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In the late 80s, in the sleepy Victorian suburb of Mount Waverly was a young leg-spinner who spun miles on a marble floor. His name was James. He was so prodigious that he kept out a chubby blond-haired contemporary of his from the club team. But before a game, James hurt his shoulder. That chubby, blond boy played instead. James never player competitive cricket again. But his replacement retired as the then highest wicket-taker in Test cricket. He was Shane Warne.
James’ cricketing world was now confined to the pebble-ridden backyard of his farmhouse, where his brother Peter would pester him to play cricket every evening. Both would play until light faded away completely. Now, if the identity of their surname is revealed, you’ll realise how the younger boy ensured an unlikely draw for his country on a fifth-day Indian wicket. They were the Handscomb brothers. That will strike a chord.
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Thus, playing on the pebbly backyard, trying to clear the picket fence of their farmhouse, Peter honed his reflexes and muscle memory against spinners, unknowingly though. Or in his own words, “lost the fear of playing spinners.” One evening, their father John chanced upon his younger son’s hand-eye coordination. John had plied in the lower counties of England, but was never inclined to thrust cricket on his sons. But sensing Peter’s talent, he enrolled him in a downtown cricket academy.
He didn’t bother how he came through — academics was his preference — but one evening he dropped in at a school game Peter was playing. He was leathering even bowlers from higher grades all around the park, but John also noticed that his son was playing strangely, as unorthodox as you can find. “While boys of his age would stoop down in the weight of the bat, Peter held his bat upright and his legs wiggled unusually,” he later said.
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This was when Peter was only 12, when boys of his age hadn’t begun thinking about footwork and such-like niceties. So on his drive back home, John advised his son “Always play in the V, like when you drive in the driveway.” Young Peter just nodded his head. Soon upon reaching home, John also demonstrated a conventional stance and expounded on the virtues of standing still at the crease and keeping the bat low.
The next week, he saw Peter playing straight. He was happy. But he also noticed the same old technique. Then he decided he wouldn’t change his ways. He would let Peter be.
Thus Peter’s father was his first critic. But he wasn’t the last. At every stage of his career, he would be besotted with suggestions and even orders to change his stance. For by then, he had begun to hold his bat so high that his hands were parallel to the navel, and stand deep at the crease. And unlike most countrymen, he didn’t shuffle across pronouncedly. So it was bound to invite quizzical glances and the attendant advice. He would listen. “In my first three years of Shield cricket, each year I came back with a different technique.”
A cluttered mind led to a drastic dip in form. He was depressed. Then, his mind whirled back to the drive with his father. Then, he had listened to half of his advice, while neglecting the other. He imbibed the importance to play straight, but didn’t bother to alter his stance. That was his moment of realisation. “It’s about trying to find your own way. You only have to look at the best batters in the world; they all do it differently.”
From then on, it was about imbibing those small but finer aspects that benefitted him. One such minor suggestion by Victoria coach Greg Shipperd is his slight tap on the ground as the bowler begins to deliver the ball. “It is to align my grip,” he says, “”so that the bat comes down straight”.
So he had a theory against anyone who questioned his technical idiosyncrasies. To those who would say he stands too far back at the crease, he’ll reply “By staying back, it means I’m going to get more short balls than full balls. In a game of split-second decisions, the longer you have, the better, I believe,” he says.
Strangely, though, he would forsake his back-foot perch against the spinners, to whom he stands at the edge of the crease from where he is more comfortable playing on the front foot. There was an instance in Chennai in July 2015, in an India A-Australia A unofficial Test match wherein he stepped out to almost every ball from the spinners.
On Monday, he didn’t leave the crease so often, but the decisiveness in playing spin was evident. He handled Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin with the expertise of a batsman from the subcontinent — nimble feet, soft hands, and more importantly, the fearlessness, as if he has been bred on this.
No wonder, he grew up deifying Damien Martyn, that silken destroyer of spinners. But Peter would credit that to the skills honed at the pebbly backyard, and the advice of his late father, “Always play in the V.”