Free-thinking Astle pays his dues

Derek Pringle talks to New Zealand's real hero from the Auckland Test
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The Independent Online
Sometimes in sport, it is defiance rather than glory that captures both the public's hearts and imagination. Certainly that was the case last week when Nathan Astle and Danny Morrison kept England at bay for most of the final afternoon in Auckland after Michael Atherton's team had looked set for victory in the first Test.

In the aftermath, it was Morrison, with his record number of Test ducks, who attracted the bulk of the kneejerk publicity. But for those present it was Astle, with a fine unbeaten hundred, his third in Test cricket, who deserved the cerebral praise.

It was a remarkable innings, not least because of the uninhibited nature with which he struck the ball after England had spread the field. But then Astle is a remarkable and unconventional man who began his first- class career as a bowler who batted at No 9.

"I started primarily as an accurate medium pacer, who did a job in one- day cricket," he said, having just, somewhat appropriately, launched New Zealand's garish new one-day uniform for the forthcoming series against England. In fact, he still does a pretty good job and, according to his Canterbury team-mate Chris Harris, he has one of the lowest runs per over figures in domestic one-day competition.

Discovering another and more potent cricketing self is not unprecedented, however, and it may surprise some to learn that Bob Woolmer, who won 19 caps as a top-order batsman for England, started his career as a swing bowler for Kent.

Starting out as a bowler can often give an uncluttered perspective on batting and Astle, according to the New Zealand batting coach, Martin Crowe, is "particularly uncomplicated," in his approach to putting bat to ball.

He gives it a rare old thump too, and Crowe feels there has probably never been a better off-side striker in New Zealand. If so, it may have something to do with a deformed thumb on his right hand, a slight handicap which may crucially prevent him from getting too much bottom hand in those beautiful strafing cover drives of his.

His first chance to bat in the top six came when Chris Harris and another Canterbury team-mate Stephen Fleming were away on tour. It was a chance he did not squander and it was not long before his clean striking was the dominant feature at the head of the order in one-day cricket, a position from which he scored a brilliant hundred against England at Ahmedabad during the last World Cup.

Test hundreds, however, are rarer, more intricate beasts that require a competent defence as well as thrusting strokeplay. Nevertheless Astle now has three from seven Tests, an impressive rate particularly when two of those were scored against the West Indies in the Caribbean, and those in quick time.

In fact, he did not start that particular tour well and was not helped by being struck on the head by Patterson Thompson at Sabina Park, during the opening match of the tour. Typically he recovered to make fifty, though, after Jamaica, the pitches in Barbados and Antigua were not as brisk and he was able to get on to his favoured front foot and hit through the line.

His first crisis came, not as many might suppose in the male-dominated circles of cricket, when his elder sister, Lisa, represented her country at cricket before him, but more recently, in Pakistan, when he endured such poor form that even the groundsman's donkey was said to be able to bowl him out.

It was a run that did not trouble the 25-year-old for long and he recalls getting over it by jotting down all the salient components he could remember about his centuries in the West Indies.

"I remember writing down how I prepared myself and realised that I just wasn't as relaxed as I should have been before I batted in Pakistan. I'm not someone who likes to concentrate before an innings and I like it when people talk to me and joke about. It helps me take my mind off things."

It is certainly a fairly radical approach, but then Astle -who shares a house with Fleming in Christchurch, a household brimming runs after the first Test - is not your typical clean-cut cricketer, even if he looks the part. According to Fleming, Astle loves to play loud rave music at seven o'clock in the morning, and is next to useless when it is his turn to cook the evening meal.

"I remember coming home once and ringing him up on the cell phone," Fleming recalls. "I told him I wouldn't be long and to get some baked beans and toast on the go. By the time I'd got home, the toast was black and the beans had been welded to the pan."

On a cricket pitch though he is unfazeable, and although his hundred in Auckland was painstaking by his speedy standards, he rates it as his most satisfying.

"It wouldn't have happened without Danny," he graciously admitted. "It probably wouldn't have happened if we'd just looked to bat time either, so scoring runs was important, which is what he encouraged me to do. But most of all, it kept us in the series and that's a big buzz."