It’s three years since a rangy, strawberry blond-cum-ginger batsman named Martin Guptill made his Black Caps debut, carrying his bat for 122 not out in an ODI against an admittedly mediocre West Indies attack in the diamantine dimensions of Eden Park, Auckland. At the time, he looked to me – an insomniac happy to chance across something to do as I made cheese, marmite, pickled onion and crisp toasted sandwiches – very much a big front-dogger (à la Graeme Hick c. 1990), prone to jab at the ball, and no real fan of the posh side (unlike Hick, whose strong yet supple hands and fluid arc steered the ball wherever he liked), albeit not as much of a chicken-choker as, say, Graeme Smith.
However, he also hit the ball incredibly cleanly in the ‘V’ (and over mid-wicket) when he set his mind to it, not to mention swivel-pulling off that front foot to bowling of all but the very highest pace; he played with a genuine sparkle in his eye, as I recall, one that spoke of someone who relished the battle – which is half the battle; and he was self-evidently a super high-class outfielder – mobile, balanced, strong of thigh and shoulder, focused and with good anticipation – in a team that usually punches above its collective weight precisely because it fields so intensively, so intently.
Anybody who doubts this last claim evidently did not see the World Cup Quarter Final against South Africa at Dhaka on March 25, the game when South Africa once again were thought to have ‘choked’* against inferior opponents in a high-pressure game. Chasing New Zealand’s competitive but sub-par 221 on a tired pitch under lights, South Africa were cruising at 108 for 2 after 24 overs (one of the two a freak, Hashim Amla’s bottom-edged cut bouncing off ’keeper Brendon McCullum’s boot to first slip), yet conspired to fold for 172, with 40 balls remaining. Jacob Oram took the plaudits for his four key wickets and a blinding catch at deep mid-wicket to dismiss Jacques Kallis. Fair enough. Yet appearing everywhere, nixing scoring shots, deflating the Proteas and energizing his black-clad teammates, was Martin James Guptill.
|Guptill in action in Dhaka|
It was just staggering: a succession of cleanly grasped diving stops, in the ring and on the fence, each one ratcheting up the pressure and all that garnished with the match-turning run out of AB de Villiers. It was the closest I have ever seen anyone come to deserving Man of the Match solely for a fielding display. His skipper, Dan Vettori, was right to namecheck him in his post-match interview: “The way we bowled and particularly the way we fielded, led by Guptill, probably got us through to the victory”. Surely only Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers – the mix-up between whom led to Guptill’s crucial run out of the latter, contributor of the day’s sole fluent innings, and then to the unseemly sight of onrushing Twelfth Man, Kyle Mills, roaring in his face, after Vettori and Taylor had given him some froth – could plausibly claim to trump him as the best fieldsman in international cricket.
But it is a batsman that he will be judged. I suspected then and I still suspect now that Guptill will have a steady rather than spectacular Test career (ideally pushing his Test average of 33.76 closer to his ODI figure of 39.51), the sort of prosaic, workaday career enjoyed by so many of his compatriots, with their salt-of-the-earth outlook, solid Presbyterian surnames, and appetite for un-flashy graft: John Wright, Geoff Howarth, Stephen Fleming, Jeff Crowe, Andrew Jones, Mark Greatbatch, Ken Rutherford – all of whom had their days in the sun, none of whom would string score after score together.
|My left foot…|
However, I for one will be hoping I’m wrong and that Guptill can find a method that masks his technical weaknesses, that parries the majority of the darts, as have done so many in the past – for what makes Guptill’s story so interesting is that he only has two toes on his left foot as a result of a forklift accident when he was 14 years old, something only publicly revealed in 2009…by Scott Styris on national TV, when on commentary for the debut of ‘Marty Two Toes’. While lying in hospital, the future New Zealand opener was visited by then-skipper, Stephen Fleming. On the face of it, this would be an unambiguous debit, depriving him of a fraction of spring or balance, but it is perhaps also true that such an injury gives you a profound sense of perspective, a sense of proportion, the ability to weigh up the consequences of a make-or-break innings over and against losing body parts.†
I feel sure we will see a good few more years of the likeable Guptill. Let’s just hope this player of great shots can be prove equally adept at playing great innings…
* Jeremy Snape, their Performance Director [Sports Psychologist] for two years between 2008 and 2010, has defined this in an interview I did with him in SPIN as “a process which teams get blamed for but individuals cause when they get distracted by the outcome of winning or the consequence of losing. This distraction takes them away from their instinctive and trained processes and makes them too deliberate, and they lose the ability to play with freedom that got them to that pressure situation”. The most obviously guilty parties were J-P Duminy (poor shot selection: cutting the off-spinner, McCullum, on such a surface, when he ordinarily uses his feet), Faf du Plessis, and, yes, Graeme Smith, who may well have started the rot with a sloppy shot off Oram.
† You want a toe? I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon. With nail polish.