prefer Test recognition.

There are three defining aspects to Bevan's one-day game: there is his strike-rate (77 runs per 100 balls), which is high for a batsman coming in so late in the order; there is his running speed; and there are the partnerships.

In either form of cricket partnerships, batting or bowling, can turn matches. Bevan figures in the five highest Australian one-day partnerships for the fifth wicket:

l 172 v West Indies, 1998-99 (Australia won)

l 159 v Sri Lanka, 1995-96 (Lost)

l 157 v Pakistan, 1998-99 (Won)

l 138 v West Indies, 1995-96 (Won)

l 124 v S Africa, 1996-97 (Lost)

Australia's captain, Steve Waugh, has been criticised for conservatism because he prefers to leave the new No 1 at No 6, but why risk weakening what is clearly one of the team's great strengths?

Bevan is remarkably cool: almost cold-blooded in the way he sees the tail through, ensuring the team bat their allotted overs and, at the same time, maintaining the run rate.

By now the Australian tail are comfortable with his habits, alert to the wristiness that enables him to thread the gaps, and awake to his pressure running that panics fielders and can turn a one into two.

Normally, as the end of an innings nears, a strike rate as high as Bevan's would sit most comfortably next to the name of a tail-end slogger, few of whom have been known for their consistency; but Bevan is consistent and he is a fair dinkum batsman - that is a lethal combination for his opponents.

Just as dangerous is his desire, backed by the talent, to finish in "red ink", the cricketer's term for not out. Bevan manages that once in every three visits to the crease, thus dramatically improving his side's chances of survival.

Bevan has a clear mind about his one-day role: "It can definitely be one of the challenges to come in with 10 or 20 overs to go, but at the end of the day the reason you play cricket is to bat for as long as you possibly can and enjoy batting the way you want to bat - not under pressure."

Cramping Bevan's style will be a priority for Australia's opponents, but to keep things in perspective it is worth remembering that before they can get Bevan under pressure they have got to deal with Gilchrist, Mark Waugh, Ponting, Lehmann and Steve Waugh, although recent results have been a little thin.

If the World Cup were a casino, it would be fair to say the selectors had put the lot on No 6: they quarantined Bevan from Test cricket and anointed him the player most likely to help win the World Cup for Australia.

If he comes up trumps he will be entitled to wonder why he isn't a good thing for a spot in a Test batting line-up that stumbled against the hardly- rated West Indies.