On Sunday night, everybody watching Australia take on Sri Lanka in the second T20 International were treated to an extraordinary night of entertainment on-field and off. One of the most extraordinary of sporting contests was enhanced by a beloved Australian commentator adding his own special colour to the proceedings.
Miraculously, on the back of a remarkable 84 off 46 from Asela Gunaratne, Sri Lanka – at one stage 5/40, chased down Australia’s target of 173 on the final delivery of the match to claim a 2 wicket victory at Kardinia Park. For the majority of their chase, the visitors looked lost for all money. So much so, that when legendary caller Bill Lawry suggested “they are a lot closer than you think”, when Sri Lanka found themselves 5/72 after 9.4 overs, many may have questioned the great man’s sanity.
Though ultimately proven to be both a courageous and correct insight into the state of the match, the incredulous call made me think of a reminiscence from Mark Nicholas’ recently released autobiography – A Beautiful Game, My Love Affair with Cricket. Nicholas shared a story of a phone call he received from the late Kerry Packer, while he was commentating on a match at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval. In his typically blunt fashion, Packer left Nicholas in no uncertainty as to his expectations from the commentators on his TV Network.
“Son, stop telling us how f***ing cold it is in Hobart and how the fielders’ are wringing their hands and how people are wrapped in anoraks and having a s*** time.” Packer screamed at his startled employee, before continuing “The only people having a s*** time are those of us at home who have to sit here f***ing listening to you. And son, we’re a commercial network. We sell the game. It’s not over till it’s over. I don’t care how far in front the Aussies are, it’s never over. Our business is numbers, son, eyeballs.”
Lawry, the ever excitable 80-year-old, one of the last men standing from Kerry Packer’s early Channel 9 commentary teams, is unlikely to have been on the receiving end of this kind of call from the larger than life media tycoon too often. Whether this was at the heart of the Victorian’s enthralling call or not, if you were convinced of the forlorn nature of the visitors’ chase, the former Aussie skipper’s infectious enthusiasm for the contest was reason enough to stay tuned in until the bitter end. Whether it was cheering for incorrect wide calls or just merely attempting to lift the Sri Lankans with the sheer power of his exuberance, the former opener’s calling was impossible to switch off.
For so long a leading man in the soundtrack of Australia’s summers, semi-retirement has kept Lawry to cameo appearances when the Australian cricket caravan passes through Victoria. On this night in Geelong, the viewing public remained transfixed as they listened to a national treasure triumphantly hold court once more in the commentary box. In response to the reverence of those sharing the booth with him, he danced to Bee Gees tunes, cheered on the Brisbane Lions, spoke of the rewards of clean living and pigeon ownership, and chided fellow commentator Michael Slater of the long-held view of the NSW bias in Australian teams. All the while he continued to will the tightening of the contest and explain how the result was far from decided. As if emboldened by the confidence emanating from the box, Gunaratne and Chamara Kapugedera slowly began proving the truism of Lawry’s intimation that “where there is life, there is hope.”
At the halfway mark of the chase, with Gunaratne and Kapugedera’s partnership at 43, Lawry opinioned that Sri Lanka “need one big over, 3 or 4 boundaries to really put the pressure back on the bowlers.” It was a perceptive comment, the sixth wicket continued calmly about their business, seemingly happy to remain within three or four meaty blows of the target. Despite the Australian’s ability to take wickets at regular intervals, Sri Lanka remained seemingly comfortable in the chase. The advantage received by knowing exactly their requirement, perhaps explaining Upul Tharanga’s insistence on bowling first, upon winning the toss in Melbourne and again in Geelong.
When James Faulkner removed Sri Lanka’s seventh wicket, his celebrations were replayed with Lawry cautioning that “he’s picked up the rabbit, but can he pick up the fox?” With 55 runs still required and only 28 balls remaining, Gunaratne was fast running out of options. Like any good, short stacked, Texas Hold ‘em player, the only advantage he had left was the timing of his attack. While the Aussies bullied him with their situational advantage, Gunaratne refused to play his one trump card until the odds suited him best.
Jack Straus the 1982 World Series of Poker Champion, recovered to win the most celebrated Poker tournament in the World after being down to his very last chip. His recovery to claim the Champions Bracelet gave birth to the phrase “all you need is a chip and a chair”. When Moises Henriques charged in to bowl the 19th over, Gunaratne was confronted with his own ‘last chip moment’, his team still 36-runs away from its victory target.
Like Straus back in 1982, Gunaratne threw his last chip into the pot and rode his luck when the odds were most in his favour.”My plan with two overs left was to hit 20 runs in that over – preferably without running at all,” Gunaratne explained to ESPNcricinfo after the match. “Thankfully, 22 came in that over and when it got down to 14 off the last one, that was much easier. Well, no matter how tough it is, it’s something that had to be done. In the end, it worked out.”
Shell-shocked by Gunaratne’s explosive 19th over assault, Andrew Tye was tasked with the responsibility of preventing Sri Lanka scoring 14 runs off the last six balls of the match. As Tye delivered the first ball of the over, you would have been forgiven for thinking the match was taking place in Columbo or Galle, such was the noise emanating from the visitors’ supporters in the stands. A toe edge from Nulan Kulasekara caught by Michael Klinger brought Sri Lanka ever closer to the brink of defeat. Now with only two wickets and five balls left to compile 14 runs, and, perhaps more importantly, with Gunaratne back on strike.
After having turned the contest on its head in the over before, Gunaratne was not going to miss his chance to win it for his team. Taking advantage of a Tye full-toss, Gunaratne dispatched the second delivery of the final over for four over mid-off. The next delivery, a better length but with perhaps a little too much width, was dispatched by the Sri Lankan number four into the Geelong crowd for six. Then after a pair of singles, the result of the match, like it had in Melbourne a few nights earlier, was to be decided on the final delivery of the contest.
With the match in the balance, the Sri Lankan backed away towards leg to allow himself extra room on anything from Tye outside off stump. Correctly guessing where the Perth Scorchers star would deliver the ball, Gunaratne threw everything at the delivery. Making sweet contact, the ball sailed well over the in-field before running away to the mid-off boundary. After having delivered his team victory by plundering 37 runs from his final nine balls, Gunaratne was mobbed by his delirious teammates. One of the greatest back from the dead victories in cricketing history was complete.
If ever there was a contest to prove Packer’s mantra of “it’s never over”, this was it. It was sport in all its unpredictable, gutsy, unmissable glory. In a world where sport commentary is more often filled with cynicism or false enthusiasm, it was magical to be taken in by Lawry’s unmistakable glee to be in a position to both watch and pass comment on the game. When he commented that “This is better than racing pigeons” it was hard not to share in his joy. Yes, it was better than racing pigeons Bill, it most certainly was.