FAST AND FURIOUS
The Wild thing – born to bowl fast
Tristan Lavalette • Last updated on Thu, 30 Mar, 2017, 02:17 PM
It was a sight to behold when a trademark Shaun Tait in-swinging delivery sent Geraint Jones’s off-stump cartwheeling © Getty
September 12, 2005, is undeniably an indelible date in cricket history. Although, Australians may disagree as it was the fateful day their long-suffering arch-nemesis England finally ended a 16-year Ashes drought. Australia was thwarted by Kevin Pietersen’s memorable cavalier debut century on the final day at the Oval to ensure the fifth Test ended in a draw and a 2-1 series victory for England in a major boil over.
However, that result was not a foregone conclusion earlier in the day with a swirling belief that Australia – who were at their peak of their powers and hadn’t lost a Test series in four years – could conjure a miraculous victory like they had summoned so many times before. Almost inevitably, legendary bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne – playing their last ever Test in England – had a slew of early wickets to give Australia hope.
With the Ashes – and legacies – hanging in the balance, Australian captain Ricky Ponting leant heavily on his two prized bowlers and paceman Brett Lee for the breakthroughs in what was essentially a three-pronged attack.
Neglected and seemingly forgotten was Shaun Tait, the then 22-year-old firebrand, who was anchored to the boundary and copping a mouthful from hardy English fans sensing history was in the making. Tait already had built a formidable reputation for having an innate ability to scythe through batting lineups. However, that rarefied talent was juxtaposed by an unfortunate knack of spraying the ball and leaking runs.
Ponting, quite clearly, didn’t have faith to bowl the youngster, who was playing just his second Test, under such a bright spotlight with the Ashes hanging delicately in the balance. With Australia’s three main bowlers tiring, Tait was belatedly given the ball in the 56th over of the innings. Promptly, almost confirming Ponting’s suspicions, Tait was immediately smashed for consecutive boundaries off a rampaging Pietersen.
However, three balls later, Tait’s mesmerising talents harnessed when a trademark in-swinging delivery sent wicket-keeper Geraint Jones’s off-stump cartwheeling. It wasn’t quite a knockout punch but nevertheless it was a breathtaking moment which even had unruffled veteran ABC broadcaster Jim Maxwell in hysterics as if he was Bill Lawry.
The vital wicket briefly reignited Australia’s faint flicker before Pietersen’s heroics snuffed out the bold comeback bid. Tait only bowled four more overs before Ponting’s patience wore thin. Still, the utter destruction of Jones indicated Tait’s future was bright in a shining light amid the gloom for a humbled Australia.
“I was young and embarrassed… frustrated because I hadn’t bowled that much,” Tait recalls in an interview with Cricbuzz. “The crowd was ripping into me and I was just relieved to get that wicket because I hadn’t done much. But we lost the Ashes that day, so it isn’t something that I look back fondly on.”
Tait’s unbridled fury tested the speed guns numerously in his career © Cricbuzz
Succumbing to injuries due to a demanding unconventional bowling action, Tait wouldn’t play Test cricket again until January of 2008, where Australia’s 16-match winning streak stunningly ended against India at the WACA. It proved to be his third and final Test, as he soon made the tough decision to call time on his First-Class career at the age of 25. Incredibly, during such a high period of success for the team, Tait never tasted a Test victory and the losses at Nottingham – during his debut in the fourth Test – and the WACA were Australia’s only defeats during that 30-month period.
Tait’s brave decision to stop playing red ball cricket caused a stir at the time but proved the right call as he enjoyed the fruits of a long and decorated career as a Twenty20 specialist. The now 34-year-old officially retired from cricket on March 27 due to a chronic elbow injury, which hampered him during the recent Big Bash League (BBL), where he played for the Hobart Hurricanes.
The injury shelved plans to continue playing for a couple of more years but Tait is grateful the advent of Twenty20 provided him with an alternate pathway. “I knew I was going to retire after the BBL…I was done. I was struggling to play,” he says. “I copped a bit of flak for concentrating on T20 cricket and I had to wear that. But I was able to play a fair bit and T20 suited me and was my best format so it worked out well.”
Tait’s unique slinging action, marked by a heavy exertion of the shoulder, was physically demanding and the subsequent toll derailed his career numerously. As he rose up the ranks of South Australian cricket, numerous coaches attempted to tinker with Tait’s action and the bowler himself deep down knew he needed to stymie the exertion on his body.
However, Tait, nicknamed ‘Wild Thing’, was innately a gunslinger and all he really yearned for was to bowl as fast as humanly possible. Always bigger and stronger than his peers, a 17-year-old Tait was recorded bowling at 142km/h at an amateur fast bowling competition.
“Growing up, I loved watching Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Curtly Ambrose…I wanted to bowl quick like them,” he says. “Coaches told me to change my action but it got hard to do that after a while. I wanted to consistently bowl 150kmh. I wanted to be an entertainer.
“I was born to bowl fast and it bored me bowling slower.”
Tait’s unbridled fury tested the speed guns numerously in his career, most notably when he bowled a 161.1 kmph thunderbolt against England in 2010. It is the second fastest recorded delivery in cricket and was just 0.2 kmph short of Pakistani paceman Shoaib Aktar’s all-time mark.
“In my thinking, I wanted to reach 160kmph and just try to bowl as fast I could,” he says. “I was probably never going to play 50-100 Tests because I just wanted to bowl express pace and that’s hard on the body. Although bowling fast is what got me picked in the Test team so I’m thankful for that.”
Tait’s international career may have been limited but being an important member of Australia’s unbeaten 2007 World Cup team stands out as his crowing achievement. During a memorable two-month stretch in the Caribbean where his talents meshed physically and mentally, Tait superbly replaced an injured Lee to claim 23 wickets at 20 to help Australia claim their third consecutive World Cup.
“I didn’t get to win that much in my career but to be part of the 2007 World Cup triumph is something no one can ever take away from me,” he says. “It was just a really memorable two months and the thing that sticks with me was the team environment. We just loved being around each other both on-and-off the field.”
With retirement from cricket coming a little earlier than expected, Tait says he will take some time to consider the next phase of his life. Having an Indian wife and recently becoming an ‘Overseas Citizen of India’, Tait foreshadows spending plenty of time in the subcontinent.
“I would possibly like to get into fast bowling coaching but I’ll sit back and have a think about it,” he says. “If you’re not used to India, it can test you with the sheer amount of people and traffic. But I’ve grown to love the place and no doubt will spend some time over there in the future.”