Arthritis has prematurely brought down the curtains on the glittering career of former Australian opening batsman Michael Slater. Known for his dashing stroke-play and sheer audacity, Slater, unlike many of his predecessors didn't have the luxury of a grand farewell as he bowed out ignominiously after a run of poor scores and a bout of illness usually associated with the old-aged.
When he took guard for Australia in the second innings of the Headingley Test in 2001 and lost his stumps while trying to hit Gough out of the ground, nobody would have thought that he was playing in his last Test. Loss of form compounded by personal problems related to family (for which he blames the media too) saw him falling from heights and when Justin Langer grabbed the opportunity with both hands, there was no way he could make a comeback.
Slater's career presents interesting reading considering the fact that his Test average exceeded that of his first-class aggregate. He had a great penchant to go after the bowling right from the word go. The fact that ten of his fourteen Test hundreds came in the first two Test matches of most of the series he figured in shows how much sway his batting had on the outcome of a series. He used to set the tone and tenor of a series. Philip DeFreitas was a victim of his profligacy with the bat as he stepped out to cart him over third-man boundary in the Ashes opener at the Gabba in 1994.
He will be remembered more for his match-winning 123 out of a total of 184 against England at Sydney than for his Test best at Perth as well his 18 hits to the fence on the opening day of the Lord's Test in 1993 which left the fielders gasping. He had great pride while wearing the baggy green cap a fact epitomised by him kissing the crest on his helmet on completing a landmark. Though known more for his impetuous ways at the crease, not many know the fact that he was a good player of the spin (a traditional Australian weakness) and he used his feet well against them, especially the ones from subcontinent. He was one of them who could negotiate the guiles of spin wizard Muralitharan with consummate ease.
Slater's CV comprises 14 Test hundreds, nine dismissals in the nineties as well as an average in the 40's and yet he was quite often accused of throwing his wicket way. Slater liked that irresponsible nature. He was careful to be careless. Was it a case of flawed genius? Despite being a natural striker of the ball and an attacking player to the core, he found it tough to find a permanent place in Australia's ODI squad where people with lesser talent like Martyn, Law and Lehmann found the going easy.
Together with Mark Taylor, he formed a formidable opening in the mould of Greenidge and Haynes. Infact, much of the aggression that the Hayden-Langer duo displays has a bit of Slater in them. So too when Virender Sehwag dashes down the track to whack Shoaib over the park. Michael Slater gave a new dimension to openers slot in Test cricket. Coaching manuals take a back seat when Slater dazzles with the willow. Now, that picture becomes part of history.
Slater would very much have liked to bow out on his happy hunting ground Sydney that has hosted a lot of such farewells. But, lady luck evaded him. Instead of entertaining the crowd with his flamboyant ways with the bat, Slater was forced to announce his retirement from all forms of cricket to a select gathering in a concealed room. However, the pictures of Slater dancing down the wicket to hit those rasping cover drives, followed by that characteristic bubbly smile through the grilled helmet will be etched in every cricket lovers mind.