Cricket fever

From Kevin Pietersen to Mitchell Johnson, retired greats are cooking up a storm in Australia’s BBL

Brendon McCullum is still hitting it out of the park and Kumar Sangakkara is still showcasing that lazy elegance. It’s all happening in the Big Bash League.

The Western Australian Cricket Association ground in Perth is not the biggest stadium in the world. It dwarfs in comparison to most stadiums in Australia itself.

It does not intimidate like the Melbourne Cricket Ground either because of the lack of tall stands. Yet, when it is packed, its chirp can unnerve the players.

Western Australia also have a tendency to back their heroes vehemently. From Kim Hughes and Dennis Lillee earlier to Justin Langer and Mitchell Johnson more recently – the WACA crowd has adored them all.

So there was Johnson, the last of their glorious heroes, at the end of his run up in the furnace. He flicked his hair, he tossed the ball in hand and he steamed in. The crowd’s chirp had by now turned into a roar. And with every stride he took towards the crease, the crowd roared louder.

Older, wiser, but still as fierce

With every delivery that Johnson ran in for, the WACA’s clamor grew louder. His fifth delivery was short, fast and it ripped off the surface and climbed on Kieron Pollard. The West Indian had been his team’s last hope to master a steep chase. But he had no answer to the Australian speed demon’s sharp delivery. It was a typical Johnson delivery, the kind that had bruised batsmen physically and mentally for years. All Pollard could do was offer a skier.

Johnson exulted in joy; his teammates converged on him. And, the crowd now was deafening. The joy in the voice of the WACA could now even be felt through TV sets in India.

It was after all a duel between an Australian and a West Indian. Cricketers from both these nations have been involved in the fiercest of rivalries over the years – irrespective of the quality of their teams.

Pollard’s dislike for the Australians has come to the fore often. That Australia’s Johnson had managed to knock him over without the waste of much time at home had given the fans the liberty to celebrate unabashedly.

If someone at the stadium had his eyes shut, he could have believed the game to be an international match. He could have mistaken the game to be one with Johnson in his prime.

To the contrary, it had been over a year since Johnson retired from the international game. He had mustered the energy to play a couple of Indian Premier League games in the interim. And this December 23 game was, practically, Johnson’s return to competitive cricket. It was, in fact, the 35-year-old’s Big Bash debut.

Hungry for more

But the contest was far from the high-profile ones Johnson has played and enthralled in over the years at the international arena. The game, the atmosphere in the match and Johnson’s effort that enhanced the vibe were all a part of a domestic Twenty20 game Down Under.

After the hiatus over the year, Johnson was back, clean-shaven and hungry for blood once again. He had lost the heart to play five-day and fifty-over cricket. Maybe he did not enjoy the toil of international cricket too anymore. But he was aware that this is T20 cricket. More so, it was a competition where he could go out onto the field and have fun. And so he did.

With only four overs to contribute in an innings, Johnson ran in at full burst. He clocked over 140kmph constantly and threw in off-cutters in the middle to confuse the batsmen like he did when he led the attack for the national team. He went on to send two more Adelaide Strikers’ batsmen back to the hut. The left-arm quick ended with three wickets and ensured that his first game for the Perth Scorchers ended in triumph.

Johnson’s performance had weaved a tale that promised of perhaps one last chapter in his career. That he could torment the batsmen had left all the fans – at the WACA and in front of TV sets across the globe – satiated with the opportunity to watch one of the most fearsome fast bowlers of recent times back in action.

But the joy for the admirers of the game does not stop at the return of Johnson’s slinging action. It continues through various other players who have bid adieu to the international game but decide to turn up for these T20 carnivals.

Baz goes Boom, yet again

Brendon McCullum, who too hung up his Kiwi boots about a year back, had the crowd at the Woolloongabba under threat as he bludgeoned the ball to every corner on Friday.

The former New Zealand captain has been a little more regular with his cricket. He played the IPL and the Caribbean Premier League before donning the captain’s armband for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash.

Baz, as McCullum is fondly referred to as, has continued to murder attacks in the manner he ended his Test career. Then, he thundered to a fastest Test century ever. Now, he has continued with the same cuts, slashes, pulls, slaps and straight lofts in his T20 avatar.

When McCullum made room and lofted Stuart Broad straight into the Gabba stand for a massive six, the Hobart Hurricanes would have realized that their promising score of 173 was set to lose all its promise.

By the time McCullum was out for a blitzkrieg 72 off just 35 balls, which included 64 runs in boundaries, he had brought the equation down to 56 from 60. But again, it was not about the result of a random Australian T20 game.

It was about the joy at rewinding the clock once again to watch one of the most destructive batsmen of the last few years in action. McCullum had stormed out to the crease with the swagger in his walk. And with a chewing gum in his mouth, he had destroyed the opposition bowlers with the kind of nonchalance that had defined how he batted over the years.

But incase Johnson and McCullum cannot entertain you enough, there are more reasons to watch the Big Bash.

Retired, but still in form

What could also be one of the bigger draws is Kevin Pietersen in the green of the Melbourne Stars. Pietersen jumped from the commentary box straight into the action. While he could not have an immediate impact with the bat, he completed a stunning catch running backwards in his first game. A maverick who is unwanted by most teams now or hindered by injuries, Pietersen could set the second half of the league ablaze.

Brad Hodge is the coach of the Gujarat Lions in the IPL, but you can see him captain the Adelaide Strikers. Brad Hogg is almost 46 years old, and has played the game for more than 25 years, but the batsmen still struggle to pick him when he bowls his chinaman deliveries for the Melbourne Renegades. Then there is the case of Brad Haddin, who had to walk away from the game to attend to his ailing daughter, but is back now - with a smile on his face.

Kumar Sangakkara may have vowed only with a spectacular catch as yet, but with him runs can never be an option. Even if he does not get the big scores, it could be worth enjoying his elegance for as long as he plays. The Big Bash even keeps the Ian Bell and Johan Botha fans interested.

There had been a spate of retirements over the last couple of years. It left a void and a sense of incompletion in the cricket circles. But T20 cricket enables the supporters of the game to stay in touch with its champions of the past. And if all of them can begin to star like Johnson and McCullum – like they had never left the cricket greens – then the fans are in for a treat.

For all the latest news on cricket and other sports, read The Sports Wrap.

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