Beyond all expectations

When asked in the press conference in which he announced his retirement from international cricket in Perth this week for his thoughts on his career, Nathan Astle simply said that he was unable to believe the level of success he achieved. This in a nutshell sums up both the character of Nathan Astle as a person – modest and unassuming – and his excellent and somewhat surprisingly prolific career. As he walked out to bat in his first innings in international cricket, most people expected Astle to be a useful bits and pieces all-rounder in the mould of team-mates Shane Thomson and Justin Vaughan, and his dismissal to the bowling of the relatively unknown West Indies spinner Rajindra Dhanraj did little to alter that perception. It was likely that most expected him to improve from the experience of his first one-day international innings but surely very few, if any, could have expected this Canterbury right-hander to develop into an undeniable great of New Zealand cricket and arguably the finest limited-overs batsman the country has ever produced.

Initially brought into the Canterbury side as a bowler who could bat a bit, Astle had four years of first-class cricket before being brought into the national side for the one-day international series against the West Indies. The extent to which his batting ability developed and surpassed his bowling is clearly shown by the fact that it took just four innings for him to make an impact with the bat – 95 against Sri Lanka in Hamilton, in what was his first innings at the top of the order, having been promoted from number seven to open the innings – during which time he took just one wicket with the ball.

From there his career flourished, with the inevitable Test debut following and Astle taking advantage of this opportunity just as quickly as he did in the shorter form of the game with two centuries in the tour of the West Indies less than a year after earning his first cap. As the number of runs Astle scored in both Tests and particularly ODIs blossomed, so did his reputation among opposition, with the consequences of bowling a ball with any reasonable amount of width outside off-stump being among the most feared in world cricket.

It is odd that although Astle was most successful in limited-overs cricket, his two best innings for his country came in Test cricket. The first was just a year after his debut in the home series against England, in which New Zealand seemed to be crashing to a heavy defeat in the first Test when the ninth wicket fell and tail-ender Danny Morrison strode out to the wicket before Astle scored a wonderful 102 not out in a 108-run partnership with Morrison to guide New Zealand to a famous draw, and the other was the innings at his home ground in Christchurch in England’s next tour of New Zealand six years later, the innings that needs no introduction. Astle’s 222 from 168 balls remains the fastest double-century in the history of the game, a record that has so far lasted four years and none have come even remotely close to threatening since, and is probably the most fondly-remembered defeat in New Zealand’s sporting history.

That 222, which included eleven sixes and saw Astle score his second century from just 39 balls, showed in the most emphatic fashion possible the sort of hitting Astle was capable of and the ease with which he could tear a bowling attack apart. It could be said therefore that his statistics – 4702 Test runs at an average of 37.02 and 7090 ODI runs at 34.92 – fail to do him justice, both in terms of his ability and his impact on the team. It is no coincidence that of Astle’s sixteen ODI centuries New Zealand won the match on 14 occasions – when Astle fired New Zealand won, it was as easy as that.

Although his batting, particularly on that March day at his home ground, is what Astle will be remembered for, he was an excellent servant to New Zealand cricket in many other regards. To call his bowling useful would be an understatement, with his economical medium-pace deliveries breaking more partnerships than other teams will be keen to remember and netting him 51 Test wickets and a tantalising 99 in ODIs, and his fielding produced a sufficient number of spectacular catches to fill a highlight reel several minutes long. He was also a crucial part of New Zealand’s tactical decision-making, with captain and good friend Stephen Fleming consulting him on a number of occasions in every match, and would no doubt have made a fine captain himself if he had ever been given the job.

It may be fair to call him a slight underachiever considering his phenomenal hand-eye co-ordination and his ability to almost single-handedly destroy opposition when at his best, and it is unfortunate that he only scored 46 runs in his last four innings (which included one score of 45), but it must be acknowledged that Astle provided 12 years of excellent service for his country in a team that would have been an awful lot weaker without his presence. Perhaps the best comment with which to conclude this review of Nathan Astle’s career is this astonishing statistic – Astle’s influence on the team is such that throughout much of his career he had more ODI centuries against his name than all of his team-mates combined.

Click here to view Astle’s career statistics.

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