Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Andy Bichel, by Nicko Hancock

In Balanced Sports' & World Cricket Watch's continuing series, we invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to explain what made certain cricketers their favourite.  For The Sledge's Nicko Hancock, that man is Andy Bichel - the best twelfth man in history.

I consider myself lucky to be born in 1989. It means that I grew up under the wing of some truly wonderful childhood influences: Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, and the Greg Blewett/Justin Langer opening combination.
As a kid, your choices are made for you by people who’ve lived more, who know better. When you’re a kid, still in an unfinished, malleable form, your elders impart wisdom and cliché and knowledge to you, like they’re branding a bull with the obvious. Quoth the schtick:

“Each day, the sun rises and sets.”
“The Earth isn’t flat.”
“Don’t drink orange juice after brushing your teeth.”
Nice guys always finish last.”

I took this at face value, like a bank statement. But in the early 2000s, as I sprouted and spotted and haired, I learnt that sometimes nice guys don’t finish last.  They finish twelfth. Most of the time. And when they don’t, they typically bowl first change.

Such were the life and times of my teenage cricketing hero! And not ‘hero’ in the violent, sword-wielding way, although he could bruise a batsman; Steve Waugh wrote that my hero might have suffered in his career because of his generous and giving nature. He was a big, burly, blonde pace bowler from Queensland who played first class cricket for fifteen years.

To me, he was the Smiling Assassin, and to Adam Gilchrist, he was known simply as Midas. His name was Andy Bichel, and for reasons I’m sure you’ll soon understand, he is my favourite cricketer.

A Certain Level of Legitimacy
Writing about Mr. Bichel requires description buffered by wordplay: to see him play cricket, any of his nineteen tests or sixty-seven one day internationals, was to see a man whose body language and facial expressions betrayed everything about him, especially how badly he wanted to be there.

Andy Bichel bowled briskly. He batted stoically. He fielded with the intensity of a Labrador chasing a tennis ball, and he was always grinning, ear to ear, like a cat who has gotten away with it.

Finally! An international cricketer who was happy to be there. For whom "12th man" wasn't an insult. And he was the 12th man a lot, because, unluckily for him, he was the perfect twelfth man: valuable on multiple levels.
I don't know how many people took his presence on the team sheet as a comfort. I did.

Andy Bichel and Michael Bevan
Throughout the early naughties he could be seen carrying drinks, towels, and replacement gloves to the people who had been selected ahead of him. But he did it with a bounce in his step, his white teeth shown through a MacGyver grin. To me, it meant that he was somehow 'like me'; enthused and powered purely by the prospect of playing for Australia. It made me think of him as working-class, practically street-level, because you could see his enthusiasm for cricket written on his face, and as a teenager, I think I needed to see that from somebody who'd “made it”, who was out there, playing in the team that every Aussie kid wants to play in.

An outstanding state player for Queensland for fifteen years, he peaked as an international cricketer in the 2003 World Cup, outshining his more accomplished team mates in Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. When Australia played England in the group stage, Bichel took 7/20 off his ten overs to limit England to 204, and when Australia's batsmen capitulated to 8/135 during their chase, Bichel was there to salvage the match with Michael Bevan, showing batting prowess that took most people by surprise.

And then, in the Super Six stage of the Cup, Australia slumped to 7/84 against New Zealand, before Bichel and Bevan again salvaged the innings. Bevan hit 56; Bichel top-scored with 64, then took 1/15 off five as 
Australia won a match they were losing for three quarters by 96 runs.

The team was behind him; Adam Gilchrist wrote that, "it didn't hurt that such a well-liked guy, who'd missed so many opportunities, was the one doing the damage."

Me? I was just happy he'd been picked. My hero. The bloke whom, during a wet test match against Zimbabwe, would slide into the crease using his pads as slides. The same guy who stood at third man at the MCG, his back turned to the crowd, leading them through his warm up.  He tapped his thigh; “we’re doing the gluts,” he called out.

I think people have forgotten how good he was. He made his ODI and test debuts in 1997, both in Australia, both against the West Indies. In the test match, he opened the bowling with Glenn McGrath in a game I didn’t see in which Michael Bevan took ten wickets. He was there at the centenary test, when Steve Waugh dressed up the Australian test team in replica caps and we thrashed England and I watched every day. And in 2003, he lead an Australian bowling attack minus McGrath, Lee, Gillespie, and instead containing Nathan Bracken, Brad Williams and Ian Harvey to the TVS Cup, against India, in India. In the final, he ripped out a vicious off cutter to remove Sachin Tendulkar, and I collected the newspaper clippings.

A year after his heroic sixteen wickets and 117 runs in the 2003 World Cup, he’d lost his Cricket Australia contact. Instead, he set his sights locally, and in the 2004-2005 Australian domestic season, he took a Queensland record sixty first class wickets in a year, and a twelve months later he was named Pura Cup Player of the Year, for his 452 runs at nearly 35 and his 50 wickets at 26 and, one assumes, for taking the last wicket in a final that Queensland won.

I always felt that Bichel had a certain level of legitimacy because to me he was a working-class hero who always looked like he was putting in as much as he had to offer; perhaps he'd just finished a day labouring on a construction site, and knocked off just in time to join the Australian team. I always got that impression of Bichel; it always seemed to me that he would have to make up time to his foreman.

And the stories of Bic are atypical of the man: being told he was 12th man for a test match and then helping Brett Lee work through some crucial kinks in his technique; standing up for Adam Gilchrist when South African crowds abused him with rumours his wife had been sleeping with Michael Slater; turning Darren Lehmann's $100 into two grand at a casino in the Northern Territory (?); tearing in at training with a smile on his face at every damn session; to quote Steve Waugh, "the guy was a dream team man with quality and character in abundance."

Breaking Both Ways

Athletes give us two things: firstly, the ability to believe in someone, to foster that unconditional confidence in their ability. The faith a Collingwood supporter has in Dane Swan: "He'll kick us clear. Swannie'll do it." Or an Essendon fan's faith that with James Hird as skipper everything would be fine. That mid-1990s belief in Steve Waugh: "She'll be right. Tugga's coming in at number five."

Secondly, sportsmen allow us to leave our nine-to-five lives behind for a spot of escapism. You get to live their highs and their lows. That's the most important part of the bargain.

Andy, to me, fit both of those qualities. When the Aussies lost quick wickets or were a shambles in the field I would never dare write them off until Bic had had his say. That was my faith in him. Andy Bichel, with his good-naturedness and his ceaseless work ethic, was to me a sign that those "good bloke" qualities, that I so wanted to embody myself, could lead to success. That was my outlet for escapism. I could never feel the same about Ricky Ponting, or Brian Lara, or Sachin Tendulkar because I did not have the almost effortless talent they had.

Forget Australia's next "star spinner" or "extraordinary number three"; I wonder who'll be the next Andy Bichel?

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